“Toxic Masculinity”? Stereotyping Male Sexuality Ignores What Science Tells Us About Patterns of Gender Abuse by Stewart Lawrence

Gillette’s recent “short film” depicting men as sexually aggressive toward women has set off a firestorm of criticism from men offended by its message. But, it’s also created a counter-backlash from women. They say that men who claim to be so offended by Gillette’s message are precisely the ones that most need to take that message to heart. There’s some truth here: The moral and legal boundaries of “acceptable” male behavior toward women have become narrower in recent years. Women want more space — and they expect men to respect it, which they should.

However, the current campaign borders on misandry. As the #MeToo movement continues to gain credibility, some of its most wounded and vocal members – who can scarcely conceal their contempt for men — are monopolizing public air time. We saw this plainly during the Kavanaugh hearing, where the Senate allowed unsubstantiated charges against the nominee to be aired indiscriminately, denying the candidate due process.

The fact is, it’s becoming increasingly popular and acceptable to stigmatize all men as would-be predators and rapists, and it’s grossly distorting our public discourse on gender.

The problem isn’t new. In the Victorian era, women were often depicted as sexual innocents always on the verge of being trampled by raging male beasts. In those days, there was a profound power asymmetry between men and women. And controlling male as well as female sexuality was seen by some as critical to maintaining a stable social order.

These days our sexual mores are far more flexible – and egalitarian. However, our paradigms for explaining patterns of gender abuse haven’t changed all much. Social science research, as well as prevalent statistics gathered by law enforcement and social service providers no longer support a simple, male aggressor-female victim paradigm. But, much of this compelling new evidence continues to be ignored or downplayed. Consider the following:

• Women are more likely than men to engage in physical violence during dating (1) Moreover, they are almost as likely to engage in physical violence against their spouse in domestic settings. Rates of domestic abuse are declining — but they are also becoming more equalized. For example, a 2012 study found that 1.2 million men initiated some form of “domestic violence,” compared to 800,000 women. That’s a 3-2 ratio (2).

• Female sexual abuse of boys (and girls) is also rising. Those lurid stories of female public school teachers – many of them married and with children at home — molesting male students as young as 12 or 10? It’s not simply better reporting that explains them. Many feminists still cite figures that women account for no more than 2% of sexual abuse cases. It turns out to be a pernicious gender myth. Based on the most recent data from the CDC and the U.S. Census Bureau, men account for 44% or more of forcible sex victims – with nearly 80% of their abusers female (3).

• Men’s greater propensity to engage in physical violence – usually directed at other men, not women, by the way — is offset by women’s greater tendency to engage in what sociologists call “indirect” violence – malicious gossip and slander designed to damage a person’s reputation and social standing. Women’s targets may be men or other women(4). And that indirect violence sometimes involves charges of male sexual abuse – because women know they are likely to be believed on their word alone, at least initially. Research suggests that false reports of rape by women may be as high as 40% of total.

• Cyber-bullying appears to be a more common tactic among young women than it is among young men (5). Like indirect aggression generally, women are more likely to resort to gossip and slander to impugn their victims, usually other women. Men are more likely to make physical threats.

• Finally, and most disturbingly perhaps, women are more likely than men to kill their own young children (6). As mothers, they tend to spend more time with tots. The rates equalize somewhat as the children get older. But rates of female infanticide appear to be rising, too.

These are just a few of the latest research findings, most of which have not found their way into our public discourse. In fact, the real figures, experts say, are likely worse: male victims of female abuse tend to under-report even more than female victims of male abuse do. Men, still trapped in traditional definitions of malehood, may feel emasculated by admitting that they were raped or physically abused, especially by women.

Why are women more abusive than ever before? Ironically, it could be because they are feeling more empowered. With greater power, comes a greater sense of entitlement. Some women are starting to act more like men do. Which means the problem may not be gender after all.

Paradoxically, this is hopeful news. Ultimately, we all share the same DNA and the same brain wiring – and the same propensity to abuse. Maybe embracing the darker sides of our nature in a more honest way can bring men and women closer together – and lead to better social policy. Right now, a steady stream of shrill and poisonous invective – and preachy condescension — is only driving us further apart.

End Notes
(1) Catherine Schaffer, et al. Ten-Year Trends in Physical Dating Violence Victimization Among Adolescent Boys and Girls in British Columbia, Canada.” Journal of Inter-Personal Violence, July 18, 2018.
(2) Kruti Shroti, “New Research on Domestic Violence Against Men,“ I, Science. July 2, 2015.
(3) Sarah Young, “Female Sex Offenders are More Common than You Think, Says Study,” The Independent. July 13, 2017. Conor Friedersdorf, “The Understudied Female Sexual Predator,” The Atlantic, November 28, 2016.
(4) Shoshana Davis, Women Use “Indirect Aggression” to Succeed, Study Says,” CBS News, October 29. 2013.
(5) C.D. Marcum, et al. “Battle of the Sexes: An Examination of Male and Female Cyberbullying. International Journal of Cyber Criminology (2012), 6(1): 904-911.
(6) Doug Kriss, “A Parent Killing a Child Happens More Often Than We Think,” CNN, July 7, 2017

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