Approaching Corruption through the Lens of Masculinities
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Héctor Portillo and Sebastián Molanon propose three ways in which the expectations, pressures, and privileges of “being a man” may shed light on male attitudes towards corruption.
Although corruption is not by any means our field of study, we both grew up in countries where corruption is normalized to the point where not engaging in it is not only considered rare but naïve. Coincidentally, both of our countries of origin, Mexico and Colombia, also have a deeply embedded culture of sexism and machismo. Our personal experiences with sexism, masculinities, and corruption motivated us to explore how the expectations, pressures, and privileges of “being a man” can encourage or deter an individual’s engagement in corruption.
Masculinities and Toxic Masculinity
The ideals men and boys are expected to live up to are called ‘masculinities.’ Masculinities are socially constructed and reinforced, they vary by time, place, and community, and have hierarchies – “some forms are prized as being more valuable for men and boys to aspire than others.” These expectations “often put men under pressure to conform to prevailing masculine ideals, which may or may not be what individual men would otherwise aspire to.”
Some of the expectations of what it means to be a man may translate into violent and/or self-destructive behaviors. The Good Men Project calls those expectations ‘toxic masculinities,’ and defines them as those where manhood is formed by a cocktail of “violence, sex, status and aggression.” They are often associated with risky behaviors (e.g., higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse) and proneness to engage in violence (e.g. sexual violence, violent crime). Others, like Michael Kimmel,* have argued that these expressions of manhood become socialized — that is, they are not just internalized by the individual, but also replicated by society.
[To our best knowledge, there is no research (yet) on the links between toxic masculinities and corruption. If you know of any, please send us examples through the comments section below!]
Three Mechanisms of Interaction
We believe that male attitudes towards corruption can be analyzed through three mechanisms. We have presented them as separate for conceptual clarity, but we believe they interact with and possibly reinforce each other:
- Corruption as a male privilege;
- Corruption as a male performance of power and domination; and
- Corruption as a pathway for men to fulfill society’s expectation of them to ‘provide’
Corruption as male privilege
Let’s start with the proposition that gender inequality exists in most societies, and that this translates into men wielding more/most power –especially, “entrusted power” (i.e. political/policy power) – than women. Thus, men hold most of the resources and networks that maintain and give access to power. Most women, then, do not engage in corruption because they are unable to tap into the structures and networks that men have access to. In this sense corruption, “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” presents itself as a male privilege.
Corruption as a male performance of power and domination
The social definitions of what being a man looks (and feels) like are frequently correlated to power. If what we understand to be “manly” is toxic (i.e. toxic masculinities) and what we understand as “power” is also thought of as “manly”, then the toxicity may permeate to power as well. Corruption, then, would be more likely where men are expected (and rewarded) for using their power over others; it would be a consequence and a symptom of toxic understandings of what it means to be a man, for men would understand corruption as another way to prove their manliness through power.
Corruption as a pathway for men to fulfill society’s expectation of them to ‘provide’
Our final proposed mechanism stems from the assumption that men are expected to provide for their families, and that their notion of value is assessed on the fulfillment of this role. However, as is the case in most of the world, only a small proportion of the population can meet all their needs. Although this pressure is true for both men and women, the expected role of provider (and sometimes sole provider) is often masculine.
Studies have shown that, in extreme situations of poverty and/or conflict, when men are unable to fill the role of provider (a role they consider quintessential to their identity as men) they are likelier to engage in self-destructive behaviors or to join criminal or armed groups. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to imagine that some men in positions of relative power (lower-level public officials, for example) might engage in corruption to fulfill their role as providers. In some contexts, engaging in corruption practices can be a coping mechanism for individuals who are part of a power structure.
Of course, there is nothing new in the notion that one of the reasons for some individuals to engage in corruption is economic distress or need. However, understanding how the economic pressures are gendered (i.e. different for men and women) may help understand how the mechanisms through which these pressures lead to corruption are themselves gendered.
However, it is also common to see men in high-level positions of power engaging in corruption practices. In their case, the power attached to the positions they hold, the social networks they belong to or their last names, cover them with a veil of protection against the law. Thus, different hierarchies of power among men when engaging in corruptive practices differ in the scope and magnitude but the effects are the same: mistrust, impunity, and undermine of democracy.
Interactions across mechanisms
As we have written above, the three mechanisms we have proposed interact with each other:
- Access to positions of relative power or influence from which men can engage in corruption is an extension of their male privileges.
- The way men use (and abuse) said power for their private gain will be informed by a (masculinized and possibly toxic) understanding of how they ought to wield power.
- Corruption is a possible pathway for individuals holding positions of relative power to earn additional income and/or solidify their positions and networks of power, allowing them to provide more resources for their families.
Can Gender Equality Decrease Corruption?
This brief exploration introduces a more nuanced question. Can gender equality decrease corruption? Although this requires much further research, our analysis suggests that as social understandings of power and (toxic) masculinities become dissociated from each other, corruption’s appeal as a (male) performance of power will diminish. Likewise, as men’s identity is less associated with the role of provider, pressures to engage in corruption may diminish.
Gender Equality is not Enough
Gender equality may reduce men’s use of corruption as a mechanism to display power and domination over women, but it won’t necessarily reduce men’s (and women’s) use of corruption as a mechanism to display power and domination over people. As gender equality advances, corruption will stop being a male privilege and become available for both men and women with power.
Programs that address corruption or gender equality ought to consider the way these two subjects interplay with each other. Existing and future programming on masculinities could be adjusted to incorporate notions of power and the construction of masculinity as a strategy to better engage with anti-corruption work. To the best of our knowledge, this has not yet been done in a purposeful, measurable manner. We hope this brief post will inspire researchers and practitioners to ask how work on masculinities and on corruption better complement each other.
* Kimmel, Michael, “Masculinities and Gun Violence: The Personal Meets the Political,” Paper prepared for a session at the UN on “Men, Women and Gun Violence,” July 14, 2005.
About this article
This post is part of the corruption in fragile states series. The series provides a space for conversation about corruption in fragile states. Since its inception in 2016 as part of the CDA Perspectives Blog, the series has sought to challenge status quo thinking with a particular emphasis on exploring systems-based approaches to understanding and acting on corruption dynamics. Topics in the series range from new research findings in Uganda, Iraq or the DRC to provocative thought pieces intended to contest dominant paradigms or practices.
Now hosted by the Institute for Human Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, series contributions are inspired by, but not limited to, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy project as well as the, now concluded, Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative. All blog posts published after March 1, 2018, information about submitting guest posts, and subscribing to future series updates is available here.
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About the author(s)
Héctor Portillo is involved in a variety of peacebuilding programs in Guerrero and Michoacán, two of the most violent states in Mexico. He has a BA in Political Science from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and a Master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he focused his studies on the intersections of gender and conflict resolution. Previously, he worked in different positions for the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Public Education. He is currently Project Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services Mexico.
Sebastián Molano is an international development worker from Colombia. He holds a Master on NGO Management and Human Security from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Sebastián has worked for over 11 years on development issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. His experience ranges from providing humanitarian response in Haiti, development work in Central America to participating in 20 political and electoral observation missions across the continent. As a gender specialist, Sebastián has developed an expertise in gender and masculinities and how to engage purposefully men and boys to enable gender equality. He is the founder of Defying Gender Roles an advocacy initiative that seeks to openly challenge harmful gender roles, gender norms, and traditional notions of masculinity. You can learn more about his work on his TEDx talk. Currently, Sebastián is a Gender Advisor for Oxfam America.