Dr Julia Shaw has published an article in Psychology Today, challenging the notion that men are naturally more violent than women. Disturbed by the fact that prisoners are overwhelmingly male, she urges us to stop normalizing male violence as innate and natural. Instead, she claims that crime is male dominated because “men are explicitly and implicitly taught by society that they don’t need to inhibit themselves when it comes to aggression” and that they’re not raised to be empathetic and kind the way women are. This is the theory that criminal behavior is caused by toxic masculinity, which more or less reduces the causes of crime to the socialization of individual men.
Many have challenged the article, including psychology undergraduate Alex Mackiel, who writes in Quillette that male violence cannot be just a result of socialization. After all, male violence can be found cross culturally and even in other species. The toxic masculinity approach to male crime implies that men are socialized in more or less the same way in almost every culture and that even some animals are raised to be toxically masculine. However, while Shaw’s article offers an oversimplified explanation of crime, it also contains a grain of truth. Many dismiss male violence as natural, as just the way it is, and don’t bother to look any further. They consider it normal for men to comprise the vast majority of both the perpetrators and victims of homicide and they don’t even regard this as an problem that deserves to be solved.
There is a third, alternative explanation, which is often overlooked in these discussions. Maybe male crime is not just a result of biology or socialization. Maybe some external, societal forces also make it more beneficial for men to commit crimes, rather than women. We know that the overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups in certain types of crime is not usually just a result of their culture and socialization, but is also caused by the systemic problems that they face (such as poverty, discrimination, stigma, etc.). We should also treat men with understanding and search for the unique challenges and pressures that they have to deal with as a group.
Men carry a burden of performance: they have to prove themselves through their actions. As Roy Baumeister points out, in many societies, when girls grow up they are automatically considered women, while boys are expected to pass stringent tests to prove their manhood. Men are also more likely to be mainly valued for their status and wealth. Even in romantic and sexual relationships, women tend to find high status and wealthy men more attractive, while men are generally indifferent to women’s wealth. Multiple studies have shown that men value beauty and youth in women, while women are more likely to value status and wealth in men. This means that a man from a disadvantaged background may have a hard time gaining the status needed to be successful with the opposite sex—and this is not equally true for women. There is also reason to believe that men receive less sympathy than women when they find themselves in vulnerable and weak positions. Men from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds are often stigmatized as criminal and as threatening to the social order. We can see an obvious example of this mentality in Canada’s announcement that it will only accept women, children and families as refugees. Many politicians have expressed similar sentiments: we make it a top priority to protect the women and children refugees of foreign wars, while male refugees are perceived as invaders and potential criminals at worst, or disposable machines, who should stay in their countries and fight at best.
In general, a low status man is considered disposable and unworthy by society, unless he proves himself in some way. He is also going to be less successful with the opposite sex, as men seem more willing to marry down than women. He may want to achieve the socially encouraged goals for men, such as success, money and high status, but the legal methods to do so will be severely limited. His limited options to prove his worth as a man are likely to lead him to use illegal means to do so. This could explain why many men from disadvantaged backgrounds form gangs and engage in criminal activities that help them rise in the male hierarchy. Sociologist Robert K. Merton has theorized that people from lower socioeconomic classes often commit crimes because they have fewer legal opportunities to achieve the goals that are recognized as worthy by society, and are hence forced to turn to illegal methods. From this perspective, it makes sense for low status men to be more often involved in crime than women, since it is men who are expected to be self-reliant and are valued primarily for their successes and social status. Women are not valued for their successes and actions in the same way as men are, so they have fewer incentives to engage in criminal activities. Instead, women are mainly valued for their sexuality, which is probably why impoverished women are more likely to turn to prostitution than to violent crime.
Stigmatization also plays a major role. From an early age, boys are stereotyped as more unruly than girls. For example, a study has found that one of the reasons why girls get better grades than boys is that girls are perceived as more organized and compliant. Part of the gender gap in crime is probably due to the fact that the police are more likely to overlook female violence and criminal behavior. Various studies have confirmed that women are often treated more leniently than men, even for the same crime. This stereotyping creates a vicious circle: working class and minority men are stigmatized as violent and criminal, so they have fewer opportunities to legally achieve socially desirable goals, thus they’re more likely to turn to crime, which in turn confirms and exacerbates the stereotypes, which leads to even fewer legal opportunities, etc.
In other words, men might be more violent than women because they have better incentives to be. Joining a gang, or even a terrorist organization, can be seen as an easy way for a man to rise within the male hierarchy and gain the kind of recognition that he feels he needs in order to be considered worthy. Women are mainly valued for their beauty and sexuality, not their actions or successes, so they have fewer reasons to be criminal. This doesn’t mean that biology doesn’t matter. It might well be true that men are naturally more aggressive than women. However, throwing our hands up into the air and declaring that nothing can be done to solve male violence is unproductive and defeatist. However, male violence shouldn’t be entirely attributed to the socialization of individual men. There are various sociological conditions that encourage male violence and these should be considered carefully.
Male violence cannot be explained only by men’s innate predispositions or by the fact that they are not socialized properly. We should also examine the unique challenges that come with being male and the role they play in encouraging violence and crime. The solution is not to socialize the aggression out of men, but to try to offer them more opportunities to be successful through legal means, and to encourage society to value men for who they are as people and expect them to prove themselves through what they achieve.