Click here to watch a recording of the seminar.

On the 21st March, the CCLJ hosted a seminar by Professor James Messerschmidt from the University of Southern Maine concerning sexual violence by adolescent boys.  Prof Messerschmidt is renowned as a leading theorist of masculinity and he has contributed substantially to the literature concerning gender and crime, and the interplay between masculinities and sexual crime. He used this opportunity to share the findings of his recent research using life-history case studies of adolescents.

In this seminar, Professor Messerschmidt outlined two significant case studies that epitomised the findings of his research. Both cases were young, working class white boys who had been bullied at school for being ‘wimps’ and went on to engage in sexual violence against children.

Both boys were made fun of for their bodies and lack of physical ability and were feminised by other boys who were the dominant masculine personalities at their schools. As Professor Messerschmidt noted, this created micropractices of heteromasculinity within the school institution and embedded a social understanding of gender expectations.  

He went on to explain reflexivity as a method for decision-making, and the power it has to shape an individual’s choices. During their own reflexive deliberations, both boys acknowledged their main desire as conforming to a heteromasculine construct. They believed that to conform to this they were required to exert sexual power and dominance over girls but failed in their approaches to girls of their own age.  Sexually coercing younger, vulnerable girls and manipulating them to fulfil their sense of masculinity and sexuality provided a means of engaging in heterosexual practices. The boys were making a reflexive choice and saw themselves as successfully conforming to heteromasculine standards. In their eyes, through sexual coercion they became ‘heteromasculine cools guys’ at least in the domestic domain where the offences occurred, an identify not available to them at school.

Interestingly, Professor Messerschmidt noted that neither of the boys thought that they were doing anything wrong at the time.  For the boys, this coercive heterosexuality was legitimate and permissible because they believed that they were entitled to sexual access to girls.

While many people understand the psychological impact of bullying on young children, Professor Messerschmidt goes further and identifies the effects of heteromasculine discourse and practices in schools and redefines the decision-making process that individuals go through when trying to conform to the standards. The connections that he makes deepen a general understanding of bullying and resulting sexual violence.

This research also addressed significant gaps in the literature, namely by examining the phenomena of children sexually violating children and less masculine boys being the perpetrators of coercive sexual violence. Both are under-recognised subtypes of sexual violence and it remains extremely important to both identify them and recognise their causes and effects.  

Not only were the findings of Professor’s Messerschmidt research extremely engaging, so was his research paradigm. Using life-history case studies to undertake this research, he provided a rich qualitative analysis of the real-life intersectionality of gender, age and sexuality.  

The lively discussion highlighted the importance of developing new concepts and understandings of masculinity, of localised, dominant forms of heteromasculinty, and strategies for dealing with bullies. It also indicated avenues for future investigation, most notably the internet.  It remains important to identify how heteromasculine discourse functions online and the audience were keen to explore how these ideas might apply to the phenomenon of ‘incels’, that is, self-identified involuntary celibate individuals who have an aggressive presence online and have been responsible for violent incidents including mass homicide.  Professor Messerschmidt was ahead of us there – he has written on ‘incels’ in a recent book.

Professor Messerschmidt delivered a very engaging seminar, developing the analogy of “bringing the social inside” to highlight the importance of reflexivity and the danger of internalising pervasive heteromasculine social structures. His talk highlighted numerous avenues for future investigation and left us all with much to ponder.

Kate Lloyd CCLJ Intern