Playing fast and loose with aggression and sex

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Men are much more aggressive than women, right? Studies say so. We just know this. Well, there may be truth to it (there is), but be discerning when you hear or read people say it. What exactly are they saying? Does all the evidence support it? Does the evidence support quite what they are saying, or does it support something similar but not the same?

When reading for an introductory psychology paper last year, I was struck by an example of how authors subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) encourage the reader to accept narratives that have become part of our social orthodoxy. In this case it’s a narrative about men being more aggressive than women. It’s subtle, but here’s what I observed. The textbook is by Lorelle Burton, Drew Westen, and Robin Kowalski. Only when writing this blog article did I look up information about these authors and realise that the first and last of them are women, and the second is a sometime contributor to the Huffington post and progressive advocate who served as an advisor to a Democratic election campaign in which he advised them to “for the most part, forget about issues, policies, even facts, and instead focus on feelings.” I add this lest anyone suspect that these factors contributed to my impression of what I read. For some reason, I had assumed that “Burton” was a man (possibly because the name sounds like “Bert!”). The book is Psychology, published by Wiley, and this is the fifth Australian and New Zealand edition. It is the assigned text for Social and Individual Psychology.

The section I was reading on aggression began thus: “Aggression — verbal or physical behaviour aimed at harming another person or living being — is at least as characteristic of human interaction as altruism.” This was a great start. Aggression was being defined broadly, inclusive of both verbal and physical acts.

After the introductory paragraph begins a section called “Violence and culture” where comparative murder rates between countries are discussed, along with a discussion about the role of alcohol in violent attacks. This is certainly interesting, but now we are only hearing about physical violence, not aggression per se. So hopefully we get back to aggression more generally, or at least to other forms of aggression.

Next is the section called “Violence and Gender.” Here, nearly the whole focus is on the fact that the perpetuators of most violent crimes are male. We read that most victims are male, too, and there is also a brief discussion of intimate partner violence, but the only type of intimate partner violence discussed is male on female violence.

Right at the end of the section on violence and gender, we are told that while men are more likely to engage in direct acts of violence, women express aggression differently, eg bully via ostracism or other things.

Then comes the interim summary:

Aggression refers to verbal or physical behaviour aimed at harming another person or living being. Rates of violence vary cross-culturally, but across cultures, males tend to be more aggressive than females. Researchers are increasingly recognising the prevalence of male violence perpetrated against women.

Following this are some perspectives on the “roots of violence.” But I wonder how many people notice what happened in this opening section? There was brief acknowledgement of the fact that aggression can take a variety of forms, but the form of aggression given nearly all the space was physical violence, where the take home message was that men do more of it.

On a side note, the treatment of intimate partner violence, focusing exclusively on male violence, is – surprisingly, for some people – missing an important observation. Rob Whitley notes:

… A growing body of international research indicates that men and women experience IPV in similar proportions. For example, a recent survey from Canada’s national statistical agency concluded that “equal proportions of men and women reported being victims of spousal violence during the preceding 5 years (4% respectively).”

For this reason alone, lumping intimate partner violence under the general observation that most violence is perpetuated by men is highly misleading. The evidence indicates that when it comes to this type of violence, men and women are just as often the victim, and assuming most relationships are heterosexual (because they are), this means that the perpetrators are as often female as male.

More importantly – or at least, more obviously to me, was that the only reference to the way aggression differs in frequency by gender was the repetition of the fact that physical violence is much more prevalent among men. Well, how does the prevalence of emotional blackmail differ by sex? What about manipulation, undermining, relationship sabotage, malicious gossip and the like? How does aggression in general differ by sex, if you look at all the things that count as aggression? Oh, well, never mind that. Men are more violent, and we are increasingly aware of male violence against females. Was there even a reminder in the interim summary that this observation is not one about aggression per se?

When it comes to expressing aggression in its many and varied forms, people use what they’ve got. Males and females have got different things to use. If you don’t have physical strength, you use something else – unless of course, some brave soul is going to maintain that women simply lack aggression, and good luck with that theory (do you know any women well?). Resources like this one, so it seems to me, give a distinctly lopsided impression about human behaviour as it differs between the sexes.

Glenn Peoples

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2 thoughts on “Playing fast and loose with aggression and sex

  1. Given the trajectory these authors were on, I certainly hope they never addressed the prevalence of aggression by race.

    1. Well that would be difficult to measure cross-culturally for obvious reasons.

      But they didn’t even address the prevelance of aggression per se by sex.

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