How Toxic Masculinity Is Killing America
Since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, 138 people have been killed in school shootings in America.
Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left at least 17 students and faculty dead, the media followed its usual talking points: Liberal pundits called for gun control, conservatives sent "thoughts and prayers." Many called for stronger security at schools, some even suggesting teachers should be armed.
What both sides seemed to agree on is that the suspected shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was "disturbed" and "mentally ill."
"So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior," President Donald Trump tweeted the day after the tragedy. "Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!" In court, Cruz's attorneys said he has struggled with depression and described him as a "broken child."
While Cruz may in fact be mentally ill, using his alleged mental illness as the sole motive for his rampage is not only stigmatising the millions of people who are mentally ill and are not violent, but also leaves out a big piece of the puzzle, a piece that connects many of these mass murderers: Toxic masculinity.
Cruz was reportedly violent towards an ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend; he would often make public threats to classmates and others. He was expelled from school for behavioural issues and even posted online that he would be a "professional school shooter."
This is a common thread among mass murderers, as Quartz noted. From Las Vegas, to Sutherland Springs, to San Bernardino, to Sandy Hook, to Pulse, to Virginia Tech, what all these men shared in common was their propensity for violence and anger towards women.
The rest were men.
According to Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, this is sadly not surprising. "In the domestic violence community, we brace ourselves for a likely, inevitable connection to violence against women when these horrific mass shootings come out. It’s never a surprise," she tells Refinery29.
Why do young men, men of all ages, think they have an entitlement to women in their lives that they can maintain through violence and threats?
McLaughlin says a "strong sense of entitlement" and "use power to threaten and harm women in their lives when they end the relationship" is thematic across many of these mass shootings.
"Where have those messages come from? Why do young men, men of all ages, think they have an entitlement to women in their lives that they can maintain through violence and threats?" she says.
In 2012 following the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting, William Pollack, the director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Boston and a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Daily Beast that the socialisation of boys is a contributing factor to men becoming mass shooters.
"There's a proclivity to aggression [in men] that's biological, but it takes a social trigger to engage it," Pollack said. "We socialise healthy, normal boys to 'stand on their own two feet' for fear that otherwise they won't be real boys ... They're taught not to tell anyone when they feel pain, because they should be stoic, and they certainly shouldn't cry."
Also troubling, according to McLaughlin, is the fact that mental illness is being used as a main reason for these events.
"The vast majority of people in this country who suffer from mental illness just suffer. They need help and support," she tells Refinery29. "I think when we see someone who chooses to be violent, chooses to be dominant, making threats, that’s a different thing."
Mental illness also should not excuse violence, according to McLaughlin. "I have sympathy for people who suffer, but we also have to hold them accountable for their violent actions and their threats."
Though many were allegedly aware of Cruz's disturbing behaviour and threats, Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says violence is the sole responsibility of the perpetrator.
"In a violent situation, the individual who committed the violent act is responsible for that act," Ray-Jones tells Refinery29. "This is also true in instances of domestic violence, as the abusers often desire the victim to feel at fault — that they deserve the abuse. But, no one deserves to be the victim of violence; violence in any form in a relationship is never okay, and it is never justified."
There are already laws on the books that are designed to stop those with a history of domestic violence from purchasing firearms. But as seen time and time again, loopholes make it ridiculously easy for violent abusers to get their hands on weapons.
This fact, that domestic abusers often escalate their violence when they are in possession of a gun, is a strong precursor to mass shootings. According to a study from the Congressional Research Service, a domestic dispute was a "precipitating factor in roughly a fifth (21.2%) of mass public shootings" from 1999 to 2013.
Beyond creating laws that will effectively keep weapons out of the hands of violent people, McLaughlin says American culture needs to change. "We know that our government needs to invest in prevention activities that fix our culture so that folks in dating relationships see that possessing your partner isn’t the goal, that your role as a man in this world is not about dominance and control," she says.
Guns, and the message of "strength" and manliness they often convey, is deeply entrenched in American society. "When tough guys are threatened, gun culture beckons, offering reassurance about the command and control of traditional masculinity," Francie Wilkinson wrote in Bloomberg in 2014. "Guns loom large in the imagination, altering perceptions."
McLaughlin believes lives will continue to be lost until America has an honest conversation about what our society is teaching men and women.
"Until we fully push our culture and condemn violence at the highest levels, I think we’re going to be stuck in this pattern of toxic masculinity being supported," she says.