When men are aggressive towards women, their behaviour is often driven by the feeling that their masculinity has been threatened. Consider these previous findings: men told they’d performed poorly on a strength test gave more painful electric shocks to a woman who criticised them; and men whose masculine identity was threatened subsequently harassed a feminist woman by sending her pornographic photos.
Now Kris Mescher and Laurie Rudman have shown that this link is particularly strong for men who are ashamed of their bodies. “Such men may be under chronic masculinity threat, making them more sensitive to acute instances,” they write.
A first investigation involved 127 male heterosexual undergrads recruited for what they thought was a study about effective remote teamwork. They each filled out a personality questionnaire and submitted their photo, ostensibly to be seen by the attractive female team-mate they’d been allocated to work with, who was located elsewhere.
Half the men were then told that there was a computer malfunction, so they wouldn’t be able to proceed with this part of the study. They acted as controls. The other half were told that their female partner had chosen not to work with them. She’d apparently been tipped off that this was really a dating study. And in a note passed to the rejected participants, she explained: “I’m really not attracted to this guy. He’s not my type at all and I don’t want to have to go out with him.”
Afterwards, all the men answered questions about how they felt (including how sad, insulted and angry), their body shame, their proneness to shame in general, and their “rape proclivity.” This last measure asked the men to say how likely it was that they would be aroused by, attracted to, or likely to commit, rape or other forms of sexual aggression if they knew there was no chance they’d get caught.
Among the men who felt bad after the rejection, it was specifically those who scored high on body shame who showed increased rape proclivity. These were men who agreed with statements like “I am ashamed by the size and shape of my buttocks,” and disagreed with statements like “Overall I am comfortable with how my body looks.”
The researchers said these initial results “supported our expectation that female rejecters are at increased risk of retaliation from men high on body shame who feel threatened by the rejection.”
A second experiment with 214 male heterosexual participants was similar, but this time they were rejected by a potential team-mate who thought they were gay. “Looking at his profile,” said the team-mate in a note read by the rejected participants, “I get the impression he is gay. We won’t work well together if he likes men.” This time the rejection came either from a woman (no photo this time, so her attractiveness was unknown) or a man.
Again, male participants who felt bad after this rejection showed evidence of heightened sexual aggression, but only if they scored highly on body shame, and only if they were rejected by a female team-mate. This time the measure of sexual aggression was the men’s choice of photos to be used for a future study involving female participants. Those men upset by the rejection, and who had high body shame, tended to choose more photos or images that depicted rape or sexual violence toward women, rather than images involving male-on-male violence.
This study doesn’t speak to why some men experienced negative emotions after rejection and others didn’t. But for those who did, the results suggest strongly that body shame is an important risk factor for resentment manifesting as sexual aggression. This may seem “counter-intuitive” the researchers said, given that prominent rape theories propose that arrogant men with machismo pose the greatest risk to women.
Mescher and Rudman admitted their research lacked realism. “There is a sobering gap between actual rape and our attempt to model the consequences of social situations that threaten men’s masculinity and place women at risk,” they said. Nonetheless, the researchers believe their findings show that “men’s body shame may be a key component in male-on-female sexual violence”. They urge other researchers to investigate men’s body image “with the same tenacity” with which women’s body image has been studied in the past.
Mescher K, & Rudman LA (2014). Men in the Mirror: The Role of Men’s Body Shame in Sexual Aggression. Personality & social psychology bulletin PMID: 24839983