Why are men so violent?

March 21, 1994|By Christopher Kilmartin

IN A prison counseling session, a violent criminal made a therapeutic breakthrough. He was finally able to experience the full emotional impact of his childhood history of severe physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The convict began to weep uncontrollably as he released waves of painful emotion that had been sealed over for decades.

Although the therapist had been working toward this breakthrough for months, he now realized that he would have to work frantically in the next few minutes to help his client control himself. A body cavity strip search would be carried out immediately after the session, and the prisoner's newfound acknowledgment could make this already-humiliating process much worse.

Fortunately, the extreme distress eventually subsided. Then came an event for which the therapist was totally unprepared. The prisoner abruptly came to a full realization of the excruciating suffering he had inflicted on his victims. Finally having empathy for himself, he was now able to have empathy for those whom he had hurt so deeply, and once again he broke down.

As is the case with 90 percent of violent criminals, this person is male. The attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Lorena Bobbitt's anguished testimony about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and countless other descriptions of inexplicably cruel male behavior lead us to revisit some old questions. What is it about men that makes some of them (us) so violent? Can't they understand how much they hurt people?

It is a failure of that kind of emotional understanding -- a failure of empathy -- that allows a human being to commit a violent, inhuman act. Clearly, it's a man thing, and it's not just testosterone, either. In some other cultures, men are not very violent. The causes lie somewhere in the social environment of America, and the true story recounted above provides some clues to at least one of the origins of masculine brutality.

The connection between childhood abuse histories and adult perpetration of violence is well known, but the mechanisms underlying the connection are not always clear. Psychologist David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts at Boston has collected data from hundreds of victims of childhood abuse. Some of them have been violent adults, but others have not, and Dr. Lisak has set out to identify the critical variable that distinguishes between the two groups.

That factor appears to be the victim's acceptance of social demands to be unemotional, dominant, invulnerable, antifeminine and powerful. These are, in short, the demands to be masculine that are imposed on every male in mainstream American culture. Male abuse victims experience the most horrible emotional pain imaginable. At the same time, they experience heavy pressure to deny all feelings except for the one socially acceptable emotion -- anger.

To oversimplify Dr. Lisak's findings, the abused boy takes one of two paths in his psychological development: Either he rejects harsh masculine standards, or he accepts the "macho" ideal that is socially accepted and glorified. Adopting the former strategy may leave him vulnerable to depression or other psychological problems; adopting the latter tends to make him a perpetrator.

We have good treatments for depression, but not for sociopathy. The peculiar American vengeful sense of justice wants to see these men as evil monsters. While this allows us to hold them responsible for their actions, it does not allow us to address what appears to be a major underlying cause of male violence -- the confluence of childhood maltreatment and masculine socialization.

Nobody is disturbing unless they are disturbed. If violence is borne out of pain, then it will not stop until we address that pain. While it is certainly necessary to control these men's behavior by incarceration and other strategies, we cannot simply prosecute our way out of the problem. We need to do something to eliminate destructive masculinity and the abuse of children.

It's incredibly difficult to care about people who cause such extreme human misery. To do so requires an inordinate amount of a singular human quality -- empathy.

Christopher Kilmartin is an assistant professor of psychology at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

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