On Tuesday, a woman opened fire at the YouTube campus in San Bruno, Calif., injuring three people before killing herself. The shooter has been identified by law enforcement as Nasim Aghdam, a 39-year-old San Diego resident who ran an account on the Google-owned video platform covering animal rights, veganism, fitness, and music.
Aghdam, according to her family, was “angry” with the company and claimed on her various social media accounts that her posts were being censored. Her motive for the shooting is still being investigated, with the San Bruno Police Department noting that “at this time there is no evidence that the shooter knew the victims of this shooting or that individuals were specifically targeted.”
While mass shootings have become frighteningly common in the United States, the most shocking thing about the most recent incident for many is the perpetrator’s gender.
Between 1982 and 2017, there have been 95 mass shootings in the U.S. Of those, only two have been initiated by a solo female shooter. (The San Bernardino, Calif., shooting in December 2016 also had a female shooter, and it is the only shooting in the period to have had a male-female pair working together.)
However, the fact that so few multiple-victim shootings are initiated by women shouldn’t come as a surprise, Sherry Hamby, a research professor of psychology at the University of the South and the founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Rather, this statistic reinforces what research has already shown about how we socialize both men and women and the kinds of stereotypes — and consequences — associated with both.
“School shootings and multiple-victim shootings of any kind are not really unique from other forms of physical violence [when it comes to the gender of the perpetrator],” Hamby says. “All forms of physical violence are more common among men than women, but not all of them are as dramatically overly represented by male perpetrators as multiple-victim shootings.”
Hamby says this has to do with an often “overused” but in this case “accurate” turn of phrase: “This speaks to the toxic aspects of masculinity in our culture.”
Hamby notes that many shootings are motivated by anger and upset that a shooter feels about rejection by a girlfriend or a female friend who does not wish to pursue a romantic relationship, with many making a former romantic partner or a female who rejected them romantically the first victim of their crime.
Even when there has not been an instance of romantic rejection, Hamby notes, many mass shootings are motivated by “a sense of entitlement and a feeling of needing to teach the whole world a lesson,” especially when it comes to recognizing and valuing their masculinity, both sexually and otherwise.
This partly has to do with how boys are told from a young age that entitlement is inherently a part of their gender identity. “Boys are still taught that they should be able to take upon, throw upon, that it is weak or manly to back down from a fight,” Hamby says.
Furthermore, Hamby notes, the media play a big role. “There are a lot of images of masculinity in movies and TV that men are people who know how to handle weapons, and while there are certainly lots of women who know how to handle weapons, women don’t have their femininity called into question if they don’t know how to shoot,” Hamby explains. “If someone insults your honor in a bar, it’s not stigmatizing or shameful for a woman to walk away and not punch that person in the face. There are so many social scripts where men are expected to respond in an aggressive way, and if they don’t, their masculinity is called into question. Where if they don’t, it can harm their social standing.”
And this dynamic is only reinforced, she says, by the fact that “even in the most positive portrayals of coming of age, manhood is portrayed as something that has to be earned. And if it has to be earned, that means that simply being male or being assigned male or identifying as male doesn’t on its own make you a man in the same way we talk about femininity and womanhood.”
Conversely, Hamby says, when it comes to women, not only are they not given these same kinds of social messages, but often they are given opposite ones that can lead them to be “violence-averse” — and in ways that are sometimes problematic.
“Even in cases of self-defense, when a situation might really call for violence to protect your personal safety or that of a child or loved one, the messages against women responding in such a way are so extreme that it’s often hard for a woman to do what she needs to do in self-defense,” Hamby emphasizes.
Women, she says, are socially groomed to be the ones to smooth over social interactions, keep situations from escalating into conflicts, to always be conflict-avoidant, and to preserve relationships. Studies have shown that when confronted with conflict directed at them, women are often reluctant to even display verbal aggression in defense.
Hamby says that this is not victim blaming, but it does show the power of social messages and how neither men nor women are being taught to respond in appropriate ways and with reasonable self-protection when presented with conflict. “There’s a sweet spot in the middle that everyone should be at, whether they identify as male, female, or nonbinary. But clearly, we’re failing everyone when we don’t teach that sweet spot to all,” she says.
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