Male Violence and Its Causes

If there is a gene for murder, it is a safe bet it will be found first in someone who carries XY chromosomes. That is, a man. There may be no such gene. Many experts insist violence is learned, not inherited.
If there is a gene for murder, it is a safe bet it will be found first in someone who carries XY chromosomes. That is, a man. There may be no such gene. Many experts insist violence is learned, not inherited.

Male Violence and Its Causes

If there is a gene for murder, it is a safe bet it will be found first in someone who carries XY chromosomes. That is, a man. There may be no such gene. Many experts insist violence is learned, not inherited. But as a spate of domestic tragedies and a powerful new study by Statistics Canada both establish beyond doubt, when murder happens in the home, it is men who do most of the killing. And women and children who do most of the dying.

That news may be more sad than startling. A good argument can be made that it was ever thus. Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd makes just that point in a new book, The Beast Within. "Throughout history," he writes, "the perpetrators of the most vile and savage crimes have always been almost exclusively male." What is new lies in the nuance of the numbers that Statistics Canada has collected, and in the way a few researchers are beginning to re-examine why it is that men - men specifically - kill.

Some of the news is good. In Canada, fewer women (and men) are dying at the hands of past or present partners than did a decade ago. That may testify to the effect of policies targeting family violence. Or not. Much of the decline can be accounted for by demographics: the proportion of Canadian males in the violence-prone years of 15 to 29 has dropped by almost half since 1975. Boyd's book accuses other social scientists of ignoring critical biological clues to murderous male impulses. If he is right, influential experts who have encouraged governments and society at large to believe male violence is learned - and can, therefore, be unlearned - may have been tragically wrong.

How tragic has been made horribly clear in recent weeks in Ontario. A string of ghastly slayings began in mid-June, when a Mississauga fire inspector, Balbir (Bobby) Singh, murdered his former fiancée, Harjaap (Jay) Bolla, and killed himself by setting fire to the van they were in. Police identified the charred remains through dental records. Seven days later, on the other side of Toronto, Gillian Hadley ran terrified and naked from her home in Pickering, cradling her infant son. She just had time to hand the child to a neighbour before her estranged husband Ralph pulled her back inside and shot first her, then himself.

The horror continued into July. Sometime late on the 5th, or early next morning, Vilem Luft stabbed his wife, Bohumila, to death in their Kitchener home. He next took a rifle and shot his daughter and three sons. Then, he shot himself. Ten days later in Stratford, Laurie Vollmershausen was killed with what police describe as a "sharp object" after a man ordered her two young daughters out of the house. Police have charged Joseph Willemsen, whose common-law relationship with Vollmershausen had ended a few days earlier, with her murder.

Those are only the most publicized cases from a single province over a period of a month. At the midpoint of the carnage in Ontario, the same evil touched British Columbia's sunny Okanagan Valley. In the rural community of Winfield, on June 29, Kenneth Dewar killed his 11-year-old daughter, Kelsey and his wife, Brenda, before taking his own life. Family members discovered their bodies when they arrived to celebrate Kelsey's birthday.

In the shadow of so much death, it is hard to concentrate on the hopeful signs buried in the dry chaff of Statistics Canada's numbers. Still, the agency's report on family violence in Canada held out at least some reason for optimism when it was released last week. "Spousal homicide," it found, "has declined gradually over the past two decades." The drop has been substantial: fewer than half as many women per capita died at the hands of male partners in 1998 as in 1979. Non-lethal male violence may also be diminishing. As part of its study, Statistics Canada surveyed 26,000 Canadians, a number large enough to produce findings considered accurate within 1.1 per cent. That makes highly significant the drop during the 1990s of close to one-third in the number of women who said their male mates had assaulted them in the last five years - from 12 per cent to eight per cent.

Some men found it important that Statistics Canada also reported an almost identical rate for assaults by women on male partners. Seven per cent of men said they had been assaulted by female partners at least once in the last five years. "I told you so!" wrote self-styled men's rights advocate Kirby Inwood, who insists men are victimized as often as women in any war between the sexes. In an e-mail to Maclean's and other media, Inwood added: "Maybe now you will start to report the facts instead of feminist lies."

Women are plainly capable of violence. About once a month, somewhere in Canada, a woman kills her male mate. But there are differences in both the nature and scale of male and female acts of homicide. In the same hypothetical month, men will kill at least three women for every one of their own sex who dies at a woman's hand. Men, moreover, tend to kill from different motives. After studying dozens of spousal homicides, University of British Columbia psychologist Don Dutton concluded: "In many cases, the female-perpetrated homicide was self-defence. The male-perpetrated homicide was estrangement-related: 'If I can't have you, nobody else will.' " In nearly half of male murders, Dutton adds, the violence was extreme, sometimes "frenzied"; that was so only once in every 10 murders committed by a female. Most women who killed did only what was sufficient to put an end to their own terror.

And while other research offers some support for the notion that women lash out physically nearly as often as men, the results are very, very different. "Women were three times more likely than men to be injured by spousal violence," Statistics Canada found, "more than twice as likely to report being beaten, five times as likely to report being choked." Women slap, kick or throw things. Men throw punches, go for the throat or grab a weapon. Little wonder more than a third of women in abusive relationships told the federal agency they feared for their lives, while fewer than one in 10 abused men felt so frightened.

In Ontario, women's advocates argue that any decline in the total number of male assaults has been offset by intensifying violence in the attacks that do occur. Five years ago, says Vivien Green, head of the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto, under 10 per cent of women who fled to shelters in that city were so badly injured they needed to be hospitalized. Now, the figure is closer to 40 per cent. Green blames the Harris government's cuts to social programs, including affordable housing, for forcing more women to stay longer with violent men. "We know from all the studies, abuse only gets worse over time," she says. "We are seeing this escalation."

Whatever the reason, there can be no disputing the gender gap at the extremity of violence. Men kill women far more often than the other way around not only in Canada, but in Britain, the United States and the rest of the world as well. "Throughout history," Boyd observes, "the quality and character of male violence has differed from female violence." The differences go beyond the fact that men often kill as a final act of escalating abuse, while women do so in response to male violence. Men "hunt down and kill their partners," as Boyd says, often massacring their entire families. Women do neither. Men rape before killing; not women. Men kill strangers. Women rarely do.

But if killing, and in particular killing with extreme or wanton violence, is overwhelmingly a guy thing, the question remains: Why?

It is tempting to seek the answer in the one compound which, more than any other, makes a guy a guy: testosterone. Though present in both sexes, the hormone courses through male veins at 10 to 20 times the level it does in females. Twice in a boy's life, moreover, levels shoot up even higher. In the womb, a testosterone spike turns embryonic genitalia and other features into those of a boy. The second hits at puberty. For the next 10 years or so across the population as a whole, Boyd told Maclean's, "the violence curve tracks the testosterone curve quite closely." The more T in the veins, the more violence.

There are other reasons to think a killer may lurk in the male essence. Steroids, testosterone's synthetic chemical counterparts, are implicated in fits of impulsive violence - so-called 'roid rage - among body-builders and others who abuse them. According to The New York Times, a U.S. study of 700 male prisoners in 1995 showed that "those with the highest T levels were most likely to engage in unprovoked violence."

But researchers have not been able to close the case on testosterone. While the hormone peaks in a man when he is about 20, those who kill their estranged wives or girlfriends - and too often, like Luft, their entire families - tend to be in their late 30s and early 40s. In a section of his book devoted to the topic, Boyd asserts that no reliable data show men become more violent when testosterone levels are boosted, whether for competitive athletic reasons or medical ones. Nor, despite the prison study, do testosterone levels correlate reliably in comparisons between violent and nonviolent men.

With one critical exception. When men are deprived of testosterone - through surgical or chemical castration - the number of sexual assaults they commit plummets, although not the number of non-sexual attacks or other crimes. That finding suggests testosterone may be more likely to point violent impulses along a sexual track, than to generate them. Then again, sex and jealousy are often factors in crime, even when the crime is not itself sexual. Asserts Boyd: "Most male violence is about women."

Jurisdictions across the country have recognized that fact over the past decade, establishing special procedures to deal with crimes of domestic violence. Aware that many women are reluctant to press charges against abusive partners - out of fear or unextinguished attachment or a bit of both - most provinces have removed that choice from them, placing it instead in the hands of police or prosecutors. Ontario, for one, is doubling the number of special courts dedicated exclusively to charges arising from domestic violence, and is considering doing the same for emergency care centres for assaulted women. British Columbia has instituted a computerized registry of restraining orders - most against men who have threatened women - which police can consult at any hour. Newly issued orders are compared daily against a list of men who hold firearms acquisition certificates; men with guns who are subject to restraint orders may be required to give up their weapons. The province also gives cellphones to women believed to be in particular danger, to let them call for help if they are attacked.

Boyd takes issue with none of it. He would clearly like to see society go further. In particular, the criminologist argues that popular culture, from the movies to the National Hockey League, should "stop glorifying male violence." The conservative theme is surprising from an academic better known for liberal views (Boyd has argued for years that drug prohibition creates a violent underground). But it received strong support last week from four influential U.S. groups. In a joint statement citing 30 years of research, the American Medical and Psychological Associations and the Academies of Pediatrics and of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, declared: "Viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviours."

Yet popular culture is just that: popular. Boys and girls imbibe its messages equally. So how is it that boys grow into killers 10 times more often than girls? If the answer is not testosterone, then what? Boyd acknowledges he does not know. At the same time, he calls academics and social-policy makers who ignore the role of biology in male violence "ostriches, heads well buried in the sand." Pointing to a wave of research in recent years establishing that "men's and women's brains are wired very differently," Boyd concludes that "as long as we misunderstand this problem of male aggression, we will continue to suffer from its consequences."

But we will not do that equally, as Statistics Canada's science and the grisly fates of Harjaap Bolla, Gillian Hadley, Bohumila Luft and her four children, and so many more like them across the country and across the decades attest. Men will kill and injure. Women and children will do the suffering.

Spousal Violence in Canada

The percentage of women and men, age 15 and over, who reported violence by a spouse (including common-law partner) in the past five years:

BC: Women 10%; Men 9%

AB: Women 11%; Men 9%

SK: Women 11%; Men 8%

MB: Women 9%; Men 7%

ON: Women 7%; Men 5%

QC: Women 8%; Men 7%

NB: Women 9%; Men 7%

PE: Women 12%; Men 7%

NS: Women 8%; Men 6%

NF: Women 4%; Men 5%

Canada: Women 8%; Men 7%

Source: Statistics Canada

Who Does What

Percentage of women and men who reported violence by a spouse in the past five years, by the most serious type of violence experienced:

Threatened, threw something: Women 10%; Men 16%

Pushed, shoved, slapped: Women 35%; Men 25%

Kicked, bit, hit, hit with something: Women 11% Men 42%

Beaten, choked, gun/knife, sexual assault: Women 43%; Men 16%

Source: Statistics Canada


Frequency of violent incidents reported by women in the past five years, in percentage:

Once: 33%

2-5 times: 29%

More than 10 times: 26%

6-10 times: 10%

Don't know: 3%

Source: Statistics Canada

Maclean's August 7, 2000