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Is There a Link Between Male Bonding and Sexual Violence?

Following allegations against three high school basketball players accused of raping a teammate in an act of hazing, we talked to the anthropologist who coined the term "male bonding" about why male-dominated institutions are rife with assault.
Photo by Joselito Briones via Stocksy

It's obvious that the worst institutions in our country (the NFL, police forces, fraternities) are largely made up of men—brotherhoods, they would perhaps call themselves. However, in the spirit of summing up the past 365 days, one could remember 2015 as year that the men (some, not all) who pledge allegiance to, and hide behind, these elaborate networks of power stopped getting away with rape and violence against women.


This year's most notorious example is perhaps Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer and serial rapist who was able to assault 13 women during the three years that he was on the force. Or maybe it's porn star James Deen, who was accused of allegedly raping and abusing six different women; Deen violated many of his alleged victims on set, while the camera crew, managers, and whoever else was undoubtedly around turned a blind eye. Or it could just be all the countless, faceless fraternity brothers who are three times more likely to rape than their non-Greek peers and write songs about sexually violating women before killing them.

So while it's hopeful that rape culture is starting to shift, as writer Laurie Penny recently argued in an op-ed for Time, history suggests that both violent and casual sexism is embedded in mere act of men gathering. After all, this year has seen an ongoing national conversation about banning frats altogether.

Even amongst themselves, acts of bonding within male-only establishments are frequently based in violence, subjugation, and frightening assertions of masculinity. Just this week, three high school basketball players in Tennessee were charged with aggravated rape and sexual assault during a hazing incident. According to the Washington Post, the three boys shoved a pool cue inside a freshman teammate's rectum, puncturing his colon and breaking off the tip inside his bladder. And while this type of abuse in the name of male bonding might seem like a freak occurrence, it's happened many times before. So much so that the Daily Caller canonized the term "anal hazing" last year.


Curious about the true nature of men in groups, I talked to Lionel Tiger, the author of the book Men in Groups and the first to coin the term male bonding in 1969. During our conversation, it became clear that Tiger, unlike me, has faith in the good that men can do, together.

Photo by Flickr user Valerie Everett

BROADLY: Can you explain your definition of male bonding and how you developed the idea? Before you coined the term, was there really no concept for the way men interact with each other?
Lionel Tiger: Not really, no. Most of the discussion was about men doing something in particular, like being firemen or warriors or in sports. But the notion that there was a generic male–male relationship really didn't surface until [my 1969 book, Men in Groups.] Unlike, for example, the mother–child bond, which was very well known and you would see it exemplified in Renaissance paintings and that sort of thing, there was no real awareness of the male–male relationship having the same sort of biological function. It seemed to me there was when one looked at the male–male relationships in other primates. The other primates gave a clue that there was something special in the manner in which males interacted, that it was different from the way they interacted with females and youngsters. It seems to me that it can be responsibly argued that the male–male bond is a characteristic of Homo sapiens.

The basis of hazing is to create a ritual that will then translate into normal life.

It seems like institutions that aim to develop an in-group mentality among men in order to foster a militant sense of community tend to lead to sexual violence, whether against each other or someone outside the group. There was a story in the news recently about members of a sports team using penetration as a hazing tactic. Do you see rape as a characteristic of male bonding?
Well, I don't think it has anything to do with eroticism or homosexuality. It's more like West Side Story, for example. Like the song, "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet"—it's about being able to rely on the members of your group. When we see extreme hazing in fraternities, usually there's a lot of alcohol involved, but the basis of hazing is to create a ritual that will then translate into normal life. You may become drunk or get penetrated with a pole in the process of being hazed, but that's the end of it. After that it doesn't happen again. From now on you're a Kappa Kappa Kappa, or whatever your particular brand is.

But those "extreme" hazing tactics seem to be fairly common. Do you have a theory on why they occur and reoccur in male initiation rituals?
You know, there aren't as many studies about female initiation rituals, but there are some. We have information that in a number of sororities initiation can consist of a pledge stripping down to her underwear while the older sisters use a marker to draw circles around her body fat to harass her. It doesn't usually involve actual sexual activity, though I've obviously never been in that situation.

OK. So do you think that male bonding is largely positive?
This morning I had to go to Midtown, near St. Patrick's Cathedral, and there were, like, a million policemen there. They were in full dress. There were guys with machine guns and a huge number of very senior cops. I asked one of the cops what was going on, and he said it was a funeral for a member of the NYPD who had been killed in Afghanistan just recently. You can't ignore the power of the male bonding phenomenon in the context of public safety. Those cops were there [at the funeral], they were proud to be there, they were sad at the tragedy, and they honored their fellow cop. Male bonding isn't only associated with positive phenomena, but vital phenomena—such as police work, military activity, and first responders. To turn it into a charade about fraternity initiation and over-hyped football players is, I think, a mistake. It's part of a current, anti-male position [that says] if you're a man, you're bad. On the contrary, you could say that the guy who was killed in Afghanistan, and every one of those 2,000 cops who was standing out in the cold this morning at the cathedral, had a sense of being worthy members of a community. I daresay, if you look at the fraternities that you may have a negative attitude toward—a lot of those guys will end up being pillars of society. One thing that they're learning in the spectacle [of fraternity] is the importance of association and commitment to the broader group.

But do you think that fraternities, with their higher incidences of rape, violent hazing rituals, and penchant for being anti-women, are really the types of institutions that we should be encouraging young men to be a part of?
I have the feeling you're trying to push me to say that what males do is ipso facto dangerous and bad. Sometimes it is. Yes, it's important that initiations don't involve penetrating people with a pool cue. That's obscene and awful. It's not unusual for males to do this, but nonetheless the organizations that sponsor these rituals have the responsibility to police them very carefully. I get your point—one has to be careful about what men do in groups because there's often opportunity for them to do damage while trying to engender solidarity. If you're saying that all male organization is inherently dangerous, there's an element of truth in that, but it's only an element. It is not the core.