The Mollie Tibbetts killing is not about immigration, it's about toxic masculinity

Mollie Tibbetts and <span>Cristhian Bahena Rivera </span>(Photos: AP Images)
Mollie Tibbetts and Cristhian Bahena Rivera (Photos: AP Images)

The monthlong search for Mollie Tibbetts came to a tragic end this week when investigators located the 20-year-old’s body in a cornfield near her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Tibbetts, who was set to start her sophomore year at the University of Iowa this week, was dogsitting for her boyfriend at the time of her disappearance and was last seen jogging on the evening of July 18.

Investigators say they solved the case through security footage of Tibbetts running, leading them to the owner of a Chevy Malibu: Cristhian Bahena Rivera. During an interrogation, police said, the 24-year-old farm worker confessed to following Tibbetts, saying he was inexplicably “drawn” to her and that after he exited his car to run alongside her, Tibbetts threatened to call the police — which made him angry. After that, investigators say Rivera told them, heblacked out” and woke up later to find her dead in his car.

Since the Mexico native is an undocumented immigrant, conversations in the wake of his arrest have inevitably turned political. But as Tibbetts’s cousin is speaking out against the politicization of her death, others are taking to social media to make another point: that regardless of Rivera’s legal status, if what police say he told them is accurate, the killing is a grave example of toxic masculinity. defines toxic masculinity as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness.” While it’s impossible to know for sure if toxic masculinity prompted Tibbetts’s death, the notion that her alleged killer was set off by her rejecting his advances certainly fits the bill.

It’s circumstances like these that Jackson Katz, PhD, author of the book The Macho Paradox, has been trying to unpack for years. Katz’s TED talk on the topic, titled “Violence against women — it’s a men issue,” has close to 2 million views, and the Mentors in Violence Prevention program he pioneered is taught to athletes and students around the world.

While Katz is careful to note that any comment on Tibbetts’s case is speculation, he says the narrative is a familiar one. “If the story is true, it fits a predictable pattern — which is, men using violence to redress grievances,” Katz tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “In other words, he feels like he was disrespected by her, and he was responding to perceived challenges to his authority. Violence is the quickest way for men to gain what they think has been taken from them.”

It’s a tool that is used often. Of the more than 100 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, just two of them have been committed by women. It’s a trend mirrored in other violent crimes. According to the Federal Bureau of Statistics, men make up 99 percent of arrests for forcible rape, 88 percent of arrests for murder, and 80 percent of arrests for violent crimes overall.

So where does this tendency toward violence come from?

Katz says it’s a learned skill, one with roots in outdated definitions of manhood. “Men — especially those who buy into traditional gender ideologies — view vulnerability as something that’s inconsistent with being a strong man,” he explains. “The easiest way to cover feelings of vulnerability is violence and anger. Men are taught that anger is a socially acceptable emotion for them to experience and that violence is a socially sanctioned reaction. That’s the appropriate way to ‘reassert his manhood,’ if you will.”

So while killings like that of Tibbetts may seem like random acts of violence, Katz says, the painful truth is that they’re often the result of deeply ingrained beliefs. “Violence is usually not impulsive,” says Katz. “There is usually a belief system that underlines these actions. If you start getting under the surface of violent acts, it’s men trying to regain control. Women don’t have the same underlying belief systems, but men are taught that violence is connected to manhood.”

Although Katz worries that a hyper-masculine president may be exacerbating the problem, he says there are things that can be done to unravel this thinking. “It’s one of the great tragedies of our species, how much abusive behavior is connected to men caught up in this narrow understanding of manhood,” he says. “One of things we need to do is repeat over and over that acknowledging vulnerability isn’t a weakness: It’s a strength. You don’t always have to have the answer, you don’t always have to be in control. Men who do that aren’t demonstrating strength.”

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