Masculinities, violence, and peacemaking

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Bob Connell

Though women have often manufactured weapons and serviced armies—and in an age of nuclear weapons are equally targeted— it is historically rare for women to be in combat. The twenty million members of the world's armed forces today are overwhelmingly men. In many countries all soldiers are men; and even in those countries which admit women to the military, commanders are almost exclusively men. Men also dominate other branches of enforcement, both in the public sector as police officers and prison guards, and in the private sector as security agents.

In private life too, men are more likely to be armed and violent. In the United States, careful research by criminologists establishes that private gun ownership runs four times as high among men as among women, even after a campaign by the gun industry to persuade women to buy guns. (The average percentage of US men owning guns, in surveys from 1980 to 1994, was 49%.) In the same country, official statistics for 1996 show men accounting for 90% of those arrested for aggravated assault and 90% of those arrested for murder and manslaughter. These figures are not exceptional.

There is a debate about the gender balance of violence within households, and it is clear that many women are capable of violence (eg in punishing children). The weight of evidence, however, indicates that major domestic violence is overwhelmingly by husbands towards wives. Rape is overwhelmingly by men on women. Criminal rape shades into sexual intercourse under pressure. The major national survey of sexual behaviour in the United States finds women six times as likely as men to have an experience of forced sex, almost always being forced by a man.

Further, men predominate in warlike conduct in other spheres of life. Body-contact sports, such as boxing and football, involve ritualized combat and often physical injury. These sports are almost exclusively practised by men. Dangerous driving is increasingly recognized as a form of violence. It is mainly done by men. Young men die on the roads at a rate four times that of young women, and kill at an even higher ratio. Older men, as corporate executives, make the decisions that result in injury or death from the actions of their businesses—industrial injuries to their workers, pollution injury to neighbours, and environmental destruction.

So men predominate across the spectrum of violence. A strategy for peace must concern itself with this fact, the reasons for it, and its implications for work to reduce violence.

"Natural" violence

There is a widespread belief that it is natural for men to be violent. Males are inherently more aggressive than women, the argument goes. "Boys will be boys" and cannot be trained otherwise; rape and combat—however regrettable—are part of the unchanging order of nature. There is often an appeal to biology, with testosterone in particular, the so- called "male hormone", as a catch-all explanation for men's aggression.

Careful examination of the evidence shows that this biological essentialism is not credible. Testosterone levels for instance, far from being a clear-cut source of dominance and aggression in society, are as likely to be the consequence of social relations. Cross- cultural studies of masculinities reveal a diversity that is impossible to reconcile with a biologically-fixed master pattern of masculinity.

When we speak statistically of "men" having higher rates of violence than women, we must not slide to the inference that therefore all men are violent. Almost all soldiers are men, but most men are not soldiers. Though most killers are men, most men never kill or even commit assault. Though an appalling number of men do rape, most men do not. It is a fact of great importance, both theoretically and practically, that there are many non- violent men in the world. This too needs explanation, and must be considered in a strategy for peace.

Further, when we note that most soldiers, sports professionals, or executives are men, we are not just talking about individuals. We are speaking of masculinised institutions. The organisational culture of armies, for instance, is heavily gendered. Recent social research inside armed forces in Germany and other countries reveals an energetic effort to produce a narrowly-defined hegemonic masculinity. Similarly, organized sport does not just reflect, but actively produces, particular versions of masculinity.

We may reason, then, that it is in social masculinities rather than biological differences that we must seek the main causes of gendered violence, and the main answers to it. How are social masculinities to be understood? In grappling with this question, we are able to draw on a new generation of research, to which I now turn.

Understanding masculinities

In recent years there has been a great flowering of research on the nature and forms of social masculinities. This research, and accompanying debate, is now world-wide. It has moved decisively beyond the old concept of a unitary "male sex role" or a fixed "masculine" character structure. Empirical studies of the details of social life are necessarily complex, but some important general conclusions do seem to be emerging from this research as a whole. I will condense them into seven points, noting in each case some implications for peace strategy.

Multiple masculinities. Different cultures, and different periods of history, construct gender differently. In multicultural societies there are likely to be multiple definitions of masculinity. Equally important, more than one kind of masculinity can be found within a given culture, even within a single institution such as a school or workplace.

Implications: Violent, aggressive masculinity will rarely be the only form of masculinity present, in any cultural setting. The variety of masculinities that are documented in research can provide examples and materials for peace education. Edudcation programs must recognise diversity in gender patterns, and the tensions that can result from social diversity.

Hierarchy and hegemony. Different masculinities exist in definite relations with each other, often relations of hierarchy and exclusion. There is generally a dominant or "hegemonic" form of masculinity, the centre of the system of gendered power. The hegemonic form need not be the most common form of masculinity.

Implications: Large numbers of men and boys have a divided, tense, or oppositional relationship to hegemonic masculinity. Clear-cut alternatives, however, are often culturally discredited or despised. The most powerful groups of men usually have few personal incentives for gender change. Other groups may have stronger motives for change.

Collective masculinities. Masculinities are sustained and enacted not only by individuals, but also by groups, institutions, and cultural forms like mass media. Multiple masculinities may be produced and sustained by the same institution.

Implications: The institutionalization of masculinity is a major problem for peace strategy. Corporations, workplaces, voluntary organisations, and the state are important sites of action. Collective struggle, and the re-shaping of institutions, are as necessary as the reform of individual life.

Bodies as arenas. Men's bodies do not fix patterns of masculinity, but they are still very important in the expression of masculinity, which constantly involves bodily experience, bodily pleasures, and the vulnerabilities of bodies.

Implications. Peace education may often be too much "in the head". Health, sport and sexuality are issues which must be addressed in changing masculinity. Active construction. Masculinities do not exist prior to social interaction, but come into existence as people act. Masculinities are actively produced, using the resources available in a given milieu.

Implications: The process of constructing masculinity, rather than the end state, may be the source of violence. No pattern of masculine violence is fixed, beyond all hope of social reform. Equally, no reform is final. It is possible that gender reforms will be overthrown and more violent patterns of masculinity re-introduced.

Division. Masculinities are not homogeneous, but are likely to be internally divided. Men's lives often embody tensions between contradictory desires or practices. Implications: Any pattern of masculinity has potentials for change. Any group of men is likely to have complex and conflicting interests, some of which will support change towards more peaceable gender patterns.

Dynamics. Masculinities are created in specific historical circumstances. They are liable to be contested, reconstructed, or displaced. The forces producing change include contradictions within gender relations, as well as the interplay of gender with other social forces. Implications: Masculinities are always changing, and this creates motives for learning. However, as any agenda for change is likely to be against some groups' interests, controversy and conflict is to be expected.

These lessons are mainly drawn from research on local patterns of gender. In thinking about a strategy for peace, however, we must go beyond local contexts, and think at a global level too.

Globalising masculinities

The colonial empires from which the modern global economy developed were gendered institutions, which disrupted indigenous gender orders, and installed violent masculinities in the hegemonic position. This process was the beginning of a global gender order, and the colonisers' masculinities were the first globalising masculinities.

In turn, the process of decolonisation disrupted the gender hierarchies of the colonial order. Where armed struggle was involved, the use of western military technology also involved some adoption of western military masculinity, and further disruption of community-based gender orders.

World politics today is increasingly organised around the needs of transnational capital and the creation of global markets. Neo-liberalism speaks a gender-neutral language of "markets", "individuals", and "choice", but has an implicit view of masculinity. The "individual" of neoliberal theory has the attributes and interests of a male entrepreneur. Institutionally, the strong emphasis on competition creates a particular kind of hierarchy among men. Meanwhile the increasingly unregulated world of transnational corporations places strategic social power in the hands of particular groups of men. Here is the basis of a new hegemonic masculinity on a world scale.

The hegemonic form of masculinity in the new world order, I would argue, is the masculinity of the business executives who operate in global markets, and the political executives and military leaderships who constantly deal with them. I call this "transnational business masculinity", and I think that understanding it will be important for the future of peace strategies.

Peace strategies and masculinities

There are many causes of violence, including dispossession, poverty, greed, nationalism, racism, and other forms of inequality, bigotry and desire. Gender dynamics are by no means the whole story. Yet given the concentration of weapons and the practices of violence among men, gender patterns appear to be strategic. Masculinities are the forms in which many dynamics of violence take shape.

Evidently, then, strategy for peace must include a strategy of change in masculinities. This is the new dimension in peace work which studies of men suggest: contesting the hegemony of masculinities which emphasise violence, confrontation and domination, replacing them with patterns of masculinity more open to negotiation, cooperation and equality.

The relationship of masculinity to violence is more complex than appears at first sight, so there is not just one pattern of change required. Institutionalised violence (eg by armies) requires more than one kind of masculinity. The masculinity of the general is different from the masculinity of the front-line soldier, and armies acknowledge this by training them separately. The differing masculinities that are hegemonic in different cultures may lead to qualitatively different patterns of violence.

Some violent patterns of masculinity develop in response to violence, they do not simply cause it. An important example is the "protest masculinity" that emerges in contexts of poverty and ethnic oppression. On the other hand, some patterns of masculinity are not personally violent, but their ascendancy creates conditions for violence, such as inequality and dispossession. The case of transnational business masculinity has already been mentioned.

A gender-informed strategy for peace must, therefore, be sophisticated about patterns of masculinity. It must also be designed to operate across a broad front, broader than most agendas of sex role reform would suggest. The arenas for action to reduce masculine violence include:

Development: Schooling, child rearing and adult/child relationships in families, classrooms, play groups, etc (including the issues commonly thought of as "sex role modelling").

Personal life: Marital relations and sexuality, family relationships, friendship (including the role of sexual and domestic violence in constructions of masculinity).

Community life: Peer groups, neighbourhood life, leisure including sports (including youth subcultures as bearers of violent masculinities).

Cultural institutions: Higher education, science and technology, mass media, the arts and popular entertainment (including exemplary masculinities in broadcast sports).

Workplaces: Occupational cultures, industrial relations, corporations, unions and bureaucracies; the state and its enforcement apparatuses (armies, police etc).

Markets: The labour market and the effects of unemployment; capital and commodity markets both international and local; management practices and ideologies.

What principles might link action across this very broad spectrum? I do not think we should follow the model of gender reform that demands men adopt a new character, instantly become "the new man". Such hero-making agendas deny what we already know about the multiplicity and the internal complexity of masculinities.

Rather, strategy for peace needs to be embedded in a practicable strategy of change in gender relations. The goal should be to develop gender practices for men which shift gender relations in a democratic direction. Democratic gender relations are those that move towards equality, nonviolence, and mutual respect between people of different genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and generations.

Reshaping gender

A peace strategy concerned with masculinities, then, does not demand a complete rupture with patterns of conduct men are now familiar with. Some of the qualities in "traditional" definitions of masculinity (eg courage, steadfastness, ambition) are certainly needed in the cause of peace. Active models of engagement are needed for boys and men, especially when peace is understood not just as the absence of violence, but as a positive form of life.

The task is not to abolish gender, but to re-shape it; to disconnect (for instance) courage from violence, steadfastness from prejudice, ambition from exploitation. In the course of that re-shaping, diversity will grow. Making boys and men aware of the diversity of masculinities that already exist in the world, beyond the narrow models they are commonly offered, is an important task for education.

Though the hierarchy of masculinities is part of the problem in gender relations, the fact that there are different masculinities is in itself an asset. At the lowest level, it establishes that masculinity is not a single fixed pattern. More positively, multiple masculinities represent complexity of interests and purposes, which open possibilities for change. Finally the plurality of gender prefigures the creativity of a democratic social order. For men, the democratic remaking of gender practices requires persistent engagement with women, not the separatism-for-men which is strong in current masculinity politics. The "gender-relevant" programmes now attempted in schools, which do not necessarily segregate boys and girls but attempt to identify gender issues and make them the subject of conscious debate, are important examples. Educational and social action must be inclusive in another sense too, responding to the differing cultural meanings of gender and the different socio-economic circumstances in which students live. A programme apt for suburban middle-class students may be very inappropriate for ethnically diverse inner-city children in poverty, or rural children living in villages.

No-one with experience of struggles for peace, or of attempts at gender reform, will imagine these are easy tasks. Recognising the interplay of masculinities with strategies for peace is not a magic key. In some ways, indeed, it makes familiar strategies seem more complex and difficult.

But it also, I believe, opens ways of moving past obstacles which both peace movements and the movement for gender democracy have encountered.

Topics: Peacemaking