A few years ago a man murdered a woman out by the reservoir in our little town in the northwest hills of Connecticut. He strangled her with her dog’s leash, beat her, slit her throat, rolled her down an embankment, and left her to die. His confession to police didn’t clarify why he did it. He didn’t know her. He didn’t sexually assault her. He took nothing, except her life.
He’d been seen around the reservoir’s 3,000 wooded acres for several weeks, arousing suspicions in many, but apparently not enough to warrant a call to police in this friendly and welcoming town.
In the aftermath, women are worried, as if the world is no longer safe. They talk about locking doors and being afraid to walk down familiar paths. But it’s different for men. “You don’t seem worried about this,” my life partner Nora says to me.
It’s true, and yet men are more likely to be murdered than women. So, you’d think I’d be the one feeling worried about an unexpected visitation of male violence.
“So, why not?” I ask.
“Because,” she says, “you’re never stalked, never preyed upon.” This is also true. According to new Justice Department research, in any given year, men subject more than a million women in the U.S. to the experience of being stalked and hunted.
And, as Nora reminds me, this pattern is also found in the sea of cultural images that teach us what the world’s about. The standard “suspense” movie couldn’t do without a woman alone in the woods or her house. The music shifts to ominous, announcing a malevolent presence that’s always male. She is terrified, hunted, simply because she’s female, and that’s the stuff that “suspense” and “horror” are made of in this culture.
She is out of control, running blindly for her life. The man who stalks her, however, is in control, the one who terrorizes, who knows what’s going to happen next. Until, of course, another man saves the day with still greater control, although not before at least a few women’s deaths have made the point that women aren’t in control and that’s how it’s supposed to be. The main reason they’re in the movie is to provide an opportunity for one man to best another in the heroic masculine struggle for control.
“Women are never alone,” Nora says. That ominous stalking presence is always available to be summoned up by the simplest creak of a house settling on its foundation. But as a man, I have no reason to harbor such fears, because men don’t stalk other men, lie in wait to attack a man with no apparent reason other than being male and available.
Of course men do horrible violence to one another, and men know what it’s like to fear it. I know all too well that feeling in the pit of my stomach when a man cuts me off in traffic and throws me the finger. But this isn’t the kind of violence that identifies me as a perpetual target for any man who sees me walking down a country lane with my dog. Whenever men kill other men, there’s always a reason that makes some kind of sense. The victim has money, or he’s in the way, or he’s challenged the other man’s manhood, or he’s trying to stop him from killing.
But men don’t die huddled and trembling in their homes, terrified as someone closes in for the random, senseless, brutal kill. Those aren’t the images that fill our screens and newspapers and memories, because such images aren’t the stuff of true manhood. Men don’t huddle and wait to be killed. Men are the ones who act, who take control, who kill the innocent and kill the killers.
To understand this gender difference, we first have to see that violence is primarily about control. Violence works. It makes people do what they otherwise would not. It governs the thin line between life and death. It works for the police, it works for schoolyard bullies, it works for the armies of nation states, it works for parents who abuse their children and husbands who beat their wives.
Not only is violence about control, but control is one of the highest values in this culture. And it is gendered as masculine. The ability to be in control is a mark of true manhood, a standard against which men are raised to measure themselves and other men. The most powerful man can be brought down in an instant if other men see him as not being in control. A “controlling” woman, however, is suspect, a bitch, the stuff of which despised and pitied henpecked husbands are made.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that our culture pumps out an endless stream of images of male violence. The point is not to glorify violence, but to glorify the masculine struggle for control that violence serves. Brutality isn’t the point; killing isn’t the point. Control is the point. And that is where the good guys and the bad guys salute one another in the midst of battle, bound by a shared allegiance to the cultural ideal of men in control.
A society that worships control will also worship violence, whether in horror movies or national cemeteries. It will set men on a path to both frighten and fear other men. And it will plant in women the gnawing sense that there is no place where the specter of men’s violence cannot find them.
For more of Allan’s work on issues of gender, see his book, The Gender Knot.
Copyright © 2013 by Allan G. Johnson. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson, www.agjohnson.com, and this copyright notice.