Are we at the mercy of our biology?

Apr 05


6 Responses


Helen Whitten

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Are we at the mercy of our biology?

It’s been a dismal week for reading about violence perpetrated by men.  We have read of IS using children as human shields, Mustafa Bashir hitting his wife with a cricket bat and making her swallow bleach (and, by the way, then only being given a suspended sentence by Judge Richard Mansell), the stabbing of Tracey Wilkinson and her son Pierce by a 20-year old homeless man, the experiences of the girls abused in Rotherham, paedophile rings, a husband who killed his children in an act of revenge.

These are not unusual stories.  Men have been the dominant power throughout history and much of that has been spent in warfare.  And of course communities benefit from the physical strength of men to protect them and ward off marauding enemies.  But a UN report estimates that, worldwide,  one third of women have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner.  In Asia widows can be thrown out of the home, daughters subjected to honour killings or even a punishment of gang rape when they step out of line.  Religious leaders have applied dogma to ritualistic abuse, control and cruelty.   Young boys suffer from the hands of older men too and are only just beginning to talk of their experiences.

I would like to learn more about the drives that lead to these behaviours.  I feel there is a need for greater research and debate on what triggers violence.  Is it the biology of testosterone, cultural beliefs,  or environmental context?  If the psychologists have this information then it is not sufficiently available to the general public to be of practical help to those who raise and educate boys.   Apart from chapters in Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph there seems to be little practical advice on how to enable boys to manage their warrior tendencies.  The most I ever learnt about the subject, when raising my sons, was through reading The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole!

Of course the majority of men do not behave in this way and women can be cruel and aggressive too but, even today, men have more power worldwide to disrupt individuals and societies.  From what I have read, social upbringing appears to have more influence on behaviour than testosterone itself.  Although the testosterone of violent criminals measured higher than average in research, when testosterone is given to normal sociable men they do not necessarily become more violent.  But, whilst men are also great writers, thinkers, innovators, doctors, fathers and leaders,  it is the tendency towards aggression that I believe we need to understand more fully.

Both boys and girls experience huge waves of hormonal change as they grow up.  Girls have to learn to manage both their bodies and moods from puberty, through becoming familiar with the impact of their monthly cycles.  They are given copious advice about how to manage this, as well as contraception, plus admonishments about not getting drunk, not behaving provocatively, or walking down the street in short skirts.  When a rape occurs the censorious comment is aimed at the girl.  I hear little advice given to boys on how to take responsibility for their own drives and biology.

An important book, South of Forgiveness, was released recently through the collaboration of Tom Stranger and the girl he raped, Thord Elva.  It was telling that when interviewed on Woman’s Hour by Jenni Murray, she realized with surprise that having interviewed many women who had suffered abuse or rape, this was the first time in the fifty years of the programme that she had interviewed a man who confessed to being a rapist.  What he and Thord Elva shared was insightful and went some way to providing information on what led him to delude himself that he had not raped her but, in his mind, had simply had sex with her.  It was only many years later when she wrote to him and shared the devastating impact the event had had on her that he accepted that he had, indeed, raped her.

Since then, the pair have been interviewed in the media but have been subjected to protests that Stranger should not be given air-time to express his story.  At an event at the Royal Festival Hall a crowd took over and shouted “rapist” and refused to listen to his personal account of the rape.  The problem with this no-platforming of controversial figures is that we learn nothing.  And it seems to me absolutely vital that we do listen and that we do learn more about what makes men commit acts of violence.

A key factor mentioned by Tom Stranger was a sense of “entitlement”.  If this is the case, we need to be educating boys and young men that they have no entitlement over another person’s body and that they do not have consent unless it has been explicitly given.  Unfortunately in much of the world, cultural tradition gives boys priority status, sometimes backed up by law.   This can translate into a distorted view of their rights, and give girls a diminished view of their own.  What Stranger has done is to encourage men to reflect on their own behaviour.   Research so far appears to have studied mainly the experience of the victims rather than the perpetrators.   Do we know what those men who raped women during the Bosnian war now feel as they walk around their villages?

Helping young boys understand the influence of testosterone is, in my view, an essential part of their education.  They need to recognise that when their testosterone is raised – which can be by listening to loud music, drinking alcohol, watching porn or witnessing their favourite football team win – their brain loses the capacity to restrain risk behaviours.   They are more likely to get into fights, to have a car accident, to bully or dominate others, or even to rape or kill.   But a moment’s loss of self-control can devastate their own lives as well as the lives of others

Adolescents could surely benefit from learning the skills of impulse-control such as how to notice warning signs of anger or lust, to stop, self-calm, and manage their biology by applying techniques such as imagery, slow breathing, and rational thought, avoiding alcohol, going for a run.  They can identify the underlying thoughts that lead to violence, such as “he/she must give me respect or else I’ll punish them!” and developing, instead, constructive perspectives, such as “I have no right to harm another person just because they aren’t doing what I want them to do,”  perhaps accompanied by an image of a prison cell as a deterrent.

Aggressive behaviour is a natural element ruling animal life, where instincts are driven by survival and the preservation of the species.  Sir Michael Marmot in The Status Syndrome suggests that man is shaped by evolution to seek status, affirming himself by trying to be distinguished and gain influence and power in career, sports and material assets.  Generally this is through non-violent actions.  But in fact it can be low status men who may resort to aggressive high-risk strategies to avoid “genetic nothingness”.   We frequently hear that violence has been committed by a “loner” perhaps seeking notoriety or even a distorted view of closeness with another.

Helping boys develop constructive social networks is essential.  It is the messages they receive from parents, society, teachers, preachers and particularly their peer group, that can give them self-esteem without the need to dominate others through violence.

We are more than our biology.  Helping the young to understand how to notice and understand biological triggers, manage them and learn ways to express them more appropriately, particularly in a digital world, would surely be a benefit to societies worldwide. This may make uncomfortable reading but in order to address the issues, we need to be able to have mature discussions on the subject.  Silencing debate takes us nowhere.


6 Responses

  1. Wise words Helen. I heard the interview on Woman’s Hour about Thord Elva and Tom Stranger. Have you read the book? To have written it together makes them two special people. Her courage was amazing. His honesty and humility in accepting the blame, commendable. His assumption that if a woman agrees to go out with him, she would want to have sex with him shows how much some, or possibly many men mssunderstand women. As you say the man’s self knowledge is also a factor.

  2. Really a very interesting article Helen – I missed the interview on Woman’s Hour but was very struck that at the time of the act the young man seemed to feel he was entitled to follow his physical drive for sex.. This week we have watched the 2 part Robert Winston series A Child of our Time which focussed on 16 year olds.. very interesting .. the hormonal changes and emotions and drive for pleasure are in a state of peak lintensity, at 16 with young men in particular very prone to following their drive for physical pleasure overriding their sense of what is right.. it would seem that often with acts of rage, rape and violence those boundaries of respect and decency get swept away and I agree that we need to continue to broaden and develop our understanding of these human drives , accept that they can too often get out of hand and help people develop strategies to manage them .. in my work as a therapist in Primary Care I work with individuals on anger and rage management fairly frequently… most often with teenagers who have been unable to cope with the demands and pressures of secondary school.. but it seems that many groups and services are being financially cut.. so all too often people are not getting the help they need and are left to manage as best they can..

  3. i am 84 years old and I’ve seen a lot of violence. To me, speaking generally, it seems that the only people who can stop male violence are nice men

    Your children don’t listen to a word you say – but they copy everything they see you do. If a young boy sees his dad or his elder brother getting away with psychological or physical bullying, then that is what the young boy will do. Playground bullying and violence is always initiated by somebody. Until nice men start to make it clear – in the toughest possible way – that such behaviour is unacceptable….it will continue.

    1. Yes Shirley, some boys hero-worship older boys. My 16yr old grandson has always been drawn towards men and older boys. Are they in a position to identity nice men as opposed to those who seem nice? We can all be taken in by a person’s polished exterior. Young men are often drawn to the wrong kind of role -model. Hero-worship again.

  4. Thought provoking article Helen,
    Very clearly and well expressed. The changes that need to come about are in the hands of the men (by far the majority) in power and the educators. Perhaps sexual education in schools should include a long awaited acknowledgement of all you say in your article and teachers could do worse than give out a copy of it. In fact, have you thought about offering it to schools?

  5. I think we are drawn back by your thoughtful article to the need for an educational approach that includes boys and girls sharing their early sexual experiences together.

    We saw a television program where the Dutch sexual counsellor drew out, from a group of 16 year olds, their experiences of sexual behaviour by boys. This was often experienced as degrading and demeaning.And was often built up by into these actions by the boys experience in watching pornography.

    When the girls talked about their feelings and how their needs were discounted, in a mixed group, behaviour changed. And mutual understanding.

    We need I think both social upbringing around acceptable behaviour. Then education works together with the understanding that is necessary to acknowledge the testosterone effect itself. This has the function in men of driving ‘F*** or Kill’ behaviour with the awful consequences of rape and murder in culturally damaged individual males.

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