How Traditional Masculinity Can Prevent Domestic Abuse
This week we have a guest blogger! I'm thrilled to give you this article from Dave DuBay, who provides us a guy perspective on the true secret behind authentic masculinity.
Hannibal Lecter is an iconic movie villain. He’s sophisticated and refined. His education, eloquence, and etiquette reflect the trappings of civilization. Well, except for the cannibalism part. So no one would call Hannibal Lecter a civilized man.
On the other hand, Hagrid—the half giant from the Harry Potter book and movie series—is not refined. He looks like a caveman. But he is a friend to children and magical creatures. So people might disagree on whether he’s a civilized man.
Which movie icon, though, would you want to hang out with?
What does it mean to be civilized? No one would claim that “boys will be boys” promotes civilized behavior—quite the opposite. Related to this is the concern about “toxic masculinity” and the proposed solution of redefining masculinity.
But what does redefined masculinity look like? We often hear words like vulnerable, nurturing, and empathic bandied about. Certainly these are positive traits. But another cultural stereotype is the insipid “nice guy” who, seeming to have lost his élan, listlessly wanders through life.
Worse, the nice guy may turn out to be a creep. Nice for him could mean being conflict avoidant and passive-aggressive. Or nice might be a smokescreen. Harvey Weinstein was lauded as a male feminist until he was outed as a rapist.
So, what exactly is being asked of you when you are told to be civilized? The best definition, in my opinion, is the ability to engage in conflict without being verbally, physically, or otherwise abusive.
Conflict is unavoidable, and it can be engaged directly and proactively. The Jim Crow South focused on “proper” social behavior, pretending to be civilized, but was actually abusive and oppressive. Civil rights activists, in contrast, were accused of being uncivilized because they purposely initiated conflict by sitting at whites’ only lunch counters. Yet, their protests were neither physically nor verbally abusive—the equal humanity of their opponents was always upheld.
Civilized, then, isn’t about appearances but substance. Failing to understand that, we may be surprised when we learn that a dapper gentleman is, in reality, a wife beater. But domestic abuse is a complex and multifaceted social problem. “Nearly half of women and men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey goes on to say that, “Approximately 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 7 men in the U.S. have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.” Nor is this limited to heterosexual couples. The CDC also found that 1 in 3 lesbians, and 1 in 2 bisexual women, have experienced severe intimate partner violence (but the figures don’t vary much for men based on sexual orientation).
How best to approach prevention, then, is an important question. While abusers come in all genders and from all walks of life, I want to share some thoughts about how traditional masculinity can help control anger and reframe control, which is essential to domestic violence prevention.
Civilized, then, isn’t about appearances but substance. Failing to understand that, we may be surprised when we learn that a dapper gentleman is, in reality, a wife beater.
The American Psychological Association writes that traditional masculinity is “marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression” and “is, on the whole, harmful.” However, a stereotyped definition that omits positive masculine traits raises concerns. After all, it wasn’t long ago that psychologists were telling us that femininity was marked by hysteria and irrationality.
A key task is to add nuance. Like civility, traditional masculinity is about substance, not superficial appearances. Here’s a case in point: stoicism used to be seen as good but now is seen as bad. But maybe it depends on what you mean. In his Meditations, philosopher king Marcus Aurelius writes that, “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” He goes on to advise that, “when you do become angry, be ready to apply this thought, that to fly into a passion is not a sign of manliness, but rather, to be kind and gentle. For insofar as these qualities are more human, they are also more manly.”
A century earlier, Seneca (Emperor Nero’s tutor) gave this example: A sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is more manly?
This scenario comes from Seneca’s book On Anger. He observes that anger overrides rationality, so you can be angry or rational, but not both. And while rationality isn’t unique to masculinity, it is highly valued. Instead of shaming traditional masculinity as toxic and harmful, framing it as mastery of oneself provides a challenge with the potential for victory. After all, ancient ponderers of what is good observed that the ability to control anyone but yourself is an irrational delusion.
Seneca describes anger as temporary insanity. Anger, he writes, is in a hurry and only listens to one side of the story. It seeks only the appearance of fairness and gets distracted with its wild imagination. And at its worst, anger is angry with the truth itself.
Anger is in a hurry and only listens to one side of the story. It seeks only the appearance of fairness and gets distracted with its wild imagination. And at its worst, anger is angry with the truth itself.
He then lays out a plan for emotional self-awareness and self-control. Modern science supports his technique, which was an inspiration for cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s the plan: something happens and then there’s a physiological reaction, like your body tensing up. If you’ve got skills, you can catch it right away and can stop the rest of the process. But most of us aren’t there yet. Next, there’s an automatic thought: “I have been wronged.” You can stop here and tell yourself, “This is an illusion—it is only my judgment of it that harms me.” But if you don’t, then you might start to weave a narrative that becomes more exaggerated each time the broken record in your head repeats itself, until finally you spin out of control. The best thing to do when the broken record starts is to stop. Don’t act. Think about something else.
Although domestic violence had been declining since the 1990s, this trend has reversed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Stress, including unemployment, may affect some men’s self-worth. Women’s roles in society have changed greatly in the past few decades, and by extension this has changed men’s roles. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a masculinity identity crisis. But harkening back to images from old John Wayne movies is unrealistic because that was always superficial, and the past is gone. Today, being a good emotional provider is also important. Being a rock others can lean on, rather than a rock that crushes those nearby, has always been the unchanging core of masculinity.
Note from Jenny:
It’s not uncommon for a person in an abusive relationship to look back on their childhood and realize they’ve never had any positive male role models to teach them what authentic masculinity and healthy relationships look like. I’m blessed because in my life, I’ve known a few positive male role models, especially my brother, Dave DuBay. Sure, he was excessively irritating as a kid, and I kept praying the USS Enterprise would finally take him away, but he grew up quite admirably.
I’m still in a state of shock over that unforeseen development. But anyway …
Dave often writes on the topic of “toxic masculinity,” and is part of the writing team at Missio Dei. I’m honoured to have him as my guest blogger this week—but don’t tell my mom. She’ll have a heart attack if she finds out that Dave and I now get along so well.