Photo: Digital Vision Photography/
Men may look unruffled on the outside, but inside they're burning.

The simple truth is that men are somewhat violent, even those of us who abhor violence.

We believe that we would, or should, be willing to die or kill for those we love. Even if we are cerebral, out of shape, or blind in one eye, many of us expect of ourselves levels of daring and aggression that would quite frankly horrify most women, if it didn't reduce them to helpless laughter.

From the beginning of organized society, boys have been raised to accept the idea that one day they might be called upon to either kill or be killed, to be ready to defend their homes, their villages, their tribes against harm. How much of this indoctrination still holds sway in the average middle-class American man who shops at Whole Foods instead of hunting his dinner, who watches the Iraq war from his living room sofa instead of through the windshield of a Humvee, who washes dishes, nurtures children, and keeps supper warm when his wife works late? Quite a lot, I think, more than women might guess, more than we ourselves can readily admit to, and certainly more than is socially useful.

As I am writing this, a news story has just appeared on my computer screen, about a 12-year-old boy who killed his mother's assailant with a knife. The boy was playing video games—themselves a kind of gymnasium where violent fantasies go for their workouts—when he heard his mother scream from the kitchen of the rooming house they lived in. Running into the kitchen and finding his mother on the floor, the boy shouted to the attacker, "Stop! Stop!" And when the man ignored him, the boy found a kitchen knife and stabbed him to death. "My son protected me," the mother said.

The courts of Maryland will decide if the son's actions were legally justified; what concerns us here is whether they were in any way gender determined. Is it possible the outcome of that terrible scene would have been the same had that been the woman's daughter in the next room?

Of course it's possible—men and women are not opposites—but defending a woman at all costs, recognizing that the normal rules governing everyday life are subject to sudden and violent change, are the very core of male-hood, if not manhood. And even those men who have never found themselves in a violent confrontation, I promise you, have nevertheless thought about the possibility of push coming to shove, and wonder what they will do when the time arrives.

Men size up other men as possible opponents in a fight; men pitilessly judge themselves based on how they have, in the past, responded to threats. In A Crime So Monstrous, Ben Skinner's recent book about modern slavery, one American antitrafficking zealot traces the beginnings of his life's work to the time he saw a pimp abusing a prostitute and did not come to the woman's defense. Even after years of traveling throughout the world and working the halls of Congress on behalf of trafficked women, the man still has not let himself off the hook for that past moment of timidity.

And that, perhaps, is what makes this simple truth—that men are violent— not so simple. Because buried inside it is a more complicated truth: that men feel they must withstand violence. Men are not just throwing grenades at their enemies, they're throwing themselves on top of grenades for their friends; they aren't simply punching out another drunk in a bar, they're stepping between two drunks and getting whaled on in the process; they aren't only the perpetrators in the dark alley, they're the ones forcing themselves to walk down that same alley toward a cry for help.

And this is where we come to the largest and perhaps the deepest part of the gulf that separates men from women: If you hurt, cheat, or humiliate a woman she will in all probability hate you forever. If you do these things to a man, he will hate you, too, but if the score is somehow not settled, if he does not hurt you back and then some, the greatest, most excoriating and lasting scorn he will feel will be for himself.


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