Punking is a practice of verbal and physical violence, humiliation, and shaming done in public by males to other males. First described by Debby Phillips in 2000, based on research with middle and high school boys, punking behaviors are often interchangeable with bullying behaviors. Her research also examined widespread evidence of punking in the media. For example, popular television shows, like South Park and The Simpsons regularly include punking and bullying practices performed by male characters in front of others.
Dynamics Of Punking
The practice of punking includes the boy or man doing the punk, the verbal or physical act of violence, the victim of the act, and the witnesses. Punking is a strategy used by boys and men to affirm their male identity in Western cultures where the masculine ideal is equated with superiority, dominance, strength, and infallibility. In the case of middle school and high school, punking helps affirm which boys are “in” or cool and popular and which boys are uncool, unpopular, or “outcasts.” Older boys punk younger boys, popular boys punk less popular boys, stronger boys punk weaker boys, and athletes punk nonathletic boys. In the media, Bart Simpson is an example of a punking perpetrator. Very popular with middle and high school boys, most episodes of The Simpsons include at least one example of Bart punking another character for fun. In South Park, also very popular with middle and high school boys, the Kenny character is the victim of verbal and physical punking, bullying, or more extreme violence witnessed by other characters in just about every episode.
Punking is an everyday, everywhere occurrence in the lives of many boys and men. Boys describe that punking happens everywhere in schools and that it is either ignored or kept just under the radar of teachers so that it goes unnoticed. A verbal punk or shameful put-down can happen in class, and if the teacher happens to notice the punker (perpetrator) talking, he will stop his verbal put-down and ask about homework or some academic topic. Verbal punks can include sexual insults about the victim’s mother, homophobic taunts, and verbal insults about appearance in front of classmates like telling the victim he is funny looking and ugly or wears uncool (inexpensive) clothes, or other shaming comments like telling the victim he is weak and a “pansy.”
Physical punking includes taking a boy’s lunch or other belongings, slapping him, throwing him around, or overpowering him in front of an audience by pushing, shoving, kicking, punching, and fighting. It can also include acts like slamming a boy up against a locker and holding him there while verbally shaming him as others watch.
A key dynamic of punking is that it is done in public. Punking is not a personal act between one boy or man and another boy or man done in private. It is a strategy used by a boy or man to increase his status as a male, thereby affirming traits of maleness by demonstrating these in front of others, especially other males. Punking only works if it is witnessed by others. It does not serve a purpose if there are no witnesses.
Intervention by authorities to stop punking is not an option, according to boys in middle and high school. Telling others about the violence (i.e., snitching) reinforces the victim’s identity as a lesser kind of male, and it is a reason for the escalation of punking and increased abuse of the victim. Juvenile and adult males in prison describe similar consequences if they report male violence victimization.
Effects Of Punking
The view that punking or bullying are natural and normal rites of passage for boys or that these practices are harmless parts of growing up is more questioned and less accepted than it was in the past. In the wake of the Columbine High School murders and other school violence perpetrated by boys who had histories of being punked and bullied, these practices have been taken more seriously as forms of violence with serious consequences. National statistics vary slightly, but on average about 25% of adolescent males participate in punking and bullying as either perpetrators, victims, or both. Many more participate by witnessing punking and bullying. Correspondingly, many middle-aged men have memories of high school bullies and bullying and the places and people in high school they would avoid to prevent being verbally or physically assaulted or to avoid witnessing another’s abuse.
Shame, humiliation, anger, and rage are effects of punking victimization. These can be devastating both immediately and in the long term. Boys and men victimized by punking and bullying state that they feel unpopular and marginalized, like a wimp, a “pussy,” and like less of a man. Garbarino, an adolescent psychologist, interviewed adolescent male violent crime offenders and found that they described a pride or death theme and would do anything to save or regain face and prove their masculinity after being disrespected. He found that some boys react immediately to ridicule and shaming, while other boys repress the shame they feel, but remember every incident of ridicule and humiliation.
Gilligan, a past director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system, also describes the negative effects of marginalization that punking, shaming, humiliating, and disrespecting have on men. Gilligan worked with violent male criminals who told him they would sacrifice everything for their pride, dignity, and self-esteem.
The perpetrators of punking, on the other hand, feel affirmed as men during the act of punking or bullying and state that they punk others to feel powerful and to make other males shut up or back down. Their demonstration of toughness, strength, dominance, and superiority is recognized as a sign of normative masculinity in Western cultures. Circulating widely, these norms are visible in all forms of the media and in most other public cultural arenas where males are most represented as dominant and superior. Boys and men who repeatedly punk and bully others have a need for frequent affirmation of their normative male status. Punking and bullying are pathways to masculine identity affirmation that are available to them.
- Garbarino, J. (1999). Lost boys: Why our sons turn violent and how we can save them. New York: Free Press.
- Gilligan, J. (1997). Violence: Reflections on a national epidemic. New York: Vintage Books.
- Messerschmidt, J. W. (2000). Nine lives: Adolescent masculinities, the body, and violence. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Phillips, D. A. (2005). Reproducing normative and marginalized masculinities: Adolescent male popularity and the outcast. Nursing Inquiry, 12(3), 219–230.
- Phillips, D. A. (2007). Punking and bullying: Strategies in middle school, high school, and beyond. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22, 158–178.
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