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Gender Roles, Lack of Empathy, Underlie
Men's Violence Against Women, Says O'Neil
February 7, 2000

James O'Neil thinks America needs to develop a curriculum to teach students about violence and ways to prevent it.

O'Neil, a professor of family studies and psychology, recently co-edited a book of essays explaining what causes men's violence toward women.

The book, What Causes Men's Violence Against Women? published by Sage Publications in September, was co-edited by Michele Harway, a faculty member and director of research at Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino, Calif. Other UConn faculty and doctoral students who contributed to the book are Stephen Anderson, Sandra Rigazio-DiGilio, Rodney Nadeau, Steven Lanza and Margaret Schlossberg.

O'Neil, who has worked on the subject of violence since he was a graduate student at the University of Maryland in the mid-1970s, notes that the recent fatal shootings in schools in America have focused attention on the topic of violence. "But we are still unsure about how to help students understand the violence in their lives and in our society," he says.

"There really has not been a curriculum related to interpersonal violence that has allowed boys and girls and men and women to examine how they could potentially be victimized or how they can become potential victimizers."

We need a national curriculum, he says.

"The problem is that America was in denial on this topic until the early '90s," he says. "The O.J. Simpson case brought battering into mainstream America's living rooms for an extended period. Up to that time, feminists were trying to make it an issue and there was a lot of defensiveness. But now the question of how we deal with our aggression is one of the most critical issues we face in our society."

O'Neil said an anti-violence curriculum needs to come from social scientists from multiple disciplines.

"One critical aspect of the curriculum that needs to be developed is around what I call psychological violence and emotional abuse - in other words, how people use words and power against each other," he says. "One of the hypotheses I make in my chapter in the book is that the precursor to physical assault almost always is emotional, psychological violence."

There are no well defined laws against emotional abuse, however, so it will take a strong effort to create a curriculum that will prevent violence, O'Neil says.

"Another part of it is to understand how gender roles - conceptions of masculinity and femininity - interact with boys' and girls' and men's and women's relationships," he says.

O'Neil says the book emerged from a talk he and Harway gave at the American Psychological Association Convention in Los Angeles in 1994. After the talk they published a journal article and decided the field needed a book on the subject.

"Most of the previous literature on battering related to why women stay in battering relationships and on the personality characteristics of batterers. But both of these topics did little to explain how to prevent men's violence or identify risk factors of men's violence," he says. "We thought a better question to vigorously pursue was: 'What causes men's violence?'"

O'Neil says that men commit violence against women for a number of complex reasons. Some of the factors relate to men not being able to process their feelings or express emotion, perceived gender roles - proving one's "masculinity" - and not being able to listen to and empathize with someone else.

"These deficits are primarily learned in homes," he says. "Violence is more likely to occur when men do not learn how to think, feel, communicate and connect in a fully human way."

O'Neil believes men can change, however.

"That's what the men's movement is about," he says, "the belief that men can resocialize themselves - that they can learn to interpret their masculinity in different ways - not in a macho way. They need supportive environments and an understanding of how sexism operates in their lives.

"A lot of men need help, particularly men who batter," he says. "It's a shameful thing to acknowledge that you've beaten somebody that you love. It is a mystery of our time why someone would violently hurt the person they care about the most."

In addition to his study of violence, O'Neil conducts research in men's studies.

"I'm trying to understand how we socialize men in sexist ways," he says. "Men have gotten a bad rap for a long time, but no one has tried to understand why men are depressed, why men are sexually dysfunctional, why men are withdrawn and basically don't have any friends, why they can't communicate with women, and so on."

He says his research for 25 years has been to "come up with data-based explanations of men's problems that are more than negative stereotypes that devalue men," he says. "Back in the '70s, some radical feminists were saying 'all men are oppressors, all men rape.' I just thought it was a little more complex than that."

Ken Ross