Commentary: Why we should talk about toxic masculinity and mass murder

Although it is rarely mentioned in debates and conversations that happen in the aftermath of a mass shooting, the gender of the shooter is almost always male. In fact, 98 percent of all mass murders are men.

While conversations on how to best address the mass shooting epidemic in the U.S. tend to focus on gun control or mental illness, discussions rarely ever address the role that toxic masculinity plays in the experiences and motives of mass shooters.

Toxic masculinity is defined as the socially constructed expectation that men are to be violent, unemotional and dominant. While mental illness and access to guns have both clearly played a prominent role in many of the high-profile mass killings that have occurred in recent years, the simple reality is that that women have the same rights and access to firearms that men have — and women typically have far more reasons to be angry, resentful or aggrieved.

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Women also suffer from mental illness at nearly the same rates as men. In fact, masculinity is a much strong predictor of nearly all forms of violence than race, religion, or mental illness. Instead of focusing solely on gun control or mental illness, perhaps we can better understand the factors that contribute to gun violence and other forms of aggression in men, especially those men suffering from mental illness by looking at issues related to power, control and violence.

Many are quick to point to the basic biological and psychological differences between men and women as a possible explanation for the gender disparity in violence perpetration. The idea that violent behaviors are so deep-seated and pervasive in men that they can explain these disparities is certainly not backed up in the scientific literature. In her seminal research on the neurobiological differences between men and women, author Cordelia Fine notes that even marked sex differences in the brain provide little consequence for behavior.

When we look at the psychological make up of men and women, we have long known that sexes are far more the same than they are different. Nearly 90 percent of the psychological makeup is identical. The small psychological and neurobiological differences are not pronounced enough to explain the overwhelming rates of violence perpetrated by men.

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Since we are unable to make links between biological characteristics and violent behaviors, we are forced to take a hard look at how we socialize boys and men around violence. For many males, the message has been clear since a young age that the only acceptable emotion is anger — and that anger is typically expressed through power, control, or aggression.

Boys are often socialized to externalize pain and to avenge any sort of humiliation or shame that they might suffer. It’s no surprise that men are so much more likely to resort to measures such as murder and other forms of violence when they are overwhelmed with sadness, anxiety, fear or vulnerability. For many boys and men in our society, power is linked to respect and control.

Men perpetrate nearly every form of violence at disproportionately high rates. Nearly 91 percent of all homicides are committed by men — and nearly 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted by a man while in college. A woman is beaten by a man every 9 seconds in the U.S. — and 3 women are killed by their current or former male partners every day. While nearly 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year, boys who witness domestic violence as children are nearly 4 times as likely to perpetrate domestic violence as adults.

Given the overwhelmingly strong relationship between masculinity and violence, it is time that we take an introspective look at how we socialize boys and men around power, control and violence. Perhaps a better way to frame the conversation on masculinity and violence would be to imagine how we would address the role of gender if women were to perpetrate 98 percent of mass shootings.

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MacCormack is an assistant professor of social work at St. Edward’s University.

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