Masculinity in South Africa and its Violent Consequences

By Alisa Albee

Man beats wife to a bloody end! Man confesses to raping and killing women! These headlines cover our newspapers and news programs almost on a daily basis, but how many people actually pause to consider why these are such common occurrences. What is happening in our society that is causing men or allowing men to believe that violence against anyone whether verbal, physical or sexual is acceptable? In recent years there have been numerous theories that have attempted to answer this question, but most take a reductionist approach to the problem. Male violence is a result of the complex formation of the hegemonic male and the view of women as the “other”.

            Biology determines whether someone is male or female, but socialization influences masculinity and femininity of a person. Early theories of violence attempted to reduce the cause of violence to a biological tendency of males; a “natural” reaction of males is aggression (Hearn, 1998, p.17). A dramatic increase in testosterone was often used to explain an increase in aggression, but problems arise with this theory when one examines other situations that cause testosterone to rise such as winning a soccer game or being in the presence of a girl (Hearn, 1998, p.18-9). Although biological processes are too simplistic to explain violence, biology is still an important part of the equation. From the first moment of life a person is separated into his or her biological determined category and placed into a specific color blanket that will shape how society will interact with him or her for the rest of their lives.

            The hegemonic male is an unattainable glorification of man that creates a social hierarchy in which women are the subordinate group.  Since the rise of feminism in the 1970’s a great deal of public focus has been placed upon the problems girls face from constantly receiving images about body type and what is beautiful, but what about guys?  Every day males are bombarded with images and ideas of what it is to be a “real man”. Two of the most powerful images are that only built, muscular men receive the attention of attractive women and that beating up or killing another person is a way to gain respect and power. What are these images emphasizing– society’s idealization of the unattainable hegemonic male (Bhana, 2005, p. 207). The hegemonic male is someone who is “macho”, who play sports and who is heterosexual (Bhana, 2005, p. 207). In conjunction with boys learning that these are the important aspects that make a person male, they are taught that the opposite of those are what makes a person non-male or the “other” (Keddie, 2005, p. 437). This cognitive comparison not only generates the idea that women are inferior to males, but that males who  posses feminine attributes such as being less athletic and caring are a weaker, lesser man (Keddie, 2005, p. 437). Emphasizing the hegemonic male ideals, results in a social hierarchy is formed that places women at the bottom and males associated with feminine attributes as being the middle.

The socialization of the hegemonic male is the root of gender violence. The core of the problem is that masculinity of males is not stable; it is constantly being challenged and reconstructed resulting in a continuous internal struggle to be the hegemonic male (Bhana, 2005, p. 208). Research has found that when a man’s behavior is not congruent with the gender role he believes he should fill he tends to have “lower self-esteem and psychological distress” (Jakupcak, Lisak, & Roemer, 2002, p. 98). In addition, it has been observed that the “masculine gender role stress is associated with higher levels of anger, anxiety, and health-risk behavior” (Jakupcak, Lisak, & Roemer, 2002, p. 98). Eisler, Franchina, Moore, Honeycutt, and Rhatigan (2000) discovered that men who had higher stress due to gender roles used physical and verbal abuse more than those with low (Jakupcak, Lisak, & Roemer, 2002, p. 98). Male’s internal conflict eventually becomes external expelled negatively impacting their relationships, work experience, and the family (Jakupcak, Lisak, & Roemer, 2002, p. 97). Some researchers suggest that men overly express anger and aggression during times of distress because it is the only two emotions that are considered appropriate for men to display (Moore & Stuart, 2005, p. 46). Unfortunately, this leads to increased partner violence (Moore & Stuart, 2005, p. 46). Women’s gender roles are formulated as opposite of the hegemonic male, so when a woman either a wife, girlfriend or family member challenges or exerts authority, a male attribute, over the male partner the hierarchy between men and women is diminished (Jakupcak, Lisak, & Roemer, 2002, p. 98). Physical and emotional violence towards women is a result of the man’s need to reestablish control and power over the women as well as restore a strong since of masculinity and self-esteem (Jakupcak, Lisak, & Roemer, 2002, p. 98). In hierarchal society men perceive that their masculinity is constantly being challenged by social conditions such as poverty and government controls (Vogelman, 1990, p. 101). Sexual violence towards women is the result of male’s frustration and inability to deal with being controlled and powerless in the face of something they cannot fight against, such as a company they work for (Vogelman, 1990, p.101). Poverty and inability to excel in the work place are a threat to a masculine control and power, unable to deal with the threat to ones self esteem males attack those who are weaker and vulnerable (Vogelman, 1990, p. 101-2). Sexual violence allows males to exert their manliness and control not only during the original attack, but also later. In most sexual assault cases the perpetrator knows the victim and therefore can continue to exercise power and control in two significant ways (Vogelman, 1990, p. 106).  First, through the continual threat of repeated violence, but more significantly society will probably permit him to get away with it which emphasis the male hierarchy and women as the “other” or subordinate (Vogelman, 1990, p. 111). Male’s belief that they need to be exert their masculinity leads to increased gender violence.

Gender based violence is a common occurrence in our society, but it can be reduced. In order to promote gender equality, which in turn would reduce violence, it is important to start with schools and young children. Curriculum has historically been gendered, but like identity it is not fixed and can be reevaluated to promote new ideas about gender in the classroom (Mills, 2001, p. 84-5). Many schools have also implemented special boys programs based on the need to raise self-esteem and improve communication skills (Mills, 2001, p. 86). What is important about teaching children these ideas is that as people grow older it becomes more difficult to remold their concepts of gender. Jeff Hearn (1998) suggests some ways in which adult males can deal with their violence (Hearn, 1998, p. 187-91). First, the person has to recognize that they result to violence often, but once one does its important to focus on the internal control such as learning copying strategies to deal with the anger (Hearn, 1998, p. 187). Men need to learn that everyone’s self-esteem is threatened once in awhile but that violence is not the solution to the problem. Hearn’s (1998) also suggest that having increased social support system that is does not condone violence will decrease a man’s use of violence (p.189). Although, these are excellent ideas they put a significant amount of responsibility on the perpetrator recognizing that they need to change. Children’s education about gender and equality seems like the most realistic way to deal with gender violence.

            Violence is not a new word to the vocabulary of man, but only recently has gender violence begun to be addressed and examined as a legitimate problem. Biology and a natural tendency of males to be aggressive is too simplistic of an answer to the problem of violence. The socialization of males to be proud and aggressive and to frown upon mannerisms that are considered feminine looks at the larger more complete picture. Men use violence against women when they feel powerless in order to regain control over their subordinate others in the hierarchy of society. In order to end these misconceptions about what it is to be masculine and feminine schools need to implement curriculum and programs that present gender in a new way. In conclusion, gender based violence affects all of us and it will continue to hurt millions if something is not done about it.



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