The recent movie theater massacre in Aurora shocked the country. On some level, it did to movie-going what 9/11 did to flying—essentially, took away the innocence of what had hitherto been a common, everyday occurrence.
And, predictably, in the face of world-rocking disasters set into place by humans, the situation has been parsed on many levels. Who was this James Holmes? Why did he go with “The Joker”? What could happen to cause a doctoral student to run amok? What does this mean to the gun-control pissing contest? Did Holmes’ psychiatrist have an obligation to alert authorities as to his profoundly violent tendencies?
I found myself most intrigued by a piece from Erika Christakis, an administrator at Harvard University, positing that mass murder has a tendency to be … well, a male-dominated club. While Christakis admits that it’s not like women never kill (and there’s the odd female serial killer that’s floated through history), it’s an inarguable fact that the most shocking acts of violence, including but not limited to mass murder, have been “overwhelmingly perpetrated by men”.
In fact, Christakis goes so far as to say throw out there that “our silence about the huge gender disparity of such violence may be costing lives.”
Imagine for a moment if a deadly disease disproportionately affected men. Not a disease like prostate cancer that can only affect men, but a condition prevalent in the general population that was vastly more likely to strike men. Violence is such a condition: men are nine to 10 times more likely to commit homicide and more likely to be its victims. The numbers are sobering when we look at young men. In the U.S., for example, young white males (between ages 14 and 24) represent only 6% of the population, yet commit almost 17% of the murders. For young black males, the numbers are even more alarming (1.2% of the population accounting for 27% of all homicides). Together, these two groups of young men make up just 7% of the population and 45% of the homicides. And, overall, 90% of all violent offenders are male, as are nearly 80% of the victims.
A lot of my teacher friends and colleagues and I have a theory on fighting that goes on in schools—basically, if girls get into a fight, it’s forever. Oh, they may smile and “make up”, but both sides (and their legions of friends) will never forget the situation. It gets dragged up repeatedly, often into adulthood. Boys get pissed at each other, beat the shit out of each other, and have basically forgotten the whole thing within a month and often become friends.
As this has always been my attitude, I found those statistics troubling, to say …
… the least.
But then I got thinking a little bit more …
We shouldn’t need Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading psychologists and the author of the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to tell us the obvious: “Though the exact ratios vary, in every society, it is the males more than the females who play-fight, bully, fight for real, kill for real, rape, start wars and fight in wars.” The silence around the gendering of violence is as inexplicable as it is indefensible. Sex differences in other medical and social conditions — such as anorexia nervosa, lupus, migraines, depression and learning disabilities — are routinely analyzed along these lines.
See, this is where I start to question Christakis’ hypothesis.
Let me throw out some names for you: Rosemary West. Aileen Wuornos. Beverly Allitt. Celine Lesage. Andrea Yates. The Manson girls. Belle Sorenson Gunness. The fact that these women had histories of abuse or mental problems that unquestionably played a role in their murders doesn’t mean that … well, the same can’t be true for men.
If we want equality, oh feminists, we’ve got to own it.
I am a woman, I am a feminist, and I strongly believe in equality for all. That being said, in large part because of these mantles I wear, I wonder if we must first fully understand bullying, play-fighting, and fighting “for real”.
I think back to my own youth, of actions like leaving a loaf of bread on the doorstep of a frenemy that was publicly bemoaning a yeast infection, of making fun of people lower on the social totem pole than I was (or of laughing when my friends did … I was rarely a ringleader, although now I think that being a follower is perhaps even worse), of telling secrets I swore I wouldn’t just to get the word out that so-and-so wasn’t as perfect as everyone thought, of setting up friends to fight with each other, of getting into the occasional physical altercation because it let me “prove” my position in society.
And I wasn’t exactly a “bad kid” … I saw much worse from a lot of my female peers.
It seemed to me that the boys had it easier. Bullying happened, yeah, but it was far more upfront, as was the fighting. There was generally no sneakiness or secrecy or getting friends involved.
Girls were sneaky. Girls were cruel. Girls left emotional scars that will likely never heal. (You can get over a bloody nose and a black eye far worse than the whole school knowing you wear Hugga Bunch undies as a middle schooler—I am going to write a letter of apologizing for spreading that around, as I’m ashamed of my own cruelty at the moment).
I think Christakis, for better or for worse, is taking the extremes—the Ted Bundys, the Charles Mansons, the James Holmeses, the Jeffrey Dahmers—and using them to try to make a point that I have to say I’m not sure I completely agree with.
I mean, how many female suicides have been a result of bullying, of cruelty, of unspeakable mistreatment at the hands of other women? It just doesn’t have the same media appeal, maybe, nor is it necessarily explicitly known.
When I was in eighth grade, a kid threw gum in my hair during an assembly. I was devastated, mortified, humiliated, and pretty much had hysterics when brought to the nurse to have it taken out (with peanut butter). I don’t think I ever told anyone about that once it was over (although seeing the jerk crying in the principal’s office helped a little bit). Had a lot of those little events of cruelty added up and I had descended into a place where low self-worth led me to suicidal thoughts, would anyone really know the role they played? Of course not.
Because, and I know it’s not popular to say this, females have a tendency to keep their deepest humiliations to themselves.
Men act on them, and men in really bad places act on them exponentially, a theory that Christakis freely admits exists.
Skeptics will claim that the perpetrators of horrific acts like the Aurora shootings are such aberrations that we can hardly build public policy around their evil behavior. But it’s a mistake to view mass murderers as incomprehensible freaks of nature. For example, we know that the young men who go on murderous rampages are not always sociopathic monsters but, rather, sometimes more or less “regular” men who suffered from crushing depression and suicidal ideation.
No reasonable person can imagine how despair could possibly lead to premeditated mass homicide. However, the fact that depression is so frequently accompanied by violent rage in young men — a rage usually, but not solely, directed at themselves — is something we need to acknowledge and understand.
The truth of the matter is, we do not know what led James Holmes, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and their ilk to reach the tipping point. I suspect that there are traumatic events behind the scenes that hold the key, and we will never really know what those might have been.
But saying that a penis and testosterone a serial killer make? I’m just not sure on that.
I have tremendous sympathy and empathy for the victims of these monsters (primarily male, to cede Christakis’ point on that one), but I have equal sympathy for the suicides and mental anguish and agoraphobia and anorexia and bulimia and compulsive overeating and so on that women suffer at the hands of other women.
Just because it is on the DL, no more than whispered secrets in high school bathroom stalls, doesn’t make it any less tragic.
I know this is not a very popular stance to take on this, but just because killings are covert rather than overt and on some sort of mass scale doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
There is plenty of tragedy to go around.