How Sports, Military, Police and the Security Industry, Mixed with Trauma, Creates Modern Dangerous Macho Men
By Don Hazen
June 6, 2015
We live in a society of striking extremes of wealth and poverty. Increasingly our social polarization is overseen by a massive apparatus of army, police, prison and security guards, all operating in a subculture where violence is bred and some of the worst aspects of hyper masculinity are protected and reinforced, making millions of people fearful and vulnerable.
As Kali Holloway powerfully deconstructs, in her article, "Masculinity Is Killing Men: The Roots of Men and Trauma," the early socialization process of boys into men often results in maladaptive and self-destructive behavior that is dangerous to men’s health and to the well-being of their families and communities. Masculinity then, in general— and violent masculinity in particular—is not just a byproduct of early socialization, though that is obviously a contributor. It is also influenced by several environmental factors: childhood trauma; the overwhelming role of competitive sports for boys 5 and up; the tremendous influence in American culture of the military, itself a highly top down, authoritarian operation; and the unprecedented number of people, overwhelmingly male, now working in the security field.
While many men are both overtly and subtly directed to aspire toward the upper class of masculinity, where viciousness is often admired and rewarded, the majority of men are locked out of that system. These men are limited by any number of factors, including class, race and sexuality, to reaching the higher echelons of masculinity. They often experience the trauma of being subjected to indignities such as stop-and-frisk, income limitation and job loss, causing debt and other forms of powerlessness. They also incur the anger and rage bred by exclusion and systemic oppression.
American capitalism has created a multi-tiered system of masculinity. At the top are the dominant power players and opinion shapers who essentially control our society— a cruel machismo, often accompanied by wealth, that is frequently focused on making deals, being ruthless and the acquisition and exercising of power. Far below sits a subservient masculinity that often suffers under the exploitative yoke of the rich and powerful. The dominant masculine powers at the top repress not just most men but the rest who are less powerful, heightening the vulnerability of women and children.
What’s more, our racial and cultural diversity lends itself to different themes of masculinity. In black, Latino and Asian communities, the idea of masculinity takes various and differing culturally informed shapes. The same is also true of the LGBT community, where male roles include an array of tops and bottoms, along a continuum that runs from macho to effeminate and in some cases genderqueer and gender non-conforming. Masculinity is further shaped and defined by class, and the myriad and complex attendant issues around access and opportunity—and lack thereof—that accompany existence within various strata of class hierarchies.
The detrimental impact of competitive sports as a masculinizing force, one that privileges certain forms of masculinity as elite, and even above the law, has recently become a topic of national conversation, in large part due to domestic abuse, sexual assault and other scandals involving violence committed by players of both collegiate and major league sports. It’s disingenuous for the media to sell the narrative that what many researchers call the “toxic hypermasculinity” created by competitive sports is somehow an unintended consequence. The historical role of sports has always been to make men—and in particular, heterosexual men—out of little boys, and to separate the “weak” from the “strong.” A 2013 article from the legal blog Verdict traces how we got here:
“Sports were introduced in American schools out of fear that boys were becoming too womanly when the shift from an agrarian to an industrial labor force, along with limits on child labor, left them at their mothers’ apron strings rather than their fathers’ boots. For athletic boys, sports are a path to success and popularity. Conversely, too, boys who lack athletic interest or ability risk remaining on the periphery of masculinity....The message is endemic to American boyhood: an athletic boy is a real boy.”
We should not be surprised, then, when boys who are indoctrinated into the world of sports, where masculinity is defined by the number of hits you can give and take, becomes integral to their definition of masculinity on and off the field. The National Coalition Against Violent Athletes cites a study finding that male student-athletes comprised 3.3 percent of college students, but were 19 percent of the perpetrators of reported sexual assaults and 35 percent of those who committed domestic violence. The same study, which looked at “30 major Division I universities over a three-year period in the 1990s” found that student athletes committed one-third of collegiate sexual assaults. As the researchers behind a 2010 study on the intersection between masculinity and sports writes:
“[M]en compete for hegemonic dominance by showing overt physical prowess, using sexism and femphobia to distance themselves from association with femininity, deploying homophobia to distance themselves from homosexuality, and committing physical violence against themselves and others, all in order to raise their masculine capital among peers. Sport has traditionally served as a socially esteemed institution where boys formally learn these attitudinal components, something [researchers] describe as 'toxic practices' of masculinity.”
This is to say nothing of the fact that researchers have linked football (often called “America’s game”) and to an even greater degree, boxing, to numerous neurological issues, the inarguable result of men's brains and bodies being violently battered.
The Military and Our Security State
As income inequality grows, and the haves become ever more wary of the have-nots, we have become a nation increasingly on lockdown. The militarization of the police, like suburban gated communities, is just one byproduct of our growing security state, which is now larger than ever. As Sam Bowles and Arjun Jayadev noted in their 2014 New York Times Opinionator piece, One Nation Under Guard, there are now more than one million people working as private security guards in America, a figure that eclipses the number of people teaching high school. As of 2011, the “guard labor” force in the U.S. — which includes cops, prisons, military, security guards and other figures whose job is to control the rest of us—stood at an unprecedented 5.2 million. The number is likely far higher today. The U.S. has much more guard labor than countries where income inequality and economic stratification are less severe. The authors write:
“For the same countries, guard labor is also more common where those starting out in life face a sharply tilted playing field, such as America, Britain and Italy. These are countries in which the income of a father is a good predictor of the income of his adult son. The countries with the least guard labor are those in which there is greater equality of economic opportunity by this measure: These are Denmark and Sweden, countries in which knowing the father’s income does not enable a very accurate guess of the son’s income when he grows up., male college student athletes, compared to the rest of the male population.”
And in states where the gulf between rich and poor is widest—the authors cite New York, where the most super-rich in the country live in close proximity to some of the U.S.’s poorest residents, and Louisiana as examples—there are “twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states.”
Gabor Maté, a doctor who works with addicts in Vancouver and the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, argues that most addicts and alcoholics have suffered childhood trauma. Maté makes the case that drugs and alcohol are painkillers in both the literal and figurative sense. For millions of Americans who grew up with or bore witness to physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect, drugs and alcohol are a way to escape the deeply painful emotional wounds incurred in childhood. And in a country that does an abysmal job of providing mental health to anyone but its wealthiest citizens, drugs and alcohol are often the only source of mental relief for the most vulnerable and traumatized.
Poverty itself can also become a site of trauma for many children. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22 percent of children (16 million) in the U.S. live in families trying to make do on incomes beneath the federal poverty level, which is only $23,550 for a family of four. An even greater number of kids, 45 percent, live in what the NCCP calls “low-income families,” or those living at twice the poverty level, which allows them to meet the most basic of living costs. In urban areas, 49 percent of kids live in low-income families. For these households and the children growing up in them, the constant and sustained instability and stress of basic survival translates into a pervasive and unstinting trauma. The added issues of crime and violence in many low-income neighborhoods further traumatizes those who live in them. NCCP studies find that an incredible 83 percent of children living in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods have experienced one or more traumatic events. This process begins early, with 10 percent of children younger than the age of six who live in major American cities having already witnessed a stabbing or shooting.
It makes sense that children living in constant low-grade terror, in homes and neighborhoods where the conditions can be similar to a war zone, complete with militarized police presences, would manifest the same conditions as soldiers who have endured combat or victims of war. Almost all anger is part of the fight side of the fight-or-flight response to fear and trauma being triggered in the amygdala, where it sparks an almost instant, no-thought response.
Psychology Today notes that, "It has long been established that stress-related illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) trigger changes in brain structure, including differences in the volume of gray matter versus white matter, as well as the and size and connectivity of the amygdala.” Chronic stress affects the brain by “decreas[ing] the number of stem cells that mature into neurons and might provide an explanation for how chronic stress also affects learning and memory.” It also raises the level of cortisol, dubbed the stress hormone. Researchers indicate this can lead to a “domino effect that hardwires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.”
When these issues intersect with tenets of masculinity, which treats domination and violence as core to true manhood, it seems obvious that addiction and violence would be the end results.
Race and Class
When you carry this argument further, taking a class and a race perspective, it is safe to assume that people in poverty and people of color, who are disproportionately affected by poverty, are often the most victimized by trauma, the result of broken families, drug addiction, bullying, gangs, etc. The powerlessness of men who are re-victimized by the state, and further marginalized by racism, adds to the complexity of masculinity.
Some of these men escape to sports where the masculinity model plays out as previously discussed. Or they may enter the military, where the whole notion of bullying is baked into the process. Aside from lifers and the college-prepared who enter the military as officers, there is an overrepresentation of men from poor and working-class families, along with women, minorities and immigrants. It is an institution that oppresses the rank and file under the rules of war and security. Many may go through the military suffering some level of PTSD, often doubling down on early life trauma. Fraternities, borrowing lessons from both institutions, do this as well.
The Oppressive Masculinity of the Powerful
There is, undoubtedly, a masculine problem in the early socialization process. But that problem is exacerbated many times over in the way it is exploited and applied in so many levels by people in power. And one of the reasons for the masculinity socialization problem is that most fathers— and mothers—know full well how the brutal world works, and they want to make sure their kid has the tools to survive. Unfortunately, that means there is little or no incentive to change things.
The byproducts of masculinity—violence, addictions, jail and the rest—are the result not just of the social construct of masculinity, but the imposition of an oppressive patriarchy rendering many men powerless, traumatized and most likely to act out the most negative aspects of masculinity. Millions of men are either oppressed or crushed by the system, leaving them acting out extreme forms of masculinity, often out of desperation and feeling no sense of agency in their lives. Or it is leveraged to oppress the others in the system by preparing millions into police forces, security jobs, and the rest. A good number of these men are prone to violence, suffering from PTSD, poorly trained, and insular, so they can inflict cruel hazing and other forms of brutality within, for example, the silent blue wall of law enforcement.
Masculinity must address issues of class, trauma, race, sexual orientation, the military, sports, the wrecking of unions, the loss of jobs, the changing role of women, and much more. The story of masculinity in America is the story of the oppressors and the oppressed, where you find the real psychopathology and the worst acting out. Are educated and upper-middle-class men sexist and violent? Absolutely. But for the most part they are not the addicts, the murderers, the 2.3 million people sitting in jail. Because those people are the real victims of the dominant controlling masculinity.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.