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Why Guys Love to Hurt the Guys They Love

It's a big problem for us — and a bigger problem for the partners who try to get close to us

If you were, like me, a teen boy at the turn of the millennium, you were obligated to love Jackass and the CKY video series that came before it. In my case, “obligated” is too strong a word — I couldn’t get enough of these MTV-enabled dirtbag skateboarders doing dumb and dangerous shit for laughs. I thrilled at every injury and mean-spirited prank, even the ones that basically amounted to assault. I didn’t truly hit my limit on this manner of violence until a segment in Jackass: The Movie that still makes me shudder to this day. It’s called, quite simply, “Paper Cuts.” Watch it at your own risk — even one of their camera guys passes out at the sight:

What makes this scene so powerfully uncomfortable? It can only be that the “game” of the Jackass universe is laid bare in the most intimate possible terms. Paper cuts, contrasted with the big-screen stunts, seem like they should be minor, banal. Most of us haven’t taken a dump in a hardware store display toilet, but we’ve all suffered a paper cut. We are viscerally aware, then, of the acute pain they’re inflicting on one another, much more so than when they use a muscle stimulator to zap their nipples. It’s excruciating because it gives you direct access to the masochism they revel in.

Of course, Jackass didn’t invent dudes hurting each other for fun. This is a dynamic every man has experienced, whether they wanted to or not, from backyard wrestling to surprise sack-taps. I was reminded of this state of affairs once again when I came across an article about two neighbors in Arkansas who got themselves arrested after each had taken a turn wearing a bulletproof vest so his buddy could shoot him. (Yes, they were drinking.) Both have been charged with aggravated assault over what seems to have been a friendly though impressively stupid dare — an attempt, however misguided, to bond. What was wrong with conversation? Not macho enough, I guess.

Not to get all gender essentialist here, but when I read stories like this one, two universal truths emerge.

The first is that a man relates to men who can take what he dishes out, be it a paper cut, a bullet or even a verbal roasting. We tend to seek something like an equivalent toughness — an assurance that our pal is never going to cop out before we do. The second fact has to do with the nature of the unspoken contract between platonic male companions who engage in such fraternal ritual: By consenting to the mechanism of mutually assured destruction, they agree to become vulnerable. But where that vulnerability would best take the shape of emotional candor, they make it physical.

In other words, the instinct is healthy, while the enactment is primal and — as you can tell — carries a far different risk than giving voice to your feelings. I’ve never actually apologized for all the times I baited and then beat up my little brother when we were kids, though I calmly accept that, in our adult lives, he is entitled to sometimes kick my shin out from under me or punch me really hard in the arm. Somehow, if you can believe it, this is easier for us. And at moments when my urge to retaliate is too strong, I’ll grab his shoulders to give him an aggressive massage, or wrap him in a bear hug, either of which will make him squirm but at the very least have a loving aspect.

Not all guys can achieve that balance, unfortunately, and strong male friendships may crumble when one party takes the roughhousing too far. Like it or not, a deeper resentment and rage is sometimes unleashed when you grapple with another body. The competitive, Darwinian mindset transforms a play fight into a real one. That’s a problem for guys, and it’s a problem for whoever gets close to them. Since late 2017, when we entered a period of reckoning with abusive men under the banner of #MeToo, we have continually asked ourselves how men can be so cruel to women. The answer, surprisingly, may have something to do with the cruelty they hone on their fellow man.

When men push boundaries with each other — and again, these can be mental as well as tangible — they are training themselves into patterns of being. They are closing doors to the gentler forms of interpersonal negotiation, learning to overlook subtler cues of distress and discomfort. That begins when they’re boys, as soon as they’re exposed to the world of boys, the eye-for-an-eye logic of recess brawls. It’s no surprise, then, that some grow up to ignore the necessity of sexual consent and otherwise violate women’s trust, as boy society dictates that there is always a winner and a loser, the dominator and the dominated… but that it all shakes out evenly in the end.

No wonder they see the pay gap as “made up” and imagine that it’s a “dangerous time” for men; in the back of their heads, they are very aware that a pendulum will swing the opposite way eventually.

Trouble is, they never think to just stop winding the clock.