The Price of Masculinity Based on Violence
© 1991 Michele Toomey, PhD

Note: This article first appeared in "Independent School," fall, 1991.

Our youth are bombarded by messages of sexual violence presented as the desired image of masculine passion and power--and I am appalled. Therefore, when I was invited to give the commencement address at the Woodhall School this June, I used the opportunity to challenge the students to reject both the message and the violence.

The Woodhall School is for adolescent males, so the issue of masculine sexual identity is very present and very real. Young men are coming of age before our very eyes. In my address, I formulated the challenge to them in these words:

More than 2 million copies of "Girls, Girls, Girls," an album by Motley Crue, were sold to our youth in 1989. The lyrics to one of its songs are:

The blade of my knife
Faced away from your heart
Those last few nights
Turned --sliced you apart...
Laid out cold
Now we're both alone
But killing you helped me keep
you home...
Statistics tell us that by age sixteen, you have probably seen 200,000 acts of violence on television. Comic books today offer you sadism and sex. A stripper was crucified in an issue of Green Arrow.

Video stores rent slasher films that feature graphic and erotic scenes of female mutilation. Statistics indicate rentals are booming among 11 to 15 year old males. In some fraternity houses on college campuses, slasher movies play continuously in the lounges.

2 Live Crew sings, "The girls would say 'Stop' and I'd say 'I'm not.' " Date rape is one of the most common adolescent sexual crimes. One out of four high school student relationships is suspected of involving physical abuse.

The pressures to speak and act violently are everywhere. You are being taught by society to be violent. Violence is not a deviant act; it is a conforming one. When you ridicule, intimidate, harass and physically punch each other out, you are imitating the violence that is not only accepted by our society, but also is promoted by it to "turn you on" to being a man.

It is no secret that adolescent males often talk and act aggressively, even violently. It is an accepted expression of boys' "coming of age."

You are becoming men. Adult males talk and act aggressively and often violently. Masculinity is tied to aggression. To be a man is to be in charge. To be gentle is to be a wimp, a weak excuse for a man, an object of derision and ridicule --to "wear a skirt."

In 1991, adolescent males such as yourselves are coming of age before an openly violent backdrop unmatched in our history. It is no surprise, therefore, that there is a marked increase in violent crimes committed by teenage males. In the past five years, murders, rapes and beatings by young males have risen sixty-eight per cent.

In the words of a one 15 year old girl who was quoted in a pamphlet distributed to high school students in Connecticut: My boyfriend didn't like what l was wearing today. He told me to change, but I said no. So he grabbed me and threw me against a wall.

I challenge you to reject this trend and this tradition. Here at Woodhall, we have an entirely male and adolescent student body. Adolescent testosterone is everywhere, and coming of age as a male is the primary emotional bond. Aggressive words and acts bordering on and often crossing the line into abuse abound here. We all, students and faculty and administration, continually struggle to determine what is fair, and how to stop what is unfair and abusive.

What is fair to "the young bucks" sharpening their antlers by ridiculing and intimidating each other? Is giving some one a black eye a fair response to harassment? Does a hickey on a young man's neck signify sexual abuse by the one who gave it to him? Is verbal abuse and intimidation a violent act deserving of suspension? Is ridicule among friends a sign of male bonding that needs to be treated differently from ridicule used against a boy who is considered undesirable?

The quandary is shared by all. The young male faculty have revealed their own personal struggle over the issue of verbal and physical abuse. Some share that they participated in it in their own adolescence, but were uncomfortable with it even then. Others share that they are intimidated by some of you and your uncontrolled outbursts of verbal and physical rage. Still others share that they find it so anger-producing to deal with your abusive treatment of them that they want to get back at you with abuse of their own. The struggle is real--very real--for them.

You, on the other hand, have shared your own struggle. You struggle openly with your stress and feelings of self-doubt, of frustration and despair, of intense anger and powerlessness. You call attention to your need to be heard, to be treated fairly, and to be respected . You speak of fear, and not feeling protected. You describe the feeling of loss of control, of intense inner pressure, of confinement that feels too tight, of the tension that is not sufficiently released. The struggle is real, very real, for you, too.

We all meet in this struggle. I wish we could meet in our approach. You have the intense inner stress of adolescence in an era in which the aggression equated with masculinity is marked by brutal violence.

I challenge you to take a different philosophical position on masculinity and aggression. Reject violence and abuse. Choose self-expression with accountability. Yes, express your intensity, your confusion, your stress, your anger, your fear, your pain. Yes, demand attention be paid to you and your needs. But no, don't abuse to get it. Become a man to be admired, not feared. Admire yourself because you have integrity, not because you can intimidate. Do not join the trend of violence; create a path of confrontation with accountability instead. Be true to yourself without pretending your power and your worth depend on your ability to devastate or destroy anything or anyone that gets in your way.

Reject the norm. It has already been a source of upset and trauma for you. It can never be anything else.

Masculinity that allows you to cherish your tender side as well as value your drive will provide you with the broad range of feelings that you have a right to experience. Relationships with family, friends and associates have the potential for honesty and intimacy once intimidation is not the underlying force. A man who respects his own vulnerability will be able to respect the vulnerability of others.

You will not need to fear any of your feelings if you are not ashamed of them. You will dare to be true to them instead. When you look at your parents and hear what they are saying, go inside and get in touch with how you feel about what is being said. Don't hide behind silence or anger once you discover how you feel.

Dare to say to them:

  • "I'm afraid."
  • "I'm worried."
  • "I'm excited."
  • "I'm hurt."
  • "I agree but don't know what to do about it."
  • "I feel pushed into something I don't want."
  • "I feel powerless with you."
  • "'I'm angry that you don't hear what I'm saying"
  • "I love you and appreciate what you've done for me."
  • "I'm afraid I can't live up to your expectations."
  • "I want you to be proud of me, but I want to be true to myself and I'm unsure right now."
  • "Your opinion is very important to me, but I need some time to be able to know what I feel and want."
  • "I want to be respectful of you and what you think and feel, but I get scared of the power you have over me and I get resistant and rebellious. Please help me get it together, and work with me and I'll try to work with you. I don't want to fight you."
Dare to say to friends, male and female:
  • "I am upset. Please leave me alone right now."
  • "I get angry when you talk to me that way. Please stop."
  • "I am having a hard time; I'd like to talk about it."
  • "I really appreciate your friendship. Thank you."
  • "I'm about to explode with tension. I need to let off some steam. I'm going outside to do something physical."
  • "You look upset. Do you want to talk about it?"
  • "I'm sorry I yelled at you."
  • "Are you okay?"
When anger is not a man's primary emotion, he is someone to be desired, not just feared. He is someone to be respected and loved, not just a force to be reckoned with to feel safe.

You and I have struggled together over these issues. We have experienced intimacy and tender caring, and we have experienced conflict and abuse. You have confronted faculty and administration,you have confronted each other, and you have confronted me. In turn, you have been confronted. That is as it should be: equal time to hear and be heard; equal opportunity to learn and teach; equal access to fairness for yourself and others.

We at Woodhall have tried to speak and to listen as we prepared you to join the world of integrity and accountability and to reject the world of violence and abuse. As you close a chapter of your life and leave Woodhall, I challenge you to choose integrity and reject the masculine image built on violent aggression.

I hope you do. I hope you dare!

As I was speaking I saw some of the students give each other looks that seemed to say, "Why would she subject us to this topic today? This is our day of glory and achievement. What a drag to hear it in front of our parents."

Others just looked directly at me, attentive and intent. There was absolute silence as I spoke. When graduation was over, several parents and board members came up to me and thanked me. Several asked for copies of the talk. Not one boy mentioned it. Not one came over to me to comment.

I felt that I knew what they were saying. "That was a hard message. We were exposed . We are at risk if we speak to you and show our classmates where we stand. We heard you. That is enough for now."

For me, it is not enough. Not nearly enough. I challenge all educators to confront this aberration of what masculinity is, what sexuality is, and what power is. It takes many forms and comes in many shapes, but violent expression is still wrong and must be countered. If we don't take a strong stand, the message will speak louder than we do, and that will be a tragedy.

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