Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Why Are Most Violent People Male?

Violence, Gender Roles, Media, Gender & SexualityAndrew Smiler

Ray Rice cold-cocked his then-fiancée and now wife. It’s the latest episode of male violence in the news. Calling it “male violence” isn’t quite right because most men are not violent. Labeling it that way makes some guys defensive and prompts them to say things like #notallmen.

Instead of asking “why are men violent?”, we need to ask a different, better question “why are most violent people male?” And I mean violence in general, not only domestic or “interpersonal” violence. In the tragic shootings of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, the shooters were men. Almost all school shooters have been boys. Department of Justice statistics tell us approximately 90% of homicides are committed by men. Ninety percent. That’s not even close to gender parity. (I note that 75% of victims are also male, but that’s a differentdiscussion.)

Instead of asking “why are men violent?”, we need to ask a different, better question “why are most violent people male?”

Suicide can also be considered a form of violence, except the target is the self instead of another. As we were reminded after Robin Williams’ suicide, men are less likely to attempt to suicide, but they’re more lethal. Their lethality is due to choice of method: men are much more likely to shoot themselves than overdose, a much more explicitly violent choice.

So what gives? Why are the violent people so much more likely to be male? There are several possible explanations.

The Y chromosome. Approximately half the population has a Y chromosome, but only a minority of those people are violent, so that doesn’t explain it.

Testosterone. That’s even less likely. All humans produce testosterone, and the amount increases when our “fight or flight” response is triggered. But that’s a response to a situation, not a cause. It’s certainly true that the average (post-pubertal) male has more testosterone in his system at any given moment than the average female, but that doesn’t tell us why some men are violent any more than having a Y chromosome tells us who will be violent.

Video Games. First, let me refine that as violent video games. I don’t think anyone is worried about Farmville or the Sims. Again, that can’t be the whole story. When Halo 4 was released in 2012, it sold more than 3 million copies on its first day; the Halo franchise has sold more than 50 million games total. Even if “only” 10 million people are responsible for those sales figures, that’s still way more people playing violent video games than committing violent crimes.

The research team found that teen boys who consistently chose violent content across a variety of media formats  and maintained these preferences across multiple years were more likely to be violent.

TV & Movies. Same logic here as for video games. The content is a mixed bag and way more people watch than commit violence.

Media, selectively: Even though I’ve ruled out video games and TV & movies broadly, we know that people make choices about what they see on screen. The research team of Laura Friedlander, Jennifer Connolly, Debra Pepler, and Wendy Craig found that viewing violence in any single format didn’t predict being violent, but teen boys who consistently chose violent content across a variety of media formats  and maintained these preferences across multiple years were much more likely to be violent.

Masculinity: That depends on how you define masculinity, of course. If it’s about being a gentleman or a nice guy, that seems unlikely to contribute to the violence. If you define masculinity in terms of power, dominance, and violence – patriarchal masculinity – then yeah, duh. But it turns out that most guys don’t really buy in to that stereotype of masculinity and even fewer try to live it out.

Anger. People are more likely to become violent when they’re angry. There’s a reason Bruce Banner/Hulk says “Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” and not “Don’t make me sad, you wouldn’t like me when I’m sad.” We also know parents don’t talk about emotions with boys nearly as much as they do with girls, so boys gain less insight into their feelings. And that reflects our culture, which discourages boys and men from showing feelings because feelings are, well, girly. The result is that boys and men learn relatively few ways to handle their angry feelings. One of the lessons guys do learn is “don’t get mad, get even,” which is permission to be violent.

Social Support: What you do when you’re feeling down in the dumps depends a lot on whether you’re male or female. We teach guys to solve problems – especially personal problems – by themselves. Sure, he can get a little input from his friends at first, but if he continues to feel bad after more than a few days, we start to lose patience with him and ask him why he can’t get over it already. Even if he doesn’t fit the manbox, we subtly – or not so subtly – try to put him in there.

Violence works. Although I am not a fan of “the ends justify the means,” I know violence can be effective for getting what you want. Boys learn that lesson early and repeatedly. Bullies understand it and many of them have experienced it as both aggressor and victim. It’s pretty clear that Robin Williams wanted to be dead, George Zimmerman wanted Trayvon Martin to stop, and Darren Wilson wanted Mike Brown to not run away. Most, if not all school shooters, as well as the Isla Vista shooter, wanted revenge against people who (they thought) wronged them. On some level, those guys got what they wanted, although I’m pretty sure that Zimmerman and Wilson got much more than they desired.

If we really want to stop the violence, we need to focus on the male-dominated minority of folks who are violent and understand how different factors work together to lead them down a violent path.

By themselves, no one of these reasons is sufficient to explain why violent people are more likely to be men than women. But when we start to put them all together, we get a better sense of why the group “male” has more violent members than the group “female.” If we really want to stop the violence, we need to focus on the male-dominated minority of folks who are violent and understand how different factors work together to lead them down a violent path.

-image by Fabrizio Rinaldi/flickr used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.