Is Violence in Males Caused by Lack of Love?

An interesting perspective.  Love is not an ideal, it heals both boys and girls.

Why Males Are More Violent?

Virtually all of the warriors across history have been male, from tribal to modern times. Similarly, males have perpetrated most of the interpersonal violent crimes: in the U.S., 90% of murderers and 82% of other violent criminals are male. Males even commit suicide four times as often as females.1 The difference in male violence is usually ascribed to inherited biology—mainly to adult males having 20 times as much testosterone as females.2 The problem with this theory is that boys actually have the same testosterone levels as girls until they are about eight years old, whereas beginning in about their fourth year of life boys begin acting more violent and domineering than girls, forming structured dominance hierarchies rather than the smaller, more sharing networks formed by girls.3 Indeed, some studies—such as a recent one in Canada measuring hitting, biting and kicking—show little difference in boys and girls violent behaviors until the boys’ testosterone increases after ten years of age.4 However, careful studies have shown “no evidence of an association between testosterone and aggression in teenage boys.”5 Indeed, some studies have concluded that “testosterone efficiency is more often associated with aggression than is testosterone excess. When some men have had their testosterone lowered artificially or by castration, their aggression actually increases.”6 Indeed, testosterone levels actually plummet under stressful conditions, such as military combat.7 Goldstein summarizes the findings on testosterone: “The relative unimportance of testosterone in causing aggression is seen from the fact that differences in testosterone levels between individuals do not predict subsequent differences in their aggressive behavior—nor do short-term fluctuations in a man’s testosterone level predict changes in his levels of aggression.”8 And Boyd simply concludes from his thorough study that there is “no relationship between testosterone levels and being of a violent disposition.”9

Nor do lower testosterone levels in adult women prevent them from voting for war leaders and favoring military solutions nearly as often as men—indeed, somewhat more women than men regarded the Soviet threat as requiring military response by the U.S.10 Although more men than women approved of the Gulf War, more women than men thought George Bush’s hyper-military policies in Iraq were a good way to protect the U.S. from terrorism, mainly because they were “Security Moms” who believed Bush would protect their children better.11 In America recently, there has been a gap of 36% separating married from single women, unmarried women having voted by a 25% margin for the Democratic candidate for President versus married women voting by a 11% margin for Bush.12 Even Nazi violence was backed by most German women, who “in fact voted for Hitler in even greater proportions than men.”13 Current studies of attitudes of boys and girls on whether they accept the necessity of war show almost no difference by sex.14 Still, men usually favor the use of military force more than women, and it is mainly boys who join the military and girls who praise them and cheer them on for being heroes who kill and die for their Motherland.15 Why the difference? And why the shared fantasy of boys killing and dying for a maternal symbol?


The only neurobiological condition inherited by boys that affects later violence is they have a smaller corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the right and the left hemisphere.16 The larger corpus callosum of infant girls allows them to work through trauma and neglect more easily than boys. Furthermore, boys who are abused had a 25 percent reduction in sections of the corpus callosum, while girls did not.17 This means boys actually need more love and caretaking than girls as they grow up. If they do not receive enough interpersonal attention from their caretakers they suffer from damaged prefrontal cortices (self control, empathy) and from hyperactive amygdalae (fear centers), their corpus callosum is reduced further, and they have reduced serotonin levels (calming ability) and increased corticosterone production (stress hormone). All these factors make them have weak selves, reduced empathy, less control over impulsive violence and far more fears than girls.18

The central psychobiological question, then, is this: Are boys given more love and attention than girls by their caretakers in order to help them offset their greater needs? The answer, of course, is just the opposite: boys are given less care and support, from everyone in the family and in society, and they are abused far more than girls, so by the time they are three years of age they become twice as violent as girls.19 Boys’ greater violence by this time, including their propensity to form dominance gangs and to endlessly “play war,” are the results of their greater abuse and distancing by adults and being subject to demands to “grow up” and “be manly” and “not be a crybaby” and not need attachments—attitudes taught by their parents, teachers and coaches. By age four boys’ play is full of provocations that test their self-worth: “At 4 years of age, girls’ insults to one another are infrequent and minor…Boy/boy insults, however, are numerous and tough.”20 The so-called “aggressiveness” usually ascribed to boys is in fact wholly defensive, as they try to ward off their greater feelings of insecurity and hopelessness.21 It isn’t “aggression” males display; it’s bravado—defensive testing and disproof of their fears.

The mother, of course, is the focal point of this widespread distancing and insecure attachment pattern. High levels of violence and of testosterone have been shown to be associated with poorer relationships with mothers, not fathers, since mothers are the primary caretakers in most families (even in America today, fathers spend only an average of eleven minutes a day with their children).22 It is not just genetics but more importantly maternal environment that Tronick and Weinberg blame when they see from their studies that “Infant boys are more emotionally reactive than girls. They display more positive as well as negative affect, focus more on the mother, and display more signals expressing escape and distress and demands for contact than do girls.”23 This is because from infancy boys are expected to “just grow up” and not need as much emotional care as girls—indeed, boys are regularly encouraged not to express any of their feelings, since this is seen as “weak” or “babyish” in boys.24 While mothers may sometimes dominate their little girls and expect them to share their emotional problems, they distance their boys by not making contact with them and expect them to “be a man.” This begins from birth: “Over the first three months of life, a baby girl’s skills in eye contact and mutual facial gazing will increase by over 400 percent, whereas facial gazing skills in a boy during this time will not increase at all.”25 Boys grow up with less attachment strengths because careful studies show that mothers look at their boys less, because both parents hit their boys two or three times as much as they do their girls, because boys are at much higher risk than girls for serious violence against them, and because boys are continuously told to be “tough,” not to be a “wimp” or a “weakling,” not to be “soft” or a “sissy.”26 As Tom Brown told his chum when he wanted him to appear more manly: “Don’t ever talk about home, or your mother and sisters…you’ll get bullied.”27 Real boys don’t admit they need their mothers. When William Pollack researched his book Real Boys’ Voices, he asked boys “Have you ever been called a ‘wuss,’ ‘wimp,’ or ‘fag’? ‘Oh, that,’ one boy said. ‘That happens every day. I thought it was just a part of being a boy!’” Another said, “Boys are just as sensitive as girls are, but we’re not allowed to show our feelings. We’re put in this narrow box and if we try to break out, we’re made fun of, or threatened.’”28 Pollack accurately shows boys are not more “aggressive”—they are just more often shamed if they show their feelings. He accurately says “bravado is a defense against shame…we too often mistake for ‘badness’ what is really covert sadness and frustration about having to fulfill an impossible test of self.”29 This intense sadness and rage at being abandoned is deeply unconscious, dissociated—what Garbarino terms “the emotional amnesia of lost boys.”30

The propensity of beating boys instead of understanding and caring for them is both cross-cultural and cross-historical. We are startled when we read how Aztecs routinely beat their boys bloody to make them good warriors and how Spartans often beat them to death in public “toughening” rituals. But when I spoke to an audience of psychotherapists in London recently and told them that “two-thirds of British mothers said they routinely hit their infants in the first year of their lives, about the same proportion as in the U.S., and that hardly anyone was never smacking their four-year-olds…and that hitting with implements was still used on 91% of boys and 59% of girls,” they found it hard to believe. Then, when I told them that a dozen European nations have now passed laws against hitting children for any reason, and that as a result in nations like Sweden only 6% of parents hit children—and with the additional result that approval of military ventures has also decreased dramatically—they promised me they would raise a protest meeting outside of Parliament and get a law against hitting children passed soon.31

Although historically mothers have played the main role in abusive families because they were expected to bring up their children virtually by themselves along with overwhelming other tasks, today in some nations some portion of fathers really play a major role in caring for their children and thereby produce far less violent and less sexist offspring. “When a boy is able from the earliest age to identify with his father, and when that identification includes loving, nurturing and feeling connected with others, he does not need to be contemptuous of women in order to solidify his identity as a man.”32 It is not that identification with a father is needed to be warm and empathic, as some say. In fact, both single mothers and single fathers have been studied and found “better in all areas” of emotional life.33 It is, rather, that when boys are raised with empathy, no matter what the sex of the caretaker(s), they grow up non-violent. As we will see in future chapters, childrearing is an evolutionary process, and in some countries a portion of both mothers and fathers now bring up their children without abuse or neglect.

In most of the world, however, the younger and more vulnerable children are, the more they are hit. When I gave the speech on British childrearing in London and told a British parent that even Tony Blair “smacked” his little baby, he said it was necessary: “Sure. They can’t talk, so you have to hit them to teach them obedience!” As Straus puts it in his book Beating the Devil Out of Them: “Hitting toddlers is just about universal.”34 By the time they are two or three years old, girls form groups that are built around mutuality, not dominance, whereas boys form defensive groups that use pretend or real violence to enforce rules and violent heroic action. They pretend that the group is itself like a mother’s body with whom they fuse to gain her power and toward whom they act as a savior, as a group “Hero.”35 Boys who have been distanced by mothers and others in their families in their first three years form defensive “toughness” by the time they are four, demonstrating they are not weak, not wimps, by being a Hero to their group and defeating the out-group’s Hero.36 In school, teachers repeat the differing gender patterns. “When girls aggress, nobody notices and nobody reacts. Teachers respond to boys when they scream, cry, or whine; they respond to girls when they use gestures, gentle touches, and speech.”37 Even in sports, boys are conditioned that violence and victory are good defenses against fears of weak selves, are effective in displaying bravado. Females—with their larger frontal lobes more equally distributed—are able to make friends and form groups based more on like interests, without their prefrontal cortices losing control to the overwhelming fears embedded in their amygdalae, as happens in males, and without the regular loss of empathy that abused, neglected and insecurely attached males experience.38


Abuse and neglect produce equally damaging results in the brains of both boys and girls, but girls tend more to respond with dissociative internalizing symptoms (withdrawal, depressions, helplessness, dependence), while boys tend more to act out fight/flight responses (externalizing, impulsive, hyperactive). That boys act out in their play the abuse they experience is a common enough observation. But what is usually overlooked is that boys’ violence is also self-destructive, a real re-experiencing of the hurts and fears they have experienced. You are a “real boy” when you show you do not have fears, when you prove you are not weak: “The greater the risk the greater the proof of manhood. ‘We’ve all got scars,’ one boy proudly said as he rolled up his sleeves to show off his symbols of manhood.”39 This behavior is baffling to girls: “The girls could not understand what drove the boys to bruise their bodies on the playground so that they could acquire scars to prove their manhood.”40 But in “playing war” boys as often “fall down dead” as they “kill others.”41 Reenacting abuse is very much a masochistic self-destructive activity; wars are fought as much to die and to be mutilated—to be a hero for the Motherland—as they are to kill Bad Self enemies. Anything is better than being seen as weak, abandoned, unloved; better to take risks and court death. Taking unnecessary risks is why boys have four times as many “accidental” deaths as girls.42 Whereas girls who were unloved as children become depressed and sometimes cut themselves, unloved boys jump off dangerous barriers on their skateboards or become the bully of the neighborhood and get beat up by gangs. In analyzing violent men, Toch found they all had “been flooded all their life with strong feelings of being weak and insignificant, helpless and fearful.”43 James Gilligan found the violent criminals he spent his life analyzing as a prison psychiatrist told him they didn’t do it because they wanted to hurt people or to get money, but rather said, “I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I first pointed a gun at somebody.”44 The same motivations apply to warriors: kill others rather than be seen as weak, fearful and unloved, even if—in fact, because—it is provocative and self-destructive, a re-enactment of the death fears of being a helpless, abandoned, misused child. Wars are in truth self-destructive activities, both in being a dead hero yourself and in killing a Bad Self enemy. Wars—like homicides and suicides—are extremely serious emotional disorders, inner emotional states rooted in the neurobiological consequences of child abuse and neglect. As Miedzien demonstrates, the reason why males rob, steal and kill with ten times the frequency as females is “I had to prove that I was a man,” and “involvement in war is a proof of manhood.”45

The propensity of boys to engage in violent, risky, self-destructive behaviors is increased by their often responding to maternal distancing by building defensive fantasies that they are encased in “autistic shells” that make them invulnerable to dangers and that “hide their tender parts” from their unresponsive parents.46 This is why boys are over ten times more likely to be afflicted with full-blown autism than girls,47 where they ignore the emotions of others and actually crawl inside boxes and cling to hard surfaces and mechanical devices in place of relating to caretakers.48 This fantasy “shell” is also the source of boys’ early fascination with cars and other encasing mechanical toys. Parents who warn boys against dangerous car driving know they often are wasting their time since boys know the activity is for the purpose of courting dangers. As Nietzsche proclaimed, “The secret to getting the most fun out of life is: to live dangerously.”49 But this overlooks that boys know at some level that they are far more likely to be seriously injured or killed in accidents, and that their engaging in risky behavior is actually designed to be self-destructive.


Perhaps because boys’ needs are greater than girls’, harried and often depressed mothers give them less love and attention from birth. Careful studies reveal that mothers look at and talk more with their daughters than with their sons, spend more time interacting with them, smile more at their daughters than at their sons, direct more orders and prohibitions toward their sons, and use more severe disciplinary styles and more shaming techniques toward them.50 The difference in how mothers see infants is demonstrated in studies that show when the babies are dressed in gender-neutral clothing they are seen as displaying “fear” when the mothers are told they are girls but “anger” when they are told they are boys.51 In the patriarchal ethos throughout history, mother-son separation is mandated and “overclose” mothers are disparaged. “By expecting our sons to cut off from us, we make sure that they do.”52 Abandoned, damaged, and abused males therefore become the violent men who fight wars “to save our Motherland,” to re-enact their abuse, and to punish any Bad Self “enemies” they can provoke. Fathers re-enforce the distancing by making their sons ashamed of being a “Mommy’s boy,” ashamed of having emotions, since “big boys don’t cry,” ashamed of their fears, since “being tough” is the goal of male life, as evidenced by the fact that most husbands in most societies across history beat their wives.53 Teachers re-enforce the harm by denying the fears of boys, in the classroom or in the playground, saying they don’t need more attention but just “more discipline.” Plus the textbooks teachers use to teach goals idealize their own nation and demonize others,54 in hyper-masculine language that makes most state violence “rational” and praises the “heroes who died for our Motherland,” even in quite unnecessary wars. And the media, television and cinema endlessly teach how being a warrior brings you respect and “honor” as a denial of your feelings of weakness.55

But the crucial variable is the distancing and lack of care given to boys by most mothers in all societies. Whether it is because mothers are female and can more closely identify with the needs of their girls or because the boys are male like their husbands and are blamed for their failings and lack of help in child care or any one of dozens of other reasons that we will examine in the next chapter, mothers teach their boys that “it is not enough to separate from her; he must make a total, wrenching split [and] exorcise any aspect of his mother from his own personality….The battle between establishing distance and clinging to dependence takes hold of a boy almost at the moment that he learns to differentiate himself from his mother or sister as a male, rather than a female.”56 The only way boys sometimes are allowed to get close to their mothers is when they are sick—times that are remembered by men as blissful since only then can they admit their desperate need for nurturing. In contrast, “over 80 percent of the men in my study remembered a recurring childhood nightmare of coming home from school and finding their mothers gone. With mounting terror, the little boy would run from room to room looking for his mother…most of the men described memories of a deep loneliness, feelings of being totally helpless.”57

Mothers may dominate their little girls and expect them to share their troubles, but domination has been found to be far less damaging to the child’s psyche than abandonment and routine distancing. Mothers throughout history simply give up on closeness to their sons at birth because they are expected to “say goodbye” almost immediately: “After the first few years a boy goes over to his father. And then he leaves home and that’s it….’A son is a son till he gets him a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life.’” A daughter is seen as a companion, “a friend for life;” “boys soon say goodbye.”58 Boys become more emotionally needy than girls: “They…focus more on the mother, display more signals expressing escape and distress and demands for contact than do girls.”59 Sons are often encouraged to play the role of being a “bodyguard” to the mother, becoming “man of the house” or even “lover” in response to his father’s frequent absence, hoping to cheer up his depressed or beaten or alcoholic mother60—an important basis for his later fantasy that he must be a Hero who can save his Motherland. It is not surprising that careful studies have shown that in “the overwhelming majority (four out of five), mothers and daughters were closer than mothers and sons…As one mother put it, ‘When I look at my daughter, I see myself. When I look at my son, I see my son.’”61


Pollack describes the results of boys’ more abandoning and abusive childrearing as “society’s shame-hardening process.”62 If they are ashamed of what their mothers have taught them they are and by their continuing need for her understanding, they “learn to suffer quietly, in retreat behind the mask of masculinity [and] cover up the more gentle, caring, vulnerable sides of themselves.”63 If, of course, they are brought up with love and care, like my sons—and probably like yours—they grow up neither violent nor war lovers. But abandoned and abused boys regularly hide their shame and fears behind a defensive fantasy of grandiosity, dominance and violent bravado.64 The violence they exhibit both kills other Bad Selves (called “enemies”), who like themselves are seen as both angry and weak, plus it provokes the violence of others, inviting self-destructive, suicidal responses. Confrontation, “carrying a chip on their shoulders,” is their defense against admitting that they feel weak, rejected and worthless.65 Even young boys play by forming hierarchies—not small networks like girls do—where they can fuse with a dominant, violent leader in order not to feel weak.66 Their feelings of weakness and their memories of their rejecting mother remain in dissociated modules and networks in the brain, embedded early on but unavailable to conscious modification as an adult. Girls in groups usually talk openly about any problems they have with their mothers, “criticizing them, hating them, loving them. But in interviewing boys I found they became reticent or evasive in a group, reluctant to talk about their mothers…If I asked them directly if they would want to change anything about their mothers, most would say, ‘No.’”67 Boys simply can’t be seen to criticize their moms (nor their Motherlands). As Ann Caron puts it: “Men’s perceptions of their mothers are idealized or out of focus…At an unconscious level, masculinity was organized around sustaining this fantasy of the mother.”68 In the next chapter, we will examine the psychobiology of how the abandonment and abuse of early childhood gets imprinted into the psyche and brain, and why men feel they must fuse with their Killer Motherland and go to war against their Bad Selves.

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Mohandas Gandhi

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”