Men and Violence:
Problems with Masculinity

Alan John Greig1



It used to be patriarchy, but now it is masculinity. Which raises the question: What work does this focus on masculinity enable us to do in order to bring about the personal and political transformations that are needed to end men’s violence? For all of us who are concerned about men’s violence, and the roles it plays in the oppression and injustice suffered by women, children and men, how does it help us when we name the problems that confront public policy in terms of masculinity, and not patriarchy?

This paper looks at the ways in which the concept of masculinity has been used to talk about men’s violence, what it enables us to say and the silences it produces. I argue that, while the interest in masculinity has brought men into gender, as subjects within gender regimes, the emphasis on masculinity as men’s gender identity has promoted an identity politics of the dominant that has served to mystify rather than clarify men’s locations and practices within relations of power and oppression, and the functions of violence within those relations. I identify the implications of posing the problem of men’s violence in terms of their gender identity and of looking to re-fashion a non-violent masculinity as the solution to such violence. This faith in constructing a new masculinity, I argue, is no basis for effective public policy responses to men’s violence because it accepts what it should call into question; the masculine-feminine binary logic that underpins the dominant gender regimes in most societies today and the hierarchies that such a logic guarantees.



Lo común era el término patriarcado, ahora es masculinidad. De ello se desprende la pregunta: ¿la atención puesta sobre la masculinidad qué nos permite hacer para impulsar la transformación personal y política que se requiere para ponerle fin a la violencia de los hombres? Para todos aquellos interesados en la violencia ejercida por los hombres y el papel que estos juegan en los procesos de opresión e injusticia que se infligen a mujeres, niños y niñas, así como a otros hombres, ¿cómo ayuda cuando se nombran los problemas que confrontan la política pública en términos de masculinidad en lugar de patriarcado?

En este artículo se discute la forma como se ha utilizado el concepto de masculinidad para referir la violencia de los hombres, qué es lo que permite decir y los silencios que produce. Considero que mientras el interés en la masculinidad ha sido presentarlo en términos de género, como marco conceptual, el énfasis en la masculinidad como identidad de género de los hombres ha promovido una identidad política de dominación que ha servido para mistificar en vez de clarificar el lugar y las prácticas de los hombres dentro de sus relaciones de poder y opresión, así como el papel de la violencia en tales relaciones. Identifico las implicaciones de colocar el problema de la violencia de los hombres en términos de su identidad de género y de buscar el cambio a una masculinidad no violenta como la solución de la misma. Esta convicción está fincada en la construcción de una nueva masculinidad. Considero que ésta no es la base para asentar una política pública efectiva que responda a la violencia de los hombres porque acepta lo que debería de cuestionarse, la lógica binaria masculinidad/feminidad que sostiene el régimen de la dominación de género vigente en muchas sociedades en nuestros días y las jerarquías que tales lógicas garantizan.


It used to be patriarchy, but now it is masculinity. Which raises the question: What work does this focus on masculinity enable us to do in order to bring about the personal and political transformations that are needed to end men’s violence? For all of us who are concerned about men’s violence, and the roles it plays in the oppression and injustice suffered by women, children and men, how does it help us when we name the problems that confront public policy in terms of masculinity, and not patriarchy?
But before I begin, a word on my own place in this. I am not a public policy expert, so come to this podium with both humility and curiosity. Having been granted the privilege of this presentation, however, I want to use it to raise some issues concerning men, masculinity and violence that I regard as critical. My understanding of these issues springs from my work over the last 20 years on HIV/AIDS, gender and violence, mostly as an independent consultant working with non-profit organizations to support their work in the global South and as an activist working on issues of masculinity, violence and social justice in the USA.

So, I speak for myself, not as a representative of an institution, community or constituency. I also speak from the apex of privilege, and want to say something about what this means to me, given my understanding of the workings of power and privilege. Standing here, I am aware that I am taking up space, as men, and especially men of my race, class, sexuality and age, are often criticized for doing. The criticism, in my experience, is usually justified. So with all my privilege, I want to be conscious of how I enter and use this privileged space.

I want to use this space to look at the implications of discourses on masculinity and violence for public policy on men’s violence. The discourses I will discuss are primarily Anglophone and primarily produced in the global North. I make no claims about their universality. But I do see them as influential beyond the countries of their production and circulation, not least because of the role of Northern institutions and policies in distorting public policy in the South.

I also want to speak because privilege and control can hide in silence. The privilege of political and economic elites, and the control that they exercise, are founded as much in their silence as in their statements and positions. The terms of debate are set by what is not said, sayable even, as by what is said. As much as we need to speak truth to power, we also need to speak truth from privilege – about what it is, how it works, and how it can be dismantled. In this, as in other instances, silence equals consent.

Crisis, what crisis?

I have been asked to consider the window of opportunity in relation to men, masculinities and public policy. Given that opportunity is often said to be the other side of crisis, it is interesting that so much of the discourse of men and masculinities has been expressed in terms of a crisis in masculinity. I want to look at some ways that this language of crisis has been used to explain men’s violence and to articulate responses to it. There are at least three types of crisis explanation; the crisis of a destructive or violent masculinity itself, the violence provoked by an unachievable masculinity and the violence that result from a frustrated masculinity.

Writing in the Boston Globe on Sunday, May 2, 1999, about the events at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado 12 days previously which had left 15 dead and 23 wounded, Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally (1999) emphasized that “what these school shootings reveal is not a crisis in youth culture but a crisis in masculinity.” They, like others, saw an equation between men’s violence and masculine identity. The lessons from Columbine High were clear it seemed; the two young men who shot and killed 13 children and adults at the school and then themselves were products of a masculine culture of domination and aggression in which the only way they could compete was through guns.

This cultural crisis of destructive masculinity has become one of the ways in which public opinion and policy on men’s violence has come to be framed. Nor is this confined to acts of interpersonal violence. In relation to the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq, U.S.-based anti-violence activist Rob Okun (2005) asked over a year ago: “will men step forward to end the masculine culture of violence?” Will we be man enough, he writes, to envision a world in which peace is the way?

But it is just this challenge of men’s inability to be “man enough” to which some have looked to explain men’s violence. The crisis here, for men and for the victims of men’s violence, is of an unachievable masculinity. Hearn and Whitehead (2006: 52) state that “men’s violence to women appears to stem from the normal but impossible pursuit of manhood by men”, impossible because (: 45): ‘masculinity’ may be understood, quite simply, as Heroism, whose key characteristic, courage that transcends fear of personal vulnerability, defines what it means to be a man. In this view, a man’s domestic violence against female partner “may be understood as a means of neutralizing her ability to reflect back to him his inability to conform to masculinity” (: 47).

Other commentators have argued that the crisis of an unachievable masculinity is not inherent within the construction of masculinity itself, but is specific to the conditions that confront men in their lives. This, rather, is a crisis of frustrated masculinity that can lead to men’s violence. In searching for the roots of this crisis in the USA today, Susan Faludi (2000) found that men had been “stiffed” (the title of her book on the subject) by social and economic changes in U.S. society, notably declining wages and rising male unemployment. Sitting in on a batterers’ group in Long Beach California, she (: 9) came to the conclusion that: “The men had probably felt in control when they beat their wives, but their everyday experience was of feeling controlled.” Indeed, she (Íd.) continues:

There was something almost absurd about these men struggling, week after week, to recognize themselves as dominators when they were so clearly dominated, done in by the world.

This explication of men’s violence in terms of the paradox, or sometimes contradiction, of men’s powerlessness has become common. Kaufman (1994: 149) writes of “the man who feels powerless who beats his wife in an uncontrollable rage.” Some work on the link between masculinities and child sexual abuse (Cossins, 2000) argues that:

An offender’s experiences of powerlessness as a result of his relationships with other men is the key to understanding child sex offending, since sexuality is a key social practice for differentiation between masculinities, the alleviation of experiences of powerlessness and for establishing relations of power with other men.

Such talk of masculine crisis and men’s powerlessness seems a long way from the view of men’s violence as an exercise in patriarchal power and control. “It should be called the Powerlessness and Out-of-Control Wheel,” one of the men in the Batterers’ group observed by Faludi (: 9) plaintively remarked of the power and control wheel exercise.

What are we to make of this? Some have argued that it is important to distinguish between the motivations for and effects of men’s violence; Hearn and Whitehead (: 44) note that the effect of men’s violence is to serve patriarchy but that

It may seem absurd to assume that the individual man who batters his female partner is motivated by an ideological choice to cause her to conform to the gender category ‘woman’ within patriarchal social relations.

But is it absurd to assume that in a world of male privilege, men use a variety of means, including violence, to maintain this position? If men use violence to resolve the crisis that is inherent in the gulf between the power that they expect and the powerlessness that they experience, then this is as much about their expectation and entitlement as about their experience.

Entitlement is another way to read the Columbine school killings. It is important to deconstruct not simply the norms of a violent masculinity but the expectations of white, male privilege in a sexist and racist society, such that the young killers felt entitled to take up guns and act out their anger and frustration within one of the institutions most central to their community. The sense of crisis this event provoked is in marked contrast to the silence of the white mainstream that surrounds the high rates of gun violence and gun death among youth of color in the USA. Once again it is young men doing the killing but rarely is a masculinity crisis invoked to account for their behaviour. Theirs is the violence of the Other, the violence of gangs and the ghetto, a daily statistic to be ignored. But when young white men go on a killing spree, gender is called upon to explain this threat to society, this cultural dysfunction to be corrected.

Columbine is not only a reminder of what white men will do when they feel denied their privilege in a sexist and racist society, but also of what the discourse of masculinity does to mask the workings of male power and the functions of violence to maintain it. This absence of an analysis of power and privilege is central to the framing of men’s violence in terms of an unachievable masculinity. There are echoes here of the sex role strain thesis popular in the 1970s, in which the problems of men can be attributed to the difficulty, if not impossibility, of living up to the role prescribed for their sex. Emptied of history, society or politics, this thesis relies on a fundamental gender dimorphism that frames solutions to the problems of gender in terms of promoting a healthy masculinity for men (and presumably by the same token, a healthy femininity for women).

Apart from the difficulty of finding much evidence, historical or cross-cultural, that most men are in a state of abjection, unable to live up to their sex role (or in its updated version, gender role), it is important to note the conservative politics at the heart of unachievable masculinity. It draws on the feminist critique of the oppression that women suffer under the tyranny of social constructions of femininity to try and tell a parallel story about the ways that men suffer from masculinity. Keane’s (2005) commentary on the moral panic generated around young men’s use of anabolic steroids is useful here. As she (: 202) points out the “literalness of artificial testosterone as the substitute for an absent or non-functioning maleness” makes steroid use a “particularly compelling sign of wounded masculinity.” Keane reports on the identification of an Adonis complex among young men whose concern about lack of muscularity was paralleled with eating disorders among young women.

As Keane notes (: 200), this false equivalence “does not take into account the very different histories of representations of male and female bodies and the specific meanings attached to female and male body ideals” and I would add the material interests of men’s domination of women that are served by these different meanings and representations. Significantly, the cure for the Adonis complex, was dependent on a:

Conservative commitment to a recuperation of a genuine and secure masculinity based on substance rather than appearance. The process of recovery it promotes, which combines talking therapy with medication if required, is a healing remasculinization in which sufferers come to recognize that they are real men whether they work out or not (: 201-202).

There is a conservative politics to be found in the thesis of frustrated masculinity too. As a number of commentators have noted, the frustrations are far from evenly distributed and are heavily determined by men’s other experiences of oppression; whether it be racism or economic exploitation. Characterizing these in terms of frustrated masculinity tends to mystify rather than clarify what is going on. Heartfield (2002) is clear that the discourse of masculinity crisis and male violence is being used to pathologize and pacify anger about and resistance to class oppression, and to win consent to the material interests of the ruling class:

Masculinity theories do appear to be telling us something about a loss of power that matches their real condition. But it is wrong to see this loss of power as a loss in relation to women. Rather it is in relation to capital that men and women alike have lost authority. […] The crisis is not one of masculinity, but one of the working class.

As Lynne Segal (1997: 264) writes:

There was a time, it seems to me, when feminists would not so readily have lost sight of the significance of class oppression for the sake of identifying a universal male beastliness.


The real crisis – what has made men insecure?

The conservative politics lurking around these explanations of men’s violence give a clue as to the real crisis – the crisis in patriarchy. In the U.S. context, one can read the last 30 years of U.S. political and cultural life as, in part, about this effort to recuperate a “secure masculinity” from the crisis in white, patriarchal authority provoked by the gains of the women’s, gay and civil rights movements. Goldstein (2003) sees 9/11 as a key turning point, for “in its wake, the once-mocked figure of the dominant male has become a real-life hero.” He illuminates well the cultural-political nexus that is working on the patriarchal restoration when he links Bush with the white rapper Eminem:

Both are social conservatives who stand for a male-dominated order. Both owe their appeal to anxiety over sexual and social change. Both offer the spectacle of an aggrieved man reacting with righteous rage.

But Robinson warns us (2000: 12) against sneering “at the white male victim as the latest ruse of a white patriarchy under attack.” It is more complicated than that. For announcements of a crisis in white masculinity in the USA are about a re-centering of that which has been de-centered by feminism, gay liberation and black power. This is a crisis of visibility, of becoming marked as gendered and racialized subjects and no longer the abstract universal of invisible privilege. Robinson offers a subtle account of the ambiguity of this visibility for previously ‘unmarked’ men in contemporary U.S. culture – that the only way to be seen is to be seen as a victim, both seeking to challenge the resistance to white, male privilege at the heart of identity politics while craving the legitimacy of this politics of identity.

In an age of identity politics, another commentator has noted (Yúdice, 1995: 281), if the “ultimate legitimizing move is the claim to oppression” then it is unsurprising that men will seek the “cultural capital that comes with the charge of having been oppressed” (: 276). In the early 1990s, Yúdice monitored the feelings and ethical positions raised in an online conference on maleness that featured mostly straight white males from the U.S., Canada and Australia. He reports (: 279) that the strategy of such men was to:

Recognize their own privilege and then generalize the idea that all groups have some relative privilege. This enables the dedifferentiation and dehierarchization of all oppressions.

Identity politics of the dominant

We have arrived at an identity politics of the dominant, which continues to have important implications for public policy on men’s violence. In exploring these implications, I want to stay focused on two realities; that it remains true that men do most of the violence in the world and that addressing this violence involves understanding, in the words of researcher and activist Judith Herman (1992), the commonalities between:

Rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes.

The question that I grapple with is how to hold the complexity of the personal-political, individual-structural realities of men’s violence and what such realities mean and make possible for men’s roles and responsibilities in resisting such violence. There is no question that masculinity makes room for a more complex discussion of and response to the relationship between men and violence. In putting men back into gender, it has moved us beyond simplistic binaries that equate men with violence and aggression, women with peace. After all, not all violence is men’s, not all men are violent.

But there are a number of problems in the way that masculinity as an identity politics of the dominant frames men’s violence. Such a discourse privileges the emotional over the material. This is not to deny the critical importance of the emotional work that is needed with men. I firmly believe in the importance of this work and am committed to it in my own life and work. I am a founder and member of a men’s group that looks specifically at the emotional costs and challenges of men’s gender training. But we also talk about the material privileges we gain within a male supremacist society such as the U.S. Without this focus on the material and men’s accountability for the impacts of their privilege and power, the emphasis on men’s emotional life runs the risk of being another exercise of men’s privilege to take up space.

Such a discourse of masculinity as an identity politics for men also tends to be:

  • Behaviouralist – framing violence as what men do, a set of actions and decisions that can be modified;
  • Exceptionalist – regarding men’s violence as an aberration from a healthy, non-violent society; a rupture within a peaceful order; a crisis;
  • Culturalist – looking to the solution for men’s violence within culture and society, redefining what it means to be a man, changing the cultural script of masculinity such that it does not rely on violence.

The metaphors often invoked by the identity politics approach to understanding men’s violence refer to the theatrical, the performative. A study (Franklin, 2004: 1) looking at men’s violence, and specifically gang rape and homophobic violence, entitled “Enacting Masculinity: Antigay Violence and Group Rape As Participatory Theater” concludes that “group rape of women & violence against homosexuals are parallel forms of cultural theater, with the victims serving as interchangeable dramatic props.” The notion that it is violence that connects doing masculinity with being a man informs much of the current debates about what to do about men’s violence. Changing the masculine script, creating a non-violent gender identity for men are the prescriptions that follow from this notion. If social/cultural constructions of masculinity are identified as the place to look in which to understand men’s violence, then ending men’s violence requires a new construction. As violence researcher Lori Heise (1997: 426) wrote some ten years ago,

The more I work on violence against women, the more I become convinced that the real way forward is to redefine what it means to be male.

Limitations of analysis

While there are many nuanced accounts of the social construction of gender that note that men are simply not empty vessels awaiting a new definition, their masculine socialization to be poured in, and that they are active agents in constructing masculinity as well as being constructed by it, little attempt is made to explain how or indeed why this iterative process works. Questions about why men do act out the violent masculine norms to which they are said to be subject, or why some men in some situations do not, are rarely posed. The workings of the masculinity construction are rarely explored and the issue of men’s interests in their gender privilege gets lost. As does the question of why and how some men resist or deviate from these norms.

Indeed, the norms of masculinity tend to be assumed rather than investigated. Indeed, some commentators have noted the danger of a circular and self-fulfilling proposition. This view of gender as performance, with its emphasis on gender roles and gender scripts, has been characterized as the gender display model. As McMahon (1999: 166-67) points out:

The gender display model relies on shared values, on norms and expectations about what counts as an appropriate gendered performance. It has nothing to say about the ways in which norms are produced. By treating norms as a given, a kind of external input to the model, all it can do is point to ways in which behaviour is said to reflect norms. This can become circular – we discover what norms are by watching behaviour, and then discover that behaviour reflects norms.

Through this emphasis on masculinity as the roles men are expected to play:

[R]elations between the sexes [are] anaesthetized as differences between roles, as if it so happens that his role is to be assertive and hers to be submissive. That thinking power is impossible in this framework is clear if we try to employ the language of role in a situation where power is impossible to ignore. Do we understand imperialism as a result of colonized and colonizer following a ‘black role’ and a ‘white role’? (: 167)

Thinking clearly about power is central to an effective public policy response to men’s violence. But this is too often impeded rather than aided by the framing of men’s violence in terms of the problem of masculinity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the frequent recourse to an account of multiple masculinities and the relationship between its hegemonic and subordinate varieties. In its original usage, as defined by Connell (1995: 77), hegemonic masculinity is the:

Configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.

Its utility appeared to lie in its making room for the reality that gender is about hierarchical relations between men, and not simply between men and women. In turn, this has opened up possibilities for engaging men in a project to achieve a more just gender order, an order that oppresses many men as it does women.

But this more nuanced account of the workings of the gender order for men has become conflated with the attempt to use the plural concept of masculinities to account for differences in power and status between men. Rather than talk directly about capitalism and class exploitation, there is talk of a transnational business masculinity and subordinate working class masculinities. In the U.S. context that I am most familiar with, there is a growing tendency to frame issues of racism for men in terms of something called “black masculinity.” In a disturbingly patriarchal centering move, all relations of power and oppression are gathered together within the rubric of masculinity and the hegemony of ruling elites is in danger of being reduced to a gender construction, at the same time as resistance to class exploitation and racism, to name only two, is at risk of being confined to the effort to reconstruct a different masculinity.

There are at least two elisions at work here. Relations of power and domination get framed in terms of gender (the hegemonic masculinity of white, ruling class men at the heart of Empire) at the same time as issues of gender get framed in terms of identity. But in order to think clearly about men’s violence, it is imperative to make distinctions between the workings of power and the workings of gender, between, if you like, hegemonic men and hegemonic masculinity. Unless we do, it is hard to have a conversation about men’s material interests, and ask, as McMahon (: 165) does:

Why, for example, are dominance and submission the primary signifiers of gender? Might this not result from the male power to enforce such definitions?

Unless we do, it is hard to have a conversation about the functions of violence in relations to these material interests, as both the expression and exercise of men’s domination. Unless we do, it is hard to talk about the functions of violence within interlocking systems of oppression and circuits of power and domination. As Montoya (1999) says, with reference to men’s violence against women in Nicaragua:

Violence in couple relationships is a problem of power and control. […] It is maintained by the social structures of oppression in which we live—based, among others, on gender, class, age, and race inequalities. A national history of wars and a culture of settling conflict through force also maintain it. Colonialism and imperialism have had a role in intensifying this violence.

Or as Ito Ruri (2003) writes, with reference to the testimony of surviving military ‘comfort women’ from a dozen Asian nations from the Pacific War of the mid-20th century:

It is pointless to view women a-historically, or to attempt to discuss patriarchal domination as if it were separate from nationalism and colonialism. Violence against women, especially that which occurs in armed struggle, makes vividly clear that patriarchal domination and nationalism, or any similar form of comprehensive group unity, are inseparable.

And unless we have conversations about men’s violence in these contexts, it becomes hard to talk in more complex ways about violence and accountability and violence and injustice. Rather than masculinities, I would prefer to be a part of more discussion of accountabilities. This is a discussion of the processes and structures we can envisage that could demand institutional as well as individual accountability; that could call to account not only the men who do the violence but the men and male-dominated institutions responsible for the policies and decisions that do the violence, the structural violence named by Galtung (1969) so many years ago.

Unless there is a clear analysis of violence in the context of power and oppression, it also becomes difficult to talk clearly about resistance, about what we are fighting for. Equating men with violence and women with peace may reflect much of the reality that we see around us, but it risks an unhelpful gender essentialism and abstracts violence from the context in which it is being used. This is clear when we consider the erasure of women’s role in fighting, most notably in national liberation struggles during the last century. What sense can the discourse of violence as a problem of masculinity make of this reality? The point at issue here is not the morality or efficacy of violent struggle. Rather, it is the ways in which prevailing discourses of masculinity and violence make it harder to look at both the functions and the purposes of violence. At the very least it is important to recognize that, with respect to violence, it is not only peace but also justice that is at stake and that violence has been used, by both women and men, not only in maintaining oppression but also struggling for justice.


Linking the individual and structural, the emotional and material

Changing the conversation about men and violence to take account of material interests and the functions of violence, as well as systems of oppression, the nature of accountability and the pursuit of justice, has several implications for public policy responses to men’s violence. The first is to address violence, and men’s relationship to it, not simply in terms of a series of discreet acts but rather as a set of relations and practices that, in part, constitute the worlds in which we live. Feldman’s (1991) term “formations of violence” seems useful in this regard, speaking both to that which uses (forms) violence and that which is produced by (formed by) violence. With respect to work with men, the task is then to recognize their multiple locations within such formations of violence and what this means personally in terms of their accountability for their own attitudes and behaviors and politically in terms of the violence that has formed their world and the kind of world that they want to help form.

Examples of this personal-political work with men on men’s violence are too rare. The Men as Partners program in South Africa, with which I have had the privilege to do some work, links the high rates of men’s violence against women in the country today with the violent legacy of apartheid and its logic of domination and dehumanization. In MAP workshops and community mobilization activities, men’s understanding of the functions and impacts of sexism is developed, in part, through relating this to the functions and impacts of racism in their own lives. In this way, the personal work that men need to do to end men’s violence against women is linked with the political work of creating the new South Africa.

The work of Sharon Spencer, a Maori woman from New Zealand living in Oahu, Hawaii, in developing a 16-week curriculum for abusive men in Pacific Islander communities in Oahu offers another inspiring example. As described by Kim (2005):

The men’s curriculum is rooted in an assumption that re-connection of colonized men with a cultural heritage grounds their individual, personal lives in a land- and ancestral-based legacy which can give them a sense of meaning eroded by racism and colonization. Maori cultural elements of male power, family relational values, concepts of female power including the value of reproduction, preservation of land and water, and respect for ancestral traditions can all be interpreted to support gender equity and safety for women and children.

This program of cultural re-connection and political consciousness raising has earned it a reputation in the community as a place to which they can send their Hawaiian, Tongan and Samoan sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, and nephews for the restoration of positive values and roles so that they can be an asset to their communities.

Addressing State/institutional violence

The second implication of this analysis of violence, power and oppression is to address the violence of public policy itself, and the institutions responsible for determining and implementing such violence. Some sections of the movement to end violence against women in the USA, and notably women of color within this movement, have come to recognize the limitations, contradictions even, of relying on oppressive State institutions to end men’s violence.

I know that in places where the struggle remains one of engaging the State to act on men’s violence, through law and policy, this view may not seem relevant. But as former political prisoner and anti-prison activist Angela Davis (2000) asked at the landmark conference the Color of Violence, held in California in some six years ago:

Can a state that is thoroughly infused with racism, male dominance, class-bias, and homophobia and that constructs itself in and through violence act to minimize violence in the lives of women?

As the former Board President of Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE) in San Francisco, I saw a men’s anti-violence organization with a 20-year history torn apart by the contradictions of doing violence prevention work in communities targeted by State violence at the same time as being the forced counseling component of the State’s response to domestic violence and being dependent on the State’s financial support. For Davis, coming to terms with such contradictions means that:

We need to develop an approach that relies on political mobilization rather than legal remedies or social service delivery. We need to fight for temporary and long-term solutions to violence and simultaneously think about and link global capitalism, global colonialism, racism, and patriarchy--all the forces that shape violence against women of color.

Although still in its early stages, one initiative to develop such an approach is the work of Generation Five on Transformative Justice. Generation Five, a U.S.-based non-profit working to end the sexual abuse of children in five generations, defines Transformative Justice as an approach that aims to bring justice to individual and community experiences of child sexual abuse while addressing the community dynamics, political conditions and broader structures of social injustice that perpetuate it and other forms of inequality and violence. It seeks to bring together work on individual and social justice. Part of my work with Generation Five has been to look at the ways in which male supremacy and male gender training both shape and perpetuate women and men’s experience of and relationship to child sexual abuse. In terms of Transformative Justice, not only does this mean paying more attention to male survivors of child sexual abuse and to processes of accountability for male perpetrators that do not rely on state systems. It also means developing community tools and processes to engage men, individually and collectively, as active bystanders in refusing to be complicit in the continuation of child sexual abuse within their social networks, families, organizations and movements as part of a larger effort to work for greater justice in and for their communities.

The making of public policy

The third major implication relates to the process of making policy on men and violence. Much of the discussion about engaging men in the effort to promote greater gender equality, and less violence against women, tends to focus on the emotional benefits to men, of a life outside of rigid masculinity, and on men’s empathy for the women in their life. But as anyone who has tried to shift public policy knows, there is a need for a clear analysis of material interests and constituencies for change. Understanding men’s violence within a power and oppression framework, as an issue of gender justice within a broader agenda for social justice, draws attention to many men’s material interest in struggles that connect their own liberation (from racism, class exploitation, homophobia) with women’s liberation from sexism and the violence that maintains it. Mobilizing men to push for policy change on men’s violence is not simply about recognizing that violence against women is wrong, or that it hurts the women in men’s lives or that it hurts men as well, important those these are. It is about mobilizing men around an understanding of the function of violence as a tool of oppressive social structures that denies so many of them justice and dignity as it does women.

It is also about working with men on their privilege within organizations, communities and movements that are seeking to end men’s violence. This work must seek to ensure that the processes of making policy and pressuring for policy change do not replicate but challenge the oppressive power dynamics that underpin the violence that is the object of policy change. As Mbuyiselo Botha of the South African Men’s Forum (a member of the MAP network) emphasizes (in a personal communication) with reference to the movement to end violence against women:

We must also be conscious that we do not take over the gender struggle as men. We must always be conscious. […] The same as in the anti-apartheid struggle, it was black people who had to lead that struggle. We are accountable to women. The danger is that if we are not open to listen, to learn and to reflect, we will want to pursue our own agenda. Our agenda as men will be to retain this power, which brings with it privileges. It is not easy for anyone on this earth to freely give away your privilege.

Provoking a gender crisis

The fourth major implication of the analysis of men and violence discussed here is that solutions to violence that focus on men’s masculinity remain confined within a conservative politics of maintaining the gender binary. Equating masculinity with men (and femininity with women) traps us within a project to redefine an identity for men predicated on not being like a woman. The weakness of this position may become clearer if we invert the argument and propose to empower women through redefining femininity. We need to be clear, as Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick (1995: 12) reminds us, that: “when something is about masculinity, it is not always ‘about men’.” Women, she points out, are consumers of masculinities, as well as producers and performers of them. Given this, it is essential to:

Drive a wedge in, early and often and if possible conclusively, between the two topics, masculinity and men, whose relation to one another it is so difficult not to presume (Íd.).

And that is just what the prevailing discourses of violence and masculinity do; presume a necessary alignment between men and masculinity rather than put their relation to one another into question. Defining masculinity as men’s gender identity means that efforts to re-define a non-violent masculinity for men remain within the logic of not being a woman. In these terms, a “non-violent masculinity” can only mean a set of non-violent values and behaviours which are defining of, and thus exclusive to, men, and hence not available to women. Yet the values and behaviours required for non-violent social relations are gender-neutral, available and applicable to both men and women. Working with men to create non-violent social relations must involve challenging the violence of gender itself, and its logic of hierarchical and oppositional social relations. The focus should be on challenging the misogyny and homophobia at the heart of the gender binary.

This means not trying to recuperate a secure, if healthier and non-violent, masculinity for men but instead seeking to exploit the crisis tendencies within the gender order itself, especially as they coalesce around the figure of the masculine. When it comes to the masculine, we should be seeking ambiguity not authenticity, real confusion not real men. Acknowledging that “masculinity, of course, is what we make of it”, Judith Halberstam (1998: 144) reminds straight (in virtually all senses of that word) men like me that we have a lot to learn about ‘our’ masculinity’s:

Important relations to maleness, increasingly interesting relations to transsexual maleness, and a historical debt to lesbian butches.

Efforts to end men’s violence must seek to ally with and take leadership from men and women, bio and trans, within queer, trans and intersex communities whose lives on the frontiers of non-normative masculinities and femininities expose them daily to the violence that polices the borders of the gender binary. It is their border crossings that help to call the current gender order into crisis, and offer a glimpse of a world of gender differences without gender hierarchy.


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1 alangreig@earthlink.net.