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.
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