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The Gender of Homicide, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

To the average person, the act of murder is literally unthinkable, and this is predominantly why homicide is traditionally viewed as the most abhorred crime a human being may commit. There are gradations of outrage, to be sure; a child’s killing of a parent, for instance, is typically seen as particularly outrageous, as certain homicides are motivated by causes actually understandable, and consequently generate sympathy for the offender. Nonetheless, by and large, homicide remains the single, most unspeakable act one person may commit. Moreover, it is an inherently aggressive act, and therefore most often attributed to men. While there is a sound basis for this perception, the less obvious reality is that, in Western society, men are more frequently homicide victims than are women. The two scenarios, in fact, support each other. In the ultimately patriarchal culture of the United States, conceptions of masculinity are still potent enough to create a wide array of circumstances wherein more men die from homicide simply because, as men, they are perpetually placed in arenas where that kind of extreme aggression is called into play.

To assert that men are more frequently the victims of murder is, as noted, a somewhat surprising statement, if merely by virtue of its being largely unconsidered. When the public contemplates homicide, it is usually due to media reporting which tends to seize on more  “dramatic” episodes, and greater drama is supplied when the gulf between killer and victim is wider. That is to say, it is easier to capture public attention when a man, ordinarily viewed as the more physically aggressive and powerful, murders a woman or child; the contrast in physical abilities translates to a more shocking, and consequently more engrossing, crime. The reality of homicide victimhood, however, tells a different story: The United States Census Bureau reports 13,286 men as victims of homicide crimes in 2007, compared with 3,643 females that same year (U.S. Census Bureau). If men are doing more killing – and, again, statistics customarily support that they are – men are as well doing the majority of the dying at the hands of other men.

Certainly, a host of various factors influence crimes, and it is specious to assign to gender role the culpability, or even the greatest measure, of what prompts homicides. Nonetheless, and as supported by extensive research, masculinity invariably renders men more susceptible to homicides, either as perpetrator or victim. For some time, it was widely believed that this influence of the gender was based upon distinct, biological factors; that, in essence, the dominant components within the male physiognomy and biology more easily lead to the violence of homicide. Modern evidence, however, contradicts this, and points far more to social and cultural issues as the motivating forces for the gender disparity in homicide rates.   Moreover, some of these factors are inextricably linked to the vast arena of what is considered “masculinity”. For example, it has been determined that, masculinity aside, economic status is an enormous factor in homicides  (Kimmel, Aronson,  2004,  p. 388). Those struggling against deprivations and injustices in the social order, driven to extremes, will kill.   This very exaggerated rebellion, however, is actually little more than a variation on the traditionally masculine need to achieve, and assert authority. Then, as whatever power is restricting the economically-deprived male will, even today, most likely be exerted by males as well, the cycle of men as predominantly both murderers and victims continues. In the following, other cultural elements will be examined which reinforce and perpetuate, more specifically, males as victims of homicide.

Masculinity Defined

Masculinity is a compilation of the qualities and characteristics that society associates with maleness.   Phrased in this way, the definition is relatively unassailable. It is also sadly lacking in real meaning, and this is because any society maintains its ideologies regarding gender roles and attitudes on levels so deep as to be virtually ingrained within that society. Moreover, a “newer” culture, such as that of the United States, does not present a more clear field of study, by virtue of the traditions of gender established by the immigrant populations founding the society. The patterns become inextricable and exponential, as well, as practicing culture, even when attempting to define masculinity, nonetheless supports and obfuscates the subject as it has long been regarded. Ironically, in fact, the more masculinity is probed, the less apparent or defined it becomes (Edwards,  2006,  p. 1). It is all somewhat analogous to an animal turning to examine the movements of its hind legs, even as it runs.

All argument, debate, and gender theories notwithstanding, there remains, certainly in the United States, a prevailing cultural mentality: a male is not considered a man if he does not posses the masculine characteristics set forth by the rest of society as defining the role. This remains in place despite extraordinary challenges arising to traditional, or even stereotypical, notions of maleness made by the rises in feminist consciousness. Unaccountably, in the face of extreme cultural upheavals in regard to gender roles, the standard survives, and the masculine male is he who has power over some men, and most women (Rothenberg, 2011,  p. 84). “Power” is, in fact, the keynote sounded in virtually every examination of masculinity, but what is more relevant is that the above definition is not merely confirmed in society, but still encouraged by it. Overt masculinity, in terms of bullying or exploitation of those weaker, is typically despised, yet the line drawn is rather fine. For example, the man who exerts undue control over his wife may be castigated, but the same culture condemning this behavior simultaneously admires it in “acceptable” doses. Authoritative and commanding is good, and masculine; a little too much command is negative, and dangerous. Both assessments, however, rely on masculinity itself, which is, in the latter case, actually perceived as being perverted in such instances. In other words, “masculinity” is not at fault, but the man who carries it too far is.

What this sort of ongoing dilemma creates is a no-win scenario, for this expectation of a perfect, measured masculinity sets in place idealized expectations most men cannot fulfill. Then, it must be noted that societies are complex, multifaceted things, and such expectations are manifested virtually everywhere the man turns. As gender is so deeply embedded with the culture, it is reflected in every aspect of it. In terms of mere physicality, boys are impressed from their youngest years with the images of what a masculine man should be. Cartoon figures such as Batman and Superman have an unrealistic physique that most men will never have, and this sets up a persistent sense of inadequacy in growing boys. It may be argued that, here, these are antiquated icons, and images not valid in the modern world.   Such a view, however, is belied by the continual success of such super-hero franchises. Moreover, modern technology translates what were once only comic books into mass media, and today’s average young man is escorting his date to a film where such extraordinary presentations of masculinity are embraced and reinforced to an incalculable degree.

Conversely, the extremes of masculine aggression are popularized in modern media, adding to the male confusion. Famous rappers exhibit violent behavior, often blatantly abusive to females and redolent of criminality. This is masculinity as gritty and severe, and a kind of masculine polarity of the more gentle, super-hero model. What is important is that both cultural presentations portray unrealistic male behavior, idealized or contemptible. It appears that masculinity, no matter how it is reflected by the culture, is done so in a manner rendering it an impossible attainment, and occasionally an undesirable one. The effect remains the same; although the standards are unrealistic, men chase after it in hopes of receiving the rewards of beautiful women, power, fame, and acknowledgment as a truly “masculine” man.

Homicide Connection: Instances of Attack

As these concepts of masculinity infuse the culture, they in turn promote male behaviors. As may be expected, how women are influenced by society is equally potent, and also  instrumental in assessing masculine response or action. For example, a vast array of cultural weaponry is both employed by women and encouraged by society. In a dangerous situation, a woman will more likely permit herself to be mocked or belittled; what she is focused upon is escape, and there is no self-esteem issue in feigning compliance to achieve it. Most men, however, will not take this route to avoiding danger. Moreover, masculinity is such within the society that this is not even a conscious choice. From boyhood on, one message is distinctly understood: “When men express anger they gain status, but when women express anger, they lose status” (Comer,  2009,  p. 245). Consequently, the masculine idea of self is tied to the display of aggression, and to deliberately reign in the impulse, even in a dire situation, is not a masculine option.

What this presents are circumstances, and frequently occurring in daily, mainstream life, wherein the male is going to provoke, or be provoked by, an explosive or violent episode. It stands to reason that these cultural parameters are at least somewhat understood by both men and women; therefore, women, usually physically weaker and more apt to avoid danger by any means possible, will refrain from actively creating such scenarios. Men, on the other hand, will often actually seek this kind of confrontation, as a means of testing one another’s relative power. They know, in a sense, that neither may back away, so belittling provides an excellent starting point for establishing dominance. Belittling is an attack on the masculine ego, and some men will become violent to protect their reputations as masculine men. When these circumstances escalate to homicidal violence, it is subsequently inevitable, then, that men become the victims.

Homicide Connection: Domestic Violence

With regard to domestic violence and homicides, the weight of the issue far more strongly lies on the side of women. Battering is largely considered, in fact, a crime against women, and this is partially a misconception fueled by men themselves. Here again, innate needs to conform to ideas of how a masculine man appears compel many men to hide the physical abuse they themselves suffer, and there can be no clear idea of how widespread this sort of male victimizing is (Jacobson, Gottman, 1998,  p. 35).  Far more well-known is that, when pushed to extremes by abuse, women sometimes murder their male partners.

As is evident elsewhere, the masculine impulse to exert authority may be perverted, or taken to extremes which lead to homicidal violence. Domestic abuse by men toward women is spurred on by a masculinity which encourages men to have control by any means necessary, no matter that societal restrictions and norms are asserted. In a sense, the male receives two messages: he is to be a true, masculine man and exhibit a dominant persona, yet he is also expected to be sensitive and considerate, which are traits he has been led to associate with femininity. Added to this conundrum are the other pressures influencing the male, outside of the home. It is reasonable to foresee that some men, thwarted of their masculine status at the work place, would then seek to overcompensate at home. This is by no means a legitimate excuse for physical abuse, as there can be none; it does, however, point to a rationale.

It indicates, also, two  further ironies. The first is that the patriarchal society, also increasingly determined to respect the privacy of a couple’s home and life, actually helps to enable abuse (Morrissey, 2003,  p. 71). When women who are battered feel that they have no other recourse in a male-dominated world, they kill, which renders the homicides something of a product of masculine control. This relates to the other irony, in that the men murdered by the women they abuse are dual victims themselves. That is to say, the extreme forms of masculinity they feel the need to manifest, which take the shape of brutality, bring about their own homicides.

Homicide Connection: Schools

Masculinity, as noted, is inculcated early. However it actually happens, young boys in school lose little time in evincing aggressive behaviors, very likely because any arena in which males are together fosters a competitive element. Violent crimes in school are often committed by boys, and not merely because they are stronger than girls; it is because aggression has already been established in their young minds as a defining trait of manhood. As with domestic violence, this frequently breeds reactions with fatal results for the boys so interacting.

Recent years have demonstrated a rise in episodes of school shootings, and these invariably involve boys. Nor do these tragic occurrences spring up out of nowhere, for it is typically revealed after the fact that the youthful killers were disenfranchised, bullied, isolated, and/or generally removed from the life of the school and peer acceptance. It is, of course, reasonable to conclude that girls bully other girls, and set up similarly destructive potentials. What creates the difference, and consequently the increase in homicides for boys, is the male response. As noted, females of any age are conditioned to escape, rather than confront. Society asks no more of girls or women than that they protect themselves from harm, so females are in no danger of suffering a loss of crucial self-esteem in fleeing. Psychological damage from bullying may still be likely, but no extreme reaction is mandated.

For the young boy, it is different. As elsewhere, masculinity once again enables situations where the need to assert it generates violence, and this is evident even in the less overtly  “masculine” circumstances of school bullying. Male pride, even young male pride, comes into play and, rather than allow the school administration to resolve the situation, some boys will seek to solve the problem with violence. Turning to the school authority, in fact, is of itself a weakness not in accord with achieving a masculine status; it is a turning for outside help, which worsens both the bullying and the psyche of the victim. In the schools where shootings have occurred, what has been in place before them is a remarkably primitive, nearly tribal situation, wherein the bullied is “tested”, or pushed, beyond endurance.

The component of masculinity as intrinsic to these tragedies is irrefutable.  There is, in virtually all school shootings, a commonality of cause, in that loss of some kind precipitates the homicides. Most typically, these involve the loss of regard from a desired girl, the loss of self-respect, or “face”, from bullying, and the loss of chances to succeed in the school (Heitmeyer, Haupt, Kirschner, & Malthaner,  2011,  p. 301).  All of these events or misfortunes go to the male sense of what determines male identity. Then, as bullies capable of consistently generating this kind of trauma are usually male – for who better knows the most effective means of shaming another male? – these same male bullies become the targets of the victim who snaps (Daniels, Bradley, 2011,  p. 96). Others may suffer as well, but most school shootings have revealed specific desires for revenge against the powerful, male faction within the school.

Conclusion

That the statistics indicate a huge disparity between homicide victims in terms of gender presents more than one dilemma. One of these is, in fact, both regrettable and perversely removed from how extreme crime is usually viewed; that is, as men are the more powerful humans, it is somewhat expected that they be involved, as both killer and victim, in most such crime. Simply, society expects men, inherently aggressive, to go too far.

The less considered corollary to this supposition, however, is that these same expectations place men in the role of victim just as significantly. There is in the culture a gender bias far more dangerous than that which restricts women from advancing in the world of business, for the bias towards men amplifies potentially dangerous tendencies. What makes “a man” may be debated and challenged in modern forums endlessly, but the common conception has not appreciably altered for some time, and it may even be expressed as that of a warrior mentality. Men still have the greater authority, yet they pay a price for it in human life often overlooked.

In what is essentially the patriarchal culture of the United States, conceptions of masculinity remain potent enough to create a wide array of circumstances wherein more men and boys are murdered simply because, as males, they are continually placed in arenas where one form or another of kind of masculine aggression is called into play.

References

Comer, R. J.  (2009).  Abnormal Psychology.  New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Daniels, J. A., & Bradley, M.C. (2011).   Preventing Lethal School Violence.  New York, NY: Springer.

Edwards, T. (2006).  Cultures of Masculinity.  New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Heitmeyer, W.,  Haupt, H.G.,  Kirschner, A.,  &  Malthaner, S.  (2011). Control of Violence: Historical and International Perspectives on Violence in Modern Societies. New York, NY: Springer.

Jacobson, N., & Gottman, J.  (1998).  When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Kimmel, M. S., & Aronson, A.  (2004).  Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopedia, Volume I.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Morrissey, B.  (2003).   When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity.  New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Rothenberg, P. (2011). Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study.  New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Table 308. Homicide Trends: 1980 to 2007 (2011). U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of  the United States.  Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/compedia/statab/2011/tables/11s0308.pdf

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