An unchecked primal urge causes some young men to lose control with savage results.
It’s gone 10pm in Kings Cross and a man is screaming abuse about a SIM card. “Give me my f—ing money back or I’ll tear this shop apart,” he yells at the woman behind the tobacconist’s counter. She calls the police. He calls her something terrible.
Young men in tight shirts walk in packs along the fluorescent lamp-lit street, fending off strip club spruikers. Daniel Fraser, 20, stops to tell the man to calm down. “F— off,” he screams into Fraser’s face, lunging at him with fists clenched in fury over something so small as a malfunctioning mobile phone card.
Fraser backs away, as well he might. On New Year’s Eve here, Daniel Christie, 18, is said to have come between an enraged man and his target and ended up in hospital in a critical condition after allegedly being punched in the head by self-proclaimed mixed martial arts fighter Shaun McNeil, 25.
Christie was the latest reported victim of what his parents have called the “coward punch”. Hard and to the head, the victim never sees it coming. Thomas Kelly, 18, was killed by such a punch in 2012 in almost the same spot in Kings Cross. Every young man I meet has a story to tell about violent young men. “It’s an ego thing mostly,” Fraser says. “Guys will be guys, won’t they. They want to look good in front of their friends.”
A young Newcastle man smoking a cigarette outside a club stays close to his mates for safety. “If you’re on your own, you’re worse off.” Sydney resident Gino, 26, says he’s been punched on two occasions, for talking to someone’s girlfriend and giving lip to someone spoiling for a fight.
What makes one man attack another? The spark may be nothing more than a perceived slight, bumping into them in a crowded pub or catching the eye of the wrong guy. “I’ve had mates get the shit kicked out of them for no reason,” Gino says. “These guys are just fuelled up with testosterone. They’re just aggressive and there’s nothing you can do.”
There’s something savage about such violence. The punches come hard and fast, and often without provocation. Victims fall to the ground, only to be kicked and stomped on. “It’s like one primate thumping another, or one intoxicated primate thumping another,” says Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain & Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney.
The male’s brain is often still developing going into his 20s. Some are slow to form those parts that inhibit impulsive, risk-taking behaviour, Hickie says. “They behave like our close primate cousins during this developmental period.”
Studies of the adolescent brain show it is particularly sensitive to social cues, facial expressions and the approval or disapproval of peers. “The classic thing for young males moving outside their family of origin is to compete for the attention of young women, and the commonest way to do that is in courting battles with other males,” he says.
“Homo sapiens have developed language and culture and systems to override these primitive urges. But some don’t ever develop and many are simply delayed. It’s very primitive and you see it played out on the football field and, unfortunately, on the streets.”
The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics crime victim survey indicates about six in every 100 Australian males aged between 15 and 24 are physically assaulted each year. But alcohol-related assaults across NSW have fallen more than 20 per cent since 2008.
Most young men, of course, don’t hit each other. The male brain develops differently for every individual. For some, the tipping point for aggression is alcohol or peer group pressure.
Some young men seeking their place in the world – competing for partners and social status – lack suitable social structures or mentors to restrain their primal urges.
Larger, more muscular men, fuelled by testosterone and, in some cases, sports supplements and steroids, often rely on physicality to find their way. “They are very physically capable but not necessarily psychologically or socially capable,” Hickie says. “Male gorillas and chimps never sit down and have a discussion with each other. Evolution hasn’t turned us into non-primates, we are what we are.”
I was hit hard once in the jaw in my late teens for beating a guy at a game of pub pool. The shock of the blow knocked me off my feet, both for its force and the sheer lack of provocation. I didn’t strike back. I wouldn’t know how to.
McNeil told police he became “protective” over comments allegedly made about his partner by two teenage boys. A labourer with a love of bodybuilding, he came to Kings Cross from Pennant Hills and allegedly drank eight beers and a wine before punching four men, including Christie.
But street violence doesn’t discriminate by occupation, suburb or social strata. In September , security guard Fady Taiba, 43, was put in a coma after allegedly being punched once to the head by UBS banker James Longworth, 32. “It is a very, very silly reason but he made fun of me,” he told the court. “I’d had too much to drink and I just snapped.”
Some men snap. Others walk away. Gordian Fulde, emergency director at St Vincent’s Hospital, says alcohol often separates the two. “Stags in springtime test each other as part of mating and natural selection,” he says. ”But that is the difference between animals and humans. The brain says, ‘No, I am not going to punch anybody’.
”But alcohol inhibits the inhibitors. If you have a dog or cat and put meat on the floor it will go for it. Whereas, if we see something drop on the kitchen floor we don’t dive down and eat it. Human beings have a higher function. But that higher function is one of the first things to go with alcohol.”
The portrait of a violent adolescent is typically someone disengaged from school or work. They act on impulse because they lack suitable mentors or social structures to set boundaries on their behaviour. They are likely narcissistic, with no respect for authority and few, if any, skills in anger management.
“We know that young people who are on the pathway to violent criminal careers typically come from broken homes, poverty, marginalised neighbourhoods and deviant friendships,” says Paul Mazerolle, director of the violence research and prevention program at Griffith University.
They develop a “twisted view of masculinity”, he says. “It is a distorted way for some people to create status by attacking people at whim … They look for easy victims to display their status, their extreme machismo. ‘I’m on top. I’m stronger than you are.’ It’s a clear distortion of what it means to be a man.”
Mazerolle says the trigger point can be slight: a young man perceives someone is insulting his girlfriend, or strikes out at someone telling him to calm down. Their distorted view of masculinity is fed by an increased social focus on fitness and body image, the glamorisation of six packs and big biceps. Young men admire contestants in Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, which celebrate violence.
Physical strength is increasingly valued highly among their peers. Teens feel pressure – within the public and private school systems – to lift weights and drink protein shakes to get “bulked” or “ripped”.
Sociologist Raewyn Connell at the University of Sydney says changing representations of masculinity have heightened the potential for violence. She lists the types of images young men are exposed to every day. “Action movies, a sporting culture very much focused on dominance and win-at-all-costs, video games, violent internet porn,” she says. ”The greater presence of this kind of material is offering more models of physical domination and aggression as admirable forms of masculinity.
“Some young men feel that kind of behaviour is a way to achieve respect and pleasure … But only a certain number of them go out boozing and get involved in the kinds of confrontations that are likely to produce assaults.”
Violence, Connell says, is elemental but not primitive. Increased reports of one-punch assaults and fatalities are very much products of their time. “Young people involved in this today are embedded in the world of video games, mobile phones, internet. This is the world they created.”
Predicting which young men will wreak havoc in that world is a maddening pursuit. There is no specific psychological profile for violent young men, Connell says. Some are habitually engaged in violent criminal behaviour. But for many offenders, the triggers for violence are, to an extent, random: where they are; whether it is late at night; who they are with; how much they have drunk; what drugs they have taken.
Kings Cross and Bondi Beach are perceived as “zones of exception”, Connell says, where social norms and responsibilities are relaxed.
On December 31, McNeil was one of 173 people arrested in NSW, up from 97 arrests the previous year. Two nights later, Kings Cross is relatively quiet. There are plenty of police about but little trouble to speak of, in this strip of Sydney at least.
Instead, the violence sparks a suburb away, in Double Bay. On Ocean Avenue, at 12.20am on Friday, a fight breaks out within a group of young men. A 20-year-old Paddington man allegedly punches a 19-year-old man in the jaw then continues to attack him.
The victim is taken to St Vincent’s Hospital with minor injuries and later released. Daniel Christie was not so fortunate.
Police numbers were boosted in Perth to quell violent attacks in entertainment precincts in 2009. This reduced the number of robberies and burglaries but failed to have an impact on non-domestic assaults. The NSW government has increased police numbers by 420 in the past two years and an extra 50 police now patrol Kings Cross on weekends. Assaults appear to be down but there are questions about whether all are reported.
Better data collection on assaults
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research’s Dr Don Weatherburn hopes to gather more detailed information on hospital admissions with assault-related injuries. St Vincent’s Hospital emergency department director Professor Gordian Fulde has joined forces with other health professionals to gather more evidence-based research . ‘‘We all need to know what we’re dealing with and where to put the resources, and prevention is actually where it’s all at,’’ Fulde said.
Lockouts (The Newcastle Answer)
Introduced in Newcastle five years ago to curb high rates of violence, the model involves 1am lockouts and a ban on the sale of shots after 10pm. It has led to a 37 per cent reduction in alcohol-related attacks and there is wide community support for a similar model in Sydney.
The Queensland Police launched the One Punch Can Kill campaign in 2008 in response to a number of unprovoked fatal assaults. The campaign is regarded as a leader in educating young people about the consequences of their actions.
Crack down on bottle shop sales
In Scotland, making alcohol less accessible and introducing stiff penalties for supplying booze to minors proved successful in curbing street and under-age drinking.
Similar to Red Frogs Australia, the group that hands out lollies at events such as schoolies week. In Leicester, UK, police handed out lollipops to patrons at closing time while music from a children’s TV show was played to encourage them to go home.