Are male survivors of abuse more likely to become violent themselves?
Author’s note: This article was written and edited before the tragic incidents in Kansas City this past weekend. While I do not believe that the points made in this piece are any less valid, it is quite likely that some people may find them inflammatory and insensitive. To those who are offended, I offer an apology. Please consider that the point of this piece is to help us find ways to move past simplistic stereotypes that actually impede our efforts to combat violence of all types.
Men are violent. Men are angry. Men are dangerous. According to the FBI “over 74 percent (74.1) of the persons arrested in the nation during 2011 were males. They accounted for 80.4 percent of persons arrested for violent crime and 62.9 percent of persons arrested for property crime.” We often see stories and articles that paint males almost exclusively as perpetrators of violence and crime. Take for instance Harvard College Administrator Erika Christakis’ recent piece in Time, “The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide.” In it, Christakis asks, “why aren’t we talking about the glaring reality that acts of mass murder (and, indeed, every single kind of violence) are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men“ But is it fair (or effective) to paint males and masculinity itself as the root cause of violence?
Consider a hypothetical male for a moment—a red-blooded, heterosexual man who listens to sports radio. He loves the Yankees, listens once in a while to Howard Stern, and has viewed pornographic images. His father had significant anger control issues and his mother battled a host of emotional challenges as well. This man has worked for over 15 years in a blue-collar industry as a day laborer. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he has a thirst for beer. When I say all that, what kind of assumptions would you make about him? Go ahead. Search your thoughts for a moment.
I’m willing to bet that you would not at all be surprised were I to tell you this hypothetical man has had a string of failed relationships and has found it difficult to relate to other people well at times. You might also not be surprised to know that he has seen the inside of a jail cell.
Now, let’s go back to that headline, “The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide.” and consider our hypothetical man. Take another second to think about my question again. What assumptions would you make about me? (Oh, and I should drop the charade at this point and confess that I am the hypothetical male herein described.) I would argue it’s very likely that, at least to a small degree, my maleness combined with the facts I’ve shared make you think I’m probably the kind of guy who, if pushed, might snap.
Allow me to flesh out my character sketch. No, this is not where I attempt to undermine the assumptions by listing all the good things I do. I’m actually going to be candid and even more brutally frank with you. What if I were to tell you that I have struggled with depression for almost my whole life? Has the burden shifted even more? “Of course not,” many of you will say that to yourself in your most enlightened tones.
But then you read this line in Christakis’ article—“we know that the young men who go on murderous rampages are not always sociopathic monsters but, rather, sometimes more or less ‘regular’ men who suffered from crushing depression and suicidal ideation” (a claim for which she provides no references to studies or data). Has the burden now shifted a little more against me?
Let me take this one step further. What if I were to tell you that I have struggled on and off with suicidal thoughts throughout my life? What if I were to tell you that I was sexually molested when I was a child?
Try to strip away the fact that I have written these facts with some degree of skill. Let’s just take the points I’ve laid out for you:
I’m male. I like sports and have listened to Howard Stern, looked at pornography, worked as a laborer for 15+ years, and like to drink beer. My father was a rageaholic, and my mother was mentally ill.
Headline: “The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide”
I have battled depression.
An unsubstantiated, but seemingly commonsense, claim that men who go on murderous sprees are often “regular” men who suffer from “crushing depression and suicidal ideation.”
I have battled suicidal thoughts.
I was sexually abused as a child.
In the minds of some people, the burden has fully shifted. Perhaps they had a bad encounter with someone who also had a temperamental father, or perhaps a Yankees fan said something insulting to them once (what are the chances?). If that person happens to be someone who has some power over me—say a hiring manager, a judge, or maybe just a person to whom I feel attracted—I must prove that I am not prone to violent outbursts, denigration of others, chauvinistic behavior or other anti-social behaviors regarded as typically “male.”
When we act as though the root cause of violence is some sort of masculine hardwiring, we shame males for being male to no positive end. This assumption reinforces stereotypes that are simplistic and harmful, and distracts us from looking at the real causes of antisocial and violent behavior. For example, we know that early experiences of trauma and abuse are a strong predictor for “social, emotional, and cognitive impairment” later in life, which then can often lead to destructive patterns of behavior. The underlying factors that lead to the shockingly high level of Adverse Childhood experiences are things we can attempt to address through education, better public policy, and other efforts to improve our society in myriad ways. I fail to see how any strategy targeting men for being men can be effective at doing anything more than stigmatizing, alienating, and further dividing the genders.
Far worse, such an approach stigmatizes men who have been abused in even deeper ways. Survivors are often blamed for not being “man” enough to protect themselves, even if the abuse occurred when they were a child. Male survivors of trauma and abuse are often painted as flawed and damaged. Other people see us as a wounded animal, someone with whom you would not want to be alone. Oftentimes our attempts to find support, to heal, to form healthy relationships are made that much more difficult because of the assumptions and presumptions made about a man who is an abuse survivor.
Some among you may be dubious about what I’ve just claimed. But I can prove to you that the stigma of being a male survivor is quite damaging with one last thought experiment. Let’s isolate just one of the facts I listed about and see if it impacts your perception of me. Since you know that I was sexually abused as a child, ask yourself would you feel a slight unease if I offered to babysit your children? What if you discovered I was taking a job as an elementary school teacher at your child’s school? What do you think I can be trusted to do?
Christakis says, “our refusal to talk about violence as a public-health problem with known (or knowable) risk factors keeps us from helping the young men who are at most risk and, of course, their potential victims.” That’s a fantastic statement, and I fully endorse it. But that line is in the very last paragraph of the article. Most people who look at the article won’t even make it that far (did you?) Many of them will come away from this piece with one main point—males who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts are dangerous because men who struggle with emotional challenges are more prone to violent behavior. This logic may seem odd, or even abhorrent, when spelled out. But the truth is this is a pattern of perception almost every survivor is keenly aware of, and it directly impacts our willingness to come forward and seek help and support.
If we are to make any headway in helping males who have been abused, we have to ensure that our public discussion does not continue to stigmatize and alienate male victims. The truth is that when men are encouraged to come forward and speak about the traumas they have experienced, they are able to heal and thrive. I have seen this over and over again in my work as the Executive Director of MaleSurvivor, an organization that provides hope, healing, and support to male survivors of sexual abuse.
Aligning masculinity with violence only pushes those who most need help further into the shadows by perpetrating the idea that people who are harmed are a potential danger to the public. Further, violence and abuse can be perpetrated against a person in any number of ways, many of them emotional and non-physical. Plus, the idea that women are not violent is not only overly simplistic, it’s also wrong. Over the past ten years, FBI statistics show a 5% rise in arrests of adult females while the overall crime rate decreased 10%.
Every survivor of abuse and violence needs hope and support in order to do the hard work of healing. This is as true for male victims as it is of female victims. In my opinion no person has the right to intentionally harm, abuse, or traumatize another. If we want to combat the high levels of violence we would do better if we focus on finding ways to help all survivors of abuse and trauma rather than reinforce harmful discrimination with ignorant stereotypes and simplistic assumptions.
Image credit: Ran Yaniv Hartstein/Flickr