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Raising Boys Who Don’t Abuse Women: A Blueprint For Liberals, Conservatives, and Everyone in Between

For men who use violence against women, their train of thought goes something like this:

“She just gets me SO jealous. I keep telling her, look, don’t speak to these other men. You know they are only trying to fuck you. Do you think she listens? No!”

“My girlfriend loves to go out dancing with her friends. Dressed like a slut, of course. It’s embarrassing. I think she’s doing it deliberately to get at me.”

“My wife wants me to stay home with the kids. She wants me to act the wife. No way! That’s not my thing. It’s unnatural.”

As a former attorney for victims of domestic violence turned stay-at-home dad for twin girls, I worry about their future. Before becoming a father, I represented hundreds of women in cases of domestic violence and stalking.  While the facts differed, nearly every case involved men who were insecure about sex and/or money. A particular case involving a couple I encountered in Ohio is emblematic. Let’s call them Lisa & Brian. Brian was not particularly strong or imposing in a traditionally masculine way, but he was the breadwinner — that is, until he lost his job. While struggling to find new employment, Brian offered to drop Lisa off at work and pick her up at the end of the day. “How sweet of him,” Lisa thought, at first. “He really wants to spend time with me.” Brian then started showing up at her office for lunch — every day. While Brian was still unemployed, Lisa got a promotion. Occasionally she would tell him that she was too busy for lunch. “Too busy?” he responded. “I’m your boyfriend for shits sake! You’re lucky to have a guy who actually wants to spend time with you. I guess you’d rather fuck your way to the top.” Shortly thereafter, Brian’s drinking increased, along with baseless accusations of infidelity. One night, Brian came home particularly drunk and knocked Lisa to the ground. While assaulting her, Brian repeatedly yelled “You’re hurting me, so I’ll hurt you.” Lisa left him the next day and filed for a protection order. Prior to the abuse, Lisa had no intention of leaving Brian, job or not. However, Brian’s entire self-worth was tied to being the breadwinner. Fearing that Lisa was plotting to leave him, Brian took measures to control her access to men. So long as he had a girlfriend, Brian could still feel like a man. When all else failed, the only way for Brian to assert his masculinity was by physical dominance. I don’t believe he took pleasure in the control or abuse — he was desperately trying to maintain his self-worth.

Despite such powerful anecdotes, I know that correlation doesn’t equal causation. Research has shown that failing to live up to society’s definition of a manly man is not, in itself, a risk factor for violent behavior. (Reidy, Dennis E et al.). But if a guy’s perceived lack of macho cred gnaws at him emotionally … watch out. Men who perceive themselves as masculine (and take pride in their perceived high level of masculinity), and men who consider themselves less than truly masculine (and who feel tense or anxious as a result of that nagging perception) are both more likely to respond to this kind of stress (i.e., not being the breadwinner) by acting out in a stereotypically masculine way: through violence. On the other hand, men who feel they don’t measure up to societal ideals of masculinity, but don’t really care, are the least likely to engage in violent behavior. In other words, it isn’t masculinity itself that causes violence, but one’s attachment to that (masculine) identity. 

Of course, values also matter. It’s important to teach our young boys about integrity, honor, respect and equality; however, I’ve seen many so called “good men” who abuse women. By all accounts, Gregory Bender was an upstanding citizen until the day his mistress left him. Gregory was a wealthy hedge fund manager who seemingly had it all, including a loving wife and a doting mistress. Despite “having it all,” he became consumed with jealousy when he discovered that his girlfriend had left him for a younger man. Patrick De la Cerda was a man of modest means, but he was younger, and more attractive — which gnawed at Gregory’s sense of self-worth and sent him into a jealous rage. Gregory harassed and stalked the couple for months until they obtained a restraining order against him. A few months later, Patrick was found shot dead inside his home. That morning, Gregory armed himself with a high-powered rifle and drove to Patrick’s home with deadly intent. He lured Patrick to the front door of his home by posing as a UPS delivery driver. Gregory then positioned himself a short distance away from the door and took aim. When Patrick opened his front door, Gregory shot and killed Patrick like a deer in the cross-hairs. The 50-year-old hedge fund manager was charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of his romantic rival. He gave up a life of luxury and his very freedom — just to feel like a man.

Despite the horrific nature of Patrick’s murder, Gregory had no criminal history. Nonetheless, his propensity for violence lurked just below the surface — unleashed the moment he felt emasculated. On the other hand, men who consider themselves less than truly masculine (and who feel anxious as a result) are more likely to express their insecurity at the outset of a relationship. Take the very public case of comedian Jamie Kilstein. Kilstein was dropped by Citizen Radio after numerous women alleged the performer made inappropriate sexual advances, or was emotionally abusive towards them. The news came as a shock to progressives who followed Kilstein’s work as an outspoken comedian, writer, and musician who styled himself as a male feminist and champion for women’s rights. Comedian Chris Hardwick is another self-described male feminist whose tender image was fractured when his ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual assault and emotional abuse. In her public post, Chloe Dykstra outlined a relationship that restricted her from going out at night, having male friends or speaking in public. Hardwick and Kilstein may not fit the public’s perception of an abuser, but they’re just as likely to respond to male insecurity with abuse.

So, how can you tell if you (or your daughter) are dating a potential abuser before it’s too late? After years of advocating for victims of abuse, I came up with this simple rule of thumb: Avoid men who won’t “let you” dance with other men, and be wary of men who discourage it. Of course, this is more anecdotal than a scientific principle. If anything, it operates in the same fashion as a smoke detector, which is designed to be over inclusive. Smoke detectors must be sensitive enough to catch false positives (e.g., burnt toast, fried bacon, centurion birthday cake) in order to detect actual fires. In other words, this rule of thumb may enable you to avoid abuse, but you’ll probably miss out on a few good eggs. I knew a guy whose wife had an affair with a dance instructor. When he started dating again, he’d get anxious at the thought of his girlfriend out dancing. If he were to voice those concerns, my rule of thumb would put him in the category of someone to avoid. By the same token, as a rule of thumb, it’s not fool-proof. You could meet a guy who feigns confidence until he actually sees you dancing with another man. 

All men (and women) are prone to bouts of insecurity. I openly encourage my wife to go out dancing but I still get jealous from time to time — but that’s my problem — not hers. There is a way of being so anxious about love, and so afraid of loss, that you grab it too hard. And if you do that, you destroy it completely. There’s a story of a little girl to whom someone gave a bunny rabbit. She was so delighted with the bunny and so afraid of losing it that, taking it home in the car, she held it so tightly that she ended up squeezing it to death. Lots of parents do that to their children. Lots of spouses do it to each other. They cling too hard. To have love, and to have its pleasure, you must at the same time loosen your grasp of it.

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It brings me comfort to know that my daughters will be coming of age during this era of women’s empowerment, but America is still one of the most dangerous countries for women in the developed world. Nearly everyone agrees that male aggression is a problem, but they disagree about the solution. Some say that stereotypical gender roles are equally harmful for both men and women and have no use in modern society. Others, however, believe that such roles are firmly rooted in our biology and that society’s attempt to suppress our natural tendencies is the problem. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

While I maintain that we don’t have to scrap the entire concept of masculinity, certain qualities are inherently harmful to boys and society. Whether they’re raising the next Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Richard Simmons, parents of a boy should always encourage him to communicate his personal and emotional concerns, and never shame him for crying or expressing his feelings. Boys who are taught to “conceal” and “don’t feel” are more prone to violence and aggression, and are also more likely to suffer from heart disease. (Jordan, J.V.). Fear and vulnerability are part of the human condition — it’s time we start treating our young boys accordingly. If we really want to protect our daughters, it starts with how we mold our sons. 

When it comes to raising boys who mature into men who don’t abuse women, the first step is to determine if your son is traditionally masculine or otherwise. Each group requires a uniquely tailored prevention strategy aimed at negating the influence of gender socialization. Let’s say that your 8-year-old son shows an interest in kickboxing, football, and other stereotypically masculine activities. Whether it comes from biology or culture, there’s no need to suppress his masculine traits. However, if your son excels in sports and competition, managing his expectations becomes paramount. Again, it’s ok if he perceives himself as masculine; the danger is when that perception is tied to his self-worth. Along the way, remind him that he is loved, no matter his accomplishments. Even more crucial, keep him grounded — even if he’s the class valedictorian and the star quarterback — make sure he understands that these “statuses” won’t guarantee him success in life. Masculine boys should be cautioned about the fleeting nature of strength and power, just as girls are discouraged from investing too much stock in beauty —  it doesn’t last forever.

On the other hand, if you’re raising a son who is not stereotypically masculine, find where his interests lie and do everything in your power to cultivate those interests. If your 8-year-old boy shows an interest in crocheting, what should you do as a parent? Obviously, you get him a crochet kit, posthaste! Unlike the star quarterback, his biggest obstacles (and yours) will come from peers and marketing. Despite anti-bullying campaigns, young boys who do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes will still face scorn and ridicule for years to come. As a parent, your job is to prepare him for those inevitable conflicts. You can start by acquainting him with non-traditional male role models who paved the way. He needs to understand that, while he may not measure up to traditional notions of masculinity, it matters not. “We love you for who you are, and anyone who doesn’t, isn’t worth having in your life.”

Either way, the most effective way to teach your son is by modeling the behavior and mindset that you seek from him. Let’s say that your son, the star quarterback, is dumped by his girlfriend for a boy on the chess team. It’s almost certain that his teammates will mock him for weeks. “I can’t believe she’s dating that faggot.” “You gonna let her play you like that?!” In effect, they’re challenging his masculinity. Even worse, there are dads who would eagerly join in the ribbing. All boys have to learn how to deal with heartbreak, but it should never be tied to masculinity. Again, it’s ok to raise a masculine child, but his sense of self-esteem and self-worth must never be attached to his masculinity. The path to becoming a “good man” is true confidence and self-respect. The moment your son attaches his self-worth to masculinity or feels insecure about his lack of machismo, he becomes a ticking time bomb for violence, aggression, and heart disease. 

One thought on “Raising Boys Who Don’t Abuse Women: A Blueprint For Liberals, Conservatives, and Everyone in Between

  1. Terrific writing Dean.

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