COE 1999 : SEMINAR Men and Violence

Explaining the inclination
to use violence against women

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


Explaining the inclination
to use violence against women


Carol Hagemann-White and Christiane Micus,
Department of Education, University of Osnabrück (Germany)


Introduction: What needs to be explained?


Any attempt to survey theories that claim to explain violence against women, sexualised violence or, in particular, men’s violence towards known women will encounter confusion. A great many ideas about why men do horrible things turn up, and they are often the subject of acrimonious controversy, but on close inspection, one finds that the explanandum varies with the theory being used to explain it, so that differing theories are often not addressing the same phenomenon. Furthermore, there is often considerable slippage between the phenomenon and the theory put forth to explain it. For example, there are a number of authors who prefer an evolutionary approach to explain what they take to be a universal inclination in men to be violent, drawing on what is called "parental investment theory" or the concept of the "selfish gene": the genes’ drive to reproduce causes men to act in a way that will guarantee paternity of a maximum of offspring, causing the male of the species to evolve with a tendency towards sexual jealousy and possessiveness. Not having universal data on men’s feelings or interactions, some authors have collected data on the relative frequency of homicides, pointing out that many more men kill women than the reverse. Killing women is, however, neither a successful reproductive strategy nor an effective way to ensure certainty of paternity. Putting aside all other possible objections, we see a neatly constructed theory and an interesting collection of facts, but the theory has to be stretched and strained beyond logic to make it seem useful or relevant to the phenomenon that it is supposed to explain.


Theories of a more psychological bent, looking for roots of violence within the emotional and social development of (some) men, the dynamics within their personalities, or the motives behind their actions often share a striking similarity with the explanations that abused women themselves often put forward when trying to make sense of "why he does it". It is the assumption that anyone’s actions can be understood by simple empathy, if only one tries hard enough. Thus, in a battering relationship, the man acts in ways that are abusive, contemptuous, and physically violent, sometimes from the beginning of the relationship onwards, sometimes beginning with her pregnancy or other events. The woman - the social worker, the psychologist - looks for reasons in the man’s history that might make it possible to understand him, if she put himself in his place; that is, she seeks to identify in his life history some kinds of pressures, deprivation or other events and circumstances which might cause her to become similarly violent, if she were in his place. In doing so, she ignores or denies the obvious facts that (a) he is using violence almost every day, and she is not, certainly not violence of the same kinds and with the same objectives, and (b) he is not a woman or a wife, and she never has been and never will be a husband or a man. Empathy is not enough, the explanation has to begin by recognising the reality of the other person as different from one’s own.  


Our paper has proposed to look at explanations for how an inclination to use violence (against women or what appears feminine) can enter into the formation of masculine gender identity in childhood and adolescence. In view of the widespread confusion and indeed carelessness in the literature about what it is that favoured theories are actually explaining, we begin by clarifying this for our own discussion.


To be of use for the question at hand, theories must explain both aspects of the use of violence in interaction with known individuals:

the subjective experience of being driven, or threatened, by feelings that push a man to choose violence, specifically violence towards women;

the pleasure that can be discovered in exercising violence successfully over another person, and in particular over a woman.


Since both feelings of being threatened or driven, for example by rage, impatience, fear of losing control or "losing face" are experienced by all humans, and since all humans are likely to discover at some point the pleasure potential of using violence at least in small ways, a further more specific question must be addressed:


What are the inhibiting forces that motivate many women and some men to refrain from interpersonal violence, and how are these submerged or lost in the formation of masculine identities?


The literature on violent men (e.g. Gilligan 1997, Hearn 1998, Jukes 1999) suggests that those who have become habitually or regularly violent towards women personally known to them, sexually or physically or both, exhibit certain traits to a high degree:


At the moment of violence, they are convinced that the behaviour of the woman is "causing" them to use violence, and they tend to insist on the primary validity of this perception even if they learn to present other accounts as well. She "makes him do it" by threatening his masculinity or the power and control which he assumes are indispensable to being a man. Any thing a woman does or says or even shows in her expression can "trigger" violence in this way, when it conveys to a man that she is a human being with desires, thoughts or wishes of her own. Note that this does not depend on what she thinks or does, but upon what he notices and construes it to mean.


The dominant construction of heterosexuality as "active on passive" invites men to learn a specifically sexualised pleasure in overcoming resistance, taking, doing to or doing upon a woman something that excites him or relieves some need. It is also possible for a man to believe, in the course of growing up, that this is the only socially or morally acceptable way for him to achieve sexual satisfaction, or even the only way possible to him. He must be active and penetrate for "it" to happen, and "it" cannot happen at all unless she submits to him.


Men violent towards known women have little or no capacity for empathy, for seeing anything from the point of view of someone else, or even realising that there is another point of view. They have blocked off sensitivity to others’ feelings or others’ pain; Adam Jukes (1999) describes them as being like small children in a sulk. This limitation may, however, apply only to their interaction with women or in certain types of relationships.  


The inclination to use violence against known women can thus be operationally defined as having a concept of "being a man" that requires dominance and specific kinds of recognition and respect, such that it is open to being threatened or potentially lost, cathecting violation: discovering and becoming accustomed to finding pleasure or satisfaction in "doing to" as opposed to "doing with", loss of the capacity for empathy.


We would like to present and discuss some theories that have tried to explain some or all of this "violent masculinity syndrome" in the context of the development of masculine gender identities. We should note at this point that there are no solid data or even convincing reasoning to support the view that such a syndrome cannot equally well emerge later in life. There is no firm basis for asserting that even the majority of violent men, much less all or most of them, have had some kind of traumatic or damaging childhood experiences or a specifically deprived early background. Most of them are perfectly competent, as much as most adults, at dealing with frustration without becoming violent in other fields of life. And many of them may have been "seduced" into this syndrome by the ease with which they could get satisfaction through violence when it seemed to elude them in other ways. We are not explaining why there exist violent men, but examining one possible path leading there: that an inclination to use violence, especially against women, becomes established in close connection with the formation of gender identity.



Explaining male violence from psychoanalytic feminist theory


Early theoretical work of Hagemann-White, Dinnerstein and Chodorow proceeded from two assumptions derived from classical psychoanalytic theory:


that the infant begins life in a state of primary symbiosis, fully at one with the world and unable to recognise separate objects or human beings, from which state a process of painful differentiation and separation has to follow, and that primary care of infants is still carried out by mothers to the exclusion of fathers, leading to the identification of the first Other, from whom the child must separate (psychologically) to become a self at all, with the female sex and then with the feminine.


The asymmetric starting point in life for girls and boys - that both have to separate their primary self from a female parent - means, according to these theories, that boys use gender difference to support their independent selfness, and that any return to a state of empathetic one-ness or any emotional identification with women threatens both their male identity and their sense of self: the two come to seem the same. They grow up feeling that they have to prove their masculinity constantly in order not to lose it, and that they have to do so most especially by proving they are not feminine. Girls, on the other hand, find their gendered selves within the sense of being one with the primary parent, and decisive or aggressive separation from her, becoming too emphatically an independent self, threatens them with limitless horror, since all the aggression they direct against the mother is felt to rebound and come back to them within the continuing identification (if I want to hurt her, to leave her, to show her I don’t need her, she will do the same to me, with ten times the power!).  


Much has been written about the consequences of this primary asymmetry for the psychological orientations of men and women. However, in recent years Jessica Benjamin (1985, 1988, 1996) has challenged the premises of these theories and suggested a more differentiated view proceeding from the accumulated knowledge of modern research on infancy, which has led to the recognition that even new-born children are not living in a world of an oceanic total self, but are engaged in interaction with mutual recognition (Stern 1985).  The notion of the inner-psychic development from totality to differentiation must be replaced or at least complemented by a conception of the primary intersubjectivity of human development from birth or even before.


According to Benjamin, the structure of domination and submission between the sexes can be traced from the relationship between mother[1] and new-born child into adult eroticism. Central concepts with which Benjamin describes her inter-subjective theory are the "ideal of mutual recognition" (Benjamin 1988: 23), the necessity of recognising as well as being recognised by the other, and the "simultaneous presence of two living subjects" (16), which implies that the mother serves not just as an object for the child’s needs, but is able to recognise the child only because she herself has an independent identity. Benjamin describes the relationship between mother and infant – following Winnicott – as a "transitional realm", in which fury, wishes for annihilation and destruction fantasies are also possible, because they do not really destroy the other person. The experience that others survive both destruction fantasies and real aggressions (which are still innocent according to Winnicott) enables the infant to experience and to accept the existence of others as an external reality. However, if the infant is left feeling that its actions do not influence the mother at all, it feels powerless. If, on the other hand, the infant overpowers her completely with its attacks, her existence – which could recognise the infant – is destroyed. The maternal survival of these attacks as well as elementary care and protective emotionality are therefore inseparably linked to the process of becoming a subject.  


For the development of the individual in and through relationships, self-assertion and recognition are the two fundamental poles. Following Hegel, Benjamin describes the conflicts between self-assertion and the need for the other as a "paradox of recognition" (31). Even as we try to gain our (complete) independence – Hegel talks about a claim to absolute right – we still remain dependent on confirmation through mutual recognition. No-one can be really free from dependency, because a self needs the recognition of an other; thus, in order to be recognised myself, I have to recognise the other as being like myself and existing independently of me.  


For Benjamin the ideal resolution of this paradox is to keep it in "constant tension" (36), i.e. in a balance[2]. She describes impressively how a breakdown in the fundamental tension between the recognition of the other and the assertion of the self becomes " the best point of entry to understanding the psychology of domination" (49) and can lead to forms of erotic dominance and submission. The early differentiation of the sexes then results in a complementary relationship between male domination and female submission.


Like Irene Fast (1991), Benjamin assumes a primary gender-crossing phase for boys and girls in which the small child, while knowing itself to be a girl or a boy, does not yet categorise its experiences and possibilities as sex-related, and sees it own potential as in no way limited by its sex. It is characteristic for this originally fluid identity that girls and boys initially identify with both sexes, they "keep both parents available as objects of attachment and recognition" (112) and are able to integrate male as well as female aspects. In contrast to Fast, Benjamin denies that it is necessary to give up this original, bisexual narcissism and insists that the cross-sex identification and behaviour can remain available. Yet she describes that in reality this rather fascinating changing and exceeding of gender identification becomes restricted at the moment when desire becomes an issue – with approximately one and a half years. When the realisation of gender difference begins to take hold in the psyche "each parent may represent one side of the mental conflict between dependence and independence" (102).  


During early childhood, the gender division of labour is most often organised so that the father is the ‘representative of the external world’, the little girl and the little boy experience him as representing what is exciting and different. "Now, as the child begins to feel the wish and the excitement as his or her own inner desire, she or he looks for recognition from this exciting other" (105). This wish to be similar to the father and to be recognised by him as similar is the basis for a new kind of love, identificatory love. Previously, care, security and satisfaction of needs were characteristic for the love to the primary motherly person. Identificatory love for the figure that represents contact to the outside world and to all that is new and different there strengthens the little child in its striving for autonomy, freedom and separation.  


However, the attempt of the little girl to bestow identificatory love on the father is typically ignored or rejected by him. It threatens the defence structure of his own male identity to recognise his daughter as ”just like” to him, as he readily does with his son. Instead, the father sexualises the little girl’s attempt to identify with him, sees her "as a sweet adorable thing" (109) and is not available for the strengthening of her autonomy efforts. Handed over thus to the mother, the little girl turns her aspirations for independence as well as her anger at non-recognition by the father inward. The "missing father" (107) in female development thus makes it difficult for her to discover her own desire and prepares her to idealise a kind of love in which she puts her own wishes and needs aside (Benjamin 1985).  


The struggle for recognition is repeated in the dynamics of the submission process in which male and female emerge as opposing poles of the hierarchical gender relations. Masochism can be regarded as an attempt to achieve the recognition of the self – to be known and recognised as oneself – by the powerful idealised other who alone is able to give the recognition. This other represents the unsatisfied desire for omnipotence, strength and control which is not owned by the woman herself and whose satisfaction is now achieved vicariously by granting him satisfaction. Her search for recognition is still alienated, since she does not give herself voluntarily but must be forced to it. The great fear of being abandoned and separated which results from the strong – although certainly not ambivalence-free – identification with the mother promotes this masochist position.  


The attempt of the boy to approximate the father with identificatory love – "I am being Daddy" – is not ignored, but meets with fatherly recognition and identification. Just as the boy recognises himself in the father, the father recognises himself in the boy. The boy can use his love for the father, for father-substitutes or for other idealised men to strengthen his efforts for autonomy and separation from the mother. The possibility of identificatory love for the mother remains hidden (since she does not represent the new and different so important for the next stage of development), and then is cut off entirely[3]. Distancing himself from the primary motherly person seems a decisive step in order to feel really affiliated to the fatherly, male side. The little boy experiences his gender and his identity as a radical breaking off and delimitation from the person to which he has felt most closely connected. In order to feel independent and masculine – the boy can hardly distinguish between those two – he must say to himself: "I am nothing like she who cares for me" (76).


This fatherly recognition implies on the one hand a defence aspect – the boy can deny his helplessness and dependence -, on the other hand it urges him to ‘solve’ the conflict between his need of loving care and independence in a one-sided way: with the help of a "split" (104), by assigning the contradictory strivings to different parents. "Separation-individuation thus becomes a gender issue, and recognition and independence are now organised within the frame of gender" (104). The intersubjective dimension, with its tension between the two poles self-assertion and recognition, breaks down and gender identity becomes increasingly polarised. "The need for mutual recognition must be satisfied with mere identification of likeness" (170). "Identification no longer functions as a bridge to the experience of an other; now it can only confirm likeness" (171).  


The intersubjective interaction of infancy, in which mutual recognition and proud assertion could still coexist, is replaced by an objectifying attitude. The woman is regarded as the opposite of the man; she is not only different, "but simply the other (de Beauvoir). This other can be owned as an object, but cannot be recognised" (Benjamin 1996: 14). This development of male identity transforms the differentiation process into domination and is the basis for the phenomenon that Benjamin (1985) has described as "rational violence". Rational violence is a way of seeking recognition without giving recognition. It is driven by the need for intimacy, but denies this need and all feelings that relate to it.


The moment of control is characteristic for this "rational violence": it is not a struggle between equals, not a conflict which could end in a mutual recognition, but a calculated transgression in which the will of the object is denied, the recognition of the self is forced and the end point is determined only by the subject. In time, the object, not entitled to an independent existence, loses the ability to recognise him. Therefore, the fight has to be carried out again and again. The border-crossing violation - which, breaking the law, at the same time confirms it – grants rationality and control to one partner, while the other gives up her borders. "The assertion of one individual (the master) is transformed into domination; the other’s (the slave’s) recognition becomes submission. Thus, the basic tension of forces within the individual becomes a dynamic between individuals" (62).  

When the dilemma between individualisation and belonging to a greater unity is resolved in favour of total emphasis on separation, the boy projects empathy and emotional fusion onto the feminine, and must in consequence avoid or deny need and dependence in himself. Devaluation of female qualities is often connected to this denial.


According to Benjamin (1985) the repeated attempt to separate and delimit from the mother and from the motherly supply as well as the denial of mutuality, care and empathy is revealed in violence. The insistence on force, control and omnipotence is often the only way to approach the feminine without feeling immediately threatened. "Rationality allows no simultaneous experience of contradictory moments in the ambivalence or in the paradox" (Benjamin 1985: 22); it results in a general splitting.


The sense of self is also undermined by this male defence attitude, which breaks the tension that appears in the differentiation process. Following Winnicott, it can also be assumed that one resorts to "rational violence" in order to feel oneself, to increase the feeling for the self and the feeling for reality. In this way, "rational violence" is explained not only by the need to exclude, denigrate and control the feminine, but also by the inability of the parents to recognise the boy in spite of his attacks and to survive his destructive wishes. "Rational violence" can therefore also be understood as domination over a "surviving" other, while the search already implies the scars of an earlier failure. "If the parent does not set bounds – ‘does not survive’ – the child must carry on trying to destroy and to attack in order to finally feel a hold against its reactive anger" (Benjamin 1985: 27). Therefore, one root of "rational violence" can also be seen in the failure of the struggle for recognition, either having totally destroyed the other, or having been unable to reach her. In both cases neither the effectiveness of actions nor the independent existence of the other is experienced.  


It should be noted here that the subjective feeling of powerlessness is not at all the same as a real lack of power. Indeed, the early experience of a primary parent who does not "survive" the anger of the child, or cannot be reached by him, is more than likely to result when the mother is herself powerless, battered or subjected to abuse. The adult man who exerts rational violence has found a substitute for his original need: he may be profoundly determined never to feel powerless again, and he may aim to structure all his relationships so that this possibility can never arise. Thus, the problem is not that the violent man "is" powerless but that he cannot tolerate this normal and necessary part of being human.


While Chodorow and Dinnerstein described male domination and female subjection as resulting from the primary gender division of labour and thus as a very general phenomenon, Benjamin’s theory allows at least for a possible differentiation. The masculine position which fears proximity to anything feminine is a product of the breakdown of what is, for both sexes, a primary experience of intersubjectivity. And rational violence, in particular, arises when the primary parent is unable to accept and contain the child’s aggression. The combination of the two - a defensive masculine identity and rational violence - would add up to an adult man who is controlling and abusive towards women. At the same time, Benjamin is so very focused on explaining the general existence of patriarchal male dominance that she writes as if the breakdown of the paradox of recognition (and with it masculine contempt for women) were almost inevitable.  


Ulrike Schmauch (1985, 1987), critical of Chodorow’s idealisation of the autonomous boy child, shifts the emphasis of her analysis to looking at how the needs, feelings and relationships of the adult parents are involved in gender socialisation. Schmauch, who worked for three years – from 1977 to 1980 – as a child-minder in a playgroup (for children ages 1 to 4) set up by parents, and gathered records during this time, concentrates on unconscious interactions between mother, father and daughter or son. She reveals on the one hand the power of life situations that "have an effect on the child through the daily routine and unconscious of the parents" (Schmauch 1985: 103); on the other hand she also considers the influence of the child, "how the female as well as the male child assail with their little and instinctive bodies the parents and their repressed feelings" (104) and the strong conscious, but often unconscious reactions of the parents that they evoke.  


Schmauch (1985) wondered, in the course of her work with the play-group, why girls seemed to become ‘more girl-like’ and boys ‘more boy-like’ than their parents or she herself would have thought possible and desirable at the beginning. She finds part of the answer in typical idealisations of the boys by the parents. Mothers and fathers love and idealise in little boys "often their passive-infantile parts, but at the same time their grandiose, aggressive acting; a difficult paradox for the boy" (105). According to Schmauch, especially the mother-son relation is characterised by a strong ambivalence. "On the one hand they want to push him away, absorbed by their adult feelings, on the other hand they draw him close when they are feeling low and give him the function of the only faithful, comforting little man" (108). Boys at this stage show a tendency to act out whenever they are uneasy, tired, or distressed. They often cover over feelings that are difficult for them to handle by making noise, charging about, showing off loudly, or fighting. This acting out and putting themselves in the spotlight is not recognised as signalising needs, but is seen as natural boy’s behaviour, and is often encouraged or admired. At the same time, boys are coddled and allowed to act dependent in the private space of the home or with their mothers. Thus, the split between the boy’s assertive and autonomous public self and his tender and needy private self seems to meet needs of the parents.  


The relation between mother and daughter seems to be very intimate and harmonious in the first years of life. In this early stage the little girl gives the mother the opportunity to love and cherish an extension of her own self; the daughter, affectionate and close, offers her mother a very special satisfaction and affirmation "be it as her mother’s possession, as an expression and expansion of her oral, supplying ‘power’, be it by augmenting and completing the mother because of their own ‘perfection’" (115). Dependency and independence of the girl appear equally appreciated by her mother and can develop in balance.  


The third year of life, in which boys and girls grow to be more independent and much more sexual, is described by Schmauch (1985) as a year full of crises, as it confronts the adults to an increasing degree and beyond their conscious expectations with their own problems and fears, e.g. the fear of rivalry, of isolation and of their own aggressions. During this third year, some fathers exhibited an "abrupt pushing away" (113) of the son into a "forced manliness" (113). However, Schmauch also notes - as a striking aspect of analysing her own notes and records - that she in fact had very little observational data on fathers’ involvement with their children, although this was a parents’ initiative with egalitarian values.  


The relationship between mother and daughter, which has been very close and intimate, also goes through a transition in the third year. At this stage in their own lives, mothers often look for new autonomous possibilities to act and feel the need for further development and a life of their own. These increasing efforts towards autonomy and distancing on the part of the mother trigger strong fears of loss in the little girl, who relates these changes in the mother to herself. In this way, unconscious apprehensions in the mother, who is wishing, but also hesitating to cross the bridge involving separation and new beginnings, are delegated to the little girl; and this happens at a moment when the daughter reveals herself able to be independent, to use her aggressions more self-confidently and to express her emotions in a sexual and competitive way. Feeling her mother’s impatience, her desire to break away and her ambivalence and fear of actually doing so, the girl tries to hold on to her. "Now it is the child who is afraid, who experiences its sexual, aggressive and autonomous strivings as dangerous and guilty, because they are separating. The child again clings to the mother in open dependency" (107). According to Schmauch, it is this moment at which the little girl begins to repress aggressive feelings. She parallels Benjamin's observation that the little girl is handed back to the mother and shows "depressive reactions" (Benjamin 1988: 109) after the father has not recognised her identificatory love. In consequence, the girl becomes vulnerable to boys’ acting out; she presents an object that signifies the feminine, but is unable to retaliate against aggression. The practice-fields of school playgrounds are shaped by these dynamics.  


The dynamics of adolescence


Traditionally, psychoanalytically oriented theory has been strongly inclined to locate the sources of all later problems in early childhood. In recent years, however, adolescence has received more attention as an important stage in life that permits genuine new developments. As a consequence, we can ask what dynamic developments in adolescence might give rise to, reinforce, decrease or help overcome an inclination to use violence. Mario Erdheim has taken the view that, with respect to personality structure and the dynamics of identity, adolescence is not just a simple repetition or extension of early childhood, but should be understood a second chance and a second individuation process. The adolescent process is described as "liquidifying" the inner structures of the young person, with completely new dynamics. One could conclude that the "fluid" sex identity of early childhood is or can be revived, a reorganisation of feelings, desires and fears is possible.


Several authors have suggested that adolescence can be a chance for re-structuring, new orientation and re-organisation of experiences on the individual as well as on the social level. Erikson (1993) described adolescence as a "psycho-social moratorium", in whose framework different possibilities and life models can be tested playfully. Benjamin recognises the chance of the new adolescent dynamics as well, since the rigid complementarity of the oedipal conflict can be re-created in a more differentiated and flexible way, and in the best case, it can be given up in the course of adolescence when the capacity for post-conventional thinking develops.


Along with the chance of adolescence, this life phase also contains many crisis-like aspects. Hurrelmann et al. (1985) describe different modal tasks for the adolescence which range from finding a gender role and a value and norm system to qualifying for a place in the world of work. He describes "social bonding" to peers of the own and of the other sex as an important task. In our society, this is often linked to a strong pressure to achieve at least the appearance of successful heterosexuality. The bodily changes and the related latent messages, social assessments, restrictions, insecurities as well as the emotions full of relish, wishes and fantasies have to be integrated into the personality of the adolescent.


A crucial adolescent conflict according to Erdheim (a psychoanalytic ethnologist) is the antagonism between family and culture. He understands "family" as the familiar, that which has always been there, continuity with childhood, with dimensions of feeling safe or at least able to count on the expected, to have an unreflected belonging to a social context. "Culture" is Erdheim’s term for the human capacity to assimilate what is strange, foreign and new and to relate it successfully to one’s own needs and wishes, the ability to create a relationship to what was at first unknown and threateningly different, thus transforming it into the known. (This echoes Benjamin’s paradox of recognition.) Antagonism means the equality and the interdependence of these two principles which cannot be transformed into one another or be derived from one another.  The human being will always be thrown back and forth between them and need the ability to tolerate and integrate the conflict they represent.  


Adolescents not only have to loosen their ties to the family and its values and attitudes, to orient themselves in the system of the culture still foreign to them and to define it anew, but they also have to search for new perspectives while at the same time preserving continuity. This transition from family to culture can be seen as a challenge to one’s own innovative powers. However, it is equally possible for it to be experienced (individually and/or collectively) as an immense insecurity in which any innovation is felt as ‘destruction’. Erdheim describes how societies often exert repression when confronted with the innovative power of youth.  


The constitution of the antagonism is a "crisis-like process" (Erdheim 1995). Erdheim describes several avoidance strategies. We are mainly interested in only one of them, namely the ‘seduction’ to shift the antagonism to the gender relation. After this shift, not culture and family are in an antagonistic relationship any more, but the sexes to one another. This results in the well-known stereotyped ascription of gender characteristics: the woman is assigned to the family, the man to culture. The antagonism between family and culture, whose recognition would lead to emancipation and maturity of the individual, becomes invisible by being shifted to gender relations (Erdheim 1998). The temptation to avoid progressive developments and to adhere rather to regressive and polarising patterns not only prevents maturity, but leads to a polarisation of the gender characteristics to which also other authors refer (Flaake 1990). In this case, a constructed masculinity can serve as a ‘crutch’ to avoid any conflict with which the adolescent has not yet come to terms, and to adjust to cultural ideas of what a man is and to what a man is entitled. It would certainly mean ‘extra energy’ in this situation to seize a masculinity which does not quite correspond to the cultural ideal (Connell 1995).  


Anne Campbell (1990, 1995) shows with her violence and aggression research studies[4] that the seizing of a counter-gender model is possible, but certainly connected to the ability to ‘want something more strongly’. She refers to a decisive gender difference in perceptions of aggression as well as in coping with aggression. For both sexes there is a close connection between aggression and control, but aggression means for women a failure of self-control, while it means for men to force the own control onto others.  


Women see aggression primarily as an expressive means to release pent-up fury or long accumulated frustrations. Men see aggression primarily as an instrumental means to decide competitions, conflicts and doubts of their male authority quickly and efficiently in their favour – with or without emotions. According to Campbell (1995), this leads naturally to different styles of aggressive behaviour. Women react to everyday frustrations and provocations at first not with anger or calculated opposition. Their initial reserve is often misinterpreted as approval or acceptance. Since women hold back their anger for a longer time than men and often lose their temper at a later moment, their aggression tends to emerge in explosive or expressive forms.  


In retrospective, most women tend to criticise their own behaviour, apologise for it and regard it as inappropriate, not feminine and as a failure of self-discipline. Their critical estimation of themselves as well as the expressive quality of their aggression is unfortunately often not only ineffective for the elimination of the source of frustration, but also – when the events accumulate for a long time – too late and not well enough aimed. Male instrumental aggression deals not so much with the reduction of tensions, with "signalling indignation or with letting off steam" (107), but rather with controlling the behaviour of another person or a situation in general.


It is the male instrumental understanding of aggression that dominates society and science. Campbell reveals in the practice-oriented application of her thesis how the female understanding of aggression can clash with the male dominating system of criminal justice. When a woman kills her husband in his sleep after being abused for many years, the legal framing of aggression is her undoing, because it mitigates killing only in a spontaneous heat of passion as manslaughter, second-degree murder or self-defence (cf. Jones 1980). Women's reactions are not regarded as self-defence because of the "difference in time between the last thrashing and the killing" (Campbell 1995: 204), because of the fact that women ‘govern’ their anger and despair for a long time before getting out of ‘control’. When female opposition takes place in secret or at a later point of time – which is certainly in part understandable given her poor chances in an open physical attack – it is legally not regarded as an act committed in the heat of passion, but "the charge is murder" (203). In fact, Dagmar Oberlies has shown from court case analysis in Germany that women who kill male partners are charged with and convicted of murder and actually serve out life sentences, whereas men who kill their wives or (former) girlfriends can always name something that made them furious at the time; they are charged with manslaughter and sentenced mildly, even if they have told various people in advance of their plan to kill the woman (Oberlies 1995).  



Male violence has different causes; there is not the one and only explanation. We have tried to show with Jessica Benjamin that under certain circumstances violence can be ‘helpful’ to avert a threat. Aspects of "rational violence" include an excessive need to separate the self from the feminine, related to deep fears, and the loss of primary empathy for the feelings of others. The subject keeps in control, especially needing to control closeness and distance, and can ‘touch’ the others only with a violence that draws them near, but at the same time keeps them at a distance and denigrates them.  


When the tension between self-assertion and recognition is no longer tolerated within the self, but only distributed between the sexes, when male self-assertion results in power and female recognition results in submission, another dimension of violence enters in. The pleasure gain of "rational violence" for the man is then to relish the submission of the woman and to feel, test and enjoy his own power. There is no reliance on the perception of mutual recognition, but male interests and male power dominate completely.


Ulrike Schmauch looks at the development of gender identity in early childhood from another perspective. She describes the often unconscious parental ambivalence between pushing back dominance and aggression and the simultaneous temptation of male aggressive behaviour.


Winnicott adds another facet of violence – the significance of "feeling oneself". Violence can serve to increase self-esteem and the sense of reality. This feeling oneself can also become an addiction and go together with a habitualisation of violent behaviour. Insights from learning theory would be important in this context.  


Beyond these experiences from early childhood, the life phase of the adolescence is important, not to be understood as an extension or confirmation of the dynamics from early childhood. Furthermore, adolescence as a psychodynamic second chance as well as a crisis process may also be seen as representative for other critical life events and upheavals. The ability to tolerate contradictions, ambivalence and insecurity seems to be very important. In the study of adolescence we have seen how tempting it can be to shift very elementary human conflicts, such as the antagonism between family and culture, onto the two sexes and to settle them there in a polarising way. Constructed masculinity can thus serve regarding oneself as no longer exposed to threat or insecurities. Violence becomes a compensatory mechanism, a way of re-establishing the masculine equilibrium.




In closing, let us call attention to the construction of gender polarisation within the theories themselves. A common trait of all of the explanations discussed is their inclination to set up a logical chain leading from being born as a male or female child (having parents of two sexes), to gaining a masculine or feminine identity, to taking a certain position with regard to aggression or violence.


Christiane Micus has just completed an empirical study of women’s and men’s aggressive behaviour and their fantasies of aggression; the subjects were sixteen females and sixteen males. The study employed three research instruments: the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, a TAT (thematic-apperception-test) especially developed for the study, and qualitative interviews. The Bem Sex-Role-Inventory treats masculinity and femininity as two independent dimensions, thereby making it possible to characterise a person as masculine, feminine, androgynous or undifferentiated. As a result of statistical analysis of the data, psychological gender emerged as very significant in regard to the extent of aggressive behaviour, much more so than sex category. The psychological gender is an interesting and important alternative to the biological concept of two sexes. In this study, the group of masculine (psychological gender) men proved to be the most aggressive. They showed high values in destructive, injurious and critical thoughts and actions directed to others. It seems that this group of masculine men has to seize a manliness which corresponds to the cultural idea of masculinity as domination.  


But alongside this group I also found men who are androgynous, feminine or undifferentiated, without being noticeably different from other men in other ways. Thus, there is not only one masculinity. Empirically, the male gender identity of androgynous, feminine or undifferentiated men is not so strongly connected with violence. These men seem to have more possibilities to choose a masculinity which does not quite correspond to cultural ideas of what a man is and what men’s entitlements are. Although there is no space to discuss this study here, it does suggest that gender identities are more varied than many theoretical explanations seem to assume. Perhaps more attention should be directed to the specific processes by which masculinity becomes linked to dominance and violence.




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[1] Certainly this can also be the father or other primary persons to whom the infant relates very closely. Since it is in our culture mostly 'the mother' who does the main care, this term is used in the texts and here.

[2] For Hegel, only a breakdown of the tension is possible. "Every tension between two oppositional elements carries the seeds of its own destruction and transcendence into another form (...). Without this process of contradiction and dissolution, there would be no movement, change, or history“ (Benjamin 1988: 32).[3]  Benjamin remarks that this is changed when it is the woman who disappears into the exciting outside world to do important and interesting things and then returns, while the man is a familiar home figure.

[4]  Campbell's research studies are very wide-ranging: girl gangs in the USA (participant observation, case studies, interviews), female and male criminal offenders as well as family aggressions of female and male persons from middle class (biographical interviews, group interviews).



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