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Expert Comment: Before he was a ‘terrorist’ he was an intimate terrorist

LGBT flag Friday 17 June 2016

Dr Emma Katz, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth, who researches the impacts of domestic violence and abuse on mothers and children, discusses the links between the Orlando shooter's personal history and his actions last week. 

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, a lot of attention was paid to the background of the shooter, Omar Mateen, as a Muslim and a terrorist. To domestic violence experts, however, it came as no surprise that Mateen was also a perpetrator of domestic violence against his ex-wife Sitora Yusifiy. He beat her, isolated her, and – foreshadowing what he would do in the Pulse nightclub – held her hostage. Yet these facts, and what they tell us about Mateen’s state of mind and motivations, have sadly figured little if at all in the responses of mainstream media and politicians. Men who perpetrate domestic violence against their girlfriends/wives are often extremely dangerous to the public.

So what does Mateen’s history of domestic violence have to do with his massacre of LGBT+ people?

Mateen fits the profile of a particular type of domestic violence perpetrator – the ‘antisocial intimate terrorist’. According to distinguished domestic violence researcher Michael P. Johnson, these perpetrators are hostile towards femininity, impulsive, accepting of violence, and believe in ‘traditional’ gender roles. They are driven by the need to get their own way and impose their will on others – something they see as vital to their rights as men. At home, they gain power and control over their female partners and children through tactics including emotional abuse, physical violence, threats, financial and sexual abuse and isolation. Their violence towards others outside their family is motivated by the same cause – the need to gain control in order to prove themselves, in every situation, a ‘man’. Such antisocial intimate terrorists are produced by all societies, cultures and religious communities. At times they can be calm and charming, but their dangerous mind-sets always lie below the surface.

Ultimately, what an ‘antisocial intimate terrorist’ such as Mateen embodies is toxic masculinity. This form of masculinity is based on rejection and hatred of those who are seen as ‘feminine’ – women and LGBT+ people. Rather than embracing the common humanity and similarities of all persons, toxic masculinity sees women and non-straight people as weak and contemptible, as objects, and as prey.  Strength, competitiveness and aggression in men are glorified, while men’s emotions and needs are stridently rejected. Taunts such as ‘don’t cry like a girl’, ‘don’t be a sissy’ and ‘man up’ are directed at any male who seems to be stepping out of the line. Taunts may not be the end of it though; violence and abuse are used too. In this context, the reasons why Mateen chose to attack an LGBT+ nightclub become clear. His domestic violence and his crimes in Orlando were part of the same problem. By their very existence, LGBT+ people were undermining his rigid views of what men and women should be.

So, as discussion around how to respond to the Orlando shooting centres on terrorism and the threat of radical Islam, the problem of toxic masculinity stays in the shadows, evading interrogation. If societies put as much money, zeal and political will into ending toxic masculinity as they do into anti-terrorism, there would be far more chance of the world becoming a safer and more peaceful place."

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