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Hegemonic Masculinity and Sexual Assault

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Sexual assault is a highly prevalent health issue in Australian society that is mostly committed against women by men. It is a grievous crime that impedes not only on the victim’s integrity, but also their human rights (Queensland Government, 2015). To understand why men commit sexual assault against women, this paper will use Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity (HM) to explain its occurrence. In order to do so, the crime and Connell’s concept of HM will be defined. Then, current research discussing the connection between HM and sexual assault of women will be explored in order to understand how it explains the crime. Finally, this paper will explore other possible explanations for why sexual assault of women is committed by men, such as Routine Activity Theory (RAT) and Evolutionary Perspective theory. Then it will be understood how the concept of HM explains why men may commit sexual assault of women. First, this paper will explore the crime itself by defining it and briefly examining its impacts on victims.

Sexual assault is known by many different names across Australian state and territory legislation, which this paper will use interchangeably. Some of these names include sexual intercourse without consent, rape, sexual aggression, and sexual penetration without consent. Sexual assault can include a wide range of behaviours, including when a person forces another person to have sex with them, to perform sexual acts, to watch or engage in pornography, unwanted sexual advances or harassment, and sexual coercion. An individual can still be forced to commit an act, even if they did not protest or physically resist the attacker (DSS, 2019). Current research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019) reveal that 1 in 5 women (1.7 million overall) have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 in Australia. Other research on sexual aggression has also revealed that women experience this violence primarily at the hands of men. Experiencing sexual assault can impact an individual greatly and can have serious and long-lasting effects on their health, psychological wellbeing, and relationships (AIHW, 2018). Now that sexual assault of women has been clearly defined and the impacts of the crime have been briefly explored, Connell’s concept of HM will now be discussed in order to understand how it explains why men commit rape.

In order to understand how Connell’s concept of HM explains sexual assault of women, the concept will be discussed and explored. The concept of HM was first discussed in a field study conducted by Kessler, Ashenden, Connell and Dowsett (1982) in which they examined social inequality in the context of Australian high schools. The results of the study were then systematised into an article by Carrigan, Connell and Lee (1985) before Connell (1987) integrated the model described in the article into a sociological theory of gender describing the concept of HM. Connell’s theory of HM has since become the most cited source for the concept (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). It is described by Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) as being the current idealised way of being a man that is socially dominant than other types of masculinities, which are marginalised (Esplen & Greig, 2007). When understood as a form of social practice, HM allows for the dominance of men over women, as well as supporting a rape-supportive environment in which men’s violence is fostered through patriarchal beliefs (Connell, 1987; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Truman, Toaker & Fischer, 1996). The way in which HM fosters a rape-supportive environment is the three social practices, procreation, protection, and provision, that must be practiced for men to achieve HM (Kersten, 1996). Procreation relates to enacting heterosexuality and dominating women sexually, protection relates to physical control over all genders, either as enemies or property, and provision relates to a man providing resources for his family (Kersten, 1996). Achieving these three areas of social action allows a man to achieve the idealised masculinity, or HM (Kersten, 1996). Levant, Rankin, Williams, Hasan and Smalley (2010) also identified several dimensions and roles which men must adhere to in order to assert their dominance, which encourages rape-supportive behaviours and beliefs. Some of these dimensions include restrictive emotionality, negativity towards sexual minorities, avoidance of femininity, and the importance of sex, toughness, and dominance (Levant et al., 2010). Seen simply, the idea of HM relates to the normative ideology that in for men to be a ‘true man’, they must be dominant, in both society and over women (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Mankowski & Maton, 2010). It can clearly be seen after a brief exploration into HM, that it supports the dominance of a minority of men over other men and all women. In order to understand how this may lead men to sexually assault women, this paper will examine current research discussing the connection between HM and this crime.

Current research exploring the connection between HM and sexual assault of women will now be discussed in order to understand how the concept helps to explain the crime. Messerschmidt (1993) reports sexual violence against women as a public representation of HM. Current research supports this as it has been consistently found that men who adhere strongly to the norms of HM may feel compelled to commit sexual assault to maintain their need for dominance (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994; Malamuth, Heavy & Linz, 1996; Moore et al., 2008; Murnen, Wright & Kaluzny, 2002; Smith, Parrott, Swartout & Tharp, 2015). Further research also found that men who endorse aspects of HM are at a greater risk for perpetration sexual assault of women (Murnen et al., 2002; Zurbriggen, 2010). Previously identified dimensions of male role norms promoted through HM, for example, feminine avoidance, have also been found to be independently, as well as collectively, correlated with sexual assault of women (Zurbriggen, 2010). Murnen et al. (2002) conducted a meta-analytic review of research discussing the link between masculine ideology, which can also be understood as HM, to sexual aggression and found that extreme adherence to the ideology was linked to men committing sexual assault of women. Clearly current research has found a connection between adherence to the concept of HM and sexual aggression against women. This paper will now attempt to explain how this connection might lead men to commit this crime.

By using the current literature surrounding the concept of HM, this essay will now explain how it helps us to understand sexual assault of women. Previously it has been identified that some men adhere strongly to the male norms idealised in HM, such as procreation, protection, and provision (Smith et al., 2015; Kersten, 1996). When these men feel that their dominance is being undermined and they need to maintain it, they may be compelled to be sexually aggressive to women in order to do so (Smith et al., 2015). Strict adherence to HM can also cause masculine gender role stress for men when they experience situations in which their masculinity is threatened. Kimmel (2000) explains that men who experience this type of stress can perform a wide variety of actions in order to reaffirm their dominance and masculinity, and subordinate others. Sexual aggression, particularly against women, is seen as the most effective method of doing so as it is commonly seen as the most obvious symbol of masculinity (Kimmel, 2000; Smith et al., 2015). Many other scholars also support the finding that the act of sexual aggression against women is the ultimate demonstration of masculinity for men who feel that they must embody HM. Men may also commit sexual assault due to the ideals of how men should live and act that are promoted through HM, which are also known as the ‘four rules of manhood’, identified by Kimmel (2000). These are antifemininity, status-achievement, inexpressiveness-independence, and adventurousness-aggressiveness (Kimmel, 2000). In order to achieve HM, men should aim to embody these four rules of manhood, however, in doing so, they are socialised into behaviours that foster support for sexual aggression against women (Kimmel, 2000). For example, anti-femininity refers to the idea that men should avoid exhibiting feminine traits or behaviours, whilst status-achievement refers to the status that men should achieve through sports and employment which places pressure on men to succeed. Inexpressiveness-independence refers to the concept that men should be emotionally detached and should be able to handle any crisis with composure, whilst adventurousness-aggressiveness refers to the idea that men should be physical risk takers, with a focus on physical feats of aggression. Kilmartin and Allison (2007) propose that adherence to adventurousness-aggressiveness commonly results in violent behaviour. It can easily be seen how each rule is recognisable in manifestations of HM and how it may lead men to commit sexual assault of women. Whilst the concept of HM does help to explain why men may engage in sexual aggression against women, others have proposed alternative theories to why this crime is committed.

Whilst the concept of HM can be used to explain why men commit sexual assault of women, other theories have also attempted to provide an explanation for why the crime occurs. RAT is one theory that proposes that the occurrence of sexual assault is impacted by three factors: presence of likely offenders, the presence of guardians, and the availability of suitable targets (Cohen & Felson, 1979). The first condition, presence of motivated offenders, can certainly be established when examining sexual assault of women as Schwartz and Pitts (1995) explain the high rate of victimisation is indicative of motivated offenders. According to Schwartz and Pitts (1995), the second condition of RAT, absence of suitable guardians, is also present when examining the crime. The third condition, availability of suitable targets can also be established in sexual assault of women. When researchers discuss ‘suitable targets’, it is generally meant as male offenders and female targets, but also as the legitimacy of the use of violence against women by potential offenders in their culture (Schwartz & Pitts, 1995). RAT theorists also propose that certain situations and locations may increase a woman’s risk of being targeted, such as being intoxicated or being in contact with sexually predatory men (Schwartz & Pitts, 1995). If these three conditions are met, then it is likely that sexual assault of women will be committed. Another theory that attempts to explain the crime is the Evolutionary Perspective, which claims that men may commit sexual assault of women due to their male psychology, which has been designed to maximise their reproductive success (Quinsey & Lalumiere, 1995). It proposes that the crime is a result of manifestations of men’s male sexual psychology (Quinsey & Lalumiere, 1995). As can be seen, two alternative theories of RAT and the Evolutionary Perspective propose alternative explanations of why men commit sexual assault of women besides Connell’s concept of HM.

This paper has defined sexual assault of women, as well as discussing Connell’s concept of HM. Research literature that has investigated the connection between HM and sexual assault of women has been explored in order to explain how the concept might help us to understand why this crime occurs. Other plausible explanations for why sexual assault of women is committed, such as RAT and Evolutionary Perspective theory, has also been discussed. It can now clearly be seen how Connell’s concept of HM helps to explain sexual assault of women.


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