When an overwhelmingly white, male mob rampaged the Capitol last week armed with guns and zip ties, attacking police with metal pipes and erecting a gallows, the nation reeled in horror. But many women also saw something familiar.
“It’s a reminder of the everyday stresses that come with living in a world that’s shaped by white masculinity, that there’s still so much more work to do, and that your wellness comes second to their expressions of dominance, which they see as their right,” said Kristen Barber, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and editor of the journal Men and Masculinities.
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Experts say demonstrations of white masculinity have mental health impacts on everyone, but especially women, and can create stress, anxiety and trauma.
These displays remind us the threat of male violence always looms. Estimates from the World Health Organization indicate about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75% of violent incidents involve male offenders.
Barber said what we witnessed Wednesday should be appropriately named. It wasn’t just masculinity, or entitlement, or supremacy. It was all of it that made the Capitol attack possible and often allows us to overlook the quieter attacks on our everyday lives.
“Watching these images are triggering for people who experience the everyday violence of white male supremacy, whether that’s Black men who are patrolled by white police officers on the street or women who feel threatened by white men in their spaces on a daily basis,” Barber said.
A collective and individual trauma response
Research shows everyday sexism is linked to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in women. What some women experienced Wednesday was collective and individual trauma and re-trauma, experts say, regardless of whether they’ve experienced male violence directly.
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“We experience a trauma response when our emotional and physical safety are threatened in real and tangible ways,” said Debra Mollen, a psychology professor at Texas Woman’s University. “We can have physiological responses. After the riot, one of my former students told me she couldn’t get out of bed. I’ve heard lots of accounts of women I know who have been uncontrollably crying. I’ve read several accounts of people who vomited, they were so upset and distressed by what they were witnessing.”
Masculinity that purports to ‘protect’
Right before the mob began its rampage, President Donald Trump told his supporters, “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
Jackson Katz, an expert on masculinity and gender violence, said Trump called upon men to perform their masculinity, to demonstrate power.
“The whole thing was a performance,” Katz said. “It’s all about, ‘I’m a man and our country needs men who are tough enough and strong enough to defend it.'”
And while a minority of white women participated in the Capitol riot, and two died, many women watching did not see men defending the country. What they saw, experts said, were men who felt entitled to defend their dominant place in it.
Wednesday’s riot happened in the midst of major cultural, political and demographic shifts.
A record number of women now serve in Congress. Experts say it’s likely no coincidence rioters took pictures in Pelosi’s office rather than in Senator Chuck Schumer’s. Pelosi has made history as the first female speaker of the House.
“What we’re seeing is a reaction to the ways that people of color, women of color and women more broadly have been pushing against the scripts of masculinity for a long time,” Mollen said. “And I think that’s extraordinarily threatening to the people who descended on the Capitol and felt so emboldened to deface it.”
Katz said a mainstream national conversation is needed on the psychological and emotional toll outdated notions of masculinity have on society.
“Being a strong man in the 21st century, to me, and being a strong white man is not trying to hold back the tides of history. It’s trying to adapt and evolve and redefine strength, resilience, physical and mental health,” he said.
Experts caution against writing off the male rioters as aberrations. A lot of what these men are expressing is an extreme, they say, but it can be useful to look at extreme elements of social movements for insight into pressures at the center.
“When I watch politicians say, ‘This is not who we are.’ I think, ‘this is absolutely who we are,” Barber said. “To think that this is not who we are is to be ahistorical. This is white male supremacy, as it always has been. .. It’s important to not hold those men up as anomalies, but as symptoms of a larger cultural illness.”