Hyper-Masculininty’s Violent Response in NA/Indigenous Populations

In Prevention, Sexual Assault Awareness on April 23, 2011 at 8:17 am

One in six women will experience rape or attempted rape within their lifetime (Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N., 1997). Every two minutes a woman is sexually assaulted in the US (U.S. Department of Justice. 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2007).  One third of female murder victims, are killed by an intimate partner, and the rate of female homicides that are committed by an intimate partner is increasing (U.S. Department of Justice. 2004 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2004). These statistics provide tangible evidence of the environment of women. An environment that can be defined as “sexual terrorism” (Sheffield, 2007). Women’s daily lives are affected by violence and the implicit threat of violence. Violence against Native American women is even higher than any other racial group in the country, the National Violence Against Women Survey [NVAWS] found that “almost 65% of American Indian women…reported experiencing rape or physical violence is compared to 55% of the total NVAWS sample” (Wahab & Olson, 2004).  According to the NVAWS, “the lifetime rate of physical assault [for Native American Women] was 64.1% compared 51.8% for the total population” (Wahab & Olson, 2004). Native American women are twice as likely to be assaulted compared to those in other racial categories (Bureau of Justice).  Men commit the vast majority of violent crime in the country, and while the majority of men’s violence is committed against other men, women pay the heaviest price. Patriarchy, the supremacy of men in all respects of life, the social, economic, and political spheres, is the system of oppression that excuses, legitimizes, and even encourages this type of violence. Fortunately, not all men are violent. But, what makes those violent men violent? And, why are Native American men violent, despite a history of equitable and mostly (gender) violence free existence?

The idea of performativity was introduced by Judith Butler in her seminal work Gender Trouble. Butler’s contention is that our identities are the result of performance constructed from “acts, gestures, [and] enactments” (Gender Trouble, 1999). Butler argues that society and culture are socially constructed, that our reality is fabricated (Ibid., 1999). These “acts [and] gestures[…]create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core” (Ibid., 1999). That is to say that the reality that we construct, through these behaviors, is held so deeply and are thus viewed as being natural, that we accept them as biological and they go unquestioned.

Butler argues that to maintain, and ensure to others present, one’s gender identity, individuals adopt strategies during “duress” (Ibid., 1999). These behaviors are continuously performed , “the repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation” (Ibid., 1999). Butler argues that gender has a fluidity, that is to say that it is constantly changing and acting and reacting to social stimuli, this is a “stylized repetition of acts” (Ibid., 1999).

When it comes to masculinity, performance takes on even greater urgency and necessity. Men must meet our culture’s standard of manhood, or they are thought to not be men, or gay. Michael Kimmel, sociologist and masculinity studies scholar, argues that men are constantly on alert to prove their manhood, and that this is the true homophobia (Masculinity as Homophobia, 1995). Men are not necessarily afraid of homosexuality but rather other men, and that those men will perceive them as being less than a man (Ibid., 1995). One of the ways that men may be seen, or at least they feel they my be perceived, is through their behavior when it comes to gender and interaction with others.

Robert Brannon devised a model of four characteristics that define true manhood, “No Sissy Stuff,” “Be A Big Wheel,” “Be A Sturdy Oak,” and “Give ‘em Hell” (The Male Sex Role, 1976). What these four boil down to is essentially, don’t show weakness; attain as much power as possible (and keep it), the more power one has the more masculine they are; show no emotion, “Boys don’t cry;” and be aggressive and competitive (Brannon, 1976). This is, of course, not realistic and is unattainable (and unhealthy) for any man, certainly all the time. Raewyn Connell developed the idea of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ to describe the culture standard of manhood. Using Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, or rather “the cultural dynamic by which a group claims and sustains a leading position in social life” (Masculinities, 1995). Jeff Hearn adds to Gramsci’s theory by stating “hegemony involves both the consent of men, and, in a very different way, the consent of some women to maintain patriarchal relations of power. As least some powerful men are dominant in the construction of women’s consent and the reproduction of men’s consent” (From Hegemonic Masculinity to the Hegemony of Men, 2004). Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Ibid., 1995). What every man should embody in order to call himself a real man. This idea is impossible for men to meet, so they sometimes respond with violence.

Everyone is aware of the incredible violence, what many would call genocide, systematically carried out against Native Americans (The Familiar Face of Genocide, 2003). The impact of this, not just in terms of the decimation of the population, on the culture of these peoples is often ignored (Patriarchal Colonialism, 2003). Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous culture was largely based on ideas of communalism, were matrilineal (Ibid., 2003). The roles of women differed drastically from those we think of today, often “communal models of indigenous governance granted women respect and authority; exemplary of the gender egalitarianism practiced by many Native societies is their use of both matrifocal and patrifocal councils to negotiate consensus and make decisions in times of peace and war” (Ibid., 2003). In fact, very much to the contrary of our ideas of masculinity, Warren Goulding argues that part of women’s role was to “protect the family and act as breadwinners” (Goulding). European men very obviously held different beliefs, as we still do today, about women’s role in society. M.A. Jaimes Guerrero, argues that “the impact of U.S. colonialism on Native American peoples, especially on women, has been to accomplish a further erosion of their indigenous rights as the earliest groups in the Americas. For Native American women, this has meant a double burden because they must deal with both racist and sexist attitudes, and with the discrimination that results from such prejudices” (Patriarchal Colonialism, 2003). The influx of new people’s will no doubt always have a big impact on the people native to these immigrants new land, but the way in which European’s decimated Native American people’s and disregarded their cultures has had a lasting impact, and has altered the gender role ideologies of the Native Amercan population.

Using Butler’s concept of performativity and combining it with Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity, we have a situation in which men are defining their gender by how well they meet societies ideas of what men should be. If they do not meet these standards, their gender identity is in question, to themselves internally and perhaps to others, men in particular. Today men often report feeling as if they are powerless. This is in part due to women’s empowerment and push for equality. This is what many feminist scholars would call a crisis of masculinity. This crisis has had an impact on the ideas of manhood, and has caused, according to Susan Faludi, a backlash against feminism and women’s rights as men attempt to reclaim their masculinity from the women who they feel has stolen it (Backlash, 1992).

Native American men have the impact of colonialism on their identity as a people as a result of the genocide carried out against their ancestors, the emasculation based on the cultural ideas of the European invaders’ ideas of androcentric culture that treated women as property as well as the rest of nature (Patriarchal Colonialism, 2003). Today they still must live in a culture that the rest of us occupy that still, to an extent, holds these beliefs. Lisa M. Poupart argues that “through western formal education, conversion to Christianity, and assimilation into Euro-American culture and the capitalist economy, tribal people learned to speak the language and to interpret and reproduce the meanings of [their] oppressors; [their] own meanings, languages, and cultures were simultaneously devastated” (The Familiar Face of Genocide, 2003). Native American people have internalized the racism and hatred the European colonizers had for them and their way of life (Ibid., 2003). Poupart argues that “virtually non-existent in traditional communities prior to European invasion, contemporary American Indian communities struggle with devastating social ills including alcoholism, family violence, incest, sexual assault…homicide, and suicide at startling rates similar and sometimes exceeding those of white society” (The Familiar Face of Genocide, 2003). She continues arguing that “American Indians sometimes express pain, grief and rage internally toward [themselves] and externally within [their] own families and communities” (Ibid., 2003). The “internalized oppression” felt by Native American as a continued result of the genocide against their ancestors has contributed to some of the biggest problems facing the Native American Community, including the gender violence. Poupart argues that “domestic and sexual violence against women and children is linked to other forms of domination within society, including racism and classism” (The Familiar Face of Genocide, 2003). Poupart, using the theory of intersectionality argues that “American Indian women and children are among the most economically, socially, and politically disenfranchised groups in the United States. Since contact, American Indian women and children have become victimized by Euro-American imperialist governments, religions, economies, and educational systems” (Violence Against Women, 2005; The Familiar Face of Genocide, 2003). Poupart continues adding

Within these Western patriarchal-family structures, many American Indians recreate the power structures of the dominant culture. That is, Indian men often have privilege and authority over Indian women, and Indian fathers and mothers have privilege and authority over children, whereby each may exert violence as a socially acceptable operation of Western patriarchal power. Like other politically, economically, and socially disempowered individuals in the dominant culture, then, American Indian men may assert male authority violently in their homes and communities against women and children, and Indian women may assert parental authority violently against children (Ibid., 2003).

What this means, according to Richard A. Rogers, is that the performances of these Native American men, “deployed in the maintenance of an unstable, elastic, and historically mobile hegemonic masculinity, nevertheless leave the underlying tensions unresolved” (From Hunting Magic to Shamanism, 2007).

Despite all efforts to ensure their masculinity, they still cannot meet the cultural standard for what a man should be. This is the crisis of masculinity in Native American men. They can’t ever meet that standard because of the continued emasculation of Native American cultural manhood through historical narratives, because the hegemonic masculine standard is white, and because they are the most underprivileged male group in our culture. This is where Butler’s concept of performativity comes in handy. These men cannot possibly meet these standards, thus negating their gender identity, something Kimmel shows us is imperative, and so they resort to violence to prove their manhood. They feel the need to dominate, so they take their frustration out on women by attempting to enact hegemonic masculinity. This behavior is reinforced by the larger culture that they live in and so the violence seems ordinary and appropriate.

Butler, Judith (1999). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Connell, R.W. (2005). Masculinities. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rogers, Richard A. (2007).From Hunting Magic to Shamanism: Interpretations of Native American Rock Art and the Contemporary Crisis of Masculinity. Women’s Studies in Communication. 30, 79-110.

Anderson, K, & Umberson, D (2001). Gendering Violence: Masculinity and Power in Men’s Accounts of Domestic Violence. Gender and Society. 15, 358-380.

Wahab, S, & Olson, L (2004). Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Assault in Native American Communities. Trauma, Violence & Abuse. 5, 353-366.

Guerrero, M.A. Jaimes (2003).”Patriarchal Capitalism” and Indigenism: Implications for Native Feminist Spirituality and Native Womanism. Hypatia. 18, 58-69.

Hamby, Sherry (2008).The Path of Helpseeking: Perceptions of Law Enforcement Among American Indian Victims of Sexual Assault. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community. 36, 89-104.

Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N., (1997). The Prevalence and consequences of partner violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Center for Policy Research, Denver, CO.

Sheffield, Carol J. “Sexual Terrorism.” Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Ed. O’Toole, Laura L.et al;.  New York, NY: New York University Press, 2007.

Kimmel, M. “Masculinity as Homophobia.” Kimmel, M (Ed.). (2003). Privilege: A Reader. Westview Press.

Hearn, J. (2004).From hegemonic Masculinity to the Hegemony of Men. Feminist Theory. 5, 49-72.

Brannon, R, & David, D (1976). The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role. Random House.

Crenshaw, K. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Bergen, R, Edleson, J, & Renzetti, C (Eds.). (2004). Violence Against Women: Classic Papers .Allyn & Beacon.

Poupart, Lisa M. (2003).The Familiar Face of Genocide: Internalized Oppression among American Indians. Hypatia. 18, 86-100.

Fairchild, D.G., & Fairchild, M.W. (1998). Prevalence of adult domestic violence among women seeking routine care in a Native American health care facility. American Journal of Public Health, 88, 1515-1518.


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