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Male perpetrators of heterosexual-partner-violence: the role of threats to masculinity
The Journal of Men's Studies. 21.3 (Fall 2013): p255+.

We rely on data from one-on-one semi-structured interviews with males convicted of intimate partner violence (IPV) and descriptive survey data to contribute to theoretical assessments of the nexus between masculinity, IPV and health. We broaden theoretical understanding of male perpetrators of 1PV and their violence against women by reporting on two emergent themes: 1) the role of economic stress in relation to masculinity and 2) the importance of control/dominance among male perpetrators. We find that the intersection of masculinity pursuits, economic stress, and control are inextricably tethered to IPV: It is not only the state of being economically disadvantaged that increase risk for IPV, but also the internalized implications of what such disadvantage implies about one's male identity. We conclude with suggestions for future research and policy approaches to the social problem of IPV.

Keywords: intimate partner violence (IPV), qualitative methods, masculinity, criminology, gender, control, SES

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Between 2001 and 2005 nonfatal violent victimizations against females and males age 12 or older averaged to 22% and 4%, respectively (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007). More recently, CDC researchers report 1 in 4 women (29 million) are victims of intimate partner violence (IPV); the number is higher, 36 million if you count "minor violence" such as slapping (Black et al., 2011). Health outcomes associated with IPV are widely documented and include increased risk for poor health, substance use, depressive symptoms, chronic mental illness and injury (Coker et al., 2002; Jordan et al., 2010; Black et al.; Fletcher, 2010). Thus, IPV constitutes a major public health concern and has been recognized as such by major professional organizations (see American Medical Association, 2011; American Nursing Association, 2000; American Public Health Association, 1992) as well as the Institute of Medicine (2011). Yet, relatively few studies have examined male perpetrators of IPV as important contributors to this major health concern. The present study advances our understanding of IPV in general and male perpetrators of IPV specifically by examining accounts from men formally convicted of IPV. We present data-driven analysis on the relationship between IPV, masculinity, and economic stress among male perpetrators of IPV. We rely on qualitative data and a grounded theory paradigm--supplemented with quantitative survey data--to expand theoretical and empirical development. Glaser and Strauss (1967) acknowledge that grounded theory places emphasis on the participants' social construction of reality and thus the subsequent meanings of their experiences. Research in this tradition does not begin with the formation of hypotheses but rather with a general focus on an area of study allowing what is relevant to emerge (Strauss & Corbin, 2008). Grounded theory was thus fittingly chosen as our methodological paradigm to better understand the meaning of violence among male perpetrators of IPV.

To offset the weaknesses of using a single methodological approach and to improve the rigor of our research findings, we utilize qualitative interviews, questionnaire responses and a gender-based theoretical framework (Golafshani, 2003). Application of the latter acknowledges that gender theorizing and analysis can be a useful tool with which to interpret findings. As part of our gender theory framework, we rely on gender socialization theory that include social constructionist (i.e., doing gender) (Butler, 1999: West & Zimmerman, 1987) and hegemonic masculinity (Messerschmidt, 1993; de Visser & McDonnell, 2013) perspectives to link gender-relations, economic stressors and IPV.


A majority of publications and reports have relied on data from female victims of male perpetrated IPV (Ferraro & Johnson, 1983; Mullaney, 2007; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Straus, 1978). Whereas qualitative research addressing IPV is less common, like most quantitative IPV research, these studies have centered on women's accounts of victimization. While it is essential to address female victimization from the female perspective, it is also important to study men as perpetrators. This is especially important in a gendered analysis of IPV where socialization into "appropriate" gendered behavior has direct and indirect health implications (Kimmel & Messner, 1995). Wood (2004) emphasizes that attempting to understand men who harm their partners does not depreciate research pertaining to violence against women. In fact, Wood (2004) fears intervention may "not be possible until and unless some effort is made to understand the perspectives of men who commit intimate partner violence" (p. 556). Multifaceted efforts thus hold promise for enhancing our understanding of IPV.

Subsets of studies that do incorporate male perpetrator perspectives have primarily employed quantitative methods (Hellman et al., 2010; Norlander & Eckhardt, 2005). While data on IPV from the UCR and the NCVS allow for trend analysis (Mosher et al., 2002), quantitative research on IPV has not examined gender as a process per se. Moreover, large scale quantitative approaches have analyzed sex differences and not necessarily gender differences (Messerschmidt, 1993). We know sociologically and psychologically that sex is different from gender in important respects. Males and females are socialized into gender roles and are thus structured into gender-appropriate behavior (e.g., depending on context, SES) (Bandura & Waiters, 1963; Ridgeway & Correll, 2004) which in turn shape health behavior (de Visser & McDonnell, 2013).

Though male perpetrator's accounts of IPV are limited in research literature, those that do employ qualitative methodology exemplify the potential for assessing the role of men and masculinity in IPV (Schrock & Padavic, 2007). Wood (2001) found that western cultural gender narratives of romance and violence frame perceptions and experiences within abusive relationships. Levitt et al. (2008) explored the perspectives of 12 lower SES male perpetrators of IPV via semi-structured interviews. Aimed at examining how perpetrators experience their abuse, grounded theory underscored the importance of masculinity construction, poverty and religion. Anderson and Umberson (2001) conducted in-depth interviews with 33 men and found that IPV was a means by which male perpetrators reproduced the gender order (i.e., male domination/female subordination). IPV presented as an effective means by which couples reproduced gender inequality by "naturaliz[ing] a binary and hierarchical gender system" (Anderson & Umberson, 2001, p. 375).

Economic stressors (e.g., unemployment) have long been linked to IPV (Benson et al., 2003; Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1997; Jewkes, 2002; Swan & Snow, 2006). Swan and Snow highlight that an overwhelming majority of studies that take into account SES find that poverty is related to higher rates of IPV. Jewkes (2002) explains the theoretical link between SES and IPV is stress. Economic stress coupled with limited resources to reduce stress can exacerbate the prevalence and severity of IPV. Insufficient economic wherewithal combined with the frustration associated with few opportunities may result in arguments which in turn lead to violence (Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1997). Although lower SES correlates with IPV, this does not mean that IPV is solely a phenomenon of lower SES (Gelles, 1997; Jewkes, 2002). However, IPV frequency and severity increase as SES decreases thus placing the poor at disproportionate risk. Benson et al. (2003) report poverty and IPV intersect via neighborhood disadvantage, employment instability of male partners, and insufficient income. Unemployment, in particular, has been repeatedly linked to IPV (Holtzworth-Munroe et al., 1997). For example, Kaufman-Kantor et al. (1994), after controlling for income and ethnicity, found employment status predicted husband IPV perpetration.

Gender, Masculinity, and Men

In order to draw meaningful allusions between violence, men, masculinity, and gender while critically attending to why socioeconomic disadvantage might place men of color at risk for IPV perpetration, we turn to IPV as a specific form of violence to better understand the intersection of disenfranchisement (e.g., marginalization) and gender. Rather than implicitly individualize IPV, we attempt to demonstrate the contextualized nature of IPV as it is experienced among African American men operating within gendered social structures. To accomplish this, it is important to lay the gender-based theoretical framework which informs our study. We explicitly define masculinity in the context of classic and recent scholarship. Theoretically, we embrace gender theory by arguing that normative expectations of gender underlie men's use of violence towards women and towards other men. Thusly we also embrace an operationalization of masculinity which suggests that enacting masculinity in particular is associated with male violence toward women. The links asserted above stem from theoretical and empirical literature which has associated the valorization of aggression, physical strength displays, and demonstrations of physical, sexual, and social domination with men and dominant forms of masculinity (Connell, 1995; Messerschmidt, 1993; Poteat, Kimmel, & Wilchins, 2011).

Hegemonic masculinity is critical for understanding the gendered experience and phenomena of violence--yet, "masculinity" is not uniformly defined across contexts, subgroups, or time periods. While hegemonic masculinity has been incorrectly deemed to essentialize differences between female and male bodies and to turn a blind eye to intersecting factors of difference, Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) defend the concept by aptly suggesting that masculinity is not a fixed characteristic existing in the body, nor is it a personality trait. What hegemonic masculinity is a culturally and socially valued expectation of gendered behavior formed in social environments such as neighborhoods, schools and families and manifested via action, behavior, and language. Connell and Messerschmidt take care to note that there are often contradictions between what is socially and culturally valued and what individual men do in the face of social expectations and localized experiences and expectations. Thus, men can choose to adopt or approximate hegemonic masculinity as context dictates and when strategically expedient--or, alternatively, they can distance themselves from harmful forms of masculinity expression. Factors that socially intersect (e.g., social class, ethnicity, race, culture, locality, and time-period) must be considered when trying to understand how and when violence emerges out of social interaction and through gender behavior including men's enactment of masculinity. Finally, as Butler (2004) points out, the doing of gender is not done alone and in isolation. Gender performance is done with and or for social actors while the terms of gender performance are outside the self and steeped in social structure. These considerations constitute the guiding theoretical framework for our gender-based analysis of IPV.

While a body of research points to economic disadvantage as a major risk factor for IPV, few studies examine the intersection of masculinity pursuits" (i.e., the doing of masculinity) and economic stress as inextricably tied to IPV. As an exception, Melzer (2002) asserts that men's gender identity is closely tied to providing financial stability. He equates episodes of IPV to compensatory masculinity in that violence stems from attempts to compensate for economic shortcomings and to assert dominance through deviant means. "Masculine capital" (Anderson, 2005), the set of behaviors and or beliefs characteristic of hegemonic masculinity is relevant here. As de Visser and McDonnell (2013) state, "men who endorse orthodox masculinity may use unhealthy masculine behaviors, such as ... physical risk-taking, to accrue masculine capital. Men who eschew orthodox masculinity but still want to appear and/or feel masculine must construct a viable alternative masculine identity, and may seek to do this via unhealthy masculine behaviors" (p. 2).

Even less research appears to underscore possible ties between race, masculinity, economic stress and IPV. Research on Black American males has highlighted a phenomenon rooted in African male culture which has subsequently taken hold in American culture (Majors & Billson, 1992). "Cool Pose" (see Majors & Mancini Billson, 1992), is a construct of manhood (in a culture where mainstream norms of manhood are rooted in White male Western patriarchy) which forms subcultural traditions in which violence is an acceptable defense of manhood (for detailed reviews see Hall, 2009; Hall & Pizarro, 2011 ; Majors & Billson, 1992). "Cool Pose" applies primarily to lower SES Black males with limited access to alternative expressions of manhood. Though the research does not draw a direct link to IPV, many parallels are present. Hall and Pizarro's (2011) work identifies numerous facets of "cool pose" which merge with our study's emphasis on the intersection of masculinity, economic stress, and control via IPV. Namely, while both White and Black American cultural traditions of manhood associate the authority figure of the household with the provider, African Americans who might be economically disadvantaged and of "minority" status may experience greater struggle to achieve hegemonic masculinity (Hall & Pizarro, 2011, Majors & Billson, 1992). Hall and Pizarro (2011) acknowledge that, in America, one's racial category may impact "earning, incarceration, and subsequently legitimate role fulfillment as patriarchal head of household" (p.87). Alternate expressions of manhood in the form of IPV may be indirectly sustained by "cool pose." Faced with economic stressors and/or efforts to gain control/dominance, respect, courage and masculine status, the "cool pose" construct may enable Black males to overcome a fear of the inability to fulfill internalized societal expectation of masculinity via violent adaptation.

Research stemming from social-interaction frameworks posits a relationship between IPV, relationship-control, and gender construction. In particular, Anderson's (2005) theoretical review of IPV and gender highlights that a man's need for control in a relationship is impacted by his ability to fulfill idealized and enduring characteristics of U.S. masculinity (e.g., breadwinner). Anderson (2005, p. 858) asserts that when men perceive their masculinity is threatened by circumstances such as unemployment, violence is more likely to occur. This violence is an expression of gender--that is, the "doing" of masculinity via violence in a context where legitimate routes to gender expression are unavailable. Kuakinen (2004) reports that men, who contribute economically less compared to their partner, reassert control through the use of emotional tactics that align with cultural constructions of gender. When men are unable to establish dominance over women through higher income, education, and occupational prestige, IPV may serve as an alternate and readily available resource by which to express masculinity (Anderson, 1997). Gender constructions of masculinity extend well beyond dimensions of SES into the question of male dominance and control (Anderson & Umberson, 2001). Wood's (2004) analysis of interviews with 22 men reveals that men who embodied a patriarchal view of manhood felt "entitled to control relationships and women, be deferred to and catered to by women, and use discipline or violence to enforce their male entitlements" (p. 569). In the present paper, we extend this line of research by shedding light on the specific intersections of masculinity pursuits and economic deprivation.


Data stem from a mixed methods design symbolized by "QUAL + quan" where the qualitative approach was the primary research design component (Creswell et al., 2008). Creswell et al. classify the model as a concurrent nested design in that data collection occurred during a single phase and included one method (quantitative) embedded, or nested, within the predominant method (qualitative). The qualitative focus of the analysis is further emphasized by the inclusion of a gender theoretical framework. Our theoretical framework informed our research design, sample population, and analysis in that we sought to study the gendered nature of violence from the perspective of male assailants. Men were interviewed in-person in a private setting by the principle researcher using a semi-structured face-to-face interview guide. The interviews, averaging ninety minutes, were recorded with participant consent. The recordings were destroyed upon transcription. Participant data contains basic descriptive information of age and race; pseudonyms are used to protect respondents' identity. The authors are well trained in qualitative methods with ample experience in qualitative research. Full IRB approval was granted to conduct this study.

Benefits of face-to-face open-ended interviews are many. The complex and sensitive nature of the subject matter combined with a desire to obtain rich, detailed information from the participants warrant the use of the method. Advantages include to the ability to delve further in-depth on topics, yielding new insights, and the opportunity for the interviewer to explain, expand, and clarify questions, thereby increasing the quality of the data (see Frechtling & Sharp, 1997; Lofland & Lofland, 1995 for a detailed review). Macefield (2007) and Mahoney (1997) conjointly highlight the opportunity for interviewers to "experience the affective as well as the cognitive aspects of responses" (Mahoney, pp. 3-8) as well as to denote the differences in the behavior of participants in conjunction with their verbal responses during face to-face interviews. Furthermore, expertise on the subject matter is derived from the participant instead of the researcher thus allowing participants to guide the research and researcher into heretofore uncharted territory. These advantages far surpass the limitations of face-to face open-ended interviews (e.g., time consumption, expense, distortion of information, inconsistencies across interviews) and further justify the use of grounded theory in the current study.

Protocol and Respondents

This paper analyzes qualitative interview data and survey data from a non-representative sample of self-selected adult heterosexual males from a Midwest City. Participants (N = 11) had been previously convicted of IPV, and were taking part in a batterer's intervention program (BIP). Data collection took place June 2005 through December 2005. Participation in the BIP was an alternative to a jail sentence. Notification of the study was provided at the start of the intervention program: interested individuals contacted the principal researcher. Participation was encouraged via a $25 stipend ($10 for questionnaire completion, $15 for taking part in the interview). Participants were informed that they could terminate the study at any point (none did so). Confidentiality was assured and informed consent was provided by all participants. Table I presents demographic characteristics by participant (organized by pseudonym). Respondents were predominately Black (n = 8). The remaining three respondents were Caucasian, American Indian, and Hispanic/Latino. A majority of respondents were of lower SES. Six respondents reported an annual household income below $15,000. Six of the respondents were unemployed during the time of the interview. Eight completed high school: none completed college. Ages ranged from 25 to 53. Eight respondents stated that they were in a relationship at the time of the study.

Operationalization and Analytical Conceptualization

We use the World Health Organization's (WHO) definition of violence as the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group that either results in (or has a high likelihood of resulting in) injury, death, psychological harm, real-development, or deprivation. The WHO further divides violence into three sub-categories one of which is interpersonal violence. Interpersonal violence is in part defined as family and partner violence between family members and intimates. Two sets of IPV definitions are used: The first operationalization of IPV, the basis on which the interviews were conducted, stems from being formally convicted of domestic violence. Second, IPV is defined as any actual or threatened physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological act of violence or abuse directed toward a current of former spouse or dating partner (as defined by The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control).

Because we have chosen to analyze the relationship between economic stressors and IPV, we broaden the scope of IPV to include "economic dimensions" of violence. To capture the complexity of economic dimensions, the WHO developed an ecological model for understanding interpersonal violence. This study incorporates individual level (i.e., income and education) and relationship level (i.e., conflict surrounding gender roles and resources) analysis as well as social structural analysis (i.e., socioeconomic status and the construction of gender) and is thus part of our overarching gender theory approach (WHO, 2004, p. 4). Where critical analysis of IPV is concerned, gender scholars address the impact trauma and socialization play in gendered pathways to violence (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Gaarder & Belknap, 2002), an approach we adopt here.


A semi-structured interview guide was used: this guide maintained a level of consistency across interviews while allowing for fluid discussion. Probing questions were incorporated into the interview guide and applied when needed to facilitate further discussion. Three of the main questions used in the present analysis were: (1) What impact does the violence have on your: career/work, family, friendships, emotions, and health? (2) What is the significance of IPV in your life? (3) What if any changes in your life have you made as a result of violence? Supplemental questionnaire data were collected via the revised "Conflict Tactics Scale" (CTS2) (Straus, 1979; Straus et al., 1996). All participants completed the 143-item questionnaire. IPV variables included incidents of IPV occurring in the past 12 months with a current partner and/or most recent intimate partner. IPV for present and past relationships were collapsed into five categories coded as follows: physical violence (e.g., kick, grab), psychological violence (e.g., verbal aggression, threats), emotional violence (e.g., degrading, controlling), economic violence (e.g., stole from partner), and sexual violence (e.g., forced partner to have sex). If a respondent reported engaging in any of these behaviors, they were identified as a perpetrator.

Data Analysis

The current study employs grounded theory: an inductive analysis through which data were collected and simultaneously analyzed (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Participant's perspectives and contextual meaning of life experiences as they pertain to IPV are centered. As with all research methods, grounded theory is not without its limitations. Commonly noted limitations include: significant generalizability limitations; researcher presence affecting participant responses; lack of rigor. Though criticized by Thomas and James (2006) and others, we posit that grounded theory affords the ability to move beyond conjecture, preconception, and misconceptions often associated with IPV (Glaser, 1978)--toward a better understanding of the underlying processes of gender construction within IPV behavior. Such a research method and process allows for the development and deployment of theoretically grounded findings with which to address IPV.

With the aims of generating and expanding theory, the quintessence of grounded theory, participant's perspectives and contextual meaning of life experiences as they pertain to IPV are centered. Participant accounts become the data in a manner that allows the researcher to interpret and develop themes within a gender theoretical framework and in concert with pertinent research literature. All interviews were coded using the qualitative data analysis program Nvivo v.7. Open coding in which all transcripts were read and coded based on content was applied by each author (Strauss & Corbin, 2008). Initial codes included work, money (e.g., references to money, income, and debt), stress, control, and masculinity. Our audit measures consisted of constant comparison, elimination, and the refinement of codes between the authors--this resulted in the honing of multiple themes two of which are reported here. Saturation was obtained whereby no new themes were gleaned by the 11th interview. Survey data from the questionnaires were coded and analyzed using SPSS. The quantitative results are for descriptive purposes only. Statistical estimations of significant differences were not conducted due to our small N. Thus, quantitative results are not intended to be generalized to any specific population; however, our qualitative findings are novel and will prove helpful for improving how IPV is understood and prevented.


To provide estimates of the level and frequency of violence perpetrated, we begin with the quantitative data derived from the CTS2. We first present data on men's experiences with violence in past relationships (N = 11) and then discuss findings from violence occurring in respondent's present relationships (n = 8). The two qualitative themes (i.e., economic stressors; control) are then discussed using supporting quotes as illustrations. Our quantitative analysis consisted of univariate analysis of participants' reports of IPV (i.e., frequency, severity, type, and relationship period). Relationship periods (or time frame) are analyzed in chronological order (i.e., from past to present relationships) (see Table 2 below for quantitative findings on IPV patterns). Centering first on past relationships, the top half of Table 2 shows ten participants self-reported at least one instance of physical and psychological violence in a past relationship. Physical and psychological violence were the most common types of violence reported. The data were subdivided into two subcategories, zero to three instances and four or more instances of IPV, to establish the frequency of perpetrated IPV.

Qualitative Findings: Economic Stressors as Threats to Masculinity

Participants discussed the impact of economic stressors such as unemployment, bills, debt, and insufficient income when recounting past incidents of IPV. It became clear that these recollections were interrelated with IPV. It appears that previously internalized constructions of masculinity that were impressed upon men early in their development included attributes such as "being income capable" and "employable." These traits were overwhelmingly associated with masculinity. A lack of such attributes was often associated with varying levels of emasculating labels (i.e., not being a "real man"; not being a "complete" or "fully respectable" man) thus ushering a need to engage in harmful masculine behavior to compensate for low levels of masculine capital.

Jerry (White, 36) stated that "you need a job and money to be a man." He added that it is a man's "natural instinct" to be a provider. Jerry's comments directly reference the narrow association Jerry makes between employment and masculinity. Such gender construction was likely informed by various agents and institutions of socialization experienced throughout the life course. Below, Jerry's comments draw support for the presence and transmission of traditional gender roles (e.g., the nexus between being male and being a "good provider") (Christiansen & Palkovitz, 2001).

Jerry (White, 36): A man wants to feel good. When you are not doing something you look like a deadbeat, that hurts your pride. You gotta be working. It is not that somebody else makes [more] money than you, you gotta have an adult attitude about that, but you gotta feel like you are paying the bills and your family is safe and secure with you.

Shifting to how this internalized socialization may relate to violence, Jerry references how one's "fuse gets shorter" and you get "mad at yourself." Jerry's statements about masculinity and its ties to economic stressors establish an important relationship. Striving for an "appropriate masculinity" creates stress which may in turn contribute to IPV. Hal's comments below echoes a similar sentiment: when discussing being a "man," he draws a connection between employment and its impact on self-esteem. This quote simultaneously demonstrates an important element of socialization: parental gender modeling.

Interviewer: A lot of people say work, employment, is associated with self-esteem. Would it hurt your self-esteem sometimes?

Hal (Black, 42): Yeah, cuz she feels that you ain't the man you should be, but that's how I feel ... I'm like my father. My father, he always had work. He was in construction for 44 [years]. He raised all of us. A lot of times be would do without to make sure we had it. That's the type of person I'm trying to be, even though me and her don't have no kids together.

Hal highlights a source for the continuance of traditional gender role stereotypes associated with masculinity. He, like Jerry, links gender construction to varying levels of self-worth based on one's ability to live up to a proscribed set of behavioral norms. Failure to fully meet the expectations of masculinity (e.g., employment) is an adverse identity. Below, while discussing what it meant to not work and how he felt to not be working, Hal provides additional support for this association.

Interviewer: So you don't feel good about yourself if you're not working?

Hal (Black, 42): That's fight

Interviewer: Does that lead to tension at the house?

Hal: Yup

Interviewer: Frustration?

Hal: Yup, she he telling me, she'd say "baby it's gonna be alright, You're gonna find another job because you're a hard worker." I say that ain't the point. I just can't sit around here, this and that.

Hal associates a lack of employment with a lowered level of self-esteem, feelings of frustration, and increased tension within the home. Coupled with the preconceived notion that being a "man" means providing for one's self and family, namely through socially mandated legal means of employment, stress becomes a precursor to IPV for those experiencing difficulty finding employment. While venting about his girlfriend's comments about a lack of income, Hal also states:

Hal (Black, 42): She'd find things to start something about. Like when I come in too late or I ain't got no money to give her.

Interviewer: You mentioned money, she would [cry] about wanting money. What was the money situation like?

Hal: See, I was working. She wasn't working nowhere. I'd be working here and there. Money around, not a lot of money around. Every time I got paid I could pay the bills or something with it. I just live paycheck to paycheck. Basically what I'm doing now.

Hal's remark about his girlfriend's recognition of not having money created stress in their relationship. Hal is reflecting on his inability to meet the traditional expectations of being a "man" through employment. His partner's acknowledgement of that inability emasculated Hal, thus compounding the economic stress and tension already present in the relationship. It is apparent that social structural determinants of masculinity (e.g., marriage, employment, fatherhood, success) are an important factor here (i.e., gainful employment), a structural determinant that is not easily addressed at the individual level. Respondents' lack of awareness of social inequality and oppressive social structures likely contribute to blame being turned inward and interpersonal violence becoming relied upon as an accessible coping and/or compensatory response to structural inequities (i.e., harmful behaviors utilized to accrue masculine capital).

Additionally, Hal's comment about living "paycheck-to-paycheck" suggests a belief that being poor is a rare event that is only experienced by invisible others in a "land of opportunity." In reality, according to the Census (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010), in 2008 39.8 million people (13.2%) of the United States population lived at or below the poverty level. The "working poor" constitute 8.9 million people. A recent poll by Harris Interactive (CareerBuilder, 2009) on behalf of CareerBuilder (1) estimates that 61% of the US population works paycheck to paycheck. Thus, participants are trying to live up to a false reality that few people are poor; those that are poor are poor due to individual deficiencies. In another example, Brian discusses the challenge and frustration of having to repay a college loan for a degree he did not complete. The lack of a post-secondary degree contributes to his reduced income earning opportunities. Brian states:

Brian (Hispanic/Latino, 53): If I was working none of this shit would have happened, none of this shit would have happened.

Interviewer: So do you think work brings a sense of pride? Do you feel good about working?

Brian: Probably does, probably does, definitely.

Interviewer: Tell me about that?

Brian: Work is something you can count on. It distracts your mind and it helps you more than anything in the world. You can take care of your bills, you know. And do things.

Brian's statements provide further support for the notion that masculinity is tied to one's ability to support one's self and one's partner/family. During the interview, Brian shifted his comments toward his struggles with disability, caused by a work-injury, and how this affected his life. During the interview Brian denies that his work situation had anything to do with his abusive behavior towards his girlfriend. He, however, indirectly makes a connection to the economic stressors present in his life:

Brian (Hispanic/Latino, 53): ... But my depression yeah cuz I would like to get rid of all these payments and all these bills coming into the house. I've got piles of 'em ... and from collectors.... Bugging me, bugging me and calling me.

Interviewer: Stressors. Does that stress your girlfriend out too?

Brian: ... I think it does bother her the way ... for the simple reason of not what I owe but just the reason that she sees the way I conduct myself and the way I cope. I separate myself from the world. It bothers her and I say what's with you, you know, what's wrong, calm down, you can't pay, you can't pay. They can't put me in jail for that. And it's true, they can't put me in jail for that but it bothers me a lot. It bothers me a lot.

Though Brian does not see the connection between his lack of income, debt and IPV, indirectly the depression and stress he mentions may be factors linked to his violent behavior. Charles, below, takes the discussion of economic stressors in a new direction by underscoring the reality that even with a part-time job, he and his girlfriend still find themselves renting a room from a friend due to the inability to afford a place of their own. The living situation increased the tension in their relationship and contributed to their fighting.

Interviewer: So, do you fight about bills and paying rent?

Charles (Black, 40): What bills? We ain't got rent. We fight about not having them.... We should have, y' know, we both good people we need more than this, yeah.

Above Charles highlights that even with some level of employment, insufficient income results in a stressful relationship. Charles' comments are also suggestive of the notion that property ownership is a prerequisite of being a legitimate man. When asked what would help the situation, Charles expresses that a full-time job would likely alleviate much of the tension in the relationship. Beyond income, Charles brings to light how his un/under employment directly impacts his relationship because of the amount of time he and his partner spend in close proximity to one another in a "little room":

Charles (Black, 40): If I ain't workin' we're basically together. She may have to run out for an hour or so or I might have to run out for an hour, but ...

Interviewer: You get no space.

Charles: Yeah, no space.

Interviewer: No space at all. So, full-time job, better apartment with separate rooms.

Charles: Our [own] apartment. We need to get space so if we're having a bad moment at that time we can separate.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Charles: You can go in one room and do your thing. You can go in one room and do my thing. Then, when we finishing doing our thing, or whatever, we can laugh about it.

Above, Charles addresses the impact of economic stressors in day-to-day life with his girlfriend. One gets a sense that the couple, at times, feel they have no, or very little, time apart. These circumstances compound the tension already present due to a lack of consistent and sufficient income. In sum, economic stress coupled with modeling hegemonic masculinity engenders pathways to IPV.

Control and the Construction of Masculinity

The link between masculinity, a male's perceived need for control in a relationship, and IPV became quite evident. Establishing and maintaining a sense of masculinity occurs via efforts to control one's partner and efforts to avoid being controlled by one's partner. In his interview, Benjamin recalls an instance where he perceived his partner to be telling him what to do and how this angered him.

Benjamin (Black, 50): She's trying to tell me what to do. You can't tell me this here. Whatever I say and she'll keep on at it, you know, and I lose it.

This statement's meaning is substantial in that it clearly illuminates Benjamin's low tolerance for being told what to do (i.e., being controlled). He admits that such situations may result in him "losing it" and becoming verbally and physically violent towards his partner. Hal makes similar remarks:

Hal (Black, 42): As long as I'm going to work and paying these bills and you sitting at home you can ask me to do something but you don't tell me. You know, there's a big difference.

Interviewer: Because you're supporting the family.

Hal: Ah bah, you can ask me but don't tell me don't do this and don't do that like I'm a child. I ain't no child.

By insisting that he is not a "child," Hal reveals his need for power and control in the relationship. It is apparent that less power is associated with deficient masculinity (e.g., being childlike). Hal is indicating that he is the breadwinner of the household and that status should come with a level of respect and obedience from his partner. Further in the interview, he acknowledged such behavior "triggered him," (i.e., angered him). Hal proceeds to describe what he feels is an appropriate gender dynamic in a relationship.

Interviewer: How does she react when you tell her that, I don't want to be told what to do?

Hal (Black 42): She gets attitude I guess. She's used to a relationship where's she been running the relationship or something. That's the only thing that I get out of it I tell her you don't run me I ain't one of them other persons you gonna mess with. That really ticks her off. So that's probably what it is though, she's used to being in a relationship like that.

Interviewer: Who's supposed to run a relationship?

Hal: I think it's supposed to be ran with each other. There ain't no one in control all day. I believe they both should ... and decide on things and try to work things out the best you can. I don't feel no one side should tell you what to do and how to do this. I don't feel that's right in no relationship. I feel it should be worked out on both sides.

A disconnect exists between what Hal says here and the fact that he is easily angered by being told what to do when he is the sole income earner. Differences in what is said and how a person actually behaves are not uncommon in research settings (Macefield, 2007). Hal does not appear to desire an egalitarian relationship except in the hypothetical sense. Jerry's perception of his role as the traditional, masculine, breadwinner and his subsequent need for control in his relationship were much more self-evident. When asked about how he dealt with control in his relationship, he freely replied that we would say "Fuck you bitch, don't worry about what I do. I pay the bills." Below, Jerry states:

Jerry (White, 36): Jealousy is mostly what starts it. Or ah, control. Control, definitely control. For instance ... a woman can go shopping with her friends, or her mother or sister. And their isn't no time limit for women and, as a man, you have to understand when they go shopping or do whatever it is they do, or go to their man hatin' meetings, let them go and let them be, it is all fine. But if you go as a man, and you are not at work, you are out with your friends, out for an hour or half hour and they are calling ya or trying to find you or when you get home they are asking where were you, why were you gone, blah blah blah. And that is the way it is.... They don't care if you are out there being productive. They want a piece of the action. It is about money, it is about control.

Jerry later summarizes his comments by stating that "a man's natural instinct is to provide and to be the man. To be in control." While Jerry's statements thus far verbally portray a desire for control, the following remarks draw clear connections between his perceived need for control, masculinity being defined as "breadwinner," and violence. Jerry recalls:

Jerry (White, 36): A couple of times, I had to grab hold of her. And I would put her arms together and I would shove her in the corner. You know, fast and hard. I would shove her in the corner and I would hold her there. For fifteen minutes until she was out of gas. It happened a couple of times, not all the time. A couple of times. Just holding on to her until she was out of gas. And then I would let go and get the hell out of the house. I would come back later, it would be all dark and she was too tired to fight. Or the door was locked and I had to kick it in. It was my door, I can do what the hell I want. I paid for the shit.

Jerry tries to justify and validate his violence as one of helping the conflict dissipate by forcibly pinning his partner to the wall. When he returns, he further justifies kicking-in the door to his house by noting that it was his property, purchased with the money he earned. Jerry's need for control due to his bread-winning role creates a catalyst for the onset of verbal and physical IPV. Jerry establishes his entitlement as a man and 'owner' of property through additional violence when he returns home, finds "his" door locked, and kicks the door in. Jerry's account accentuates the core components of the current theme on how control, and thus masculinity, can be threatened by a partner whereby men turn to violence in an attempt to "do gender" and regain control over partners and hence their relationships. Klocke's (2008) assertion that men are not likely to recognize the privilege their gender affords them and are less aware of the role a traditionally patriarchal framework plays in their perceptions of masculinity and its ensuing influence on their behavior is applicable here.


IPV has a major direct and indirect impact on the physical and mental health of the US population (Fletcher, 2010) affecting approximately twenty-five to fifty percent of women over their adult lifetimes (Bonomi et al., 2006). Health outcomes include injury, health services utilization, and adverse physical and mental health conditions. Understanding the behavior of male perpetrators of IPV is a facet of men's studies research that is important yet underrepresented. In-depth analysis of interview data provided grounded insight on male perpetrator perceptions of the social circumstances surrounding IPV. Our findings suggest that IPV unfolds as a social process where socio-economic stressors and constructions of gender (i.e., masculinity) are inextricably linked to IPV among a group of men, many of whom were marginalized by race and ethnic status.

The first theme illustrates that low annual income, low levels of employment, and low levels of formal education play a role in the association between economic stress, IPV and masculinity pursuits. While the construction of gender occurs across all levels of SES, here, masculinity is shown to play a key role in how men internalize and react to the circumstances of their lives in the context of growing income and wealth inequality. As income/employment decreased, many participants made reference to increased stress, lowered self-esteem, and a "shorter fuse" (i.e., increased frustration and anger due to the lack of financial stability). Even in instances where participants were working, either full or part-time, their employment was not sufficient enough to thwart the impact of economic deprivation. Such participants' referenced living "paycheck to paycheck"; thus lacking financial security. As a result, participants were plagued by their self-perception of inadequate masculinity which was then reinforced by socio-structural expectations of "real" men. Violence in this context became the avenue by which to accrue masculine capital.

These findings support existing literature that closely tie men's gender identity to their (in)ability to provide financial stability and how IPV can result when that aspiration is not achieved (Melzer, 2002). The circumstances of their lives are amplified by the realization that not only do some men struggle to meet economic needs but that they also struggle to meet social parameters of what it means to be hegemonic men. Men in our study therefore encountered multiple levels of stigmatization. They experience generalized stigma attached to persons of lower SES (e.g., lazy, uneducated) the stigma and burden of failing to meet society's expectations of "real men" (men who provide for and thereby hold dominant roles within families) and barriers to success due to race and ethnic disenfranchisement. The stress that compounds the frustration of unreachable goals likely manifests as violence directed toward partners.

In examining control/dominance factors among male perpetrators of IPV, it similarly became clear that control/dominance was intertwined with traditional constructions of masculinity, namely the inability to achieve hegemonic masculinity (i.e., idealized characteristics of masculinity). Anderson (2005) theorizes that there is a persistent link between masculinity, a man's perceived need for control in a relationship, and IPV. Participants in our study were able to establish and maintain a sense of masculinity by controlling one's partner, with IPV included among the available and contextually viable means through which to be controlling. Subsequently, perpetrator aspiration for control and dominance in relationships intertwine with our first theme in that economic stressors inhibit traditional gender roles in which men are supposed to provide financially to the family unit. This desire to "feel" in control was greatly impacted by earning level and employment status. When participants felt that their partners were trying to control them, such behavior was perceived as an affront to masculine identity construction and to their "cool pose." An attempt to maintain or regain control/dominance, and thus masculinity, ensued as a result. This finding demonstrates that it is not only the state of being economically disadvantaged that may increase risk for IPV, but also the internalized implications of what such disadvantage implies about one's male identity. Traditional visions of masculinity, still well rooted in U.S. institutions, thus continue to be important sources of IPV.

In circumstances where economic disadvantage and threatened masculinity are intertwined, the ability to exert control over relationships, thereby attaining a masculine identity, is perhaps more easily obtained compared to securing financial stability. In this context, instances of IPV become a byproduct of such efforts. In essence, when it comes to the extent and ways in which male batterers exhibit control, exerting control over an intimate is accomplished more easily than financial security in periods of rising unemployment and diminishing viable economic opportunities. Instances of IPV can function as an alternate means through which to exert control, albeit short-term control, and to express masculinity simultaneously and instantaneously compared to achieving legitimate markers of hegemonic masculinity (e.g., gainful employment; power in the workplace). Participants tended to not view a "need" for control as stemming from a set of predetermined-socially-structured-masculine-ideals. Rather, respondents framed their pursuit of control as an individualistic desire to be respected and not perceived as inferior or subordinate. Placing their need for control within the context of requiring respect, the use of violent behavior resets the "natural order" of male domination which is understood to be normative, just, and right. Even in instances where a participant clearly wanted to dominate the relationship, such control was framed as having been earned based on their higher earning status or their "right" to that status as men. The construction of masculinity stems from the view that it is a man's "natural" instinct and social position to be in power. This stance ignores gender socialization in favor of innate, essentialist or "natural" sex-based attributes. There is thus a disconnect between what participants cite as the rationale prompting their behavior and the underlying influence of masculinity pressure stemming from patriarchal social structure.

Cultural norms associated with race may also draw ties between economic stressors, need for control, and IPV. Eight of the eleven participants self-label as "Black," at least six of which reported earning $20,000 or less in the last twelve months. These aspects combine with the germane personal accounts of Hal, Charles, and Benjamin's attempts to achieve/maintain appropriate masculinity/manhood in the face of low SES, inadequate employment, and a perceived need for control in their relationships. Being Black in contemporary US society and having low SES are two characteristics that Hall and Pizarro (2011) attribute to the potential for employing "cool pose" and possibly justifying the use of violence for conflict resolution (Majors & Billson, 1992). Further research is needed to flush out the extent to which this subcultural model of "Black masculinity" in general, and in correlations to economic stressors and a need for control, may contribute to instances of IPV. Moreover, such intersectional theory and analysis is needed among Latino and Asian men, among other race and ethnic groups.

In future research, it may be useful to consider how masculine identities evolve over time in regard to the "aging out of violence" phenomenon (i.e., the ageing out of crime and violence; Sampson & Laub, 2005; Band-Winterstein & Eisikovits, 2009). That is, learning from longitudinal studies may shed light on how masculinity ebbs and flows across time and social space. The sociological significance of IPV in terms of its relationship to economic expectations, and control are conditioned by masculinity norms. Masculinities then, that are based on control, the subordination of the "other," and violence is the crux on which gender inequality rests. Longitudinal studies with significant qualitative components and studies that can identify the impact of a participants' age-related masculine expression may likely prove advantageous for understanding how and why some perpetrators age out of IPV.

Regarding our study's limitations, accounts presented here only allow for a limited perspective of a larger phenomenon; one that requires replication among men of differing racial/ethnic and SES backgrounds. Secondly, the low SES and racial/ethnic minority backgrounds of our respondents may have increased the likelihood of their being targeted for intervention. It is important to note that African American men for generations have endured higher rates of unemployment and underemployment thus places this particular demographic group at risk. Finally, the span of our income scale was inadequate and our measure of income did not include other crucial indicators of SES. Nevertheless, our findings are not meant to be widely generalizable: they are intended for use as theoretical development which bridges IPV, economic stressors and masculinity construction. For IPV related health-policy, interdisciplinary scholarship is necessary to address this multifaceted public health problem. Research from sociology, criminology, psychology, public health, nursing, and medicine, in addition to other health and behavioral fields is critical for identifying and clarifying: 1) social sources and meanings of IPV; 2) methods in which IPV is transmitted from generation to generation; 3) individual level factors that place people at risk for perpetration; and 4) socio-structural processes that make this form of interpersonal violence possible at all. It should be noted that those in the clinical fields, those who are most likely to come into contact with victims of IPV, need to be trained to provide the necessary medical and psychological assistance that victims require--an acute awareness of gender, sex and hegemonic masculinity should be an important facet of their training. And, perhaps most importantly, our study highlights the importance of exposing men engaged in IPV to non-violence expressions of masculinity.

In conclusion, our paper expands theoretical research on male perpetrators of IPV and the symbolic nature of IPV through the use of mixed methods and grounded theory. We rely on an approach which included qualitative interviews, gender theory, and supplemental survey data. We highlight how constructions of masculinity, in the context of economic stressors and a perceived need for control, recreates male dominance and female oppression. Furthermore, our data suggest that economic conditions alone do not perpetuate the continuation of patriarchal social structure. The culpability of traditional expressions of masculinity is masked by very real (yet relative) economic stressors: in the end, these two social facts operate in unison allowing for the perpetuation of IPV to continue. Given our results specifically and research on masculinities in general, it is imperative to consider the role of gender socialization among men and how this socialization places both men and women at risk for violence. Exposure to alternative masculinities that do not emphasize domination and control may be instrumental for reducing IPV.


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ROBERT L. PERALTA, University of Akron.

LORI A. TUTTLE, SUNY Jefferson Community College.

The authors would like to thank the Faculty Research Committee of the University of Akron and the University of Akron Faculty Research Grant program for funding, which made this study possible (FRG # 1613).

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Robert L. Peralta, University of Akron, Department of Sociology, Akron, OH 44325-1905. Email:

DOI: 10.3149/jms.2103.255

Table 1
Survey Based Respondent Demographics (N = 11)

Respondents *    Age **     Race/Ethnicity          Relationship

Benjamin           50      African American    Partner, not committed
Brian              53       Hispanic/Latino    Partner, not committed

Carter             53      African American            Single
Charles            40      African American    Partner, not committed
Daniel             41      African American            Single
Hal                42      African American      Partner, committed

Jerry              36          Caucasian               Dating

Nathan             48      African American            Single
Steven             25       American Indian            Dating
Vern               44      African American            Married
Zach               31      African American    Partner, not committed

Respondents *     Annual Household      Current      Highest Level
                       Income          Employment    of Education

Benjamin              <$15,000        Not Working    Some College
Brian                 <$15,000        Not Working    Did not complete
                                                     High School
Carter                <$15,000        Not Working    High School
Charles           $15,000-$20,000     Not Working    Some College
Daniel           Less than $15,000    Not Working    Some College
Hal               $15,000-$20,000      Full Time     Did not complete
                                                       High School
Jerry             $15,000-$20,000      Full Time     Did not complete
                                                       High School
Nathan                <$15,000        Not Working    High School
Steven                <$15,000         Part Time     Some College
Vern              $20,000-$80,000      Full Time     Some College
Zach              $20,000-$80,000      Full Time     High School

* Respondent names are pseudonyms.

** Mean age 42.09.

Table 2
Survey Based Self-Reported Instances of IPV %(N)

                                          TYPE OF VIOLENCE

RELATIONSHIP PERIOD          Physical       Psychological   Emotional

EVER, PAST OR CURRENT        100% (11)      90.9% (10)      90.9% (10)
  Any perpetration of IPV
    None                        9.1% (1)     9.1% (1)       18.2% (2)
    Once or more               90.9% (10)   90.9% (10)      81.8% (9)
  Frequency of
      perpetrated IPV
    0-3 instances              45.5% (5)    36.4% (4)       54.5% (6)
    4 or more                  54.5% (6)    63.6% (7)       45.5% (5)
     PAST 12 MONTHS *
  Any perpetration of IPV
    None                       12.5% (1)    12.5% (1)       37.5% (3)
    Once or more               87.5% (7)    87.5% (7)       62.5% (5)
  Frequency of
      perpetrated IPV
    0-3 instances              37.5% (3)    37.5% (3)       87.5% (7)
    4 or more                  62.5% (5)    62.5% (5)       12.5% (1)

                             TYPE OF VIOLENCE

RELATIONSHIP PERIOD          Economic     Sexual

EVER, PAST OR CURRENT        36.4% (4)    45.5% (5)
  Any perpetration of IPV
    None                     63.6% (7)    54.5% (6)
    Once or more             36.4% (4)    45.5% (5)
  Frequency of
      perpetrated IPV
    0-3 instances            72.7% (8)    81.8% (9)
    4 or more                27.3% (3)    18.2% (2)
     PAST 12 MONTHS *
  Any perpetration of IPV
    None                     75.0% (6)    75.0% (6)
    Once or more             25.0% (2)    25.0% (2)
  Frequency of
      perpetrated IPV
    0-3 instances            87.5% (7)    87.5% (7)
    4 or more                12.5% (1)    12.5% (1)

* N = 8 (three respondents indicated they were currently single).
Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Peralta, Robert L., and Lori A. Tuttle. "Male perpetrators of heterosexual-partner-violence: the role of threats to masculinity." The Journal of Men's Studies, vol. 21, no. 3, 2013, p. 255+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 16 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A350334732