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Why “Be A Man” Is Pretty Much The Worst Thing You Can Tell A Man Or Boy

Posted on December 19, 2015 in 16 Days Of Activism 2015, Masculinity, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Shambhavi Saxena

‘Be a man.’

Coach and former NFL player John Ehrman has called these “the most destructive words” told to every man and every boy, forcing them to conform to societal expectations of masculinity, which often involves being authoritarian, controlling, and (whenever ‘necessary’) violent. Is there then a link between embodying ‘masculine’ traits and perpetrating varying forms of violence, particularly towards female partners?

A recent study on ‘Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference,’ conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has found that a link exists.

The sample survey was conducted across 7 states in India, and found that masculinity in India has two interconnected dimensions, the first being “relationship control” or to what degree a man can dictate the terms of his wife/partner’s choices and movement; the second being men’s “attitude towards gender equality.”

“Why would boys as young as 18 feel alright with abusing their partners physically and sexually? Why would they feel it is their ‘responsibility’ to ‘protect’ their elder sister by not letting her go out at night?” Asks Phansiri Soumya, pointing to the effects of patriarchal masculinity, which is exactly what the survey tries to answer.

Who Controls The Relationship?

Lamya Chopra (name changed for privacy), a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV) spoke to YKA about the reasons she thought drove men to violence: “Patriarchy demands a man keep his woman ‘in check’ and the general idea that men are physically more powerful than women often results in assault.” This tendency to treat women as property has produced the dangerous notions of modesty, chastity and virginity, but also has more subtle manifestations.

The survey revealed that of the men sampled, a third did not allow their wives/partners to wear certain clothes, and a fifth suspected their wives/partners of trying to attract other men by wearing certain clothing. Finding corroborated by what this one survivor of IPV told us: “I enjoyed a healthy work relationship with my clients and boss, something he did not approve of and called me slutty.”

It’s then a question of who wears the ‘pants’ in the relationship. Traditionally men have, which means they have the power to circumscribe their partners’ freedoms, and if they’re ‘liberal’, they have the power to ‘grant’ their partners those freedoms.

From Masculinity To Violence

When YKA asked another survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, about her husband’s behavior, she said: “(It was) his own masculine ego and insecurity that drove him to be violent.” Differences in their professions, in particular, had contributed to her husband’s bitter feelings. He was answerable to his parents on all matters of their family business and often frustrated with his clientele. “He always said I was too good to be with him,” said the survivor, “which meant there was an inferiority complex somewhere.”

The study found that “Men who experience economic stress are more likely to be violent,” and that this stems from the idea that a ‘man’ must wield financial capacity over his female partner, failing which, his status as a man is supposedly revoked.

It is this controlling, abusive, competitive type of masculinity that is damaging men. “Breaking down into tears, hugging another guy friend for too long, holding another boy’s hand while walking, having emotional talks are seen as ‘sissy’ and hence most boys refrain from them,” said Phanisri Soumya, who also spoke to us about IPV. “This has serious psychological impacts in the long run.”

Soumya believes that “‘Masculinity’ is universally oppressive,” because it enables men to behave in these ways, and often against their own nature. “Violent and dominating behaviours are not only seen as normal for boys but also encouraged,” she further added. “Even if a boy knows that indulging in physical violence is wrong, he has to do it in order to avoid name calling and social exclusion.”

Gender Equality The Only Solution

Relationship control and these aggressive attitudes about how to behave come from the understanding that men are the more powerful of the sexes. “Even today when we appreciate independent women,” said Chopra, “we tend to use masculine adjectives and things like, ‘ye meri beti nahi beta hain (she’s not our daughter but our son)’.” 

Undoing these attitudes is necessary to change violent masculinity. “Education… appears to lower the prevalence of IPV,” the study reports. Further, boys who see an equal division of labour at home have been shown be more equitable. To be clear, gender equality and a healthy attitude to both genders starts at home, and must begin early.

Having an equitable attitude towards gender means recognizing that power should be shared. Without this, it’s easy to see why 60 percent of the men sampled in the ICRW-UNFPA study have perpetrated IPV. It is interesting to compare this statistic with women’s reporting of the experience of violence in the same study. As against the 60 percent men who reported perpetrating violence, 52 percent women reported that they had experienced any form of violence.

As reported by the study, men’s higher reporting of the perpetration of violence, especially in relation to sexual, and emotional violence, may need to be seen in the context of the stigma associated with the experience of sexual violence, and also due to the acceptance or internalization of violence and control by women – women may thus accept and expect that men will exert control in their lives. These findings reinforce the idea that efforts towards deconstructing masculinity and engaging men and boys, need to run in parallel with ongoing efforts to empower women and girls.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.