science of us

Have Most Men Been in Bar Fights?

Photo: John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

After I transitioned, and testosterone took control of my body, men appeared as if conjured, wanting to fight me. A small subset of aggrieved men showed up to pick fights with me on the street, and the occasional subway car. Mostly, I let it slide; these were minor moments, in the larger schematic of “finally being myself.” But then my mom died.

I was wild with grief in my still-unfamiliar male body, and feeling cloistered by the rules that seemed to govern my every interaction. I think other men sensed these emotions: the sadness, the anger, and the vulnerability beneath. For three months in a row one summer, men I didn’t know, for reasons I could never make sense of, got close enough to me that I could feel spit on my face. One of these men chased me down my block on the Lower East Side; I avoided him until, finally, I felt my fists itching. When I turned to face him, I didn’t raise them, but yelled at him instead, startling him with the venom in my voice. He’d only wanted to fight, his eyes seemed to say, as he backed away with his hands up. What was my problem?

I was thinking about those guys when I read what Newsmax host John Cardillo wrote on Twitter last week. “I don’t know one guy, including myself, who wasn’t in a bar fight,” he announced. “Not a single one.” Cardillo’s tweet came on the heels of reports that newly appointed Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh was involved in a drunken altercation at a bar while an undergraduate at Yale with (his classmate told the New York Times) a man the Yalies were convinced was the lead singer of UB40 (he wasn’t).

But Cardillo’s tweet — which was “liked” over 7,000 times — was divisive. Some men had the powerful urge to brag about their own fights: The New York Times’ Ross Douthat announced that he’d been in two, mysteriously referring to one as “technically a ‘Jumbo Slice Fight.’” Others derided the notion all together. These reactions appeared to square along party lines, and (presumably) degree of support for Kavanaugh, who was facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct as well as questions surrounding his behavior while drinking. Just like much of the defense of Kavanaugh’s behavior by his “boys will be boys” friends in the Senate, Cardillo’s tweet bore all the hallmarks of so-called “toxic masculinity,” the widely used term for the set of destructive behaviors we teach boys, including sexual domination, excessive risk-taking, and not asking for help.

Cardillo’s tweet clearly equates masculinity with violence, making clear that men are innately drawn to such rites of passage and using shame as a silencing strategy by implying that men who aren’t violent aren’t as masculine as he is. “I don’t know one guy,” he says. “Not a single one.” (Crucially, he’s speaking specifically about white men, as NPR’s Sam Sanders pointed out.)

But … is he right? Have most men been in bar fights?

Statistically, that’s almost impossible to answer. And that’s part of the appeal, says CJ Pascoe, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon and author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. “Whether or not they’ve actually fought is, perhaps, irrelevant,” she says. “My hunch is that most men have not thrown punches in a bar. But if they can talk about throwing punches in a bar, it’s almost as good as doing it — no one can actually disprove it.”

As I learned early in my transition, most fighting words never transition to blows. It’s rarely worth it. “Violence is hard to do,” Tyson Smith, a sociologist who’s studied pro wrestlers, told me. It requires a level of commitment and follow-through that’s probably not animating the average hotheaded exchange. “Most men have not been in bar fights, I can assure you of that,” says Smith, the author of Fighting for Recognition: Identity, Masculinity, and the Act of Violence in Professional Wrestling. Though he notes that the idea, at least, of a bar fight has all the markers of practices associated with traditional masculinity, practices that are “unstated, implicit, and cause harm.”

Surely, some of the braggarts responding to Cadillo’s tweet cherished the opportunity to finally tell the world about that real-life Jumbo Slice Fight, but others may have lied outright. Why brag about something you haven’t done? Because you’re susceptible to what sociologists call “masculinity threat,” and some guy just said that every guy he knows has been in a bar fight. “We know that being seen by others as ‘not a man’ is the worst insult for a guy,” Pascoe says. “We have tons of studies that show this. So what men do in response is overcompensate, or prove more assertively their masculinity.” Pascoe says that this entire way of thinking hinges on the faulty thesis that being a man “is not a static identity,” but instead “one that’s constantly under threat.” The fear of being exposed as not a “real” man means “men are having to constantly prove to one another, and themselves, that they are truly men,” she says, and “therefore fully human.” If a man feels exposed as not real, they’re more likely to espouse pro-war sentiments; they’re also more likely to condone violence generally, and to blame the victim of rape rather than the rapist.

Smith says that the “most dominant men” actually rarely resort to violence — because they don’t have to. Men feeling “shame and frustration” about their status are more likely to put their bodies at risk, he adds, which makes it sort of a strange thing to brag about, when you really think about it.

Missing in all the analysis last week of bar fights and toxic masculinity was that the subtext of Cadillo’s tweet and others like it was troubling itself, and for what it implied: That masculinity is monolithic and immovable. This line of thinking is often used to justify male violence as biologically “innate,” which it definitively is not. In the course of reporting my new book — Amateur, in which I trained to fight a boxing match in Madison Square Garden after that encounter with the man on the Lower East Side — I sought to answer questions about the real relationship between men and violence. In an interview, Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky told me that the single biggest misconception about testosterone is that it “causes” aggression. “Testosterone doesn’t ‘cause’ neurons that mediate aggression to suddenly start firing out of nowhere,” he said.

He pointed me to the work of John Wingfield, a researcher who showed that testosterone doesn’t increase aggression exactly, but rather the likelihood that men would do whatever they needed to do to maintain status. In studies rooted in economic games, Sapolsky said, where winning required participants to be more cooperative, men with higher testosterone were more generous. But men who were given a placebo and told that they were given testosterone actually behaved more competitively (and less effectively). “If our world is riddled with male violence, the core problem isn’t that testosterone can often increase levels of aggression,” Sapolsky said. “The problem is the frequency with which we reward aggression.”

The consequences of this deep misunderstanding of gender are sobering, and extreme. As elected and appointed leaders continue to display and be celebrated for masculinity rooted in harm, and are then excused for that harm as an extension of gender identity, a new generation of boys learns how to be men. Heavy drinking, sexual dominance, and fighting are all prominently displayed in our current political arena and, indeed, do function as informal “rites of passage” for many men, in the absence of more formal rituals, Pascoe says. But the idea that men need rites of passage to teach them how to be men is part of the issue. “In societies where it does exist, usually those rituals consist of proving that a young man no longer belongs to the world of children and women, he belongs in the adult world of men. Usually these rites of passage involve some form of dominance: whether over women, children, or other men.”

In a moment where so many people are questioning how anyone could have voted to confirm Kavanaugh, despite the bar fights and binge drinking and rape accusations, this disturbing definition of manhood is a foundation that undergirds virtually every tweet, hearing, and testimony about his actions. Until that’s illuminated, we are destined to hear about who’s had a bar fight, and who hasn’t — whether or not any of it’s true — for as long as we reward this sort of violence with status. Say, with an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Have Most Men Been in Bar Fights?