Most of us know toxic masculinity when we see it. It’s the bloke in the car park, ranting at his wife as she struggles to load the shopping. It’s the football fan, face contorted with rage as he yells (often racist) abuse at the opposing side’s star player. It crosses lines of wealth and class: in 2017, it took charge of the White House when a reality TV star who had been accused of rape by his first wife – who had boasted on videotape about sexually assaulting women – was inaugurated as President of the United States.
Toxic masculinity didn’t damage Donald Trump’s chances, showing that millions of people still respond positively – or at least indifferently – to the near-parodic version of masculinity on display at his rallies.
Such behaviour, which takes traditionally masculine traits and exaggerates them to disastrous effect, isn’t innate to men, and is rejected by a growing number of them. But when it’s sanctioned at such a high level, we shouldn’t be surprised if individuals further down the food chain copy it and make similar assumptions about how they are entitled to behave.
The UK, like many modern democracies, has a raft of laws that commit our society to sex equality. But the way people actually treat each other in private is another matter. Domestic abuse is widespread, suggesting that toxic masculinity taken to extremes continues to define and distort many intimate relationships.
At the same time, our understanding of the phenomenon has expanded: since 2015, the law has recognised non-physical forms of domestic abuse, such as keeping women short of money and ‘gaslighting’, a type of psychological manipulation that encourages self-doubt.
What’s gone underreported is the relationship between domestic violence and murder statistics. Men do become victims of domestic abuse, but they’re far more likely to be killed by strangers; fully half of female murder victims are killed by a current or former partner, compared to only 3% of male victims. Two women die at the hands of an intimate partner every week, according to official figures.
A significant proportion of those deaths involve ‘over-killing’ – the use of much greater force than is needed to kill the victim. It featured in two-fifths of cases recorded by the Femicide Census in 2017, including one where a woman was struck 40 times by an axe and another where the victim was stabbed 175 times. The following year, when the public conversation was all about knife crime, the number of domestic homicides in London more than tripled to 29.
It’s a depressing fact that there isn’t outcry over these murders, harking back to a time when violence in the home was dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. It’s worrying, too: it’s gradually becoming clear that the impact of such high levels of anger, aggression and assaults isn’t limited to the private sphere.
In the US, where mass shootings without an obvious political motive are common, the link between what happens behind closed doors and acts of public violence has been showing up in research for some time. One of the best-known studies, carried out by an NGO called Everytown for Gun Safety, found that the perpetrator killed an intimate partner or family member in 57% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2014. In many of these cases, the victim had suffered abuse for years.
Devin Patrick Kelley, who had convictions for violence against his first wife and his step-son, was trying to kill the mother of his estranged second wife when he opened fire in a church in Texas in 2017, killing 26 people. Nine days later, Kevin Janson Neal riddled his wife’s body with bullets and hid her under the floorboards before rushing out of their home in rural California and murdering four more victims. The young man accused of killing 14 students and three teachers at his old school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 was well-known to the police because his adoptive mother called 911 so many times, pleading for help when he verbally and physically abused her.
Violence in the home doesn’t always stay in the home – and a similar pattern has begun to emerge in relation to terrorism. People are surprised when I tell them that all four fatal attacks in the UK in 2017 were carried out by men with a history of domestic abuse; they’re even more taken aback when I explain that the same background turns up in relation to terrorist attacks in France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Australia. That’s because the public thinks about terrorism as ideological, carried out by men who’ve been radicalised by Salafist videos or neo-Nazi propaganda.
The truth, as I’ve discovered while researching the histories of dozens of terrorists, is that many of them began in the same way as mass shooters: abusing their families – and, crucially, becoming desensitised to the effects of violence – behind closed doors.
Last week, harrowing accounts began to emerge of the final moments of the eight people who died in the terrorist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market in June 2017. Two members of the gang, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba, are known to have abused female family members – his wife in Redouane’s case, and his elder sister in Zaghba’s. The ringleader, Khuram Butt, had previously tried to leave his pregnant wife to fight for ISIS in Syria, but was prevented from leaving the UK by members of his family. He led the London Bridge attack just weeks after his second child was born, leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless.
Two weeks later, a right-wing extremist, Darren Osborne, staged a copycat attack, ranting about killing Muslims and driving another rented van into worshippers leaving a mosque in north London. Osborne had shown no interest in politics until a few weeks earlier, when his partner had finally had enough of his abuse (one of his many convictions was for ABH against her) and threw him out of the family home.
So many terrorists are men who have been abusing women for years before they become killers. And it’s not hard to see how domestic abuse lays the groundwork. Few men escalate their behaviour to the extremes of violence, but those that do are accustomed to terrorising women and children – and enjoy the sense of power that goes with it. Don’t forget that some of the ‘foreign fighters’ who turned up in Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS admitted that they were attracted by the idea of owning ‘sex slaves’, surely the most extreme form of domestic violence it’s possible to imagine.
Toxic masculinity is creating a pool of men who are susceptible to the propaganda of terrorist organisations – men who are responding positively to messages legitimising the use of lethal force against civilians.
Shocking as all this is, some good might come of it. Terrorism isn’t usually perceived as male violence – with all the connections that implies. But once we understand the link, we’ll have a tool to help us identify dangerous individuals before they launch an attack.
Eighteen months ago, MI5 revealed that it has a list of 3,000 active suspects who might be in the process of preparing a terrorist outrage, along with 20,000 others who have been investigated but aren’t believed to pose an immediate threat. The demand on resources is enormous, given how many agents are needed to watch just one individual. But those with a history of domestic abuse should be the highest priority.
Paradoxically, while toxic masculinity is facilitating terrorist attacks, it could also be one of the biggest warning signs for counter-terrorist agencies. Keeping tabs on it may be a means of saving lives.
Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists by Joan Smith is published by riverrun on 16th May, £16.99