How Rejection Turns Men Violent

Last week, after 18-year-old Jakob Wagner was dumped by his girlfriend, he opened fire at his high school prom. We spoke with an expert on masculinity to find out why failed romance sometimes drives men to violence.

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Apr 26 2016, 6:10pm

Photo by Briana Morrison via Stocksy

Jakob Wagner, 18, was equipped with a rifle and extended clip when he descended on the Antigo High School prom and shot two students, injuring them before being killed by police gunfire right after. Students and parents spoke to the Daily Beast, filling in biographic details about the dead gunman's social and romantic life preceding the attack. One source relayed a belief about the shooter's motive, apparently one shared by many others: "A lot of people think he did this because his girlfriend broke up with him."

School shootings now occur with such frequency they have become standard in the United States. Some reports say we've averaged as much as one a week since Adam Lanza, 20, unleashed hell on the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Twenty-eight children and adults were killed, including the gunman himself. These shooters are always men and, like Elliot Rodger, 22, whose 2014 shooting rampage across Santa Barbara took the lives of six people—some of these men are somehow disturbed by their failed relationships with women.

In one of his YouTube videos, Rodger, the sadistic virgin, talks about his failure to win the affection of women and speaks of his intent to kill hot sorority girls one day. "I'll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you," Rodger said. "You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true alpha male."

Tristan Bridges is a masculinity scholar and a professor of sociology at the College at Brockport State University of New York. When asked why men sometimes react violently in the wake of rejection by women, Bridges referenced Social Identity Threat, a concept that he and his colleague, fellow masculinities scholar Dr. Tara Tober, wrote about in their recent academic article Mass Shootings and Masculinity. Social Identity Threat, Bridges told Broadly, is the idea that if an individual places great importance on some part of their identity, and that part of their identity is threatened for some reason, their reaction to that threat will be exaggerated. In the case of mass shootings, "if men experience rejection as threatening to their social identity as men," Bridges posited, "then they may try to over-demonstrate masculinity in some other way."

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While Bridges believes it is an overgeneralization to definitively say that men are inherently more aggressive when handling rejection than women are, he does believe that "men are more likely to turn to aggressive behavior as a means of navigating rejection." There are many things that students at Antigo have said about Wagner since the shooting. In addition to theories that Wagner's motive was tied to his breakup, one source informed the Daily Beast that "he was kind of controlling of [his ex-girlfriend]." Other sources say that Wagner was short, whereas his ex-girlfriend is tall.

Being controlling, rejected, or short may be relative to the development of a young man's ego and social identity. Wagner says that height is a "visible symbol of masculinity" for men. "So lacking it, maybe shorter men are more likely to turn to other resources to demonstrate masculinity." All too often, those "other resources" men access in order to prove they're real men are violent. "If they're turning to violence, that's a pretty terrible commentary on what people think American masculinity actually is," Bridges said.

Though men might be more likely to be aggressive after heartache—and they may be inclined to turn to exaggerated acts of masculine dominance to cope with the perceived loss of their manhood—that doesn't mean men are naturally violent and women are not, Bridges said. Women are just violent in different ways. "Men commit these crimes to take power and ownership of their environment around them and to feel like they can control their relationship. When women commit crimes like this, it's much more likely that the motive was out of a defensive motive to protect their children or themselves." But it's not as if this is a biological thing, Bridges insisted. "Usually it gets blamed on a masculinity problem; it's actually an American masculinity problem and that makes it harder to justify biologically."

In Mass Shootings and Masculinity, Bridges and Tober discuss a theory created by sociologist Michael Kimmel. Aggrieved entitlement, Bridges explained, is helpful in understanding American masculinity specifically. "Men feel angry and pissed off and entitled," he said, adding that this occurs in response to the perception that their fathers and grandfathers benefited from a wealth of privileges they are now being denied but deserve. "So we have to say that these men exist in a culture where they're much more likely to be angry and be ready to act."