I fell for the cult of masculinity—and the myth that men are aggressive by nature

Men are not predestined to bad behavior.
Men are not predestined to bad behavior.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Gay
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“Are you safe?” The nurse asked me. “Are you afraid of anyone right now?”

I was in the doctor’s office. My fiancé had insisted on driving me there. He was my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my secret abuser. He could go from gentle to furious in seconds, warm hugs giving way to shoves that left me black and blue.

But in the moment, I froze. At 44, I felt ashamed to be engaged to a man who hurt me. I thought I knew better. I’d seen domestic violence play out in my childhood home. I’d volunteered in shelters for battered women, marched to Take Back the Night years before.

“No, I’m fine,” I said to the nurse. He was just outside in the waiting room.

In the wake of waves of allegations about sexual assault and abuse by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men across industries, the world is grappling with the reality of the many ways in which men in the 21st century—including celebrities, politicians, and heads of news organizations—continue to harm women.

It’s an important but fragile moment. The media’s coverage of sexual harassment and assault appears to be at a turning point. But for real change to happen, we all need to be open to reconsidering the cultural beliefs about gender that we’ve internalized, consciously or not. That means, crucially, redefining our ideas about what kind of behavior is normal or natural—most importantly, the idea that male aggression toward women is ingrained in human biology.

The man I loved made similar claims. He thought his violence was predestined—a part of men’s innate nature. “We’re all attack dogs,” he said of himself and his friends. “We’re just different breeds.”

I thought the same way. As a child I hid under tables during my father’s tirades, his fist smashing cleanly through walls. I’d grown up on movies with heroes like James Bond and Dirty Harry, men whose appeal was tied up with their penchant for violence. I worshipped at the cult of masculinity that suggested men were predators and women were prey—chasing the tension, the unpredictability, the danger, the thrill of getting to close to the flame. As an adult, I went to bars and taverns where bikers hung out. The men there would say, “You’re going into the lion’s den.”

But this kind of thinking not only gives abusers a pass for bad behavior—it also precludes the possibility of change. If we’re going to start seriously attempting to address the norms and attitudes that say sexual harassment and abuse of women is acceptable, we need to challenge the idea that men don’t have control over the way they act.

“Boys will be boys”

This begins with checking our ideas about what constitutes “normal” flirtation. “The way we socialize boys and girls to think about heterosexuality and romance is already based on a paradigm of dominance,” says C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who studies masculinity and gender relations and the author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.

“Dominance and unequal gender relations are already embedded in the way they flirt,” Pascoe continues. “When I study high school students and I watch the way they flirt with each other, and this is between boys and girls, flirting looks like a boy playfully punching a girl in the stomach or a boy lifting a girl up and spinning her around while she screams, or really dramatically, an outlier, was a boy walking down the hall jabbing a girl in the crotch, saying “get raped, get raped.” Boys learn that they have a right to put their hands on girls; that dominating women is just what men do. After all, they see celebrities and public figures doing the same thing—and they’re on the screen and in the ring, performing on stage and signing papers in the White House.

The belief that aggression and violence toward women comes to men “naturally” means that it’s easy for our culture to find excuses for men’s behavior. The New York Times recently spoke (paywall) with a group of mothers whose college-age sons were accused of sexual assault. The mothers supported US education secretary Betsy DeVos’s move to rescind Obama-era guidelines requiring colleges to take a strict stance on assault. Notably, they did not necessarily doubt that their sons’ accusers had suffered, but felt that their sons had acted within the bounds of acceptable behavior.

“Their sons may not have been falsely accused, the mothers said, but they had been wrongly accused,” the Times explains. One mother told the paper: “In my generation, what these girls are going through was never considered assault. It was considered, ‘I was stupid and I got embarrassed.’” If men are naturally inclined toward aggression, it’s easy to blame women for failing to protect themselves.

The truth about testosterone 

The stereotype of the man whose anger and sexual aggression is fueled by testosterone dominates our culture. But hormones do not regulate our behavior. It’s actually the other way around, according to biologist and neuroscientist Robert M. Sapolsky.

In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky cites experiments with “chemical castration” of some sexual offenders—which is legal in some states. The drugs, which inhibit the production of testosterone, decreased sexual urges in a subset of sex offenders with “intense, obsessive, and pathological urges.” Otherwise, he explains:

“… Castration doesn’t decrease recidivism rates; as stated in one meta-analysis, ‘hostile rapists and those who commit sex crimes motivated by power or anger are not amenable to treatment with [the antiadrogenic drugs].’ This leads to a hugely informative point: the more experience a male had being aggressive prior to castration, the more aggression continues afterward. In other words, the less his being aggressive in the future requires testosterone and the more it’s a function of social learning.”

In 2013, psychologists at the University of Valencia in Spain came to the same conclusion. Their research looked into whether men charged with domestic violence show specific features that differentiate them from the general population, using several hormonal, cognitive‐affective, and neuropsychological parameters that stress the testosterone response. They found that testosterone could be “an indirect modulator of aggressive behavior through its effects on the processing of cognitive‐affective information.” But they concluded that “the psychological response might be better explained by cognitive variables than by fluctuations in hormonal levels” when it came to domestic violence. Their research further suggests that the perpetrators’ behavior could be addressed, and even changed, by addressing their deeply ingrained attitudes and sense of entitlement that lead them to abuse women.

In other words, men are not predestined to bad behavior. As a 2007 article in Scientific American explains, “research about testosterone and aggression indicates that there’s only a weak connection between the two. And when aggression is more narrowly defined as simple physical violence, the connection all but disappears.” Men are in control of their decisions. That means that abusers bear responsibility for hurting women. It also means that they may have the ability to reform.

Reforming abusers

Changing deeply held beliefs and lifelong behaviors is difficult work. There are long-standing anti-violence programs for men that use a combination of intensive counseling and education for men convicted of domestic abuse, working with law enforcement and the broader community.

One of these is the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP), which in the 1980s created the Duluth Model in Duluth, Minnesota—today a blueprint for domestic violence prevention programs across the country. The country’s oldest abuser education program, Emerge, was founded in 1977. Another well-known batterer intervention program, Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE), began in 1981 with the goal of preventing violence in the community by educating boys and men about their socialization, to take responsibility for their actions and attitudes, and to lead violence-free lives.

All of these programs address deeply held beliefs that abusers have about their right to control, intimidate, and batter their partners and even their children. DAIP says the Duluth Model has led to a 68% reduction in men who return as batterers over the past eight years.

Lundy Bancroft, a longtime consultant on domestic abuse and child maltreatment and former co-director of Emerge, says that he has seen some men change. But it’s a long road. For men to stop hurting women, they need to rebuild their core values and beliefs to include respect, empathy, and acknowledgment of their privilege and entitlement.

“Men need to be willing to really change their whole attitude system, their whole way of thinking,” says Bancroft, who has written books on domestic violence including Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. “And that has to come under tremendous pressure from society, from the courts, from women in their lives. It takes a lot of pressure from a lot of sources. You’re dealing with a serious and manipulative and calculating set of offenders.”

That’s a high bar for most abusers to reach. “The majority of batterers will figure out what they’re supposed to do in the group and will learn what to say to make it look like they’re progressing,” Bancroft says. “That plays right to batterers’ strengths.”

Bancroft is critical of many of the current efforts to reform domestic abusers, largely because they focus on the batterers to the exclusion of the victims. “All kinds of places now who call themselves batterer programs are really batterer support groups,” he says. “A lot of the places calling themselves batterer programs are not contacting the victims. You cannot do this work responsibly if you don’t contact the victims because the guy will fool you and lie to you every time. They’re taking his version of the story. They’re assessing whether he’s made progress or not on the basis of whether he’s over time saying better things in the group and behaving better in the group. That’s an absolutely meaningless measure of whether he’s progressed or not.”

These concerns are supported by a 2012 study (pdf) by the National Resource Center for Domestic Violence and Jeffrey Edleson, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of California, Berkeley. The study analyzed the effectiveness of batterer intervention groups. It found that “while integrating them as part of a larger community effort enhances outcomes of men participating in group programs.” But it also called for much more work in convincing these men that a group is necessary before law enforcement and social services become involved, as well as in reaching men who have dropped out of these programs or are repeat offenders—“especially those who continue to cause injury to their partners while enrolled in a program.”

The way forward

It’s clear that we’re in the midst of an important cultural moment, in which women who have suffered abuse at the hands of powerful men are using their voices to push for change. The next step is for all of society—both men and women—to commit to changing ingrained beliefs and attitudes about how men are expected to behave. In short, men must be held accountable. The deeply engrained stereotypes of “boys will be boys” and “she needs to be kept in line” need to disappear forever.

Like most batterers, my fiancé’s value system was cast in cement. Eventually, he left me for another woman—who, I later learned, was subject to the same abuse. He didn’t change the pattern of his behavior.

But after the end of our relationship, with the help of counselors at a shelter for battered women and a therapist, I was able to change the way that I think about what is normal, and acceptable, behavior from a man. At a recent annual check-up at the doctor’s office, the nurse asked me the same questions again—part of a routine screening for signs of domestic violence. “I’m not afraid of anyone,” I told her. “Thanks for asking.”