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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

Comments

  1. says

    In defence of Abbott, she did say that violence, misogyny and homophobia are products of a hyper-masculine culture “at its worst”. All of these phenomena could be decreasing, yet at a lower rate than they would otherwise have been.

    I was interested in the Viagra claim. The only academic study I have encountered was made in America, and suggested that about 6% of male undergraduates used it for recreational purposes. A lot of people, if not an especially alarming amount. I have observed my peers do MDMA, nos balloons and magic mushrooms but never Viagra. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of thing that one is going to be tempted to advertise.

  2. redpesto says

    Good post. I keep thinking of Ros Coward’s Sacred Cows, and the chapters on vulnerable men and boys – for Penny to claim that single mothers are the most demonised group overlooks the attitudes to teenage boys in ‘hoodies’. You should get the Guardian to repost this before someone like Bidisha has her ha’porth.

  3. Jacob Schmidt says

    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

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but where is the indication that Abbott think this is true?

  4. Jolly Hunter says

    —– All of these phenomena could be decreasing, yet at a lower rate than they would otherwise have been.

    You can say that about almost any statistic ever … It is a completely meaningless supposition.

  5. Ally Fogg says

    The impression I got was that she felt it was insufficient to discuss the problems in boys’ & mens’ educational attainment, health, mental health etc as problems on their own merits, and felt the need to concoct a load of spurious and unevidenced external impacts – violence, misogyny, homophobia etc.

  6. Ally Fogg says

    In defence of Abbott, she did say that violence, misogyny and homophobia are products of a hyper-masculine culture “at its worst”. All of these phenomena could be decreasing, yet at a lower rate than they would otherwise have been.

    I don’t really buy that. The excesses of anti-social and criminal behaviour always happen at the far end of the behavioural spectrum, “at its worst.”

    What pretty much all available data suggests is that the far tail of the graph is getting narrower and narrower all the time.

    (and yes, there is some evidence for recreational Viagra use, but everything I’ve seen primarily connects it to ecstasy & stimulants, rather than Jack Daniels, which was really quite a bizarre invocation)

  7. Jolly Hunter says

    I doubt Laurie would be interested in the subject without the dubious assertion of violence, misogyny, and homophobia.

  8. says

    It’s also the case that suicide is dropping among men. It used to be felt that suicide was almost like an occasional side effect of being young and male, but the youngsters coming up now are markedly less likely to kill themselves than youngsters twenty years ago. Meanwhile, suicide is rising in middle-aged men, as the generation which was so vulnerable in its youth becomes middle-aged.

    So it would appear that something is going right, or there is a particular vulnerability about that generation or a particular strength in the new one, and it’s vital to work out what that so we can keep it up, do it more, and address why it is that so many men of all ages still do take their lives.

    (Although suicide is an extremely personal and complicated thing, I despair that we don’t examine trends in the same way we examine far less damaging criminal behaviour, because it is something that varies hugely between cultures and as such, it is something we must be able to address as a society).

  9. says

    Jolly Hunter -

    You can say that about almost any statistic ever … It is a completely meaningless supposition.

    It is not a supposition but a potential hypothesis that could be tested by studying those people who remain violent and bigoted. I have had enough friends who have been attacked in clubs, or accosted by braying perverts outside of them, that it appears defensible. Abbott should, of course, have encouraged this instead of blithely assuming that it was the case, and the media should not have focused upon this point. As Mr. Fogg argues, young men have done nothing to deserve the treatment of enraged chimpanzees.

    Ally -

    …rather than Jack Daniels, which was really quite a bizarre invocation…

    Well, that’s true. On the other hand, Viagra and Jack Daniels sounds like the title of a great punk rock album.

  10. Jacob Schmidt says

    The impression I got was that she felt it was insufficient to discuss the problems in boys’ & mens’ educational attainment, health, mental health etc as problems on their own merits, and felt the need to concoct a load of spurious and unevidenced external impacts – violence, misogyny, homophobia etc.

    Those things are happening. They’re certainly decreasing, but they still happen. Further, the worst aspects of toxic masculinity do encourage those things. Bringing them up in conversion about the future of men does nothing to imply that men’s issues are only important when they impact others, particularly when the speaker in question already discussed issues specific to men.

  11. Jolly Hunter says

    BenSix

    a potential hypothesis that could be tested by studying those people who remain violent and bigoted.

    Given Abbot did not look at the data in the first place before making her proclamation, what is the point of doing a further study. Abbot and Penny have decided their position because it is something they would like to agree with.

    In any case the study you suggest would have so many variables it would be meaningless like most of the social sciences.

  12. Ally Fogg says

    @Jacob Schmidt

    Of course they still happen and if they happen at all, then it is too much.

    But Diane Abbott was making a case that we are seeing an increase in those things, and the sensationalism of her rhetoric was enough to imply it was a significant increase, when all the evidence points to the exact opposite.

  13. Jacob Schmidt says

    Further, 2 of the 3 things mentioned do in fact impact upon men. The idea that bringing them up someone how implies that male victims aren’t imported just doesn’t follow.

  14. Jacob Schmidt says

    But Diane Abbott was making a case that we are seeing an increase in those things, and the sensationalism of her rhetoric was enough to imply it was a significant increase, when all the evidence points to the exact opposite.

    I’m not seeing it.

    But assuming you’re right, that doesn’t mean Diane Abbott thinks “the myriad social and economic issues confronting boys and young men today only really become a problem when they impact upon others”, which is the claim I am objecting to.

  15. Jacob Schmidt says

    Let’s try this again.

    But Diane Abbott was making a case that we are seeing an increase in those things, and the sensationalism of her rhetoric was enough to imply it was a significant increase, when all the evidence points to the exact opposite.

    I’m not seeing it.

    But assuming you’re right, that doesn’t mean Diane Abbott thinks “the myriad social and economic issues confronting boys and young men today only really become a problem when they impact upon others”, which is the claim I am objecting to.

  16. Ginkgo says

    “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.”

    I think it’s time to just calling these people what they are: sexist pigs.

    It’s simple chauvinism to make either men or women that pole that everything else revolves around. It’s simple chauvinism to value on sex based on its utility to the other.

  17. John Austin says

    Good article and I like the Decline of the Logos as well.

    Men generally aren’t in crisis and it grates enormously that the men with identifiable problems are always discussed in terms of problems for women. The Guardian is a particular offender in this. I can barely remember the last time I read anything positive about men in it.

  18. Pen says

    I’m glad you dug up all those statistics Ally. The first thing I thought when I heard Diane Abbott’s speech was that it came across as ‘men are out of control, we need to panic!’ I see no signs of such a thing around my area which is a long way from being the most economically privileged in Britain, but I would have tended to assume she’d got her facts straight. Silly me.

    From the position of taking her at her word, I thought this is not only about gender roles but about the apparent trend to restructure everybody in Britain into a ‘nobody owes anyone anything’ mindset. But maybe not.

  19. says

    I don’t know what is worse, Abbott thinking it’s ok to declare herself an aspect on the problems men face, or being given a platform to do it from. Imagine if a man tried to speak on the crisis women faced?

  20. lightacandle says

    Yes it doesn’t ring true with what I know of young men today, and do feel that they are being misrepresented all over the place. And those other points you rightly raise re. we need more understanding of how economic/social changes have impacted on them should be discussed more – and more importantly discussed in places they can read them to start the ball rollling and give them the confidence to take on the debate themselves also and in the process correct such misconceptions too.

    Thank you for that. Have teenage son and four brothers and can see how changes have affected them. how the impact is not being addressed and how much they need such a voice to open up a much needed conversation. Hoping it will spread further afield and be taken on by mainstream media too.

  21. Sasori says

    Random longwinded thoughts.
    Great article! Lots of the debate around this was mildly depressing, especially the Laurie Penny article. It’s interesting that she linked to that Glenn Poole article as an attack on feminists and spent a good part of it reminding everybody that women have it worse and feminists are completely without blame and have no problems whatsoever in this respect. Oddly it seems that was an example of what the Poole article was alluding to, although I guess that it was written in response to the Geoff Dench bit. But even then, its interesting that that’s who she chose to respond to.

    Diane Abbott made some good points and her recomendations were fantastic to hear; especially parental leave which I thought was off the table after the Tories plans seemed to go nowhere (it was weird that the Faucett Society opposed it). However, some of the cultural stuff in her bit reminds me of the stuff Bill Cosby said about inner city black youth a while ago. Blaming the culture and not socio economic factors for bad outcomes; I mean technically it’s kind of correct that culture obviously has an impact. But, what music and porn people consume is fairly marginal. I mean middle class boys consume similar music and porn. It is often a reaction to larger factors in society, like the lack of ‘male provider’ skilled working class jobs in the UK.

    Do we know if it’s middle class boys that have lower educational attainment aswell or if the stats are skewed by working class boys falling behind (which seems to be what’s happening in my experience)
    I remember reading something that struck me about how women from poorer backgrounds tend to do better than boys. In those circumstances, the responsibilities of women don’t end. They still have to take care of the kids, organise, plan etc. Men in situations where the traditional role is taken away and nothing else is offered, have no clearly assigned role to be socialised into, and so are easy prey for the ‘informal’ economy or other risky strategies like gangs, to give their lives meaning. Growing up in a poor area of London, I found that incredibly accurate.

    Are there actually any ideas as to why violence is decreasing, is it that young people are a smaller percentage of the population? but I’m sure they could account for that. I remember hearing somewhere that rises and falls in violence are partly due to demographics, partly due to economic circumstances and partly due to the breakdown of social order and the creation of urban concentrated poverty. There was a Monbiot article a while ago where he was fairly convincing that mercury levels were involved http://www.monbiot.com/2013/01/07/the-grime-behind-the-crime/
    Recently the UK and US seem to have adapted social policy to stop the concentration of poverty and heard people into awful ‘workfare’ schemes, has this helped. I’m not sure if the problems Abbot talks about can be meaningfully fixed without a proper program of full employment and growing jobs that people can have enough money and time to have families with and I suspect Milliband is going to go in that direction in a way that will make a difference.

    I’m not even sure that male breadwinners oppress women rather than the rigidity of the roles disadvantages everybody. Do the nacient female breadwinners oppress their spouses? I guess it would depend on the spouse. I remember there was an article by Ally a while ago that brought up the fact that working class men actually were often involved in childbirth and the tyrannical Victorian dad was a myth for them at least. Anyway we already know there are countries further down the road to achieving the rebalancing of gender roles did it, why don’t we just copy them.

    Also does anyone else think it’s ironic that the biggest blow against the traditional ‘patriarchial’ male provider role (the destruction of skilled working class employment in the traditional industrial sectors) was struck by a succession of traditionalist Conservative governments.

  22. says

    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.

    No Ally Great Britain after the second world war was in debt to the United States for more than the next sixty years. And in the period immediately after the war – 1945-53, when rationing ended, the vast majority of working class Brits lived in near poverty and the middle class had to learn to live without servants.

    Young men today have been betrayed by their parents who refused to see the writing on the wall – that their daughters would take full advantage of the free education they were offered and benefit from it, and do insufficient to change the way their sons, like their fathers before them viewed the world.

    Sad but true.

    Maybe we lost an Empire but found a semblance of sexual equality.

  23. says

    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.

    But if they’re either “finding employment” or “fulfilling their educational potential”, when would they have either the time or the inclination to worry about what Diane Abbott was saying?

    After all Ally, whatever the fall in teenage pregnancies, one thing that’s certain is that they were mainly caused by young men failing to use contraception, rather than staying at home doing their homework. :)

  24. says

    The Guardian is a particular offender in this. I can barely remember the last time I read anything positive about men in it.

    You’re clearly not a fan of the sports pages, or those on politics, industry and commerce, finance, business, the judicary, etc etc.

    Have a look at this site to see the true picture of corners of the world where women have yet to tread.

    It’s a big corner.

  25. John Morales says

    After all Ally, whatever the fall in teenage pregnancies, one thing that’s certain is that they were mainly caused by young men failing to use contraception, rather than staying at home doing their homework. :)

    Also, whatever the fall in teenage pregnancies, one thing that’s certain is that they [the pregnancies] were mainly caused by young men failing to use contraception, rather than staying at home doing their homework.

    I’m here clarifying your third-person pronoun and noting you pose a false dichotomy.

  26. Schala says

    You’re clearly not a fan of the sports pages, or those on politics, industry and commerce, finance, business, the judicary, etc etc.

    Because all those speak positively to all men or men as a class, all those work on men’s issues, all those are important for all men, and are specifically male oriented (ie judiciary is a maleness-focused practice, and would remain so even with 50/50 men and women), not just with more men than women interested in them.

  27. michael mcveigh says

    Great article – very well written, but most of all balanced & truthful

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