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Of Boys and Men

When toxic masculinity is part of a culture, male survivors of childhood abuse may turn to crime as a way to reclaim their masculinity.

Research  |  Sep 21, 2018  |  By Nicole Rupersburg
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When we hear terms like “sex trafficking” and “sexual victimization,” we tend to assume the survivors are female. While the majority are, however, these crimes impact all genders.

Shon Reed, a doctoral student who works with criminal justice researcher Alexis Kennedy, is studying childhood victimization in males. His research focuses on some of the long-term negative impacts it can have on their lives—including higher rates of criminal behavior in adulthood—and how concepts of masculinity might be correlated.

Effects of the Past on the Present

In the last semester of his junior year, Reed took a class with Kennedy that gave a broad overview of sexual abuse and victimization. He was initially interested in researching sex trafficking, Kennedy’s area of expertise, but when he read a critique of criminologist James Messerschmidt's concept of diminished masculinity and its role in criminality, he felt something was missing: What was the cause of diminished masculinity in the first place?

That question led Reed to hone in on childhood victimization in males. From there, he began to see a pattern between criminal activity in adulthood and abuse in childhood.

“When a male is victimized at an early age, thoughts and memories related to those experiences might haunt him as he gets older, and he may begin to act out,” Reed said.

While this could account for why victims may later turn to a life of crime, the theory fails to account for one significant demographic discrepancy: the much higher occurrence of criminal behavior in men than women.

“Throughout history, men have consistently committed more crime than women,” Reed said. “So, if a key contributing factor in criminal behavior was a history of victimization and violence, women should be committing more crimes, given how often women suffer abuse and are marginalized in society. The fact that men are consistently committing crime at a higher rate means there’s something we’re missing.”

What Makes a Man?

In his master’s thesis, "Boys to Men: Masculinity, Victimization, and Offending," Reed began examining the relationships among a young man’s concept of masculinity—what young men believe it means to be a man—a history of childhood abuse, and criminal behavior later in life.

While the correlation between childhood abuse and criminal behavior in adulthood, regardless of gender, has already been well established and documented by the U.S. Department of Justice, Reed was interested in understanding why this was the case.

To determine the general rates of victimization for males in the Las Vegas Valley, Reed and Kennedy studied 295 male college students predominantly raised in the area. An astounding one in five reported experiencing sexual victimization before turning 18—four times the national reported average of one in 20 and equal to the national reported average of one in five for women, according to the National Center for Victims of Violent Crime.

Sexual assault and abuse is widely suspected to be underreported among all genders, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, but especially so with men. Reed suspects that the way boys are socialized to be men may play a role in this underreporting.

Reed surveyed participants using a few different perceived masculinity scales and victimization measures. Focusing on juvenile crimes, he looked to see if reduced self-perceived masculinity seemed to correlate with different types of criminal behavior and whether being a survivor of abuse correlated with a diminished sense of masculinity. He found a strong correlation between criminal behavior and physical abuse where the latter was present and believes that some young male survivors lash out and engage in criminal behavior as a way of performing or trying to reclaim their idea of masculinity.

“Since the dawn of modern culture, men have been socialized to not talk about their victimization,” Reed said. “What is the cure for toxic masculinity where men aren’t allowed to express feelings or their trauma, when parents tell their kids to ‘Suck it up’ and ‘Be a man’?”

Perhaps male victims seek out other ways to deal with their trauma, Reed said—for example, joining hate groups that act as a form of masculine validation, as sociologist Michael Kimmel has detailed.

“Childhood victimization in the home can act as the initial stressor that leads to a general hatred for the world,” Reed said. “Many of the men in these groups have been victimized, and they know they’ve all been victimized, so it becomes kind of a safe, toxic healing circle.”

Changing Conversations to Change the Culture

Reed plans to revisit his study in the future, ideally with males who are incarcerated. He also plans to develop more robust measurements for masculinity and victimization among participants to better assess the connection between the two.

He hopes his work, once concluded, will contribute to larger dialogues on how we raise boys to be men as well as how we treat survivors of childhood abuse.

“If being victimized leads to feeling like less of a man, we need to find a way to promote a more pro-social masculinity,” Reed said. “But whether it’s a male or female survivor, we need to tell all survivors that they shouldn’t be ashamed. This was something that was done to them, not something they did.”