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Mar 24 2014

Girls, boys and gangs: beyond villain and victim

Right wing thinktank the Centre for Social Justice is the latest body to turn a concerned gaze upon the issue of girls’ involvement with gangs. This is one of those stories that seems to surface every few months and is reported every time as a shocking, scandalous new exposé.

In truth there is little or nothing in the CSJ report that wasn’t reported in the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report in November last year, or by Channel 4′s investigation in 2012 or by Carlene Firmin of Race on the Agenda (ROTA) in 2011 and 2010.

It was Firmin whose work really deserved to be considered groundbreaking, and is still shocking today. She interviewed 350 girls who were directly involved in gang culture or gang-affected communities, who reported endemic sexual exploitation and rape alongside experiences as victims, perpetrators and conspirators in various violent and serious crimes.

Firmin’s work with ROTA was a milestone because, at least as far as the public and media narrative was concerned, it marked the end of a decade of textbook moral panic and folk devils about girls and gangs – gleeful tabloid tales of knife-wielding girl gangs roaming the streets like XX chromosome droogs. As the work of Susan Batchelor has convincingly shown, there is little evidence that girl gangs, in any meaningful sense, have ever existed in the UK. That is not to say that girls are not involved in gangs, but the nature of that involvement remains opaque.

The ROTA reports highlighted how a lack of serious research and investigation into the extent and nature of girls involvement with gangs was hampering provision of necessary support and exit services. Subsequent research has added nothing to this dearth of meaningful data, indeed the new report quotes Patrick Regan of charity XLP saying:

“The biggest issue with girls and gangs is that we simply don’t know the full extent of what is going on. Everything seems to be indicating that we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg and the current data fails to reflect the majority of the girls’ involvement.”

Into this vacuum has slipped a new narrative that risks taking on the character of a whole new moral panic. Over the past four years, discussion of girls in gangs has been strictly limited to the position of victim. Part of this is about social and economic victimisation, with reference to childhoods in care, or abusive families or social exclusion, slum housing and poverty. Overwhelmingly, however, the headlines have focussed on sexual exploitation.

There are many horrific accounts in these reports of gang rapes, punishment rapes, revenge rapes and more. The anecdotal evidence is plentiful enough that no one should doubt that youth gang culture is sheltering some appalling sexual violence, even if we really have no idea about the true extent of the problem. Alongside that, however, there is a rather salacious subtext that is exoticised by a glossary of street talk – “links”, “line-ups”, “wifeys” that pays scant interest to issues of consent, agency, motivation and intent. The assumption seems to be that a sexually active young woman from a poor background is, de facto, being exploited.

I spent the best part of a decade doing community media projects in a notoriously gang-affected area of South Manchester. I worked with and alongside young (and sometimes not so young) people who were inside, outside and exited from gangs, including work with convicted young offenders. I saw a lifestyle and culture that is entirely built on exploitation. The street gangs exploit the vulnerability, fear and hopelessness of brutalised and neglected young people just like themselves. Older drug dealers and thieves to manage their businesses by exploiting the aggression, anger and territorial habits of teenagers and their clawing, desperate desire for some kind of status, respect or validation.

Within that, it is all but impossible to untangle who is exploiting and who is exploited, who is the villain and who is the victim. The reality is that almost everyone involved meets either description from one day to the next, or at the same moment. People do horrible things, commit horrible crimes, as a way to avoid becoming victims of horrible crimes. All of this is true for boys just as much as it is for girls.

The perfect illustration of this is contained in the CSJ report. In the section on sexual exploitation, they provide testimony that on occasion, “female gang members in their late teens are being pressured to have sex with young boys in gangs, sometimes as young as 10, as part of the initiation process of those boys into the gang.”

Both in the report itself and the attendant media coverage, this anecdote was presented purely as an example of girls being exploited by gangs. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone that what is being described here is not just the sexual exploitation of a young woman but also a crime of serious child sex abuse against a young boy. In the reporting of this one piece of evidence we see the male victim of a serious, psychologically traumatising crime being entirely erased. Within the narrative the boys are instrumentalised to the point of irrelevance – they only feature as incidental objects. Am I the only one who finds this shocking? And am I the only one who thinks that our willingness to overlook the brutalisation of young boys might be a bloody big part of the problem?

As I see it, we have made significant progress in how we consider girls in gangs. Yes, at times the media can be patronising and romanticise away the agency of young women who willingly choose to exercise disturbing violence, brutality and cruelty, not least to other young women. It is, however, better that we err on the side of compassion and understanding of how they ended up behaving like this.

What I struggle with is our unwillingness to apply the same rational framework, the same degrees of empathy and sympathy to young boys who are similarly victimised, brutalised and vulnerable. A paradigm which holds all gang-involved young women to be innocent victims in need of rescuing and all gang-involved young men to be vicious, sexually exploitative criminals is not only infantile and inaccurate, it is actively obstructive to producing the shifts in policy and culture that could help to keep safer young women and young men alike.

Mar 13 2014

How to be a douchebag

There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”

I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.

Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests’; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.

Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:

 

But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail. 

Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.

I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.

Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.

On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.  

There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.  

Mar 04 2014

Getting into bed with Christian fundamentalism: Behind the APPG report

In the wake of Mary Honeyball MEP’s efforts to push the whole of Europe towards adopting the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising the purchase of sexual services, the British media gave generous coverage yesterday to a new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Most of the papers obediently parroted the line that after hearing expert testimony from 413 different witnesses and organisations, the MPs were recommending the ‘legalisation‘ of prostitution but the criminalisation of buying sex and tougher policing of pimps. The current law, they reported, is an inconsistent mess which (pretty much) nobody thinks effective.

I have no intention of raking over the Nordic model debate yet again. I will quickly point out that to make the provision of a service legal but the purchase of the same service criminal would strike me as the ultimate example of an inconsistent mess. I would add that from what I have heard and read from sex workers themselves, the single greatest hazard to their safety is probably the legal bar on joint working and shared premises, which arises directly from efforts to combat pimping and brothel-keeping. Every sex worker I’ve heard comment on yesterday’s report seems in agreement that the proposals would put them at greater risk and further marginalisation, and I see no reason to argue.

I would note too that yesterday’s report, as a piece of research, is pretty dreadful. There is no attempt to record, report, quantify or evaluate the full range of evidence and opinion submitted to the inquiry, leaving a strong impression that the committee had simply cherry picked the snippets of testimony which fitted with their pre-ordained positions and ignored everything else. While the report admits to receiving contrary submissions, there is no attempt to explain or justify the route from evidence to recommendations.

Perhaps the most troubling detail is barely mentioned in the report itself. The All Party Group which funded it is made possible by the provision of a secretariat and expenses from a charity called CARE – Christian Action Research and Education, which spends more than £400,000 per annum purely on ‘influencing public policy.’ This not only includes supporting the All Party Group on prostitution, it also involves providing (at the last count) a dozen free interns for sympathetic MPs.

So who are CARE? To quote the Telegraph:

 

Care describes itself as a “mainstream Christian charity bringing Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy”. A closer look at its website appears to contradict the claim to be “mainstream”. The organisation’s published doctrinal basis is distinctly fundamentalist and among other things talks of “the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. In other words, the Bible is the literal truth.

CARE are furiously and proudly homophobic, to the extent that one MP (a gay Christian) once described them as ‘a bunch of homophobic bigots.‘ They were heavily involved in lobbying against the introduction of gay marriage and against the repeal of Section 28, while they believe in prayer as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Perhaps most disturbing is their position on abortion. They directly fund the network of CareConfidential crisis pregnancy centres in the UK, where counsellors were recently filmed undercover claiming abortions would increase chances of breast cancer and could predispose women to becoming child sexual abusers.

At this point, allow me to step back for some perspective. For those unfamiliar with British parliamentary process and convention, All Party Parliamentary Groups are not formal, official bodies. Unlike (highly influential) select committees, they have no official remit, no official authority, not even a budget (which is why they go cap in hand to ‘charitable’ lobbyists to pay the bills.) All it takes is 20 MPs or peers with a shared interest to decide to form a group. Consequently there are APPGs on everything from greyhound racing and crown green bowls to jazz appreciation. The report published by the APPG on prostitution yesterday carries no authority and does not compel the government to act in keeping with its recommendations.

However, what we have seen is a major new offensive in a long-running propaganda war. Few people reading the newspapers yesterday will have appreciated that the APPG is a self-selecting cabal, dancing pre-planned steps of religious and ideological conviction, to a tune played by bunch of extremist, fundamentalist bigots. They will be unaware that the recommendations of the APPG are, surprisingly enough, all but indistinguishable from the policy positions previously laid out in CARE’s own documents. What readers of the press across the political spectrum, from the Mail to the Independent to the Guardian will believe is that a group of MPs has spent a year collecting and examining expert testimony then concluded that the Nordic model was the best approach to take.

This is a profoundly dishonest and disingenuous contribution to the debate. It is no longer a shock to find leftwing and / or feminist politicians jumping into bed with rightwing religious fundamentalists, accepting their favours and cash for the cause. Dworkin and McKinnon were doing the same with Reagan’s pals on the fundie right back in the early 80s. However it is important for democracy that if these unlikely bedfellows are going to be engaged in such unholy relations, they do so in the full glare of sunlight, not skulking in the shadows.

Feb 21 2014

Is gender inherently oppressive?

In the founding principles of this blog, I wrote that I want to help build a world where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. While that is undoubtedly easier said than done, it always struck me as a rather uncontroversial ambition. Who could disagree?

I appreciate that the debates around the nature of gender vis-a-vis sex, essentialism, binaries and spectrums are immensely difficult and opaque. Alex Gabriel ran an excellent blog this week spelling out why even the simplistic separations of male against female or biology against social construction are often inadequate or misleading. I don’t intend to delve into any of that, when others can explain it much better than I could.

One thing that has become apparent from recent ideological wrangles within feminism is that there is a significant bloc for whom the problem is not gender discrimination, gender inequality or gender-based oppression, but gender itself. It’s an argument that was laid out with unusual clarity by the feminist blogger Marina S this week. It seemed worth exploring just why I disagree with her so strongly. Her piece, entitled ‘What gender is and what gender isn’t‘ begins with a claim that had me screaming NO!

Gender is not the straightforward assertion that some people play with dolls while others play with trucks; it is the assertion that playing with dolls is an inferior pastime to playing deviant, and vice versa, and that this deviance must be punished with social sanction. In this way it creates a hierarchy between doll playing people and truck playing people.

She expands on the point with respect to sexual libido and career choices, but the premise is the same. Gender, she argues, is not a politically neutral identity or psychological and social trait that has been exploited to create arbitrary and artificial divisions.Gender is inherently hierarchical and oppressive, and is an assignation from which violence and economic exploitation inevitably flows. The goal of feminism, then, must not be just the elimination of gender inequality or gender oppression, but that abolition of gender itself.

The consequences of this thinking are profound. The most obvious victims are trans people whose very existence is of course denied by this logic. I don’t think it is a very subtle political model either. It would preclude hegemonic power dynamics that oppress men and boys in parallel to those oppressing women and girls. At a more trivial and superficial level, it doesn’t strike me as a particularly desirable utopia. I like living in a world of diversity and a society with a broad spectrum of gender, like a spectrum of sexuality, ideology, physicality, psychology and ideology feels healthier to me than a monoculture. I don’t want to live in a world of the gender equivalent of the Mao suit.

For all that, if Marina is right that gender is inherently and inevitably oppressive, it would be something that should profoundly influence our gender politics. So while I don’t want it to be true, could she be right?

At the heart of her blog is a long analogy to slavery. She is saying that just as skin colour was arbitrarily made into a delineator between slave-class and slave-owning class; so was binary biological sex made into a delineator between dominant class and subordinate class.

It seems to me that this analogy already contains a significant counter-argument. While she is entirely right to say that social divisions of oppression are arbitrary, they invariably have some sort of rationale. So while there might have been a brief period of Greek history where (literally) anyone could be a slave and anyone a slave-owner, for the vast bulk of human history, there have been other arbitrary divisions as to who could or could not be a slave – a conquered enemy, a criminal, a member of another tribe, another religion, another race. All those distinctions are arbitrary. All are (at least partially) socially constructed. All are reified and made real within the social and political realm. If our culture has shed the assumption that it is reasonable to make someone a slave if they were born on the other side of the river or practice a different type of prayer, could we not similarly shed the assumptions of hierarchical power we attach to gender?

The real meat of the argument comes later. I can only address it by quoting it at length. It begins here:

To say that the physical reality of women or of black individuals offers no humanly imaginable justification for their oppression is to make a clear and ethically cogent statement of fact.

(I agree)

The true roots of women’s oppression is located in a pursuit of power by small elites through the division of humanity into classes with opposed interests, one of which is constructed as inferior to the other.


(I agree)

 However, to take a further step into saying that this disconnect between the real and the purported cause of our oppression means that the fact that served as the purported cause does not exist, or is not meaningfully consistent, or is “a social construct” and therefore somehow “not really real”, is the most craven of attempts to smuggle good old fashioned misogyny by the back door of linguistically obtuse progressive theorising.


WOAH, no, stop right there!

Who is saying that physical sex is not really real? Is anyone making that argument? From my understanding of post-Butler, post-structural feminism, the argument is 1/ That the absolute binary of sex is not really real – the idea that all the world’s population can be easily and accurately divided (by anyone) into ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a myth, and 2/ That people are oppressed on the basis of gender and that many (not all) of the dynamics of patriarchal oppression relate to gender (the collective social), not sex (the individual physicality).

Even those intellectually dishonest racists who claim to “not see colour” don’t go as far as insisting that therefore differences in colour don’t exist. Race, nationality, religion, and other social constructs such as class and education, all profoundly shape gradients of power, domination and exploitation. So far, the only ‘social construct’ that is being theorised  out of existence by the Left rather than the Right is the oldest and largest (in terms of population size) of them all.


Is this true? I don’t see it. To take her analogy literally, I would aver that even those who claim not to see a binary of biological sex don’t go so far as insisting that therefore differences in sex don’t exist.

Sex exists. Gender – a hierarchy of the fully human and the merely animalistic, the properly intellectual and the merely emotional, the realised individual and the objectified Other – instrumentalises it. It does not depend on it. It is not directly – ontologically or otherwise – driven by it. But it is an inescapable fact of gender that its organising principle, its plausible cause of oppression, its fig leaf of necessity, is sex.

(I agree)

To theorise sex out of existence is to deny that sexism can exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly impregnated, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. If we deny these people an identity based on the root of their oppression we are saying they, as a class, do not exist. Have no shared history. No conceivable political mission. No right to recourse. No community. No grievance. No hope.


Here’s my huge problem. I don’t think anyone is trying to theorise sex out of existence. However I do see people attempting to theorise gender out of existence, right here in front of me, and to theorise gender out of existence is to deny that gender oppression, including transphobia, can exist. It is to refuse to accept that trans people exist. It is to refuse to accept that a class of human beings exist who have been economically exploited, raped, murdered, forcibly surgically transformed, exchanged as chattel, denied a history, a language and a right to their bodies since (literally) time immemorial. And all the rest of it.

A more obscene act of woman hatred than to simply refuse to admit that women exist is hard to imagine. Tidier and cheaper than wholesale extermination, more economically self serving than foregoing the reproductive labour extracted from, the profound hatred of women qua women such an argument betrays is breath-taking. That it is an attitude espoused sometimes women themselves is no counter-argument, but a – relatively minor – entry in the ledger of the brutalising effects of patriarchal oppression.

I ask again, who is saying women do not exist? I’ve never seen it. I have, however, seen many people deny that trans people exist, who insist they are delusional, insane or sexual fetishists. Those hateful charges do not spring from thin air, but from an ideological well in which gender has been wished away and we are defined purely by the categorisation of our bodies.

After all this, I am still genuinely trying to understand why it should be that gender is inherently oppressive. I don’t see it. Marina argues well that to deny the existence of womanhood would be oppressive, but nobody is denying the existence of womanhood. At most, they are claiming that womanhood is not necessarily restricted to biological essentialism. Is womanhood somehow degraded or nullified by the inclusion of trans women? I’ve seen that argument made in its bigoted glory elsewhere, but I don’t think it is the case being made here and nor, I think, is it especially compelling.

For what it is worth, my hunch remains that gender, sex and sexuality continue to circle around each other like the rings of a gyroscope – related, independent, often overlapping, sometimes far removed. The only time any of them becomes oppressive in itself is when we insist they must all align.

Feb 14 2014

Some important findings from the ONS crime stats: Intimate & sexual violence

The Office for National Statistics have published the latest crime statistics for England and Wales. As they do almost invariably, the mainstream media have published selected figures without any trends or historical context, to provide alarming headlines. Typically, the Guardian proclaims “Domestic violence experienced by 30% of female population, survey shows.”

It is true, after a fashion, if one chooses to define domestic violence as any one single adult lifetime incident of emotional or financial abuse, threat or minor force’ by any partner or family member. That is not, however, how most people (including most agencies and academics) would choose to define domestic violence. The total is here

CSEWTotalCount

If we look at the table which breaks down the experience of all those victims, a rather less dramatic picture emerges.

CSEW1Abuse_Type

This shows a couple of interesting things. The first is that only about a third of all victims reported any instance of severe force or serious sexual assault. Of course some forms of non-physical abuse can be devastating and terrifying, but it is important to note that the reality of the data is not quite as dramatic as headlines would suggest.

The second notable thing here, I think, is that while (as most of us realise) female victims of most forms of intimate violence are more numerous, male victims here were much more likely to report having experienced severe force as women. This doesn’t match the stereotype which paints male violence as severe and frightening, and women’s as trivial acts of self-defence.

Where headlines like the Guardian’s really slip up though, is in hiding the trends. You really wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but we are in the midst of an ongoing and dramatic decline in partner violence. A rather more appropriate headline would be: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AT AN ALL TIME LOW. You could go further. Partner violence is at an all time low. Sexual violence is at an all time low. Stalking is at an all time low. Domestic homicides are at an all time low. And if you’re wondering, for male victims the rates hit an all time low in 2010/11 and have remained roughly constant since.

As these tables show, both male and female victimisation has dropped by about 20-25% over the past decade. (Regular readers will know that the decade prior to that saw even more dramatic declines. Partner violence was at its peak in the mid 90s) The trend is probably clearest on physical violence, but even sexual violence against women is now at the lowest point since records began.

CSEW2Trends

The trend is even more marked in the domestic partner homicide figures. There were 75 women killed by partners and ex-partners last year, and 15 men. In 2004/5 the equivalent numbers were 106 and 39. It goes without saying that any homicide is one too many, but it would be wilfully obtuse to ignore the good news here. (Should also be pointed out that figures are just about the only police stat that can be relied upon for accuracy.)

CSEWHomicides_domesticr

Elsewhere in the data, another couple of statistics that intrigue me, because they are so unexpected. If anyone can offer credible explanations, I’m all ears.

UPDATED: THE FOLLOWING APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN A MISTAKE IN THE ORIGINAL DATA TABLES, SINCE CORRECTED (see comments, and hat tip to Unity at Ministry of Truth

First, it appears that the majority of serious sexual assaults on women are committed by strangers. This flies in the face of received wisdom, which holds that women are much more likely to be raped or seriously sexually assaulted by their partners, loved ones and acquaintances. Look

CSEWRelationships

The only explanation I can offer is that the dramatic improvement in rates of domestic and relationship violence – including much improved capacity and greater willingness of people to leave abusive relationships – mean that those types of assaults have become less common, while frequency of stranger attacks have remained broadly unchanged. I had a quick look at the stats from last year, and they were heading in the same direction, which would confirm that.

One final point regards the consequences of intimate violence on the victims. A point I’ve often seen raised in relation to male victims is that compared to their female equivalents, they are less likely to live in fear and terror, less likely to be traumatised, and are therefore in less need of support, protection and services.

Well the CSEW asks a question in that vein, and it turns out that yes – male victims are less likely to have lasting psychological damage from their abuse – but the difference is marginal.

CSEWconsequences

In a nutshell, 4 out of 10 female victims have lasting psychological impacts, but so do 3 out of 10 men. Five women in a hundred feel suicidal, so do three men in a hundred. Yes, there are differences there, but I’d suggest they are not dramatic enough to really operate as justification for any kind of discriminatory policy.

Some final notes on the CSEW, from which these stats are drawn. For those who don’t know, it is a survey of around 50,000 people and is one of the best regarded, most reliable victim surveys in the world. But it is not perfect. There are problems with it – notably it misses data from people on the margins of society, who are temporarily homeless or who have chaotic lifestyles. There are always doubts about the accuracy and honesty of subjects’ reporting in surveys like this. There is a particular issue with the intimate violence modules, which is that it does not record high multiples of instances – it is counting the numbers of victims, not the numbers of incidents. So the CSEW does not really pick up on rates of systematic coercive controlling violence which (some researchers claim) is the type of DV which is most likely to be male perpetrator – female victim.

For all that, what the CSEW does do is provide really quite reliable data on trends. Whatever doubts we may have about total counts and some of the details, I’d be pretty confident that what this survey is telling us about the long-term trends is pretty much true. And that really is good news, whatever you might read in the newspaper.

Feb 13 2014

Breaking the silence on male abuse victims.

You may recall a few months ago I was helping Survivors Manchester to lobby government for access to funding for male rape  victims, who were explicitly excluded from the large Rape Support Fund.

I’m delighted to let you know that today the Ministry of Justice announced a new dedicated fund for male victims or rape and sexual assault. They are also throwing their weight behind Survivors Manchester’s #BreakTheSilence social media campaign. I was asked to write something for the Independent today, which was one of the most gratifying commissions I’ve had for a while.

First published at the Independent

—————————————————————————–

 

Today’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice of a new fund for male victims of rape and sexual violence is hugely significant.

The significance is not in the sum of money. While £500,000 is more than welcome, and will make a huge difference to the funded organisations and their clients, nobody would pretend it can do more than scrape at the scale of a problem which impacts an estimated 72,000 new adult victims every year and untold numbers of children. Nor does the significance lie in acknowledgement of the problem – charities have previously been funded for limited work with male victims, and in the light of historic sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church and social service care homes, no one can plead ignorance as to the extent of horrors involved.

The significance is not even in the campaigning victory of charities like Survivors Manchester, who have fought persistently against the flagrant injustice of male victims being explicitly excluded from funds set up to provide care and support to victims of rape and abuse – although that achievement should not be overlooked. The historic significance of today’s announcement is that it marks the first time that a British government of any stripe has ringfenced any quantity of victim support funding specifically to help men and boys. It may only be half a million quid, but it is a priceless milestone.

Although male victims make up a significant minority of cases of child sex abuse and of adult sexual, domestic and relationship violence, their specific needs and circumstances are often pushed so far to the margins of debate and policy that they all but disappear. In mainstream political and media narratives, the terms sexual violence and relationship violence are taken to be synonymous with the phrase ‘violence against women and girls.’

This has consequences for male victims which go far beyond access to funding and resources. The voices and views of male victims are often excluded from debates about the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes, despite considerable evidence to show there are specific and complex issues around men’s and boys’ willingness to report and testify. Debates around cultures of victim- blaming often focus exclusively on women’s supposed behaviour or appearance, almost never on men’s sexuality, despite extensive evidence that male victims, just like female victims, are commonly assumed to have been ‘asking for it.’

While our society still has a long way to go before it treats the sexual abuse of women with the seriousness it requires, the equivalent journey for men has barely begun. Prison rape jokes in particular are almost ubiquitous. The ugly reality of that issue is stomach-churning rather than comic. One study drew upon interviews with ex-prisoners. The evidence was that while fewer prisoners are raped in British prisons than some people might imagine, those who are victimised are typically singled out for their physical and mental vulnerability and attacked repeatedly by multiple perpetrators. Detailed data on the extent of the problem in the UK remains elusive however because, shockingly, no one has ever commissioned or authorised the research to find out.

A different issue confronts the sizeable minority of male victims whose abusers are female. Despite clinical literature demonstrating that such victims face similar risks to other abuse survivors of post-traumatic symptoms, guilt, emotional and mental health risks and sexual dysfunction, victims often report feeling entirely isolated by a cultural denial of their existence. Boys who are abused by older women are told they should consider themselves lucky or grateful. While there is a large weight of evidence demonstrating that surprisingly large numbers of adult men can be victims of coercive or violent sexual abuse by women, their needs and situations are all but entirely ignored.

Perhaps the strongest argument for reserved funding for male victims is that if government won’t help victims, nobody will. Charities working specifically with male victims tend to be desperately under-funded, the sad truth is that they are not considered the most sympathetic causes. Social psychologists have found that both genders, but especially men, are more likely to give to women in need than to men, which is generally attributed to socialised notions of chivalry. If ever you wanted an example of the feminist dictum that patriarchy hurts men too, it is right here.

Perhaps things are slowly changing. Similar points were made for many years about funding for research into male-specific cancers, but in recent years initiatives like Movember and Men United have brought glimmers of light to the gloom. Alongside the new funding, the Ministry of Justice have thrown their weight behind the survivors’ charities social media campaign, #BreakTheSilence. Further support has come from the cast of Hollyoaks, which is currently running a sensitively-handled storyline of male rape. It is perhaps this gradual, public unlocking of the issue which, more than anything, can bring hope to survivors.

Feb 03 2014

Abuse is not a team game

Like Suzanne Moore, I am in no rush to Tweet or blog my opinions on the allegations made by Dylan Farrow about Woody Allen. Of course I have my own suspicions about the most probable truth of events that occurred in her childhood, but not only am I in no position to do any more than guess, I struggle to see who gains from the kangaroo court of Twitter. The notion that expressing support for the alleged victim will provide comfort and succour to either Farrow herself or victims of sexual abuse at large strikes me as bogus – at the very least I can see how any comfort it might provide is more than cancelled out by the accompanying trivialisation. Likewise, the notion that standing up for Allen strikes a blow for the wrongly accused everywhere.

To make either claim is to generalise out from one specific, complex case with unique individuals and unique circumstances and make them symbolic representations, even totems for wider socio-political debates. We can (and should) do that with fictional and historical characters. To do so with real, living individuals and current cases strikes me as profoundly dangerous and misguided.

I have watched the debate unfold over recent days with gnawing, even nauseous discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I was able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it when I started to see the inevitable tweets hashtagged #TeamDylan and #TeamWoody – that was when I knew we were not dealing with a meaningful debate but a synthesized, mass-participation role-playing game in which people picked their sides, adopted their character, and went into a make-believe battle, one in which one can do the fighting without the bleeding, safe and secure in the knowledge that one can withdraw at any time and that the whole game will anyway be forgotten in a week or two.

I began to despise the #Team trend during the saga of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. Over the previous couple of years I had seen use of the tag migrate from tweets about reality TV shows like Big Brother to be adopted by fans of pop puppets – whenever a bad headline appeared in a tabloid, fans would rush to declare #TeamJustin or #TeamHarry. So far, so silly. Then one Sunday in June, a paper ran those horrific snaps of a famous, powerful man apparently assaulting his much-loved, more famous wife outside a restaurant. The photos set off a chain of events that included a marriage break-up (with children involved) and a court case with allegations of drug-use. I do not blame people for having sympathies or opinions about the events and the people involved. I do utterly condemn those who adopted the stylings and language of reality TV and pop gossip to engage themselves and make themselves part of the story, when the story is something a mortally serious as sexual or domestic abuse. [See footnote]

To declare oneself on someone’s team is to position oneself not as a supporter or a fan, but as a player, an active participant in an unfolding drama. Could anything be more narcissistic than to locate oneself in the midst of the human tragedy of others? Knowing that Nigella Lawson herself acknowledged and thanked #TeamNigella does not, to me, excuse or improve matters. It just emphasises that she was caught at the heart of an almighty public circus and that her private life was now public property.

What’s worse, I think, is that such language and behaviour actively degrades the suffering of real people. It is hardly an original insight to note that celebrities’ lives are experienced by the rest of us as fictions, the impressions we get of the famous are largely moulded and shaped for better or worse by publicists, by journalists, by editors, by agendas. There has to be a line where this stops being an acceptable source of colour, amusement, humour and harmless titillation in our postmodern lives and becomes exploitative, corrosive and degrading. I would propose that wherever the line is, sexual abuse of children and intimate partner abuse are well across it.

Commercial media has a vested financial interest in dehumanising celebrities’ personalities, caricaturing their complexities and fictionalising their lives into a soap opera or a reality TV show. For a long time, we went along with that. Thanks to social media, we are now the prime culprits.

 

UPDATED PS – Literally seconds after I’d posted this I saw that @stavvers had written a compelling blog as to why Suzanne Moore is wrong, focussing on another hashtag  - #IBelieveHer or #IBelieveDylan.

Just for clarity, I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with that. As I’ve written many a time before, “I believe her” (or him) should always be our default response to victims’ reports of abuse.  And I think “I believe”  is a perfectly legitimate expression of opinion.

That said, I remain deeply uncomfortable about using celebrities as avatars of profound political truths in circumstances like this – it quickly becomes less of a discussion than a circus.

Jan 31 2014

A history of ad hominem gender shaming

I blogged recently about my disdain for those who respond to any man writing favourably about women with the swipe “you’re only saying this in the hope of getting laid.”

Several respondents pointed out, quite correctly, that this is just one strand to a wide family of ad hominem attacks, all of which focus on the putative conscious or unconscious psychological motivations behind an expressed opinion.

It pops up in all political arenas (the phrase ‘the politics of envy’ is a classic example) but it seems especially prevalent in gender debates. Examples include dismissing feminists as being fat, ugly, sex-starved, bitter and jealous of more attractive women, or the precise mirror image – dismissing men’s activists as being sad, socially inadequate, resentful virgins who live in their mother’s basements.

It’s the kind of lazy thinking we all slip into occasionally – and yes, I’m sure there are plenty of blots on my own copybook, before you rush to point it out. Nonetheless it is an intellectually bankrupt, politically corrosive and degrading, and very often entirely untruthful approach to debating issues, whoever is responsible.

One might expect such cheap and nasty rhetorical tricks in the mucky trenches of the online gender wars. It is rather more surprising to find a prime example in an acclaimed, scholarly, academic history book.

My current light reading is a recent book by Ben Griffin entitled: The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights. Yeah, I know, I’m a barrel of laughs at parties. Anyway, in many respects it is a fascinating work, exploring a really interesting idea that since each gender is largely defined in opposition and contrast to the other, the gradual emancipation of women and reinvention of femininity through the 19th Century was both a cause and consequence of a parallel and contemporaneous reconstruction of male gender roles. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Victorian conceptions of fatherhood and paternity. It is useful to be reminded just how fluid and transient such seemingly immutable attitudes prove to be.

But here’s the ‘but.’ One particular point of interest for Griffin, which appears sporadically through the book but also gets a whole chapter to itself, is an urge to psychologically profile the most vehement anti-suffrage members of the Victorian parliaments. These guys were, I am quite happy to concede, unbearably reactionary, misogynistic dinosaurs with an unedifying attachment to brute, traditional masculinity, the type of politician who, were they around today, I would doubtless be writing articles and blogs about – mocking and condemning their appalling opinions. I hope I would not fall into the trap which, with 150 years’ of distance, catches Griffin.

It is not enough to the author that these men were wrong, misguided by anachronistic ideology or religious beliefs. He feels the need to pathologise them like the history department’s answer to Fitz from Cracker. These men, Griffin alleges, doth (or didth) protest too much. Hence Sir Henry James was “a lifelong bachelor” with “an unusually close attachment to his mother.” He “exhibited a visible interest in cases of unusually close attachment between men.” He was, according to one rumour, the secret lover of Lord Randolph Churchill, but according to another, responsible for a full household of illegitimate children.

Meanwhile Charles Newdegate MP represented “a similar case of exaggerated filial piety…. indeed the relationship seems to have been exceptional in its intensity.” What’s more, “there is no surviving evidence of him having ever expressed any interest in women at all.”

On a slightly different tack, another ardent advocate of patriarchal supremacy was very much married. Alexander Beresford Hope MP opposed every reform of women’s civil and legal rights, but he had secrets of his own. At home, we are told, his most striking characteristic was his “absolute devotion to [his wife] and complete surrender of his will to hers, never opposing or thwarting any of her wishes but always thinking of and anticipating her views and desires.” You might think this makes him sound rather lovely (the original source was the MP’s daughter, after his death), but that is not how the author sees it. Instead it stands as evidence that Beresford Hope’s anti-feminism was a reaction to being a henpecked husband.

Summing up, the author argues:

“any interpretation of their speeches has to take into account the fact that the speeches were not simply statements of anti-suffragist belief; they were also efforts to create masculine identities. By entering the battle to oppose women’s suffrage these bachelor mummies’ boys presented themselves as hard-headed men of business or as chivalrous knights set on protecting the fairer sex. These were identities that served to compensate for the fact that these men fell far short of the masculine ideal, and as such we should not underestimate the attraction that entering the debate on women’s suffrage held for these tarnished defenders of the patriarchal order.”

My objections to all this are twofold. The first is based in social science and psychology. As the likes of Adorno and Eysenck pointed out more than 50 years ago, all political views are, to an extent, underpinned by personal cognitive processes and/or personality. All of our politics are to an extent shaped and influenced by our personal histories and our private lives. It is striking that this type of forensic diagnosis of political positions is only ever applied to people we disagree with, never to ourselves or those on our own side. Were there not MPs who supported suffrage who were submissive to their wives or quietly homosexual? Almost certainly, but Griffin doesn’t explain away their progressive views on that basis, although either would be an easy case to make. Once we start to go down that route, all debate and discussion quickly becomes reductive and ad hom.

The second problem I have with all this is, I think, a more serious matter. Griffin clearly considers himself to be a progressive type, his allegiances are overtly pro-feminist and his references are peppered with post-structural gender theory from R.W. Connell et al. For all that, I can’t help but find his analysis subtly but profoundly reactionary. The glee he seems to take in nudge-nudge innuendo that anti-suffrage MPs were secretly gay strikes me as more than a tad homophobic, and so too is the repeated conflation of ‘confirmed bachelor’ with ‘mummy’s boy.’ The passage about the henpecked MP seems to be shaming the man for being insufficiently dominant in his own home.

I realise I’m probably being harsh, but I can’t help reading Griffin as saying that if you don’t agree with his enlightened modern views on gender, there must be something wrong with you, and in the case of these MPs, what was wrong with them was that they were secretly gay, lacking in masculine, heterosexual independence, or excessively subordinate to women. Um, hello? Isn’t this just old heteronormative, patriarchal gender policing wrapped up with a new progressive ribbon?

Whether or not Griffin is guilty as charged, there is an unfortunate tendency, particularly among male feminists, to create new, feminist-friendly hierarchies of masculinity which (conveniently) place them at the top. However well intentioned, slogans like “real men don’t hit women” still reinforce the false notion that there is such a thing as a real man, an ideal man, against whom all others should be compared. I don’t think it is helpful.

The sad truth is that some real men do hit women (or other men), some don’t. Some real men are gay, some real men are homophobic. Some real men lean left politically and some to the right, some real men oppose women’s rights and others support them. That was true in the 1870s, it remains true today, and if we want to challenge the views of those we oppose, we need to take on their arguments, not their personal lives.  

Jan 24 2014

Men, memes and misogyny

Last week the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland made one of his periodic forays into gender politics, sparked by the Liberal Democrats’ saga of sleaze, the latest Twitterstorms and a tacky plastic surgery game app.

I fully endorse the main message of the piece, that men should actively involve themselves in challenging and combatting misogyny and gender oppression. Beneath that I had several disagreements. I despise the ‘man-up’ cliche on which he concludes, especially when applied to the type of chivalrous protector role suggested here. This type of benevolent sexism seems to me very much part of the problem, not the solution. His suggestion that the forthcoming Southbank conference Being A Man should focus on what men can do to help women merely amplifies that.

At the heart of the piece is a section on the part played by women in propagating misogyny.

Some would seize on this evidence gleefully, to say women are to blame for sexism along with everything else routinely laid at their door. That’s adamantly not my point here. Rather, just as ethnic minorities can internalise the very worst things said about them over many centuries, so some women have imbibed so much misogyny, it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

Viewed like this, the battle for equality no longer resembles the war between men and women of old. But there is a war going on. It’s a war against femaleness itself – one that is, to stress again, prosecuted chiefly by men, but all too often with the collaboration of women.

The notion of a ‘war against femaleness’ seems confused to me. Is he talking about the social construction of traditional female gender? If so, I’d say the opposite is happening – if there is a war here it is actually being waged on deviations from subordinate, compliant, superficial femininity. Or does he mean there is a war against women? That’s a familiar claim and one which I believe (just like the same claim about men) founders on its own hyperbole, to the extent that it becomes neither instructive nor functional.

What I really find intriguing in this section though is the way in which Jonathan seems to imply that misogyny is “imbibed” and expressed in ways that are fundamentally different for men and women. He’s not alone in this, a lot of feminist and pro-feminist writing makes the same assumption, that misogyny is something that is fundamentally owned by men, created by men, somehow essential to men, and when women join in it is as tourists, cheerleaders or bandwagon jumpers, rather than central co-instigators and participants.

I’m not convinced this is true. it makes more sense to me to think of men’s misogyny in the same way that Jonathan here describes women’s misogyny – that men have imbibed so much misogyny it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

While people of different genders are, of course, differently socialised, they are not raised on Mars and Venus. We all swim in the same ideological waters, breathe the same culture, absorb the same messages. Boys (in western liberal societies) are not raised with specific instructions to hate or fear women, rather both boys and girls are raised with almost identical messages about socially acceptable gender roles, about socially acceptable (and gender-specific) sexual behaviour, how nice girls behave, what it is to be a real man. Consequently boys too often grow into men that despise women who fail to meet exacting beauty standards, but so too do women. Women who depart from the script of demure, modest and restrained sexuality will be reviled as sluts or slags by women and men alike.

In that sense, misogyny is not something men do to women with an occasional female collaborators. It is an ambient dynamic in society, a collection of attitudes, beliefs and values that are passed down through generations and shared, gradually evolving to survive and thrive in new environments, whether changing workplaces and cultural loci or the new reality online. In other words, misogyny can be understood as a rather classic example of meme theory.

I appreciate that at this point some readers will be spluttering that I’m trying to get men off the hook for the oppression of women. With respect, I don’t think I am. What I’m saying is that challenging misogyny and all forms of gender or other oppression will need to be a shared project.

I also consider this a rather more optimistic way of considering the issue. Analyses which describe misogyny as being somehow inherent or even essential to men or masculinity strike me as being ultimately disempowering. I refuse to accept that gendered hatred and oppression (of any flavour) is inevitable or invariable. If we consider misogynistic attitudes and values to be broadly memetic, then we accept that we can change our society in such a way that they will either wither and die or evolve beyond all recognition. I consider that a rather comforting thought.

Jan 21 2014

Male victims, screening and victim-blaming

Crimestoppers, an official UK central government public information service, today published a piece about male victims of domestic violence on their blog. The piece was authored by Ippo Panteloudakis, a staff member from Respect UK, the charity which runs the Men’s Advice Line and which accredits DV perpetrator rehabilitation schemes, among many other responsibilities.

Towards the end of the piece, it states:

Although attitudes are changing, gender stereotypes make it difficult for some to think of men as victims, i.e. men must always be strong and if they are physically stronger they can’t be victims.

This is true, of course, and we should welcome its inclusion. Unfortunately the very next paragraph goes on to say this

Another issue some callers bring is the use of violence by both partners – working out who the ‘primary perpetrator/aggressor’ is in these cases and who was genuinely in self-defence is crucial if we want to manage the risk and increase the safety of victims. It is well established by now that some perpetrators approach victim services claiming they are the victim in their relationship. This has important implications for service delivery as perpetrators may be offered support as victims and victims as perpetrators.

One of the nastiest stereotypes that hovers around male victims of intimate partner violence is that he must have done something to provoke it, to deserve it, or that the abuser must have been defending herself because the man is invariably the violent one. There is no evidence that this is true for male victims any more frequently than it is for female victims, and yet this type of victim-blaming would be immediately hounded out of the room if it were applied to women.  Indeed, Erin Pizzey was famously excommunicated from the feminist / domestic violence realm about 40 years ago for making exactly this point about  the women she saw in Chiswick.

Last summer I praised the excellent report by Abused Men in Scotland which evaluated the experiences of men accessing services for victims and survivors. One point this report picked up was that some men who had called the Men’s Advice Line felt as if they were being themselves ‘screened’ as perpetrators and all but accused of being wife-beaters when they called for help. It should not  take much imagination to appreciate how damaging that can be to the trust relationship between a vulnerable person seeking help and the agency which is supposed to be supporting him.

The Men’s Advice Line reacted angrily, firing off a letter to AMIS demanding retraction and correction, and insisting that they did not practice “screening”, they merely “risk and needs assess.” Brian Dempsey, author of the original report, provided a response that was, I think, quite definitive. According to Men’s Advice Line’s own published data, their helpline workers ask sufficient questions on first contact to make a (supposed) assessment of whether the caller is a victim, a  perpetrator, a victim who uses violent resistance or a perpetrator whose victim uses violent resistance.

Brian Dempsey’s response also notes that in July 2013, while these letters were bouncing back and forth, the noted feminist academic Catherine Donovan appeared on Women’s Hour and praised Respect  / MAL for they way in which they “screen” callers to establish whether they are victims or perpetrators.

The reality is that there is no straightforward model of family violence. Some instances happen with one violent controlling bully who batters the other party without retaliation. Such offenders can be male or female, and so can their victims. A large proportion of family violence (most research suggests as much as half) is to some extent reciprocal and mutual, with no easy answer as to who is starting it, who is escalating it, who is aggressing and who is acting in self defence. Asking who is the perpetrator and who is the victim is meaningless. The answer to both is both. The urge to carefully delineate callers into perpetrators and victims is a simplistic attempt to divide the world into goodies and baddies and much of the time the world just does not work like that. It must be noted that other services for victims of partner violence – not only all services for female victims but also the Mankind Initiative Helpline and Dyn Project in Wales run successful and acclaimed services without the need to screen or “risk and needs assess.”

Someone who approaches a victim support service – whether a helpline, a refuge or anything else – must be assumed to be in need of support and be offered the help they need. There is a good argument to say that as part of the support process, all victims should somehow be offered help with any violent or aggressive tendencies of their own. Raising such an issue without alienating and adding to the distress of victims would be an exceptionally delicate and difficult task. Which is why Respect  / MAL’s cavalier approach to the issue is so deeply concerning.

 

 

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