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Breaking The Link Between
Masculinity And Violence

Introduction to the 2002 Edition


Back in the mid- to late 1990s, as I read about the schoolyard killers, wrote about them, and was invited to comment on them in the media, I found myself thinking frequently of Seth Maxell, who was the same age as several of the boys. Seth’s story is the only case history that appears in Boys Will Be Boys. (The book’s analyses and recommendations are based on a synthesis of research, not on anecdotal material.)

While the bulk of this 2002 introduction is focused on updating the material presented in the 1991 edition of Boys Will Be Boys, I begin with Seth’s story because it captures so succinctly and vividly what the book is all about.

I met Seth Maxell, his parents, and his sister quite by chance in 1987, when he was five years old. From the youngest age Seth exhibited a pronounced tendency toward violent behavior—kicking, biting, punching without provocation (see pp. 66–68). By the time he was three, his parents were deeply concerned and his mother took him to see a psychologist. The diagnosis was attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity—a condition that affects at least 3 percent of American children, and is five to eight times more frequent in boys than in girls. The condition is often a predisposing factor to serious teenage and adult violence. Given Seth’s proclivity toward violence at such a young age, the psychologist warned Mrs. Maxell that unless something was done soon, Seth was at very high risk of developing into a violent man. By the time I met Mrs. Maxell, she estimated that with the help of the psychologist Seth’s violent behavior had decreased by approximately 60 percent. “Behavior modification” in Seth’s case focused on strict but non-violent methods of dealing with his violent behavior; intense, enthusiastic praise by his parents for any demonstration of kindness, generosity, empathy, and caring; and a ban on violent entertainment, which Mrs. Maxell, a former teacher, was able to enforce because she did not go back to teaching after Seth’s birth.

In 1998, I rummaged through old date books, found the Maxells’ phone number, and called his mother. “How has Seth been all these years? How is the violence problem going?” I asked. “There is no longer a violence problem,” Mrs. Maxell responded. “Let me think when that came to an end.” After a short silence, she said, “Nine—he hasn’t committed any acts of violence since the age of nine. He’s still thoroughly hyperactive but lets out the energy in sports.” She then reeled off all the sports activities Seth was involved in—none of them combative, like football or boxing.

A few weeks ago, I checked in with Mrs. Maxell once again. Seth is now almost twenty years old and is a professional athlete. He is still hyperactive but completely non-violent. He is very kind and thoughtful, his mother told me, “a gentle soul.”

The underlying argument of this book is that in this age of advanced technology that enables machine-gunning large numbers of people in seconds, hijacking planes and using them as lethal weapons, and annihilating all life on earth through nuclear weapons, we must move away from an obsolete concept of masculinity focused on toughness, dominance, emotional detachment, callousness toward women, and eagerness to fight. If Seth Maxell had been raised in accordance with these values, which I refer to as the “masculine mystique,” there is little doubt that he would be a violent man today. Instead he is a poster child for how all boys should be raised in the twenty-first century.

Even though a majority of men never commit any significant acts of violence in the course of their lives, cross-culturally a vast majority of those who do commit violence, whether criminal or in warfare, are male. And a certain percentage of the male population, like Seth Maxell, is at particulary high risk for violence. But because the masculine mystique still dominates our culture, many boys with no particularly strong proclivity to violence find that part of themselves so strongly reinforced that they are led to acts of violence for which they and their victims often pay a high price.

Last year I received a letter from Paul, a Vietnam veteran, in which he described this process. It reads: “As a child, I trained as a warrior—it was a boy thing. We had little toy soldiers with guns and flame throwers, tanks, war ships, and fighter planes. This was normal and expected. Warrior play was reinforced by the movies I went to almost every Saturday afternoon. Messages and themes were about courage and winning. God was on our side and the cavalry always came in time. Two weeks after graduating from high school, I was in the Marine Corps. The four years I spent in the Marine Corps had a major influence on who I am. Since then I have gradually rebuilt my value system. . . . For a short time in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a collective attempt to introduce new themes, but it seems like as a society we have already lost some of the lessons from the Vietnam war. This makes your work . . . even more critical. . . . My daughter and daughter-in-law are both having baby boys in May and I would like to give them a copy of Boys Will Be Boys.”

Paul does not want his grandsons to be raised to be soldiers; he does not want them to wait until they are in their fifties and carry the heavy burden of having committed unnecessary acts of violence before they are able to fully experience empathy and caring and express it openly and without embarrassment.

Paul is a member of a Vietnam veterans group started by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The group is very open and welcoming, and I—with my Holocaust survivor background and commitment to decreasing violence—have become part of it. Most of the men in the group are in their fifties and are still coping with the emotional fallout of their war experiences. Those who killed Vietnamese men, women, or children, or accidentally killed some of their comrades, tend to be in the greatest pain. In the group there is a lot of hugging, crying, caring—behaviors that would not have been acceptable when these men were eighteen years old, for they were reared on the masculine mystique.

Since the publication of Boys Will Be Boys, many men have accused me of being a “male basher.” (I will get to this group shortly.) It has been heartening to have their anger and indignation more than balanced by the reaction of men like the ones in my vets group, who understand that male bashing means raising little boys to be soldiers and then sending them off to fight in unnecessary wars.

Judging by my mail and verbal accolades, men who have had firsthand experience with violence are the most likely to welcome me as an ally—like the Alameda county juvenile probation officer of close to thirty years who wrote to me, “I couldn’t agree more with your book.” He understands that male bashing consists of raising boys in an environment that encourages violence and then locking them up when they act criminally violent.

A high school teacher who had for many years served as football coach called to tell me how much he liked my sports chapter. He had stopped coaching, he explained, because he could no longer bear to see the damage that the boys were doing to their bodies. According to my dictionary, the literal definition of bashing is to “strike hard and violently.” Large numbers of boys are bashed in high school sports, and many are left with permanent physical damage.

A young man from Arizona who had been a victim of male bashing wrote to tell me about how it had affected him: “I am seventeen years old, but I don’t go to school. . . . When I was fifteen I quit high school because of the harassment from ultra-violent ‘jocks.’ ” (As we shall see below, since the Columbine and other schoolyard killings, there is less acceptance of bullying as normal “boys will be boys” behavior.) And then there are the many men who have escaped the narrow confines of the masculine mystique and just get it. One such man wrote to tell me, “I’m one of those atypical non-macho human males you wrote about. . . . I’ve been a single parent and raised a son mostly on my own. This is why I think the programs you outline that teach parenting skills to children of both genders are marvelous and ought to be encouraged. . . . The only way macho attitudes are ever going to change is through a conscious effort to change them in the child-rearing process.”

A young man sent me a letter and a flyer that described him as “The Feminist Fullback,” and told me about the “Real Men” group he had started in Boston with the goal of “working to end sexism and violence against women.” His name is Jackson Katz, and his work in this field is now widely recognized.

A Wisconsin man wrote to thank me for writing the book, and then warned me that “unfortunately most men will not heed your warnings and observations, let alone pay attention to your suggestions for improving the quality of malehood. I fear this is the case because you are a woman making statements about men. And the kind of unhealthy man you write about will use this against you.” He was right on target.

Even before the publication of the first edition, I had gotten a taste of the resistance to dealing with violence as a mostly male phenomenon. Some of this resistance is described and analyzed in the chapter entitled “When Male Behavior Is The Norm . . .” My first taste of the rage that was to follow completion came in the fall of 1990, when the manuscript of Boys Will Be Boys was copy edited and sent back to me. The job of copy editors is to correct grammar and punctuation, but I found margins sprinkled with angry, hateful comments about the book’s content. My editor was stunned—in his many years in publishing he had never seen anything like it. It would delay publication by three weeks, but the text would have to be re-edited, he told me. This time he sent it to a female copy editor.

This introduction prepared me for the hostility I would encounter over the years, which included being dismissed as a “male basher” on national television and radio, and as a “well known man hating Lesbian Feminist who regularly rails against male children” on the Web. Some years ago, an acquaintance called to say that he had just heard Rush Limbaugh refer to me as a “feminazi.”

On a more personal level, my experiences included a man at a small dinner party who became so enraged by my description of what Boys Will Be Boys was about that he left the table for twenty minutes to calm down. Nor was I the only one to experience such reactions. A Minnesota woman told me she had been reading Boys Will Be Boys on a plane when a man sitting across the aisle asked to see it. She gave it to him; he glanced through it and then handed it back to her, irate. “What are you reading this shit for?” he bellowed. His subsequent behavior was so frightening that when the plane landed she waited until well after he had left before she got up. A Rhode Island bookseller told me that a man who had done no more than glance at the title had become so enraged that he also had compared the book to fecal matter.


My pre-publication interview with author David Rothenberg (described on p. 11) prepared me for the reaction of some magazine editors. His comment that “The [Village] Voice had printed everything except my laundry list, but they rejected this piece [on masculinity and violence]” was to be reiterated almost verbatim by a writer I happened to have some personal contact with. His review of Boys Will Be Boys had been rejected by a leading left-wing intellectual magazine that he was on the editorial board of. The editor’s comments about his review and his refusal to publish it “made no rational sense at all,” he told me. “He’s never rejected anything I’ve written; I think he just couldn’t deal on an emotional level with your cultural critique of masculinity.”


Fortunately, the mass media thrives on controversy and outrage, and so thanks to appearances on hundreds of TV and radio shows my recommendations reached a wide and diverse audience. And then there were the women and men who understood and helped me disseminate my recommendations through lectures, anthologies, articles, interviews, and Op-Eds.

That violence-prone men who fully adhere to the values of the masculine mystique would be enraged by even the title and subtitle of the book is not all that surprising, but that some progressive men strongly opposed to the unnecessary use of violence should be so deeply disturbed by it points to the depth of the resistance described in Chapter 1.


Again, I am not alone in experiencing these kinds of reactions. Colleagues whose work is also focused on traditional masculinity and violence have told me that because of the instant aversion on the part of so many progressive thinkers to any gender analysis of violence, they have decided to focus on the characteristics of violence-prone people without antagonizing their audiences by mentioning the gender of a vast majority of these people. 

In the preface to his 2002 book, War and Gender, which focuses on the almost exclusively male nature of war and how it affects the construction of masculinity, International Relations professor Joshua Goldstein demonstrates his understanding of this aversion. He writes, “Recently, I discovered a list of unfinished research projects, which I had made fifteen years ago at the end of graduate school. The list included ‘gender and war,’ with the notation ‘most interesting of all; will ruin career—wait until tenure.’ ”1 Brian D’Agostino, whose Columbia University doctoral dissertation on gender and national security is discussed below, was not as cautious. He has been unable to obtain an academic position and teaches high school. In his recent book, Misogyny, anthropology professor David Gilmore describes and discusses the pervasiveness and intensity of misogyny in cultures around the world. In his preface he comments on “the utter lack of interest in this subject among my (all male) former anthropology professors. I brought up my observations with them time and again, only to be met with shrugs, smirks, and mumbled pronouncements about eternal verities and timeless commonplaces.”2 When issues of gender and violence are dealt with in academia it is mostly by women and relegated to Women’s Studies. 

The resistance to any gender analysis that reveals problematic male tendencies is a prime example of what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described as “bad faith”—a form of knowing and not knowing something at the same time. It takes very strong blinders to dampen awareness of the obvious fact that violence is a predominantly male phenomenon. In recent years the increase in female violent crime has been used for that purpose. The fact is that the baseline for female violent crime was so low to begin with that even with the increases, in 2000, 89.4 percent of those arrested for homicide and 82.6 percent of those arrested for violent crimes were males.3 So much for the myth that “women are catching up.”

Another myth is that when it comes to domestic violence, women are the perpetrators as often as men. When sociology professor Michael Kimmel was invited by the Equality Committee of the Department of Education and Science to review the minority of studies that supported this view—a vast majority of studies indicate that the preponderance of domestic violence is perpetrated by males against females—he found serious flaws in them, including the fact that “these studies lump together violence, so that a single slap may be equaled with several intensive assaults.” Kimmel points out that “women are six to seven times more likely to require medical care for their injuries than are men” and concludes that “the evidence is overwhelming that gender asymmetry in domestic violence remains in full effect.”4 When it comes to homicide, in 2000, 33 percent of female murder victims were killed by boyfriends or husbands, while 3.2 percent of male victims were killed by their girlfriends or wives.

While I welcome the recent focus on the cruel behavior that some girls exhibit toward other girls—when my older daughter transferred to a new school in fifth grade some of the girls were so nasty to her that I went secretly to see her teacher to ask for her help in stopping them—I also fear that it will be used to further facilitate denial and bad faith about male violence. The ongoing sloppy use of the term “aggression” (which is discussed on pp. 43–45) facilitates this. For example, in her recent book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, author Phyllis Chesler quotes a study of female aggression in 137 societies that “found that women engaged in physical, verbal, and indirect aggression ‘around the world.’ Women ‘shriek, scream, scold, revile, and insult their (mainly) female opponents.’ ” The specific examples that follow include “kicking apart the clay cooking stoves of their rivals” and, at the extreme, “destroying her [rival’s] house, uproot[ing] part of the garden, and wreck[ing] the fence.” Or it is stated that “an Ute woman may kill her rival’s horse.”5 To describe these acts as “physical aggression,” when not one of them involves physically assaulting or killing a person, is misleading. I can already hear the voices of denial pointing to an anthropological study that shows that women worldwide engage in physical aggression just as men do.

I have dwelled at length on the denial and rage that a gender analysis of violence leads to in some men, because it serves to prevent or at least significantly delay change. Moving away from an obsolete concept of masculinity and the violence that it entails is at least as radical a change as the eighteenth-century movement away from absolute monarchy in favor of a concept of the rights of “man,” the nineteenth-century abolition of slavery, or the twentieth-century granting of equal rights to women. In fact it is probably more radical. In order for significant steps to be taken in this new direction, strong support from a variety of quarters will be required. To have significant segments of the nation’s thinkers be in a state of denial about the problem, to have an academic world in which, with the exception of women’s studies, one is likely to be penalized for dealing with it, to have magazines, journals, and newspapers often averse to publishing articles about the problem, is an enormous handicap.

Along with men who “get it,” women will have to play an important role in bringing about this change. While the denial of and discomfort with focusing on male violence is far more prevalent in men, it is not limited to them. In response to my focus, I have more than once heard women say, “but women can be so much more vicious than men,” by which they are referring to malicious gossip, slandering, outcasting, and other forms of psychological cruelty. Surely these women do not really think that psychological cruelty is on a par with machine-gunning schoolmates; kidnapping, raping, and murdering little girls; or jealousy-driven killings of ex-wives or girlfriends. My hunch is that they are motivated by a fear—which may well be unconscious—of being dismissed as male bashers or man-hating bitches. Women will have to overcome these fears if we are to move forward toward a form of masculinity appropriate to the twenty-first century. 

Interestingly enough, conservative thinkers often recognize what many liberals do not. This may be because they tend to accept a Hobbesian view of “man” as innately nasty and brutish. Males as a group, they believe, are hardwired for dominance and violence, and, while socialization plays a role, that role is quite limited. This can then be used as a justification for the status quo. For example, in an article entitled “Women and the Evolution of World Politics,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama concludes that governments run by women would be less violent, but he warns that women would be unable to deal with ambitious, unconstrained men like Saddam Hussein. While he admits that “biology . . . is not destiny,” he remains convinced that because dominance and violence are “bred in the bone” of men, men and “masculine” women like Margaret Thatcher will and must continue to control international politics. “Masculine policies will still be required.”

In the “Real Men, Wimps, and Our National Security” chapter, I address concerns about whether my recommendations for changing the socialization of boys would endanger our national security. I argue that, quite to the contrary, it is the masculine mystique and its “masculine policies” that lead to political decisions that endanger our national security and even help to create the likes of Saddam Hussein—more about this below.



Violent Crime

The good news is that in 2000 the murder rate was 43.7 percent lower than in 1991, with the number of victims down to 15,517. This is the lowest national murder rate since 1965, but it is still very high compared with other advanced industrialized countries. For example, in spite of its recent increases in violent crime, France’s per capita murder rate is one-eighth of ours.7 We Americans have become accustomed to extraordinarily high crime rates. While any decrease is to be applauded, surely 15,517 murder victims in a year is not something we can really rejoice about. Between 1991 and 2000 there was also a decrease in homicides and other violent crimes committed by boys under the age of eighteen. Here again, while this is good news, we must not forget that this decrease is from an all-time high—between 1967 and 1996, violent crime arrests for males under eighteen increased by 124 percent. The late 1990s brought us large numbers of schoolyard killings by young middle- and upper-middle-class white boys.

A variety of explanations have been given for the recent decreases in violent crime, including better policing, community policing, decreased unemployment, and long prison sentences (a large number of crimes are committed by recidivists). Another contributor to the decrease might be that so many inner-city boys grew up in the late 1980s and early ‘90s going to the funerals of their friends and siblings who were victims of violence. The role that school programs of the kind described in the “School Programs That Work” chapter might have played is largely ignored, even though there is good reason to believe that these have had positive effects in deterring violence.They could play a much larger role if funding were made available to expand them.

While it is too early to tell whether we are about to witness a new increase in violent crime, the FBI reports that the murder rate rose by 3.1 percent between 2000 and 2001—this figure excludes the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack. As long as no basic large-scale changes are made in the socialization of boys, violence rates will continue to fluctuate without any truly significant long-term reduction.


This is an excerpt from the 50 page introduction to the Lantern edition of Boys Will Be Boys.

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