Masculinity and phallic narcissism

What is it that creates the kind of behaviour that leads men to destroy the lives of women they profess to love, with their abusive actions?

Angela Neustatter
6 March 2015

Adam Jukes is not the kind of man to talk crassly of men’s brains being in their dicks. Yet this is the message at the heart of his theory of “phallic narcissism” which, for 30 years, has been the guiding principle at the heart of his work with abusive men and the raison d’être for the Men’s Centre in London he founded. Through three decades of hearing men attempt to explain, justify, live with their emotional and physical violence, and seeing how: "misogyny is based on fear", he concludes it is endemic: "as natural to men as the possession of a penis."

This is not cheering as International Women’s Day sees an estimated 1.4 million women and 700,000 men have suffered domestic abuse in the last year, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. So little, if anything, has improved in quarter of a century when a number of reports, including one from the British Medical Association (1998), estimate that as many as 1 in 4 women may be affected by domestic violence.

That being so, we surely need to know what phallic narcissism is, why it is, and how it creates the kind of behaviour which leads men to destroy the lives of women they frequently profess to love, with their abusive actions. And Jukes has much to say on the subject having written a 369-page book, Why Men Hate Women, informed by his phallic narcissism theory. 

Jukes is a refined, quietly academic man, who describes himself as a feminist, yet he puts his hand up to having been led by phallic narcissism in his time. It was psychotherapeutic training that led him to explore the mechanism driving this. He explains “masculinity is constructed on phallic narcissism which is the identification of the self with the notion of the erect penis as all powerful."

"Little boys identify themselves and their bodies this way, and it translates into the idea of strength, pride… so in its extreme form that is a very volatile cocktail where you have the man striving to be a superhero.”

Controversially, he sees male abusive behaviour stemming from the earliest dependence on the mother. and the pain of separation which is interpreted, unconsciously, by the small boy as rejection because his mother prefers his father to him.

" So the whole body and the masculine psyche or self are identified with an erect penis - or its symbol in culture, the phallus. Masculinity therefore becomes associated with behaviours concerned with winning, competing, controlling, dominating, status, power and so on. So dominating a woman is the sine qua non of masculinity and it ensures she will never gain power over him again, She will not re-open the original narcissistic wound which leads to shame and humiliation associated with rejection. The abuse, then, is based on a continuum of beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and it wrecks men’s lives as well as women’s. The floor of my consulting room is littered with the psyches of men struggling with the relationships with their mothers.” Meanwhile statistics show that women initiate divorce far more often than men:  it was 66% of cases at the start of 2013 although less than the 72% at the start of the 1990s.

Jukes inveighs against the idea that mothers are the villain of the piece, but he does maintain that if a mother gives her son a strong enough sense of being loved, even which the break takes place, it does much to protect him from the wildest excesses of misogyny.  Because Jukes is clear, misogyny is a response to what men have come to feel. He says: "masculinity is what men do, not what they are."

But whatever usually inchoate role women play, Jukes was clear from the start that a challenging and demanding therapeutic programme was needed, in which men must confront and take responsibility for their behaviour, and understand that it was not good enough to justify it as simply how they are. So his approach has been: "this is your movie, your storyboard, and your starting point in this movie is ‘she’s aaaagh in your face, spending your money, blah, blah, blah. Everything in your narrative is determined by that first picture." And I used to say okay, lets imagine that there’s another picture before that first one. What did you do to make her do this?  

So his phallic narcissism is the integral ingredient, and although, he says, this is straight Freudian theory: " I don’t think Freud really worked with the implications of that. I do. Men so easily end up with default settings that were established in the primary relationship with the mother and they go to what I call the mad hypothesis: “she made me do it… she drove me mad… she doesn’t understand what I need … she is responsible for my behaviour."

It would be difficult for Jukes to argue, given the unchanging statistics on abuse, that his work which involves confronting and challenging the rationalisation and justifications, in a myriad of ways, that men make over and over for their behaviour, has impacted on shifting abusive behaviour universally. Nor would he be boastful enough to claim this.

Yet Jukes can point to a noteworthy number of men who have stopped their abusive behaviour, and before the sceptical lifted eyebrow at accepting men’s word for this, Jukes says: " it is very often partners who tell me, and sometime after treatment has finished, how much their men’s behaviour has changed, what a very different basis to the relationship they now have." Nor does he believe he or anyone can achieve the wide scale alteration, which needs to offer men a protracted programme of therapeutic work, without far more resources being available.

Mark, 56, illustrates well what Jukes says about fear of the vulnerability that rejection brings, galvanising men into violence, but how this can change.  

"I had just finished university and got into my first real relationship. I thought we were settled and happy. I had been verbally abusive and pushed her around a bit when she would not do things that mattered to me, and then she said she wanted to break up. We had a big row and I hit her fairly hard."

But afterwards: “I always worried what would happen in my relationships and when one broke up, I felt devastated whether it had been good or not. I couldn’t contain my emotions, couldn’t work and I’d live in fear of breaking down. I began to see a pattern: I would meet someone, be very kind and considerate until they fell for me, then I would start to distance myself, see things I didn’t much like and my behaviour would turn mean and sometimes physically abusive. The women would become pissed off and leave me." 

It culminated in Johnson, then 36, marrying, although he tells, this was the point at which his abuse was at its greatest.

"Almost immediately I started trying to distance myself and I hit her. We were on holiday and we had been drinking. I thought she had been flirting and when I confronted her she didn’t give the answers I wanted. I can see now it set off the  fearful idea that she would leave me and I panicked.  My wife, a highly skilled senior executive, came from the US and was totally dependent on me over here. She couldn’t understand why I had so changed towards her. I tried to minimise it in my own mind: I felt persecuted, she was winding  me up, she knew how hard I found life and what would happen if she provoked me." Understandably his wife left and: " the sense of utter devastation was the worst ever and it wouldn’t dissipate. I became addicted to cocaine. I knew I needed help although I believed I was beyond being able to get it."

Johnson came across Jukes in the yellow pages and saw him one-to-one for 10 years. In the first session he found himself recalling how difficult it was to feel loved by his mother who he thinks was deeply conflicted trying to keep his father ‘who saw himself in competition with his children for our mother’s affection’. And: "I began to see how far I used being out of control to be in control of women, to try to be absolutely sure they wouldn’t separate from me."

Even so, in the few attempts he had at new relationships at this time he continued with : "shoves, pushes and psychological abuse, although not as substantial as before."

During the therapy he gave up drugs but also lost his job and had a breakdown. “I was profoundly depressed but Adam (Jukes) helped me realise that I had to find an entirely new way of living and behaving if I wanted to build a meaningful life. Jukes did not talk a lot: he was looking for a transference as part of the psychodynamic process. He was non-judgemental and I felt he could cope with anything I said. I felt very held and safe."

During this time Johnson re-married and now has two children, comforted by knowing he could work on the relationship with Jukes, but even so there were "times of abuse. I pushed her over once." But his wife knows why he is in therapy and works with him: "I am very aware of how I treat her now, and if I do ever use psychological abuse she picks me up. When we have a row if I ever think I have stepped over the mark I always talk about it and I feel I have a choice now about whether I am abusive or not." Jukes sees this too, and is gratified that Johnson’s wife has told him often how good their much-changed relationship is.

Jonathan, 43,  went to the Men’s Centre for their short programme and then continued seeing Jukes privately. "I got into a relationship with an older woman who had three teenage children and that was difficult. As soon as there was conflict I reverted to the kind of behaviour I saw from my father who undermined, undervalued, and hit my mother. I think my partner was a bit of a mother figure for me, but I became abusive when I couldn’t explain how upset I was by her high-achieving children - I was self-employed and not in the same league - I felt very angry but I didn’t want to leave. I lost my temper often and I actually asked my partner if I was being abusive. She said no, but I became ever more controlling and aggressive. I can’t recall the first time I hit her, but I suppose the fact she had put up with emotional abuse, meant I allowed myself to do this."

Then she asked him to go. Jonathan realised he should do this: "I think it was a reality check. I left immediately because I was frightened by my own behaviour and knew I needed help". He knew someone who had been to the Men’s Centre but had not realised what a searing experience the six weeks there would be. "Over and over I saw how, as men, we have a sense of entitlement to act as we choose. Yet every man there was suffering profound loss and pain at how they seemed to be compelled to wreck relationships with women they cared so much about. The group experience is a tough one, because you are challenged on pre-conceived ideas all the time. I found  myself thinking about what had been said and wondering about other men and how they could do whatever they were describing. I looked at their behaviour and my own and thought it no surprise we destroyed our relationships."

There were breakthroughs and Jonathan says: "I began to see and understand how women must feel, and it enabled me to be a bit more compassionate to myself, although much of the time there was self-hate." 

That has diminished as the therapy goes on, but also because he has dared to get into a new relationship and he no longer feels the need to control everything saying, "when you can hold on to what you have learnt and not revert to abuse, you see how life can go on even through frustrations, in a healthy normal way." 

Ask Jukes, as he reflects on 30 years of work, whether he takes credit for the growth of therapy programmes run by others for abusive men. He measures his response carefully. For all his successes he knows there are too many men who leave after the short Men’s Centre programme needing far more work to be able to change definitively. And this he fears is the fault line in the perpetrator programmes being offered by different organisations and to which social services refer. It is asking a great deal for men to see the folly of their ways and fundamentally want to change after just a few sessions once a week. 

"We could do so much more if the work was prioritised and men were given far more intensive treatment," he says, "learning to metabolise the feelings of impotence and vulnerability men feel at the idea of not dominating and being in control of  women is a long, hard job. But it’s a pretty worthwhile one, isn’t it?"

( the names of men attending the Men's Centre in this article have been changed)



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData