Power and our boys

To continue my reflections on power, men and violence toward women...

A traditionally “feminist” critique uses a black and white model to condemn domestic violence.  It attributes abusive dynamics to the deliberate exploitation of power by men whose intention is to dominate and control women, and blames patriarchy for its proliferation. 

Due to the frequency with which I have observed male violence* in intimate relationships, if you subscribe to this model, many men would be deliberately manipulating and hurting the very women they love.  That is too perverse to entertain, and I take issue with much of the literature that comes up in an internet on the subject which would lead us to believe it.

Patriarchy is not men; and violence is not their fault.

It may be true that men are more violent; that they projectively identify their bad stuff more onto women (who have a tendency to introject it) which then justifies their acting out in violence because “she made me do it”.  It may be true that they have more difficulty being accountable for their actions, fleeing responsibility and blaming the victim when they are the ones in the wrong. It may be true that they feel a need to dominate and control more than women do.

But there is no evidence that any of this is deliberate, malicious or intended; in fact, there is much evidence to the contrary.

Whether you are a man or woman, violence usually occurs in a split second.  There is no time to reflect or plan your next move.  It is a knee-jerk reaction to feeling threatened, like a kick or a punch when you have been hit.  You feel angry and enlist power in your defense.  That is normal.

Where men (and boys) seem to differ from women (and girls) is impulse control. They do not have the same ability (usually located by neuroscientists in the frontal lobe) to distance themselves from visceral feedback and reflect before reacting.  Wired to win, they take losing personally, susceptible to the sting of the “fragile male ego”, a reaction I have long thought to be the flip-side of male potency, both from the physiological and psychological point of view.  Winning boosts testosterone and vice versa. 

Men are infantilized and humiliated for being preoccupied with ego and defending themselves; and millions of boys are diagnosed with ADHD when their "symptoms" are synonymous with being a normal boy. Yet loss of potency in a man threatens his ability to procreate, put bread on the table or win a war.  It spells death.  

Although it may be true that we culturally reproduce gender stereotypes, we cannot deny that genes, biology, brains, neurons and hormones—wherever you believe the locus of gender identity lies-- play a huge part in gender differences.

What does this mean when it comes to domestic violence? 

Violence against women is unacceptable.  But it is not going to go away by shaming men.  We can continue to call out gender stereotypes and abuses of power that do violence to women, but with empathy and a view to understanding the power men struggle with.

*violence is used to broadly encompass what I consider to be the root of all violence (psychological, verbal and physical ): the projection of our “badness” onto others


  1. With 2 months of retrospect, I wonder if you would apply the same empathy and view to understanding why men act as they do to the current and growing #meToo movement (Harvey Weinstein)? Does sexual violence (or even sexual manipulation) differ and if so, how?

    1. I question if manipulation, a conscious act, is behind violence, of all kinds, against women. There my be true manipulators and power-mongers out there who know exactly what they are doing. But I do not believe that is always the case. I think most men are not self-aware enough to know why they are doing what they are doing. There are so many cultural and psychological factors making it easy for a man to be violent. Consciousness-raising involves more than public campaigns and slogans; though they are a start. It requires people to truly examine themselves. We need more philosophy, psychology, sociology and history in school. We need drama classes where we act scenarios out.

  2. Where do we draw the line between trying to understand and get to the root of the problems and shaming/punishing?

    1. Sometimes confronting aggressors and trying to understand their violence causes them shame but that is not "shaming" or "punishing" them. People tend to conflate the two. We can adapt our interventions to suit the situation: confront the men we love gently and with compassion. We can be more forceful in the face of denial. And, when a public figure denies his violence, he gets what he deserves.


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