In Australia, one in three women has been the victim of violence at the hands of a male perpetrator. This alarming statistic resembles the global lifetime prevalence of physical and sexual assault among women worldwide.
Beyond the devastating health and psychological effects, violence against women is a matter of life and death. On average, one Australian woman is killed every week as the result of domestic violence.
These findings send a compelling message: violence against women needs our urgent attention. But in addition to providing the necessary help to victims and ensuring the appropriate discipline for perpetrators, society needs to confront the source of this complex problem at its roots.
In this regard, there is growing evidence indicating that violence against women may be the consequence of society’s traditional and stereotyped beliefs about what it means to be a “real man”.
Masculinity is hard won but easily lost
It should be acknowledged that not all men condone violence – and there is never an excuse for acting violently.
From an early age, boys are socialised to regard manhood as a revered and desired social status. This is because, across most cultures, there is a consistent belief that a “real man” is powerful, dominant, assertive, and in control.
However, manhood is not merely a biological milestone. Instead, research findings indicate that it requires constant social validation. Put simply, real men are made – not born.
For instance, men can prove themselves worthy of manhood by pursuing high-status careers, being competitive in sports, having multiple sexual partners, and engaging in risky, adrenaline-fuelled activities like skydiving or motocross racing. For some men, however, the need to validate their masculinity also warrants physical force and public displays of aggression.
But even if manhood is successfully attained, it can be easily lost. Threats to masculinity come in all forms: losing a job and being unable to be the breadwinner or simply missing the final shot and losing the sporting match. But not all threats are so explicit.
The recent Twitter movement #MasculinitySoFragile exposed how delicate manhood can be. It seems that everyday household products – such a stationery, deodorant, and even yoghurt – need to have a masculine equivalent. Evidently, some men need to actively distance themselves from anything remotely “girly” in order to feel like a “real man”.
When we separate the men from the boys, women become victims
Research has shown that when men perceive that their status is under attack, they often feel angry and ashamed. For some men, these uncomfortable emotions motivate behaviours aimed at reinstating their manhood.
For example, threatening a man’s masculinity has been found to breed attitudes that characterise women as gentle, fragile, and in need of male protection. While seemingly positive, such beliefs are disempowering because they allow men to assume a position of authority over women.
Similarly, some men sexualise women as a way of affirming their masculinity. Many genuinely believe that this is a form of flattery. However, it merely reduces women to a sexual object and solidifies the inequalities between the genders.
But can today’s standards of being a “real man” lead to violence against women? Research is indicating that this may be the unfortunate reality.
When men feel that they do not measure up, research has shown that they are more likely to display their physical prowess and act aggressively. Feelings of inadequacy can also increase men’s desire to commit sexual assault and can even lead to sexual harassment.
Together, this research demonstrates that some men bolster their sense of manhood by behaving in ways that explicitly or implicitly reinstate the status quo. Current social standards both devalue feminine traits for masculinity and legitimise the subordination of women.
Changing the man in the mirror
In the current social climate, men are more likely to perpetrate violence and women are more likely to become victims. As young boys grow up into men, stereotyped beliefs about gender are relentlessly reinforced at home, through peer groups, and the mass media.
Research has found that violence is more likely to ensue for those men who see current ideas about manhood as central to their identity. Change therefore begins with adopting a less traditional and more fluid definition of what it means to be a “real man”.
Although this is not a new idea, society needs to start having a serious and open discussion about gender. Further ignoring the problem has potentially lethal consequences.
While some have taken to social media to initiate this dialogue, it is without doubt that such an undertaking will not be easy. Many men, for example, have misinterpreted the trending #MasculinitySoFragile to be an attack on their manhood.
Critically, this highlights that real change starts with men recognising – within themselves – how current ideas of what it means to be a “real man” are potentially toxic and self-limiting.
If you or someone you know has been affected by domestic violence, call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line, 1800-RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.
The National Working with Men to Tackle Family Violence Conference takes place in Sydney in February 2017. In association with No To Violence, this event will share and discuss strategies for prevention, intervention and perpetrator accountability.