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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
 The double life of a citizen physicist
 European science – from Nobel to Descartes
 A helping hand for fledgling firms
 What makes a man?
 Dialling the 112 lifeline

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Title  The hidden face of violence

Violence in the family and on children is only just emerging from the shadows. Its direct and indirect consequences on health and its social costs have long been ignored. Nevertheless, some very broad statistics can already tell us a great deal. In Australia, 94% of the prison population is male. In the United States, men, who are more than four times as likely to be carrying a weapon as women, carry out 90% of murders and cases of sexual abuse of children. A very local – and already quite old (1993) – British study in North London estimated that one-third of women suffered violence at the hands of their husband or partner at some time in their lives, while another study carried out in Glasgow, in 1990, estimated that 40% of women had been subjected to force, especially sexual.

© Michel vanden Eeckhoudt
© Michel vanden Eeckhoudt
Just about everywhere, dangerous behaviour and violent sports are deemed acceptable for boys, and occupations requiring some force (police officer, security agent, prison warden) are mainly filled by men. While most violent crimes are committed by men aged between 21 and 40, you only have to look at a newspaper to realise that it begins much earlier.    

Beyond deviance
Research on male violence is recent but does show that, in most cases, it is more of a social and cultural problem than one of a specific group of ‘deviant’ men. “Violence by men is not rooted in biology but in the imperatives of the patriarchal society,” concludes a recent report produced for the Council of Europe in the framework of the project ‘Responding to violence in a democratic society’.(1) "Men, including those who never display violent behaviour, unconsciously internalise the violence that is present in the dominant definitions of masculinity. Maintaining hegemonic masculinity involves disdain for other forms of masculinity and for the empowerment of women.” 

What is the reason for this masculine violence? “It must be understood in the social context of the relationships of power between the sexes and could be called ‘man’s problem’,” believes Jeff Hearn.(2) “Violence against women is just one aspect of the use of power and of violence, and of control.” This is because male violence goes beyond women and children. It also concerns other men, in particular those who seem to be most different – foreigners, homosexuals, the old and the weak. This behaviour also extends beyond physical violence and rape. Restricting freedom of movement, sequestration, insults and preventing access to money are also a part of it.

“Domination by men operates in different forms depending on the national or local context, finding expression in different versions that one could describe as ‘masculinities’ of violence,” continues Jeff Hearn. “It is important to identify these forms, to understand how they are reproduced in different situations, but also how they are defused. They are complicated by the various interlocking elements, such as age, social class, ethnic group or race, religion, sexuality, etc.” 

The aggressors as victims?
Some psychogenetic or sociogenetic theses see men as victims more than aggressors. In social terms, men are seen as prisoners of their masculine role and, in psychological terms, forced to break the bond with a dominant and suffocating mother, from whom they can only escape by means of a misogyny that can take various forms. However, many researchers reject this determinist view in which violence is presented as an almost inevitable characteristic.

Ursula Müller, also a network participant, focuses on much more concrete elements: “The notion of the division of labour on the basis of sex remains valid for explaining masculine violence; it remains essential, insofar as it engenders economic and affective dependencies, as well as unequal relations between the two sexes.”

Müller and the psychologist Angela Minssen(3) also offer a different view of the masculine-feminine poles. “Viewing the difference between a man and a woman as an interesting element and, as a result, attractive at an erotic level – each individual being seen as ‘whole’ rather than simply possessing the attributes that the other lacks – is a new and still utopian model. (...) This ‘new model’ proposes a two-way conception of the sexes, in which one sex is not based on the devaluing of the other, the masculine tendency for violence no longer being seen as a ‘normal social situation’ but rather as a failure in masculine development – a failure that continues to be propagated and even protected by today’s society.” 

(2) In the framework of the Council of Europe’s action programme against violence, Jeff Hearn and Susan Edwards, of Buckingham University, recently submitted a report covering the legal and societal aspects, entitled "Working against men's domestic violence: priority policies and practices for men intervention, prevention and social change".
(3) Ursula Müller and Angela Minssen, Attempt at a sociological and psychogenetic explanation of the tendency of men to use violence on women, Council of Europe seminar, October 1999.