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Is men’s abuse of female partners an individual problem or a social problem?

– Posted in: Gender socialisation Male perpetrators Social Institutions & Abuse Why does he do it

Speakoutloud.net masculinities social or individual problem Clare Murphy PhD_2When we see that a man beats his wife we tend to assume the abuse is the problem of the individuals involved. He has a problem or she has a problem. The same is true if you read a newspaper article about a man who sexually abuses his female partner. Most readers assume the abuse is purely the problem of the individuals involved. There is no thought given to how our society is constructed and what role it plays in our daily lives.

But studies show that there are patterns in men’s behaviours, attitudes and motivations for abusing a woman that mimic hierarchical power structures that permeate society. It is seen that the nature and construction of these social structures may lend a certain permission, a certain kind of advocacy for the right of male power, control and dominance that is based on hierarchical social structures, beliefs and norms. Example the oft quoted glass ceiling for females in the business world.

Simply put, those at the top are accorded the highest social status. It’s a pyramid in which the power and status diminishes the lower you are placed. Maleness is tested, gender differences are tested, race and ethnicity are tested. Men and women, young and old, healthy or sick, heterosexual or gay, we are all involved in a vast milieu of social constructs and position taking. Wealth, and lack of it soon sorts status and place in the hierarchy.

Most social structures in the world are hierarchical and patterns of relating to each other entail power relations that manifest positively or negatively.

Social structures shape patterns of relating

At the social level there are different patterns in relations between genders.

The accepted social pattern of relating between men and women might be viewed as a template, an overlay with decrees that say the man should initiate a date, the man should be the breadwinner, the man should propose marriage, the man should protect the woman, the woman should care for the children, and do the housework. In these patterns of relating, the man’s role and the woman’s role are clearly defined. And it is typically accepted that the man’s role is accorded higher status than the woman’s role. At this time these are the dominant patterns. They’re an endless string of pronouncements that when unquestioned and unchallenged lead to conformity, domination and subordination.

It’s true that many individuals question and shake up these patterns in their private relationships and do not adhere to these old ideas. It would be nice to think that these patterns were influenced by getting to know, understand and like each other’s differences, celebrate the true meaning of equality, but that’s not majorly the case. Any challenge to the status quo runs the gauntlet of ridicule, sneers and jibes by those who have a vested interest in keeping things just as they are. Many of us – men and women – may believe wholeheartedly in the ‘man as the head of the house’ doctrine, but often fail to see how this one-sided power and control can leave parties open to abuse.

Thus men are socialised to behave in certain ways – and some of those ways entail controlling female partners. Men are expected to be the protector and provider for women and children. Men are expected to hold the position as head of the household. This position is one of power – too much which – for some men – fosters abuse against women and children.

Yet not all women need protecting. Many women have stronger muscles than many men. Women are quite capable of protecting themselves and their children.

And not all men want the roles of protector and provider as expected. Instead, many men want equal relationships with women. But often they are stuck with roles of dominance, because our society is founded on social hierarchies of old, outmoded thinking. When men and women choose to share household chores, child rearing, decision-making, and share power it is flying in the face of, or moving away from, current dominant social expectations.

Social rules which shape expectations about behaviour are a real conundrum for many men

Many believe in social justice and gender equality so that everyone is afforded opportunities to fulfill their life’s potential.

But other men would not agree, believing in the credo that men are superior to women and would strenuously reject the idea that a man should or could work for a female boss, for instance. This personal belief trickles down from the wider social structures and strictures that accord men higher status than women.

An example of ways some men’s attitudes reflect the gendered social structure was evident when I asked men I interviewed for my PhD research what men thought about working for a female boss. Many of the men said something similar to this man:

“99.9 percent of men wouldn’t like [working for a female boss] at all… It’s a power thing, the man gotta be … this strong, dominant … the man’s the boss… I wouldn’t have a problem if the female was intelligent and knew more than me. But (laugh) if I had some bimbo that was trying to order me around, I couldn’t handle it.”

Men’s abuse of partners too, is shaped by these same social structures

In a way it’s like individual men who abuse their female partners are justified in assuming an unspoken right conferred upon them by hierarchical social structures. Men I interviewed said they carried an unwritten contract into their relationships that stated the man should be the master and the woman his servant. This unspoken, unchallenged contract overlay their other desire, which was to have a caring long-term relationship. Likewise, the patterns of power and control and the tactics used in family violence, school bullying, workplace bullying, trafficking of women and children, acquaintance rape, and hate crime against homosexual and transgender people are similar – because they mimic hierarchical social structures at the wider level.

Change must entail deconstructing hierarchical social structures

It seems that for individual men to initiate change, and to maintain that change, social structures have to change. Or it means a perilous journey of awareness and personal conviction to go against the grain of dominant social thinking. So it is important that men get support to understand how their individual decisions, motivations and behaviours reflect wider social ideas. This support should extend to assisting men to critique and challenge social messages that encourage hierarchical relationships, destructive use of power and control, and denigration of those with lower social status.

In my next post I will brainstorm some questions that help critique hierarchical social structures.

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PMMD 4 December 2010, 11:48 pm

My husband is a narcissist and he is probably a product of his home. Does that make it a social problem?

How does one tell if it is a physiological dysfunction of his brain or just deeply ingrained mentality?

Clare 7 December 2010, 12:10 pm

Dear PMMD – Research shows that only about 10% of men’s abusive incidents are caused by mental illness (Gelles, 1993:41; Saunders, 1992:219; Gondolf, 1999:13-14). Likewise, approximately less than 10% of men are screened out of stopping abuse intervention programmes because of mental illness and are often referred for treatment to mental health agencies instead (Paymar & Barnes, 2006:9).

Narcissitic personality disorder includes traits such as a grandiose sense of self-importance, the expectation that he be perceived as superior, wanting to associate with other so-called special or high status people, needs to be admired, has a sense of entitlement and demands compliance to his expectations and standards, lacks empathy, exploits others, is far more willing to have his own needs met than to meet others’ needs, is often jealous of others and may even believe others are jealous of him, and he displays arrogance.

However – every single one of these attitudes, needs, feelings and behaviours represent the way many men are expected to be if they are to fit the idea of a “real man”. A so-called real man is a man who strives at all times to maintain a position of high status (real or imagined) at the top of the hierarchy of masculinities. He will do what it takes to avoid low status. Male socialisation includes social messages that accord men with low status if they are ordinary, if they show their weaknesses, if they allow their vulnerabilities to rise to the surface, and if they show love, care, empathy and compassion. These are considered to be feminine behaviours and are therefore not hallmarks of high status manhood.

Not all men agree with this pressure to be a so-called real man. But men who abuse women – more often than not – have a strongly vested interest in living up to social pressures to conform to the notion that they are superior just because they are a man.

This pressure may exist in the family of origin – and it exists at school, on the sportsfield (especially sports considered to be high status in any particular country), drinking establishments, workplaces, in movies, the throw-away lines by TV sports journalists – the list of where such social pressure comes from is vast.