Not long ago I had the privilege of seeing American author/speaker/film maker/activist Jackson Katz address audiences in Victoria, BC. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Katz speaks to issues around the relationship between violence in our culture and some of the ways men are taught to be men. A number of the men I work with in therapy have shared their experiences of challenges they’ve come up against while navigating the expectations imposed upon them by “dominant masculinity”. Just to clarify, I recognize that there are many different versions of masculinity out there in the world, many of which invite men to live full, rich lives with meaningful connections to others. When I use the term “dominant masculinity”, I’m referring to a very accessible version of masculinity in which men are expected to be “alpha males” – to dominate physically (often using violence); to avoid showing pain (emotionally, physically, or otherwise); to be the “best” in whatever social circles they’re involved with; and to be in constant competition for supremacy or dominance with others.
Through my work and my own exploration, I’ve come to see how this way of being male is incredibly constraining, as it leaves no room for the vulnerability that supports deeper interpersonal relationships, critical analysis of how we’re living, and openness to growth-promoting experiences. It’s also through “practices of dominant masculinity” (AKA actions and behaviours that are in line with that way of being) that men take up an orientation toward violence. The uncomfortable reality is that the majority of violence in cultures around the world (including here in Victoria) is perpetrated by men. When we stop to think about the prevalence of dominant masculinity in our culture, it makes sense why that is – just look at the movies, video games, and toys marketed toward our male children and young men.
I’ll always remember the way one client explained his relationship to dominant masculinity and the violence he subjected his partner to: “It’s like I make the playing field a mountain (when I use violence) and I sit at the top…and it’s lonely at the top.” This quote speaks to the inherent dissatisfaction that inevitably comes from using violence in relationships and other ways of being dominant. I invite all men who are interested in working toward making our communities safer to consider how they might play a role in that. It can be as simple as refusing to use violence or trying to gain the upper hand in relationships, or encouraging male friends to do the same.
Check out Jackson Katz’s interesting and inspiring Ted Talk on the subject of gender-based violence: