Masculinities And Violence Essay

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Masculinities refer to the culturally constructed social norms for behavior, comportment, and characteristics assigned to men and boys. Scholars talk about multiple masculinities instead of a singular masculinity because the category varies according to context, culture, geographic location, and historical period. Masculinities are relevant to interpersonal violence because the research indicates that establishing and defending a masculine sense of self is fundamentally important to many men’s use of violence. Much of men’s violence is perpetrated in response to threats to the man’s sense of masculinity. This response is true of violence against strangers, acquaintances, and intimates. It is especially important to distinguish between sex and gender when studying human behavior such as violence because this distinction has implications for the prevention of violence as well as for effective interventions.

In the most simplified terms, sex refers to biological sex, as conventionally determined by the appearance of genitalia at birth. Sex is commonly thought of as a binary system, although this understanding is a conceptual oversimplification that excludes intersex and transgendered people. Intersex babies are born with nonstandard genitals that do not identify them accurately and immediately as male or female. Transgender individuals perform a gender that is different from the one they were assigned at birth, with or without having surgery or taking hormones to facilitate the performance. Gender refers to the culturally specific set of characteristics and behaviors associated with biological sex in a given culture. Male and female are sex categories, and masculine and feminine are gender categories.

Gender is a continuum of attributes ranging from feminine traits, those traditionally associated with women and girls, to masculine traits, those stereotypically associated with men and boys. Gender is often essential zed. In other words, femininity and masculinity are thought of as the natural expression of a person’s biological identity. However, gender varies significantly across time and geography, and it is therefore recognizable as culturally constructed, or shaped by the culture in which it is produced. This construction does not mean that there are no biological differences between women and men, only that the differences that exist are small in comparison with the social factors that magnify their significance.

Masculinity is normative for men, meaning that men are expected to display more of the traits that are associated with masculinity than femininity. Some stereotypically masculine traits include toughness, power, strength, stoicism, leadership, rationality, and virility. Pressure to conform to these stereotypes has negative implications for men and can promote behavior that puts men at greater risk of violence perpetration and victimization than women. For example, men are more likely to drink to excess and drive recklessly, behavior that can put them at disproportionate risk of causing or experiencing injury or death. Since gender is often essentialized, some people think of stereotypically masculine characteristics as biologically determined in men. However, social scientists point to variation in gender performance as evidence that culture shapes and magnifies the manifestation of sex differences.

There are formal and informal social sanctions for men who fail to display appropriately gendered behavior. For example, sexist and homophobic taunts are often directed at men and boys who do not perform their masculine role in accordance with hegemonic expectations. Violence against gay men and transgender people are examples of severe forms of social punishment for violating gender norms.

Due to the importance of physical power and prowess to the social construction of masculinities, displays of violence and aggression are a viable option for men who feel it is necessary to assert or reestablish their masculinity. Since women are held to an opposite set of gender norms, women do not receive an equivalent social reward for violence and aggression. Men can and do use violence to demonstrate and reinforce their masculinity. Women do not use violence and aggression to affirm their femininity. Disparate social expectations for women and men’s violence are one of the reasons that men are more violent than women.

Although men’s greater violence is often thought of as biologically determined, gender categories regiment human behavior in nearly every area of our lives, from the way we walk, talk, and act to the way we dress. In addition, social variables are easier to change than biological variables, so most violence prevention efforts focus on behavior that it is possible to change rather than biological factors, which may be impossible to alter.

Many of the biological differences that do exist, for example, men’s generally greater upper body strength, are reinforced by gender norms that enhance these differences and emphasize their social importance. For example, men are encouraged to participate in sports and activities that help to emphasize this sex difference, while women are discouraged from developing muscles that are too large. Sex and gender differences such as this have implications for the causes and outcomes of violence that are more and less direct.

In common usage, sex and gender are often conflated, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Unfortunately, this interchanging can make for unclear writing, with readers unable to discern whether an author is really talking about sex (biological) or gender (social) differences. Scholars in the social sciences, humanities, public health, and law sometimes draw distinctions between sex and gender to ensure that their scholarship accurately represents biological and cultural contributions to phenomena. For example, medical researchers attempt to discern between gendered cultural factors, such as men’s reluctance to visit doctors, and biological factors, such as hormones, when investigating medical problems and treatments. This distinction is necessary in order to adequately understand the etiology of social and health problems as well as to make appropriate and effective recommendations for prevention and intervention.


  1. Bograd, M. (1990). Why we need gender to understand human violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 5, 132–135. Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Gilligan, J. (2001). Preventing violence. New York: Thames & Hudson.
  3. Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J. R., & Connell, R. W. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of studies on men and masculinities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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