The XX Factor

Is There a Gender Divide in Self-Cutting?

Darrell Hammond, of Saturday Night Live fame, has revealed a dark history of abuse

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the media grimly rumbled with the news that Darrell Hammond, the comedian and impersonator of SNL fame, had admitted to a history of addiction, including self-cutting. Hammond revealed in an interview with CNN that he has been harming himself since age 19, continuing to do so even at NBC:    

“There was cutting backstage,” he said, adding that one time, he was taken from the studio to a psychiatric ward because of his actions. “In fact, the week that I did the Gore debates, I believe I was taken away in a straitjacket.”

Hammond attributes his problems to abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother; he’s written a book about the experience and his work toward recovery titled God If You’re Not Up There, I’m F-ked.

When I first read the news, I took it as one of those tragic stories that so often lie at the heart of comedians’ desire to be funny. However, some of my colleagues registered surprise at the fact that a man would resort to cutting; they had the sense that it was primarily a phenomenon among young women. Is there really a gender divide going on here?

According to a 2010 literature review article in Psychology Today, there definitely is. Dr. Leonard Sax looked at some of the most current research on self-harm—which can include burning, scratching, hair-pulling, scab-picking and other activities in addition to cutting—and found that the differences between boys and girls are clear. In a 2008 study, for example, 16.9 percent of those participated in self-harm; 24.3 percent of the girls had done it compared to only 8.4 percent of boys. Sax further argues that the reasons behind male and female self-harm are markedly distinct. The boys, he says, are often “loser” types who suffer from depression and a sense of worthlessness, while the girls, conversely, are often overachievers who seek to punish themselves for perceived failures and to deal with anxiety by manifesting a kind of perverse control.  

Sax’s piece is a great primer on the subject, and his central point is an important one: As the psychological community tries to understand and treat self-harming behavior in patients, it must recognize that considering gender will be key to the process of healing.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2011: This post originally misspelled Darrell Hammond’s first name.