Why I am not a feminist

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(First published 26/06/12)

I had a lengthy chat with a producer from BBC Woman’s Hour the other day, about a feature they ran this morning on some men’s reluctance to identify as feminists. I missed out on the chance of a free BBC croissant in the end. This may have been partly down to my inconsiderate refusal to live in London like normal people, but in truth I think I lost her when I started channelling Nina Power on the reconstruction of feminism as a neoliberal capitalist accessory and the interchangeability of emancipation and consumption in the dominant discourse. With hindsight I should have stuck to the question of whether little girls can pee standing up.

The conversation did however give me pause to think about a fairly key question. I’m often told I am a feminist by others, in roughly equal measure as a compliment and an insult. I take it in the intended spirit either way. If others think I am a feminist so be it, but it is not how I define myself.  By coincidence, this morning also saw the launch of a new blog edited by Joseph Stashko, entitled Meninism, exploring the place of men in the movement. I had the honour of the first piece on there, in which I argue that the feminist trope “the patriarchy hurts men too” is not the solution to male-specific gender issues. The tl;dr version would be this: Even if patriarchy does hurt men too, that’s for men to realise and address; we can’t leave it to women and feminism to solve it for us.

Feminism is and should be a movement of women, for women and led by women. While any man can offer a voice of agreement, it is not for us to define the issues and prescribe the solutions. And with whom should we agree? Feminism is an impossibly diverse ideology, riven with internal argument and debate. To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.

If I’m forced to define my own politics, it would be in broad terms as a believer in social justice and human rights. From that perspective, I would have no qualms about telling a feminist that I think she is wrong about an issue. To take one example, there are many feminists who argue that there should be no prosecutions of women who make false allegations of rape. In my opinion, this is a patently unjust position, not from the perspective of feminism, but from the perspective of justice. A man who is grievously and maliciously wronged by such an act deserves redress, and others who may be so wronged deserve the protection of a legal deterrent. I can make that point more strongly and effectively if it is not prefaced by three little words ‘As a feminist…’ Indeed, I think a man who argues any point with those words is likely to find himself hoisted by the goolies, and probably deservedly so.

By identifying as a feminist, I would have a lot to lose, and little to gain. My stance does not preclude supporting feminists where I support their aims. For example, I actively supported the Slutwalk movement last year, not because I am a feminist, but because I agreed with the fundamental aims; I applauded their inclusive approach to men and trans people; and I admired the fusion of assertive female sexuality with demands for bodily autonomy and personal safety. I don’t need to define as a feminist to say that. On the contrary I’d like to think my words carry slightly more weight precisely because I do not.

Over the years I’ve been called feminist, pro-feminist and a ‘mangina’, I’ve been called anti-feminist and misogynist, and sometimes those allegations have all come in response to the same piece. Once there was a time when I cared about how my views were labelled by others, these days I mostly just eye them with curiosity. I’ll try to call the issues as I see them, and you can call me what you like. Deal?


Addendum 28/05/13

Another thing that has happened a couple of times recently is being called either a “good ally” or a “bad ally” by feminists. There was a long period of my life when I would have actively described myself as a feminist ally. I now prefer not to.

The reasons why are much as above, but perhaps slightly more to do with personal psychology. Being pegged as a good or bad ally feels very like having cookies offered or snatched away, as if my ideological purity is being subtly policed.

I appreciate compliments and I appreciate thoughtful criticism. I also appreciate cookies, big chocolatey ones, feel free to send some of those my way.  But lest there be any doubt, my name is Ally (the standard Scots diminutive of Alistair.)

It rhymes with shally, not shall I?

What could really be done to reduce rape

If the prime aim of the interviews and comments provided by Nick Ross this weekend was to publicise his new book, it is safe to say mission accomplished.

Ross is the veteran presenter of BBC’s Crimewatch series, and now the author of a new book simply called ‘Crime.’ His comments on rape prevention were highlighted by the Mail on Sunday which, he insists, grossly misrepresented and hyped his views. It seems to me that selling serialisation and interview rights to the Mail and then complaining about being misrepresented is a bit like inviting a viper up your trouser leg then complaining about being bitten. Predictably, his comments have invoked a storm of criticism and controversy.

Plenty of other commentators have already pointed out why comparing sexual integrity to theft of valuables is misguided, unhelpful and offensive. Others have talked about victim-blaming and the myths that significant numbers of rapes can be avoided by women adapting their social and sexual habits, clothing or other behaviours. I fully endorse those critiques.

But to Ross’s credit, he makes at least one important and under-appreciated point. He is quite right to observe that many victims of rape do not think of what happened to them as rape. This is something well known to researchers and academics, and is the main reason why crime surveys (such as BCS/CSEW) do not ask respondents ‘have you been raped?’ but something like ‘have you been forced to have sex when you did not want to?’ The latter question reaps vastly higher positive responses than the former. Whether this is accounted for by ignorance of the letter of the law, psychological defence mechanisms or the fuzzy boundaries between coercion and compulsion is hard to say.

What Ross misses is that the exact same applies to rapists. One conclusion that can be drawn from the work of David Lisak and others who have replicated his work is that when men are asked whether they have forced someone to have sex or other sexual contact against their will, disturbingly high numbers will say yes (between about 5% and 15% in different samples). When asked explicitly whether they have raped or assaulted someone, far fewer will admit it.

It may be that many rape victims do not describe the experience as rape because they simply do not understand what constitutes rape in law. It may also be a cognitive defence mechanism – that it is easier to cope with and heal from the trauma of the attack if one doesn’t consider it as a rape. I would suggest the exact same thing applies to rapists.

One of the important insights contained in Nicholas Groth’s classic typology of sexual offenders is that power rapists – the most common variety – often delude themselves into believing the victim wants what is happening to (usually) her and will come to enjoy it at the time or afterwards. Power rapists may want to buy the victim a drink or a gift after the attack or make conciliatory approaches (sometimes in the form of a half-hearted apology) the next day. In other words, such attackers do not want to think of themselves as rapists.

Last July a thread on Reddit invited users to confess if they had ever raped someone. The results were startling and controversial. One striking feature of the contributions was that many of those who admitted attacks described themselves as having been racked by indecision, doubt and uncertainty.

What this tells us, I think, is that rapists often do not think of themselves as rapists. Just like Nick Ross, and perhaps like many victims, they imagine a rapist to be the man in the bushes with a ski mask, not someone like them, not a (seemingly) ordinary guy who has a few drinks too many and refuses to take no for an answer.

It is vital that everyone understands that, in most respects, rapists are just like any other guy. It is equally important to understand that raping is not normal behaviour. By the best estimates, at least 90% of men will never rape anyone. Other men in the same situation would not do the same thing, because other men are not rapists. People who force sex upon others are statistical, psychological and moral aberrations.

This is why I, as a man, fully support feminist efforts to replace rape avoidance campaigns with genuine rape prevention campaigns. That means reducing the desire, the willingness, the motivation to commit rape in the first place. There are very good reasons to believe campaigns with slogans like “don’t be that guy” as opposed to “don’t be that girl” could be highly effective in reducing rape and sexual assault, because there are very good reasons to believe that many sexual offenders really don’t want to be “that guy.” They don’t want to think of themselves as abusers, don’t want to think of themselves as rapists. They are actively looking for loopholes which allow them to think that it wasn’t entirely their fault, the victim takes a share of responsibility, or that anyone would do the same in the circumstances. This is why even well-intended advice to women on their supposed responsibility to avoid being raped can actively contribute to the problem.

More importantly, I think, sex education (both at school and in the broader cultural conversation) needs vastly stronger emphases on the meaning, nature and importance of enthusiastic consent. This would also help to address the issue of forced penetration assaults by women on men, particularly within relationships, which is being increasingly recognised as a real and serious issue.

Slut-shaming, which attempts to stifle women’s expressions of their sexual desires and encourages them to play coy or hard-to-get, needs to be banished once and for all. There is perhaps no more dangerous cultural meme than the idea that “no means maybe and maybe means yes.”   

Realistically, there will always be sociopaths, sadists, damaged and damaging individuals for whom no amount of education or awareness will help. There will always be rape, just as there will always be assaults and murders. However changing appreciation of consent, improved awareness and a change in culture has already produced significant reductions in the incidence of rape. Those who said, 40 years ago, that rape was a fact of human nature and nothing could be done to change that, have been proven utterly wrong. I see no reason to believe that we couldn’t improve things much further still.

In defence of freedom of speech

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

First published June 18th 2012

 

I am not the most dedicated gamer of my generation. I never owned a Pong machine or a Gameboy, a ZX Spectrum or a SNES. I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy. My only engagement with an XBox is the occasional attempt to prise my 10 year old son away from Minecraft, an experience roughly akin to dragging a hippie raver out of a K-hole. The closest I’ve come to pixellated sexual violence against women has been blasting a red shell up Princess Peach’s exhaust pipe on MarioKart.

So I don’t have much in the way of informed opinions about misogyny in video games, I’ll leave that to others. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the debate surrounding Kickstarter Anita Sarkeesian, as good an illustration as we’ll ever need of the vitriol of the new gender wars. An intense storm of hatred was roused by her modest idea to crowd-fund research into sexism in the games industry. The many thousands of hostile comments posted on Sarkeesian’s YouTube video were of course heavily gendered and sexualised, but so too was some of the retaliation – notably Charlie Brooker’s description of the mob as “idiotic pebbledicks” who are terrified of women.

If one of the worst offences committed by sexists and anti-feminists online is to reduce women and their opinions to their genitalia and sexual worth, I’m not sure how the cause is helped by turning the precise same missiles around and hurling them back in the other direction – however deserving of mockery and disgust the targets might be.  Without doubt, the hate-fest directed at Sarkeesian was repellent and indefensible. It was a display of the madness of crowds which would have come as no surprise to Mackay or Le Bon (Gustave, that is, not Simon.) There were a few sane voices raised in defence of the gaming culture, and a few reasonable points made about creative freedom and the demands of the free market. But such comments were few and far between, and lost in a swamp of ugly abuse.

In all the online articles and commentary that appeared, a point recurred that this phenomenon is an inevitable price of freedom. If we grant free expression, we also grant freedom to abuse, insult and offend. It’s a seductive argument, with a lot of merit. Offence is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and there has never been an opinion of value which didn’t cause offence to someone. But just as my right to swing my fist ends where it meets your right to not be punched in the face, so my right to freedom of speech does not extend to the point where it silences others.

Let there be no doubt, the hate campaign waged against Anita Sarkeesian was a concerted attempt to silence her voice, using intimidation and psychological warfare. The misogyny expressed may have been rooted deep in the personalities of her antagonists, but in most cases I doubt it. Instead I suspect it was instrumental, using vocabulary consciously chosen to wound as deeply as possible, and aimed at the (assumed) weak points of a woman and a feminist.

The use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction.

Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there’s a free speech issue there. But possibly not the one you think.

This boot can sometimes be on the other foot. While there is no direct symmetry, we have seen the same principle at play in the concerted attempts of some feminists (mostly, but not entirely historic) to stifle debate about male victims and female perpetrators of domestic violence, with activists, writers and academics being branded misogynists and abusers for even raising the issues. Anyone who dares to raise a sceptical voice in many feminist blog spaces can expect more aggression and abuse than reasoned debate. The urge to silence opponents is probably a human one, and for that reason it is all the more important we are conscious of it in ourselves and wary of it in others.

Those who participate in online hate campaigns are not the champions of freedom of speech, but its worst enemies. If they consider themselves libertarians, they are a disgrace to the label. It is not easy to see the solution. Censorship is never the answer, far too many babies go out with the filthy bathwater. Nor do I want to see our prisons filled with hot-headed flamers and trolls.

All we can do is be wise to the nature of these online flame wars, and be prepared to challenge abusive, insulting, silencing behaviour wherever it emerges; be prepared to confront bullies and mob mentality wherever they arise.

We can do that by questioning what they pack in their politics, not what they pack in their pants.

Terror and the Unknown Soldier

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ”
– Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

In the afternoon light of a busy London street, two young men smash their car directly into the fragile flesh of a third; jump out, and hack his broken body into pieces.  Hands red with blood and heavy with weapons, they linger over their victim, awaiting reaction.

Women of unimaginable courage impose themselves between killers and killed, preventing further desecration of a lifeless corpse, which lies in a T-shirt proclaiming “Help For Heroes.”

All around camera phones are held in shaking hands, freezing the scene as jpeg, liquidising it as mpeg. Exclusive interviews granted to random lenses, a garbled manifesto of anger, hate, despair and confusion.

A cub-scout leader engages the assassins with Akela’s calm authority, trying to persuade them to lay down the blades and the gun, avert further violence. “My mum is a mutherfuckin badass.”

Sirens, helicopter, state-sanctioned bullets, more blood.

“Mate ive seen alot of shit im my time but that has to rank sumwhere in the top 3. I couldnt believe my eyes. That was some movie shit”  

A million tweets and updates hail down with ostentatious bravado.

Around 6pm a source close to government issues the official kite-mark of a capital T. This was not an act of criminality and hate, not a moment of horror but an act of Terror. Gloves off.

Fascists gather to gleefully parade their anger and display their drunken might. Black and brown neighbours shelter at home, fearful of violent reprisals from those who declare their opposition to Terror with a strictly capital T. Brave defenders of decent Christian values mask themselves behind matching EDL-branded balaclavas and hurl bricks at the police.

Hot from the presses, the papers prepare to grace the breakfast tables of the nation. From the front page of the world’s leading liberal voice stares the eyes of a killer, black-clad, black-skinned, red-handed, his words afforded banner status: “You people will never be safe.” An act of terror with a strictly lower-case t.

Meanwhile a young man about whom we know nearly nothing lies dead, unseen, unnamed, all but forgotten; no different to the countless bodies from either side littering the landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq. But unlike them, he is a casualty not of war, not of hate, not of anger, not of madness, not of religion, not of politics. He is a casualty of spectacle.

 

UPDATE

About 12 hours after I posted this blog, the victim of the Woolwich attack was named as Drummer Lee Rigby, from Crumpsall, Manchester, aged 25, and father to a two year old son named Jack.

RIP.

 

Intersectionality? It’s been a privilege

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

[Note:  Have done a slight edit on this one to clarify a couple of points and incorporate some useful feedback] 

First published October 25th 2012

It’s fair to say that I’ve found the reviews, critiques and comment pieces inspired by Hanna Rosin’s End of Men rather more thought provoking and educational than the book itself.

One of the first pieces to come out was in The Atlantic, where Chloe Angyal drew comparisons between Rosin’s argument and the lives portrayed in the much-hyped HBO series Girls.

“the anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it’s like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are “ending,” suggests that even if the statistics say that they’re winning, young women feel like losers. This year’s critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham’s Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don’t feel like they’re running the world.”

I must confess this made me smile. It inadvertently (I presume) illuminates the irony at the very heart of the notion of privilege. One’s own privilege is, according to the classic metaphor, an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks – invisible not to others but to ourselves. Privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it just feels like a natural state of being, the norm.

I’ve already explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of the End of Men, and I don’t for a moment believe that women are now the dominant or privileged gender. But it is worth pointing out that if they were, according to feminism or critical theory, this is exactly how it should feel. The girls in Girlsdon’t feel like they’re running the world but, get this, nor do the vast majority of men. I believe much of the anger directed towards feminism from the angry dudes of the internet boils down to the disconnect between a narrative that tells men they are privileged, and the lives being lived by those guys, which feels largely powerless. They don’t feel privileged, they feel like losers, they’re floundering, they don’t feel like they’re running the world. Hey ho.

In the weeks since Rosin’s book was released, a quite almighty stramash has erupted within feminist circles. You can’t have missed it, and I won’t reiterate the arguments here, but it began with Caitlin Moran and her statement that she ‘couldn’t give a shit’ about the all-white line-up of the cast of Girls. It has since spiralled into an angry, sprawling debate that orbits around issues of privilege and intersectionality.

Of the near-endless articles and blogs thrown up by the debate, the one I liked best was by Stavvers. She offers an analogy for the concept of intersectionality that is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic by a feminist.

“one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.

I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.”

I love the vividness of this analogy, but it doesn’t quite fit with how I understand society. I’d like to offer a slight twist that perhaps illustrates a key difference between my gender politics and those of many feminists.

Stavvers describes her roads in negative terms (not being male, not being white etc) whereas the analogy works better for me if we think in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. That is all I know.

When people compile privilege checklists they often include many negatives – bad things that don’t happen to you because of who you are. I reject this. Not being harassed on the street is not a privilege enjoyed by anyone but is a fundamental right that should be enjoyed by everyone. Occasionally there are actual independent advantages to being white, straight, male etc, but they are rare. However there is a real privilege is not even having to be aware of the nature of the traffic on someone else’s road.

I’m a white, straight , cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied male. I cannot accurately know what it feels like to be anything else, but I know perfectly well how all those things do or do not impact upon my life.  I’d prefer to think of Stavvers’s traffic as all the various pieces of shit, large and small, that life throws our way simply for being who we are. If you’re a black, lesbian, disabled woman, yes, that shit is coming hurtling at you from all sides and however hard you try to avoid it, some of that shit is going to mess you up.

Some of the traffic is driven by individual actions of racists, misogynists or individuals who otherwise oppress others but most of it is institutional and necessary to the socioeconomic system.

I know what it is like to be a pedestrian on the highway marked ‘White.’ It’s a breeze. The amount of shit-traffic heading my way down that road is all but zero. I could lay out a sleeping bag across the white lines in October, set my alarm clock for Spring and lie down to hibernate, safe in the knowledge that not one single car, truck or bus will squish my toes. Being white is a piece of piss. The same goes for the road marked “straight.” The same goes for being middle-class, able-bodied and cisgendered. All those things are just big old lonesome highways without so much as a trundling tractor to disturb the bliss. I should know, I’ve been walking those roads for 45 years.

Crucially, however, this isn’t exactly how it feels to be male. Not to me, and not to many other men either. Standing in the middle of the road marked ‘Male’, I have to dodge loads of traffic. Whizzing by on one side are the gender expectations, the demands to be a stoical, self-sacrificial breadwinner and provider, a sexual conqueror, all that old, stubborn heteronormative and patriarchal bollocks. Whooshing past on the other are the prejudices and assumptions about male aggression or violence, laziness, criminality, domestic and parental incompetence and all the rest. All around are the institutional shit-trucks sent by legal structures, education policies, health services, military traditions and more. Is the road marked ‘male’ busier and more difficult to traverse than the road marked ‘female’? No, I don’t believe it is, but it doesn’t need to be, this is not a competition.  If you’re a woman and/or a feminist and you’re reading this and sneering, thinking “that stuff doesn’t sound too difficult to me, what’s your problem?” then congratulations – you’ve just entered the precise, privileged mind-set of every angry anti-feminist MRA dude on the internet. Of course you don’t see it – it’s not your road.

Personally, all that male shit-traffic is pretty easy for me to dodge. I’m not at a busy junction. I don’t have to worry about being caught on the blindside by a juggernaut hurtling down the White Road or the Straight Road, so I’ve mostly found it pretty easy to sidestep all that shit on the Male Highway. But if you’re a boy from a poor background in a poor neighbourhood at a poor school, you’re likely to find one vehicle marked “you’re stupid” racing at you in one direction while another marked “you’re lazy” arrives from the other, and bang, the result is often academic underachievement and a NEET future. If you’re a working class black lad then you’ve got one shit-truck marked “you’re trouble” and another marked “you’re a criminal” and another marked “you’re violent” and bang, unless you’re lucky you are another stop and search statistic or another reluctant conscript into gang culture.

Understanding intersectionality in those terms is very useful for me. It’s a great example of how we can apply feminist thinking to the male experience and male-specific problems. It doesn’t require one to sign up to either a feminist or an anti-feminist agenda and could fit comfortably with either. It gives me a sense of perspective on my own (fairly fortunate) place in society, why the world looks like it does to me, and crucially, why it might look entirely different to others who stand on a different intersection.

So it is useful in understanding where we are, but I think it is also useful in terms of where we would like to be. At a political level, we can ask what it is about our society that is sending so fucking much shit-traffic down some of the different roads – the disabled road, the  black road, the Muslim road, the women’s road and, yes, the men’s road too. We can not only ask how we can reorganise society so there is less shit on anyone’s road, we can also constantly ask ourselves whether our behaviour, our deeds or our words and language are sending a bit more unnecessary shit-traffic down someone else’s highway.

As my final word on Rosin’s The End of Men, I’d observe that the book does not describe an improving world. It describes a world where there is more shit-traffic than ever on women’s roads, and more shit-traffic than ever on men’s roads. When I write that the transformation of the workplace and domestic realm is not a victory for feminism but a victory for capitalism, this is precisely what I mean.  If we aspire to a better society, socially and economically, for men and women alike, then counting the vehicles on the various highways of shit might be a very good place to start.

Dear Diane – about this crisis…

Dear Diane Abbott

This week you took the opportunity presented by a speech at Demos to say some things I have been waiting to hear a British politician say for a long time, and for that I thank you. I’m particularly grateful for the attention you gave to the excellent work of the Men’s Health Forum, and their report which reminds us that men are more likely to take their own lives than women, have lower educational attainment at all levels of the education system, are more likely to be homeless, and are less likely to access NHS services.

I’m thankful too that you acknowledged the key role of fathers in family life and your support for father-friendly parenting classes, meaningful parental leave for men and more conversations between fathers and sons about manhood, all of which are thoroughly good things, at least in families where it is an option. I also agree with you, to a certain extent, that social and economic changes have left many young men, particularly from poor and working class backgrounds, unsure of their expected role. I have said much the same myself. The collapse of manufacturing industry and the restructuring of the family unit and family finances have left young men like Great Britain after the second world war: having lost an empire and not yet found a role.

All of these points were made and needed to be made. Unfortunately most of the media that covered your speech paid little or no attention to these important points. They focused on the other things you said. You know, the stuff about hypermasculine culture creating a generation of disaffected young men, fuelling heartlessness, homophobia, machismo and misogyny, as the Guardian put it. All the papers lapped up the line about “Jack Daniels and Viagra,” a real zinger.

I have no idea where the recipe for this particular cocktail originates. I’ve never heard of it before. Perhaps you are mixing up alienated young people with former members of Guns ‘N’ Roses, I don’t know. But as shadow minister for public health, I would expect you to have some idea of the official statistics and peer-reviewed research into the topics you discuss. Those data paint a picture of young people’s men’s lives which is utterly unrecognisable from the one you describe.

Earlier this year, the ONS published its annual report on juvenile crime. You should read it Diane, partly because it is fascinating and heartening, but mostly because, well, it’s your job. Here are just a few highlights.

Overall there were 137,335 proven offences by young people in 2011/12, down 22 per cent from 2010/11 and down 47 per cent since 2001/02. In the last year there has been a notable reduction in offences committed by young people, in particular; criminal damage (down 28%), public order (down 27%), theft and handling (down 23%) and violence against the person offences (down 22%).
There were 1,888 proven sexual offences associated with young people on the YOT caseload, this accounted for less than two percent of all offences.

In the data tables which accompanied that report, there is a section on proven offences by type, which compares to a decade earlier – 2001/2. Violence against the person: down 14%. Criminal damage: down 53%. Drugs offences: down 8%. The category ‘Other’ neatly captures most of the rarer types of behaviour that concern you: sexual offences; hate crimes and so on: they are down 47% since 01/02.

Most crime and anti-social behaviour, not to mention most problematic drink and drug use, is the work of young men below the age of 30, and always has been. When we look at trends in adult crime, it is for the most part young male adults we are discussing. And the trends with adult crime are the same. The trends with adult drug use are the same.

On less-easily measured topics, such as the homophobia you mention, official statistics are less helpful, although ever since ACPO started collecting data on hate crimes, just five years ago, the trend for every category except disability-related hate crime has been downward. You might also want to have a look at Mark McCormack’s work on homophobia in schools, which gives considerable reasons for optimism.

So too do the statistics on teenage conceptions, which are the best guide to sexual responsibility among young people. Such data suggest that young people are more sexually responsible than they were a few years ago, and vastly more so than either your generation or mine.

As a final point, your claim that gender-based violence such as sexual offences and domestic abuse invariably rise during recessions is simplistic and inaccurate. It has never been really true, and the most up to date statistics available show that such offences are continuing to decline, with no evidence that this devastating and prolonged recession is altering the trend.

One member of your audience from yesterday recorded her impressions of your speech in the Guardian. Like you, Laurie Penny makes some excellent and important points about men and masculinity, but she appears to have fallen for the sensational drama of your rhetoric. It was striking that in an article which pleaded for “us” to talk about the wellbeing of men and boys, and the nature of modern masculinity, she was diverted into defending first single-mothers and then feminists from unfair attacks. Like you, she appears to have fallen into the trap of thinking that the myriad social and economic issues confronting boys and young men today only really become a problem when they impact upon others – particularly upon women. Once again, to echo Glen Poole, a debate which should have been about how young men have problems has become a debate about how young men are problems.

Diane, I welcome your speech and Laurie’s article. We do need to talk about these topics, and some of the problems facing many young men are real and critically important. But I make one simple request of you. Please consider that one of the most damaging and corrosive social problems facing young men today is the widespread, irrational fear they face in the media and in society. Newspapers and politicians unfairly and inaccurately portray modern young men and boys as violent, abusive, feral and destructive. These stereotypes are in themselves enormously damaging, especially when it comes to a working class lad – and above all a black working class lad – finding employment and fulfilling his educational potential. These things can so easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.  If you really want to help solve the problems facing young men, I would beg that your first step should be to cease adding to the problems facing young men today.

Best wishes,

Ally

x

 

UPDATE:

Excellent blog, which could be seen as a companion piece to this one, picking apart more of the claims underpinning the supposed Crisis of Masculinity at Decline of the Logos

We don’t call this sexism, we call it, err…

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

[Note: I was unsure which archive piece to reanimate next. This piece closely echoes some of the discussions in the comments under the two pieces on misandry, so I figured it made sense to bring it out now and we can officially declare this Misandry Week on Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men and get it all over with at once. I assure new readers, I really do talk about a lot of other things too, honestly, and we will move onto those shortly. In the meantime…]

First published July 25th 2012

 

We live in a viciously gendered world. Roles for both men and women are socialised into us from the day we are born and heavily reinforced from all quarters until the day we die. Men are raised to perform certain roles, just as women are. The masculine gender identity is built upon the  repression of many, perhaps most, emotions. We have self-preservation instincts trained out of us, with narratives around courage, heroism and self-sacrifice. Violence is integral – we are taught to tolerate and expect it from others and to inflict it upon others in response to attack, challenge or insult. And then we wonder why some boys grow to be violent men.

The result is a model of adult masculinity which must be directly implicated in mental and physical ill-health, suicide and criminality. It is exploited, and indeed encouraged, by systems of governance which turn boys and men into cannon-fodder. It largely explains why men make up 92% of workplace deaths and about 95% of prison places. It’s why male babies in England and Wales are 27% more likely to be murdered than girls before the age of one, 40% more likely before the age of 5 and 45% more likely to be murdered before the age of 16. It is partly why more males than females die among every age cohort, of pretty much every cause. It’s also why men are seen to be, and often feel emasculated by caring and parenting roles or working with children. It’s why male domestic violence victimisation is commonly mocked and usually unreported, like male rape and other sexual abuse.

It is often assumed that aggression, risk taking and violence are inherent to maleness, a product of testosterone or neurology. This seems unlikely. If it were true, why would boys need to have all of these traits literally beaten into us by parents, teachers and (above all) our peers? Why would we need such extensive social shaming and so many conformity triggers to make them stick? Perhaps there is a nugget of truth to some generalised assumptions about gender differences, but even if so, they are magnified many fold by social intervention.

And none of it, literally none of it, is a privilege. One salutory exercise, I think, is to pick up a war book like All Quiet on the Western Front or The Naked and the Dead or Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and read it through the lens of gender politics. What do we see? Young men, often still in their teens, dragged by legal and social obligation into visions of hell from Goya’s nightmares. They weren’t selected by suitability for the role by personality or physicality, they were sent to be killed, tortured, maimed and traumatised, and indeed to kill, torture, maim and traumatise others, on one characteristic alone: their gender.

I did recently pick up Norman Mailer’s book again and skimmed a few random chapters. When I first read it more than 20 years ago, I was shocked by the shameless misogyny. Only now could I recognise that the characters’ attitudes to women (and I suspect Mailer’s too) were forged in a furnace of dehumanisation and brutalisation. It must be hard to feel compassion for your wife at home or the prostitute on the corner when you’ve spent the day slaughtering other men. Mailer would later write that “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honour.” Such as the honour, perhaps, of desperately trying to shove your best mate’s intestines back in through the gaping hole in his stomach.

Lest you think these atrocities now live only in history books and novels, bear in mind that there is still male-only compulsory military conscription in about 80 countries, or more than one third of the nations on Earth. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million conscripts are believed to have died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Had they survived, most would be younger than I am. This is not history. This is now.

Of course civilians, often women, die in huge numbers in modern warfare, in no less horrific circumstances. But they are not chosen to die because of their gender. And we should need no reminders of mass rape campaigns and other colossal war crimes against women and girls that so often accompany conflicts. The difference is that these are (rightly) identified as gender crimes and major international bodies are dedicated to campaigning against them, combating them and prosecuting the perpetrators. It is not uncommon for an army to conquer a territory, separate the women and girls to be raped, and the men and boys to be murdered. But only one of those is usually considered a gender crime.

The standard liberal feminist or egalitarian stance here is that it is patriarchy that genders war. Sexism decrees that women are too weak, too delicate for the battlefield so it must be left to the bigger, stronger, braver men. The solution, they argue, is for equal combat roles, equal conscription, equal numbers of women and men doing the killing and dying. I find that obscene. In what moral universe is it a better to have as many women slaughtered on the front line as men? As a culture we have always tended towards casual indifference to the deaths of ordinary men, and been comparatively sensitive to the loss of ‘innocent’ women and children. It’s the first value that needs changing, not the second.

Another feminist response is to say that, horrific though it may be, this is not sexism. Sexism is the systematic oppression of one gender by another. I don’t agree with that definition, but never mind. So this is not the oppression of one gender by another, it is the oppression of one gender by the values of the ruling class. What do we call that then?

I do not pretend I have a magic wand to hand. We are talking thousands of years of cultural habits that need to be challenged here, and quite literally all the powerful vested interests in the world. But then we said the same about feminism once. What I do know is that before you can solve any problem you have to recognise that it exists and identify it for what it is.

If you don’t want to call this sexism, then fine, call it what you like. By any other name, it smells just as foul.

——————–

CREDIT WHERE DUE: Much of the inspiration and booklearnin’ for this post, though not the conclusion, came from David Benatar’s recent book The Second Sexism, which I wrote about here.

Is misandry simply misogyny in disguise?

When I wrote recently on the misandry isn’t a thing thing, the counter-argument which I found most interesting and challenging went something like this:

All the examples Ally provided were cases of PHMT [patriarchy hurts men too]; if femininity and woman-ness weren’t considered bad things, then men wouldn’t be punished for “adulterating” themselves with such girl-cooties. And if women weren’t seen as inherently weak and passive, it would no longer be an Unthinkable that a man could be the victim of a woman. [Comment from Jadehawk]

A shorter version, put to me by several people on Twitter, was that what I describe as cultural misandry is nothing more than misogyny in disguise. Is it true? Not quite, in my opinion.

I would and do accept that misogyny and misandry are not opposing forces, but parallel, and very closely related. They grow from the same socio-economic roots and they complement, even actively support each other. That does not make them one and the same. There is a very similar theory about prejudice against gay men and transgendered people – that these stem from a hatred or fear of femininity in men. And yet nobody demands that we drop the words homophobia and transphobia as a result and simply refer to them as ‘misogynistic’ attacks. To do so would make invisible the specific nature of the offences, and imply that, for example, when gay men are beaten senseless in homophobic attacks, the real victims are women.

To illustrate, let’s look at one of the more infamous examples of cultural misandry from recent years. In July 2011, US chatshow The Talk discussed the gruesome sexual mutilation committed by Catherine Kieu Becker on her husband. The show’s hosts and guests, notably Sharon Osbourne, discussed the case with relish and celebratory delight, hooting and howling with laughter for a good five minutes.  The case that day was real and new, the victim was at that very moment hospitalised from his wounds, and the section on The Talk (for which they later offered a fulsome apology) was genuinely shocking and stomach-churning.

It is surely unarguable that this was a case of misandry. No other noun could suffice. The gender dynamics are obvious and inescapable. To describe this as misogyny would again imply that although it was a man who had been grotesquely mutilated and then gleefully mocked, the real victims here are still women.  That strikes me as a rather inhumane approach to the issue, which actively excludes a man’s suffering from the equation.

It would seem to me that a better way to understand cultural misandry is not that our society holds that male=strong / female=weak. It is that our society wants to constrain and imprison us into gender roles that match our genitalia. It is often noted that character traits which are considered positive in a man at the workplace (such as assertiveness or aggression) will be seen as negative in a woman (strident, bitchy, bossy). So assertiveness and aggression aren’t held to be negatives or positives in their own right, but become so when they are mis-gendered. The exact same thing is true of sensitivity and caring – seen as positive when displayed by a woman, negative when displayed by a man. It is certainly true that across the board typically female traits are considered less valuable and admirable than typically male traits – I am not saying our society is a post-patriarchal utopia – but it looks to me like the real crime in society is not so much displaying female characteristics per se as displaying characteristics which do not match one’s socially prescribed gender roles.

I don’t argue that patriarchy is the single dominant force in society, I think of it as just one of many oppressive dynamics which holds Global Inc together. Misogyny strengthens the patriarchy, which in turn props up the economic system. So too does homophobia, so too (indirectly) does racism, colonialism, the class system and, crucially, so too does misandry.

The related point, made by many of my detractors, is that oppression is not the same as prejudice. Oppression (such as sexism or misogyny) is prejudice + power. My own position is that while men do indeed have a dominant position over women in society, and this is a real and huge issue to be addressed, the systemic ruling class has vastly more power over both binary genders than either has over the other. Men and women alike are oppressed by capitalist culture. Yes, a significant part of men’s oppression is the imperative to oppress others, but to argue that men are not oppressed because they oppress others, or because they are not oppressed by women seems to miss the bigger picture.

I have no problem acknowledging that patriarchy hurts men too. I would go further, and argue that reciting patriarchy hurts men too should not be a way to end a conversation, but to begin one.  Why does patriarchy hurt men too? How does it do so? How do we help those who are hurt? How do we prevent others being hurt similarly? Those, primarily, are not questions for women/feminists to address, but for men. We’re not only the ones who sit on the receiving end, we are also often the ones doling it out to others.

When a feminist says in one breath “patriarchy hurts men too” then in the next breath “misandry isn’t a thing” it seems to me a contradiction. If patriarchy hurts men too, then we need the language and terms of reference with which we can discuss that. If misogyny is one principal mechanism by which the patriarchy hurts women, misandry is a principal mechanism by which patriarchy hurts men too. Denying the existence of misandry effectively denies that patriarchy hurts men too.

As a general political principle, it always seems to me that we don’t overthrow the existing order (whether we’re talking patriarchy or neoliberal capitalism or whatever you want to call it) by exploding the entire edifice in a big bang. We undermine it by chipping away at every strut, every pillar, every beam that supports it. I don’t call on feminism to solve men’s problems for us. I do assert a need for the essential intellectual space and terminology to address them ourselves.

On the misandry isn’t a thing thing

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(Note: I have a follow-up to this post currently bubbling on the stove, so thought I would throw this up here now.)

First published: April 4th 2013

 

As I have written many times before, I believe people who are concerned about women’s human rights and wellbeing and about men’s human rights and wellbeing should be natural allies. That’s pretty much the core of my philosophy on gender issues. I’ve made clear my disdain for men’s activists who lay blame for most of men’s problems at the door of feminism. I also despair of the logic which says any and all feminist activism is, by definition, misandrist.

So all things considered, I should have been applauding Lindy West’s blog on Jezebel last week, where she basically made those precise same points. Truth is, I hated it. Partly that was down to the tone, which I found painfully patronising. In lecturing men on the male experience and the extent and nature of men’s problems, she provided a rare example of what we might call “womansplaining.” (Incidentally, a word to male readers – if you want to know why many women get so annoyed by us guys explaining to them what feminism is and should be, read the article, flip the genders and empathise.)

I’d add that in her “Part 4: A list of Men’s Rights issues that feminism is already working on”, she paints a rosy portrait of feminism which ducks most of the more credible complaints. To take just one example, she says:  “Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charge” which, firstly, is not entirely true – there are a few feminists who argue that women accused of domestic abuse are almost invariably acting in self-defence. More significantly, it dodges the point that very many feminists have actively and furiously resisted attempts to highlight male victimisation and argue and lobby strongly against gender-neutral approaches to the problem.          

In amongst all that, one of her arguments in particular raised an issue that I’ve wanted to address for a while, and that is the meme “misandry isn’t a thing” (or in Lindy’s version, “misandry isn’t real.”) This is a common refrain within modern feminism, often used as a throwaway dismissal of a (perceived) male troll or heckler.  Here it is explained and used as a central basis to the argument, which gives us something to get our teeth into.

Dictionaries define misandry as hatred of men. A more detailed working definition might be something like ‘an extreme or irrational hatred, fear, demonization or contempt for men.’ Lindy West readily admits that there are some radical feminists or wounded women who really do hate men, and that our culture produces many derogatory and unfair portrayals of men, but insists that “misandry is not a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny.”

What feminists mean when they say ‘misandry isn’t a thing’ is that because our society systematically privileges men and disempowers women, misogyny serves a different cultural purpose, has different and more damaging impacts and grows from different roots to misandry. To a certain extent I agree with that, but saying misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry does not exist at all. I believe that arguing that misandry isn’t real is damaging to men, damaging to women and damaging to the struggle for social justice.

I would distinguish three common varieties of misandry which are most definitely real. The first is a personal prejudice, which may often arise from damaging or hurtful experiences at the hands of men, creating a negative stereotype heuristic. This may not be admirable, but it is often understandable. The second is an ideological misandry arising from certain strains of radical feminism, roughly caricatured as the ‘all men are rapists’ tendency. I think such ideas are wrong and harmful, but I’m also far from convinced that these people are anywhere close to being numerous or powerful enough to cause any real damage, except perhaps to feminism itself.

The third variety of misandry is the one that seriously concerns me, and it is worth looking in detail at what it is and what it does. Cultural misandry is a significant force in policing and constraining the roles of men, and indeed women in society. Our capitalist hegemonic culture (or patriarchy, if you prefer) considers it acceptable to routinely mock and denigrate men’s domestic and child-caring abilities because this acts strongly to discourage deviations from the gender status quo, from which vested interests profit. Our culture systematically devalues male deaths (in news reports specifying numbers of deaths of women and children, for instance) because economic interests require a degree of male disposability in the workplace and military interests may require the mass dispatch of young men to die on battlefields at a moment’s notice. When society mocks and reviles male victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, the subtext is that that it is women’s place to be victimized and oppressed, not men’s.

When feminists say that misandry isn’t a thing, what I hear is that these issues are so minor, so marginal that they are insignificant. It is not just that they are unworthy of attention, they are not even worthy of a word to describe them. If Lindy West really wants more men to be allies to the feminist movement and wants us to believe that feminism really is on our side, then I struggle to see how this type of rhetoric is in any way helpful.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that feminism should suddenly drop its struggles for women’s equality, autonomy, safety and welfare in favour of challenging male-only military conscription or setting up hostels for male abuse victims, I don’t think that is or should be feminism’s job. Nor do I think that all allegations of misandry should be considered reasonable or accurate.  But I would suggest that if we want to end what Lindy calls the “endless, fruitless turd-pong” between men’s activists and feminists online, some rhetorical habits might need to change on both sides.

Empathy and the New Gender Wars

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

(Note: Over my first few weeks at Freethought Blogs, I shall be reposting some pieces from the archives at my previous home, alternated with new posts. Once we all start to get bored with me recycling old material, I’ll transfer the entire archive for you to peruse at your leisure. I’ll begin  with the first blog I ever wrote for Heteronormative Patriarchy For Men.)

First published June 2012

 

In the spring of 1979, the long battle for social justice and equality in the UK entered a dramatic new era. In electing Margaret Hilda Thatcher as Prime Minister, the British people served notice that gender was no longer an insurmountable barrier to attaining even the highest office. The ultimate glass ceiling had been breached and shattered, and for twelve long years the shards would rain painfully down on the poor, the working class and the vulnerable, leaving deep wounds which bleed to this day in our inner cities and the former industrial heartlands of Britain.

At the precise same time, five hundred miles from Downing Street, I was watching at close quarters as a very different battle for gender justice raged. I was a first year pupil at a large state school in the East of Scotland, a mixed-sex comprehensive which merely aspired to the standard of bog. As was typical of the time, each week our class was divided for a couple of hours. The girls would learn home economics (a euphemism for cookery and sewing) while the boys would take technical studies – metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. I was ham-fisted and uninterested in the subject, then as now, and my lacklustre efforts to shape some dowelling rods into a wobbly mug rack must have been as frustrating and pointless for my unfortunate teachers as they were for me.  More than once I’d pondered whether it might be more useful for me to learn how to boil an egg

In my form class were a couple of pupils, aged 12 or 13, who took exception to the school rules. Aileen and Helen were very clever and quietly assertive. One day they decided that their education might be better served by the rudiments of engineering than the need to whip up a sponge cake or let down a petticoat hem. They lined up for a battle for equality, flanked by supportive parents and, crucially, the head of the technical department. Across those trenches were the head of home economics – an elderly, fearsome traditionalist called Miss Dyer, the headmaster and school council.

Aileen and Helen’s claim for gender rights went all the way to the local authority, and they won. That September they joined the boys in the workshops, the first two girls ever to study technical subjects at Perth High. They were not only bright and gifted with their hands, but of course they were highly motivated and, almost inevitably, they finished the year at the top of the class by some distance. Their mug racks probably still stand to this day, while I never did master a soft boiled egg. A year later, the rules changed and both boys and girls were finally provided with a genuinely comprehensive education.

I don’t think anyone in my class objected to or resented the girls’ victory. To me, and I think the vast majority of my peers, their demands were palpably, unarguably just and fair. As a female industrial chemist was taking charge of the country, how could it possibly be right that girls were excluded from any subject?

My generation was born and raised with women’s liberation in the air. Those crusty old men who resisted the tide were mocked and branded male chauvinist pigs. From an early age our teachers and, in many cases, our parents impressed upon us a certainty that girls could do anything boys can do – if not always vice versa. The battle fought by two young girls in my own class was being replicated in other schools, workplaces and households throughout the country and the developed world. Legislation for equal pay and equal opportunities was in place and beginning to take chunk after chunk out of historic inequalities. If anything seemed strange to me, it was not that women were demanding and achieving equal rights, it was that those rights had ever been denied in the first place.

Jumping forward about 30 years, I find myself writing about the trenches of a new gender war. It is for the most part a war of words not bullets. Others have used a similar metaphor to allege or describe the War Against Women or the War Against Boys, detailing the physical, political and social impacts of our gender disordered society, I do not subscribe to either case. Instead, the war I describe is the frontline of the debate, the angry, vitriolic volleys of argument, abuse and insults that provide the mood music to all discussion of men’s and women’s issues online.

Of course like all media, the internet thrives on conflict. Arguments about religion, politics, ethnicity or the environment can also spark impassioned dispute and some nasty name-calling, but gender debates stand out for the sheer animosity. The threads and blogs are not just politically charged; they are wildly emotional and deeply personal.

Some see this as the sparks from the dying embers of a patriarchal era, the last gasps of male chauvinism. I believe the phenomenon is new, and different. Most of the people involved seemed to be younger than me, born and raised in the era of equal rights. Susan Faludi’s epic feminist tome Backlash detailed the reactionary forces of the capitalist establishment which strive to keep women in their place, from the media to academia to big business. Those forces still exist, as a quick glance at the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame will reveal, but these new voices are different. They are not, for the most part, the custodians of power and privilege stomping on uppity egalitarian rebels.

The cry from that side of these trenches is more a chorus of despair from (mostly) young men who feel disempowered, maligned and yes, perhaps, emasculated by the prevailing analysis of gender issues. On the other side are feminists who mostly find it laughable that any man could complain about his place in the gender pecking order when it is still overwhelmingly men who run our institutions, our corporations and our governments. At the salient peak of feminism, we have women using their expensive private schooling, Oxbridge degrees, national newspaper columns and Westminster lobby passes to decry the privilege of men, be they billionaire bankers or homeless street-drinkers.

It seems to me that something is often absent from these debates on both sides, and that is a willingness to view the battlefield from the other side. The hostile, accusatory tone of gender debates has led to many positions becoming defensive. The online wars become ever more entrenched. If we are to find a path out of the trenches, it will be on a map drawn with compassion and empathy.

I’m not the first to make this point, and if I am not standing on the shoulders of giants here, I’m at least treading on the toes of a few fellow travellers. Nonetheless I expect and indeed welcome plenty of disagreement with my positions from men and women, feminists and men’s rights activists alike. I’m not hoping or even attempting to fix the men’s movement, far less fix feminism. If readers take anything from this blog, I hope it is that amid the blogosphere’s myriad commands to check our privilege and check our facts, we make occasional effort to check our empathy too.