By: Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

Just under two weeks ago, in Milford, Connecticut, Chris Plaskon asked Maren Sanchez to attend prom with him at the end of the year at Jonathan Law High School.  They’d known each other since 6th grade.  Maren said no.  Witnesses told authorities she declined and told Chris she would be attending the dance with her boyfriend (here). Chris knew Maren had a boyfriend and, likely, that she’d be attending with him. After being turned down, Chris threw his hands around Maren’s throat, pushed her down a set of stairs, and cut and stabbed her with a kitchen knife he’d brought to school that day.  It was April 25, 2014.  Maren got to school just a bit after 7:00 that day and before 8:00, she was dead.

This tragic, almost unfathomable violence reminds us of so many stories of adolescent male violence over the past couple decades. Jackson Katz discusses a seeming epidemic of violence among young, white men in his new film, Tough Guise 2.  In analyzing the tragedies of school shootings, Katz tells us that we need to think about these tragedies as contemporary forms of masculinity. When young men have their masculinity sullied, threatened or denied, they respond by reclaiming masculinity through a highly recognizable masculine practice: violence. When events like this happen, it’s easy to paint the young men who perpetuate these crimes as psychologically disturbed, as—importantly—unlike the rest of us.  But, stories like Chris Plaskon follow what has become a predictable pattern.

Sociologists investigating similar phenomena address this as a form of “social identity threat.”  The general idea is that when you threaten someone’s social identity, and they care, they respond by over-demonstrating qualities that illustrate membership in that identity.  Michael Kimmel writes about a classic example:

I have a standing bet with a friend that I can walk onto any playground in America where 6 year-old boys are happily playing and by asking one question, I can provoke a fight.  That question is simple: “Who’s a sissy around here?” (here: 131)

While you might think Kimmel’s offering easy money here, he’s making a larger point.  By asking the question, Kimmel is inviting someone’s masculinity to be threatened and assuming that this will require someone to demonstrate their masculinity in dramatic fashion.  Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: masculinity threat. New research relying on experimental designs suggests there’s a lot more to these claims than we might have thought.

For instance, Christin Munsch and Robb Willer conducted an experiment to see whether gender identity threats might affect perceptions of sexual coercion (here). College-age respondents took a survey assessing how “masculine” or “feminine” they are.  They received feedback quickly, but the feedback wasn’t honest: students were randomly assigned to receive scores that that either confirmed or challenged their gender identity.  This is where the real study began.  Students were told to next fill out a “campus climate” survey regarding their opinions about different cases that had been brought before a campus disciplinary review board. One of the cases dealt with sexual coercion.  Their study clearly showed that when college-aged men’s masculinity is threatened, they are much more likely to espouse attitudes supportive of sexual assault or coercion.  In a nutshell, men who might feel they have to demonstrate their masculinity are less likely to see sexual coercion as sexually coercive and much more likely to blame the victim (a woman) in the scenario.

In a separate article, Robb Willer, Bridget Conlon, Christabel Rogalin and Michael Wojnowicz test what they refer to as the “masculine overcompensation thesis.” The research illustrates the validity of Kimmel’s playground bet and proves that the effects are farther reaching than we may have expected.  Men whose masculinity was threatened in this study reacted by o”overdoing” gender in a variety of ways.  Threatened men were more supportive of the Iraq War, expressed more sexual prejudice toward homosexuals, and were even more likely to say they wanted to buy an SUV! These men were also much more likely to believe in the inherent superiority of males.  Perhaps interestingly, for sociologists, men in this study with the highest testosterone levels in this study showed the strongest effects.

Catherine Taylor’s recent research builds on their interesting finding about hormones by considering men’s physiological responses to masculinity threats.  Taylor brought men and women into a lab and had them work in small groups to solve small problems together.  Taylor was interested in the physiological responses of having some social influence (or lacking it) and varied the sex composition of the groups.  Men were much more likely to exhibit anxiety and stress if they failed to achieve high social status in a group with other men, but not with women.  Taylor’s work is a powerful demonstration of how gender ideologies not only affect our social experiences and opportunities; they quite literally get inside of us.  Taylor’s research also suggests that the men with higher levels of testosterone in the previous study might actually be illustrating the way in which these responses to masculinity threats have become a permanent part of their physiology. In other words, testosterone isn’t so much the cause of violence as it is produced by gender inequality.

This is an important body of research that helps us think about the relationship between masculinity and violence.  When we hear about cases in the news like the savage murder of Maren Sanchez, the easy way of dealing with this is to look for all of the signs that Chris Plaskon is not “one of us.”  But, Katz and Kimmel suggest that we ought to think about these men not as failing at masculinity, but as “over-conforming,” and this research supports those claims.

For a long time, feminist scholars and activists that talked about violence among boys and men as “learned behavior.”  This research shows how well most men have learned this lesson.  In Tough Guise 2, Katz reiterates this issues, but follows by reminding us that violence is also a “taught behavior.” And these lessons are not just taught by individuals, they’re a part of all manner of social institutions; they structure the ways we learn to think about, recognize, and enact masculinity in our daily lives.  We simply can’t think about violence apart from gender.  Boys and young men who participate in the kinds of violence enacted upon Maren Sanchez show startlingly strong patterns.  While many are much more socially ostracized that it seems Chris was, the common factor is that they perceive their masculinity as having been threatened (by other boys and young men, by lack of recognition to which they feel entitled from other women, and more).

This research suggests that protecting boys and young men from masculinity threats is an incomplete solution.  Rather, real change would require investment in new ideals surrounding masculinity not predicated on dominance and violence. Doing so can only result in a safer world for all of our kids.