Factors in the Cycle of Violence:
Gender Rigidity and Emotional Constriction

By David Lisak, Jim Hopper, and Pat Song

Abstract and Excerpt

Presented by Jim Hopper, Ph.D.

This Web page is a way of letting people know about a research study I've done with my colleagues. The research focuses on two issues:

  1. Rates of child abuse and perpetration of violence in a sample of male college students, including the percentage of perpetrators who were abused and the percentage of abused males who went on to perpetrate.

  2. How the interaction between child abuse and masculine gender socialization can decrease abused males' capacities for empathy and increase their likelihood of perpetrating violence against others.

Though I am unable to mail reprints, I hope some of you will find this interesting enough to make a copy of the published paper at a college or university library:

Lisak, D., Hopper, J., & Song, P. (1996). Factors in the cycle of violence: Gender rigidity and emotional constriction. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, 721-743.

Please note: This page only contains an abstract and excerpt of the published paper, written in the academic style typical of journal articles.

The Authors

David Lisak, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. His research has focused on the sexual and physical abuse of male children, men who rape but are not arrested or sent to prison, and ways masculine gender socialization can transform abused boys into violent men.

Jim Hopper, Ph.D., received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School and the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at the Neuroimaging Center of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Pat Song, M.A., is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Her research has focused on how the sexual abuse of males can effect their gender and sexual identities.

On This Page

    The Authors     Abstract     Article Excerpt

    Related Pages at This Site


A sample of 595 men were administered self-report assessments of childhood sexual and physical abuse, perpetration history, gender rigidity and emotional constriction. Including noncontact forms of sexual abuse, 11% of the men reported sexual abuse alone, 17% reported physical abuse alone, and 17% reported sexual and physical abuse. Of the 257 men in the sample who reported some form of childhood abuse, 38% reported some form of perpetration themselves, either sexual or physical; of the 126 perpetrators, 70% reported having been abused in childhood. Thus, most perpetrators were abused but most abused men did not perpetrate. Both sexually and physically abused men who perpetrated manifested significantly more gender rigidity and emotional constriction than abused nonperpetrators. Men who reported abuse but did not perpetrate demonstrated significantly less gender rigidity, less homophobia and less emotional constriction than nonabused men.

Lisak, D., Hopper, J., & Song, P. (1996). Factors in the cycle of violence: Gender rigidity and emotional constriction. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9,721-743.

(pp. 723-726 & 739-740)

         "[Several] sources of evidence indicate that male gender socialization, like childhood abuse, is implicated in the genesis of interpersonal violence. This evidence also suggests the need for greater understanding of how the socialization of males' emotional experience, in interaction with childhood abuse, can increase the likelihood of interpersonal violence. The study reported here tests several components of an hypothesized sequence of relationships linking childhood abuse, particular aspects of male gender socialization, and empathy deficits. . . The sequence depicted in Figure 1 [see paper] is not intended either as an alternative model explaining the development of interpersonal violence, or as a unitary explanation of the role of male gender socialization. The sequence is intended to depict how one frequent consequence of this socialization -- emotional constriction -- can, when combined with early trauma, result in the kinds of empathy deficits which have been long associated with interpersonal aggression (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). As such, this hypothesized sequence may be embedded within the relationships posited in many of the models. . . which are currently being developed and tested. . . . The sequence depicted in Figure 1 proposes a vehicle by which this socialization may, in interaction with the emotional legacy of abuse, inhibit some men's capacity to respond empathically, and thereby increase their likelihood of committing aggressive acts. . . .

         In a review of the research on gender differences in emotional development, Brody (1985) noted the consistent finding that boys learn to "neutralize" the expression of most emotions over the course of development. By early childhood and then consistently into adulthood, males are found to be less emotionally expressive than females (Eisenberg, Fabes, Schaller, & Miller, 1989). This "neutralization" of emotional expression can generate an intense conflict when it interacts with the experience of abuse. At the nucleus of almost every episode of abuse are intense feelings of fear and helplessness. Thus, at the precise developmental [stage] when the male child is learning that to be considered appropriately masculine he must suppress all "nonmasculine" emotional states, he is overwhelmed by emotional states that are culturally defined as nonmasculine.

         Faced with such an intense conflict between the emotional legacy of abuse and the emotionally constricting dictates of their gender socialization, male victims must find some pathway to resolution. One pathway entails the rigid adherence to masculine gender norms, a resolution which requires the forceful suppression and repression of abuse-related emotions (Lisak, 1995). Such a rigid conformity to gender norms may result in an accentuated constriction of emotional experience that is particularly focused on "vulnerable" emotions -- the helplessness, shame and powerlessness associated with the abuse experience (Bolton, Morris, & MacEachern, 1989; Lisak, 1994a, 1995). Thus, the male abuse victim who adopts this resolution to the conflict would manifest an intolerance of his own distressful emotions.

         Simultaneously, such a rigid gender adaptation would likely lead to an accentuated reliance on anger, the emotion which is most sanctioned by male gender norms (Mosher & Tompkins, 1988). Indeed, these authors, among others, have argued that men who rigidly adhere to gender norms for emotional expression are likely to convert a variety of emotional states, such as fear and helplessness, into anger. Thus, gender rigidity increases the likelihood that abuse-generated emotions will be suppressed and converted into anger, a dynamic that is likely to increase the propensity for aggressive action.

         Such gender rigidity, with its resultant constriction in emotional experience, is also likely to interfere with the individual's capacity to constructively integrate his traumatic experiences. As described by Horowitz (1986) and Roth and Cohen (1986), such an integration typically requires periods of avoidance of traumatic information and affect, as well as periods of approach. The gender-rigid, emotionally constricted individual is less likely to be able to tolerate approaching the negative emotional states evoked by trauma, and more likely to avoid them, either by using psychological defenses, or by converting them to aggressive action.

         This adaptation is also likely to have a significant, negative impact on the individual's capacity to respond empathically to others, which in turn increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). This impact may by felt in several ways. The need to deny and suppress "vulnerable" emotional states is likely to render them highly threatening when they appear externally, in the form of another person's distress, because of their power to evoke similar feelings in the perceiver. In effect, the individual is threatened with emotional overarousal -- an intensity of "vulnerable" emotions which conflict with his rigid adherence to gender norms, and which he cannot regulate. Or, the individual may actually become emotionally overaroused. In either case, he is likely to seek ways to terminate either the threat or the actual experience of the aversive emotional state. He may do so "internally" by using psychological defenses which disconnect him from his emotional experience, or he may do so "externally" through aggressive action aimed at the perceived source of his discomfort. This is consistent with the finding that abused children sometimes respond aggressively to peers who express distress (Klimes-Dougan & Kistner, 1990; Main & George, 1985).

         . . . . The hypothesized relationships linking abuse, gender rigidity, empathy deficits and perpetration are not expected to apply equally to all perpetrators of interpersonal violence. To the extent that it helps explain the abuse-perpetration link, it is unlikely to apply, for example, to the subtype of pedophile who has been described as passive and developmentally arrested (Finkelhor & Araji, 1986).

         The goal of the present study was to examine two relationships posited in Figure 1: that between abuse (physical and sexual), gender rigidity and perpetration; and that between abuse, emotional constriction and perpetration. The model predicts that abused men who perpetrate will score higher than abused men who do not perpetrate on measures of gender rigidity and emotional constriction.

         . . . . One way to understand these findings is to conceptualize two developmental pathways diverging from a history of childhood abuse. In one path, the male abuse victim may appear conflicted and preoccupied by gender identity issues, but this preoccupation may indicate a lack of conformity to gender norms necessitated by his coping with the legacy of his abuse. In the other path, the male abuse victim strives to be stereotypically masculine, and must therefore suppress the high magnitude emotional states that are the legacy of his abuse. The suppression required to hold at bay the emotional legacy of abuse may also suppress his capacity to empathize with others. Having sealed himself off from his own pain, the perpetrator may also suppress his capacity to feel the pain of others, and thereby diminish a crucial inhibition against interpersonal violence. Simultaneously, his rigid gender conformity may accentuate his reliance on anger as a culturally acceptable outlet for his emotions, again increasing his propensity for aggressive interpersonal behavior.

[Please note: To see the study's findings, you will need the article, recently published in the October 1996 Journal of Traumatic Stress. Unfortunately, presenting the findings here is not a good idea--either practically, given their variety and complexity, or legally, given copyright law which limits quotation to less than 10% of the total document.]

You may also want to read this related paper: Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the 'Cycle of Violence', by Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

This page is maintained by Jim Hopper, Ph.D., as are these related pages:

Child Abuse: Statistics, Research & Resources

Sexual Abuse of Males: Prevalence, Lasting Effects, and Resources

Mindfulness and Kindness: Inner Resources for Increasing Freedom and Happiness

Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse: Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources

Jim Hopper
jhopper * jimhopper99.com [modified to thwart spammers - replace * with @ and remove numbers]
This page last updated 8/6/97
Please note: Sadly, I cannot always respond to every message.