Men and women are socialised into a society founded on social hierarchies. In the west, those who are considered to have higher status than others are white people, people with higher education, men, people in the middle age range (that is not children and not elderly), people who are physically and mentally able, the rich, heterosexuals – I think you know this, even if you don’t believe in the validity of these hierarchies – they exist for the benefit of a few and to the detriment of most.
These social hierarchies are sustained across all levels of society – at the political level; at the institutional level such as the judiciary, education and health system; in relationships with family, peers, colleagues and at the individual level – those of us who consciously or unconsciously internalise beliefs and do things that uphold social hierarchies (including laughing at racist, homophobic or sexist jokes).
Masculinities represent one form of hierarchy. Some ways of behaving bring about honour, kudos, respect, prestige, heroic status, acceptance and recognition, whilst other ways of behaving lead to abuse, bullying, denigration, shaming, humiliation and ostracism.
Men’s violence against men is glamorised (thus violence is an honourable masculine practice). Men’s use, abuse and objectification of women is encouraged in some levels across the social ecology (images abound in the media that glamorise such masculine behaviour). Thus a man who controls his dating or live-in female partner is practicing an honourable form of masculinity.
Colonialists transported British laws that condoned men’s ownership and control over wives, into USA, Australia, New Zealand in the 1700s and 1800s. Remnants of this legal legacy impact our society today.
One of the strongest influences on men’s perpetration of intimate partner abuse is other men. Research shows men face constant badgering from their peers: “Who wears the pants in your house?” “What are you mate, are you under the thumb?” “Who makes the decisions in your house? Don’t let your woman control you!”
When I interviewed some men who had abused their partners, some said that over the years they had nearly always responded to such peer pressure by: 1. Pretending they were in control of their partners in order to save face in front of men; 2. Actually going on to control their partner; 3. Remaining silent in order to maintain relationships with male peers; 4. And as one man said, “Try to make sure our manhood stayed intact” by using verbal abuse or physical abuse.
It is rare for men to challenge other men who promote sexism, misogyny and abuse of women. There is a culture of silence and protection. It had been rare for the men I interviewed to stand up for a close caring relationship with their female partner. Yet underneath, many men want this.
Many male perpetrators of domestic and family violence and psychological abuse and control attempt to suppress vulnerabilities, signs of weakness, anxieties, any behaviours considered feminine (including showing care, love and empathy). Instead they attempt to climb the hierarchy of masculinities by behaving in violent, bullying and controlling ways in order to claim acceptance, recognition and heroic status in the eyes or real or imagined other men. MOST people do NOT bestow this kudos on men who abuse and control others. However, the reality is that in our contemporary society – you will observe multiple messages and practices that honour certain masculinities and dishonour others.
Individual men abuse individual women. But social messages (in practice and ideologies) support and encourage this. For intimate partner abuse and control to stop, support for social hierarchies of all kinds has to stop. It takes a whole community to stop power and control over others.