Last weekend’s tragic events outside the University of California-Santa Barbara, have ignited an impassioned national conversation about misogyny, male anger, and violence against women. Timely new research suggests physical abuse against wives and girlfriends may be triggered by a specific psychological state: The emotional stress that can result when males perceive themselves as less masculine than their peers and cultural role models.
A research team led by Dennis Reidy, a violence-prevention scholar at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, refers to this as “discrepancy stress,” and defines it as “a form of distress arising from perceived failure to conform to socially prescribed masculine gender role norms.”
In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the researchers present evidence of a link between this type of stress and interpersonal violence, even “independent of other masculinity related variables.”
Along with three colleagues from the University of Georgia, Reidy conducted a study of 600 heterosexual American men who were recruited online. Along with basic demographic information, study participants responded to a series of statements revealing how they view their own masculinity.
"Intervening at an early age to prevent violence in teen dating relationships may avert a series of consequences across the lifespan, including the perpetration of interpersonal violence in future adult relationships."
On a one-to-seven scale, they expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as “I am less masculine than the average guy,” “I worry that people judge me because I’m not like the typical man,” and “I wish I was more manly.”
In addition, they noted the extent to which they endorse traditional gender roles, and the “degree of conflict” they encounter when such roles are challenged. Finally, they reported the extent to which they have engaged in “psychological, physical, or sexually violent behavior” with their current partner, most recent partner, or past partners.
The key result: Men who felt stress over their perceived inadequate level of masculinity were more likely to have admitted abusing their partners, even after a variety of other factors were taken into consideration.
“Men who experience stress related to perceiving themselves as being less masculine than the typical man—or believing that they are perceived as such by others—may be more likely to interpret ambiguous interactions as challenges to their masculinity,” Reidy and his colleagues write.
“Thus, it would be reasonable to expect that these men would be more likely to respond in a manner intended to demonstrate and, perhaps, bolster their masculine status.”
Acts of physical violence, they chillingly add, are “common methods of demonstrating masculinity.”
The researchers found that men who did not fit into traditional masculine roles but felt comfortable about that were not, on average, more likely to abuse their partners. Rather, violent behavior was specifically linked to the “experience of distress” over one’s perceived lack of masculinity.
The researchers add several cautionary notes to their study. They concede that self-reports of interpersonal violence may not be entirely accurate, as some men surely underreported how often they engage in such activity. In addition, their study does not address women-on-men violence or violence among same-sex couples.
Finally, the correlation they found is not proof of causation. It’s conceivable (although not likely) that committing acts of violence against women led them to doubt their masculinity, rather than the other way around.
These caveats aside, their study provides new insights into the roots of male-on-female violence, and may point toward ways of preventing it. Such efforts “should focus on the role of masculine socialization, acceptance of gender norms, and how they may engender distress in adolescents and adult men,” the researchers write.
“Intervening at an early age to prevent violence in teen dating relationships may avert a series of consequences across the lifespan,” they conclude, “including the perpetration of interpersonal violence in future adult relationships.”