How Sociologists Study Gender and Violence

How Sociologists Study Gender and Violence

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Readers are warned that this post contains discussion of physical and sexual violence.

On April 25, 2014, Connecticut high school student Maren Sanchez was stabbed to death by fellow student Chris Plaskon in a hallway of their school after she declined his invitation to prom. In the aftermath of this heartbreaking and senseless attack, many commentators suggested that Plaskon likely suffered from mental illness. Common sense thinking tells us that things must not have been right with this person for some time, and somehow, those around them missed the signs of a dark, dangerous turn. A normal person simply does not behave this way, as the logic goes.

Indeed, something went wrong for Chris Plaskon, such that rejection-something that happens to most of us rather frequently-resulted in an act of horrific violence. Yet, sociologists point out that this is not a standalone incident and Maren's death is not simply the result of an unhinged teen.

Looking at the Broader Context

Taking a sociological perspective on this incident, one sees not an isolated event, but one that is part of a longterm and widespread pattern. Maren Sanchez was one of hundreds of millions of women and girls around the world who suffer violence at the hands of men and boys. In the U.S. nearly all women and queer people will experience street harassment, which often includes intimidation and physical assault. According to the CDC, about 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual assault; the rates are 1 in 4 for women enrolled in college. Nearly 1 in 4 women and girls will experience violence at the hands of a male intimate partner, and according to the Bureau of Justice, nearly half of all women and girls killed in the U.S. die at the hands of an intimate partner.

While it is certainly true that boys and men are also victims of these kinds of crimes, and sometimes at the hands of girls and women, the statistics show that the vast majority of sexualized and gendered violence is perpetrated by males and experienced by females. This happens in large part because boys are socialized to believe that their masculinity is determined in large part by how attractive they are to girls.

Connection Between Masculinity and Violence

Sociologist C.J. Pascoe explains in her book Dude, You're a Fag, based on a year of in-depth research at a California high school, that the way boys are socialized to understand and express their masculinity is premised on their ability to “get” girls, and in their discussion of real and made up sexual conquests with girls. To be successfully masculine, boys must win the attention of girls, convince them to go on dates, to engage in sexual activity, and dominate girls physically on a daily basis in order to demonstrate their physical superiority and higher social status. Not only is doing these things necessary for a boy to demonstrate and earn his masculinity, but equally important, he must do them publicly, and talk about them regularly with other boys.

Pascoe summarizes this heterosexualized way of “doing” gender: “masculinity is understood in this setting as a form of dominance usually expressed through sexualized discourses." She refers to the collection of these behaviors as “compulsive heterosexuality,” which is the compulsive need to demonstrate one's heterosexuality in order to establish a masculine identity.

What this means, then, is that masculinity in our society is fundamentally premised on the ability of a male to dominate females. If a male fails to demonstrate this relationship to females, he fails to achieve what is considered a normative, and preferred masculine identity. Importantly, sociologists recognize that what ultimately motivates this way of achieving masculinity is not sexual or romantic desire, but rather, the desire to be in a position of power over girls and women. This is why those who have studied rape frame it not as a crime of sexual passion, but a crime of power-it is about control over someone else's body. In this context, the inability, failure, or refusal of females to acquiesce to these power relations with males has widespread, catastrophic implications.

Fail to be “grateful” for street harassment and at best you're branded a bitch, while at worst, you're followed and assaulted. Decline a suitor's request for a date and you may be harassed, stalked, physically assaulted, or killed. Disagree with, disappoint, or confront an intimate partner or male authority figure and you could be beaten, raped, or lose your life. Live outside of normative expectations of sexuality and gender and your body becomes a tool with which males can demonstrate their dominance and superiority over you, and thereby, demonstrate their masculinity.

Reduce Violence by Changing the Definition of Masculinity

We won't escape this widespread violence against women and girls until we stop socializing boys to define their gender identity and self-worth upon their ability to convince, coerce, or physically force girls to go along with whatever they desire or demand. When a male's identity, self-respect, and his standing in his community of peers is based on his dominance over girls and women, physical violence will always be the last remaining tool at his disposal that he can use to prove his power and superiority.

The death of Maren Sanchez at the hands of a jilted prom suitor is not an isolated incident, nor is it so simply chalked up to the actions of a singular, disturbed individual. Her life and her death played out in a patriarchal, misogynist society that expects women and girls to comply with the desires of boys and men. When we fail to comply, we are forced, as Patricia Hill Collins wrote, to “assume the position” of submission, whether that submission takes the form of being the target of verbal and emotional abuse, sexual harassment, lower pay, a glass ceiling in our chosen careers, the burden of bearing the brunt of household labor, our bodies serving as punching bags or sexual objects, or the ultimate submission, lying dead on the floor of our homes, streets, workplaces, and schools.

The crisis of violence that pervades the U.S. is, at its core, a crisis of masculinity. We will never be able to adequately address one without critically, thoughtfully, and actively addressing the other.


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