This week has offered us a couple of vivid illustrations of why gender-inclusive policies are so desperately and urgently needed across the political and media strata.
Just to put what follows in context, please consider the story that has dominated headline news for the past four weeks. At the latest count, police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse by 83 suspects with involvement in 98 football clubs, on the basis of reports made by (or about) more than 350 men. One might think this alone would be enough to remind officials and commentators that boys and men are far from immune to crimes of intimate violence. On top of the raw numbers, evidence is mounting that the sport as a whole was steeped in a culture of (at best) systematic indifference to the welfare and human dignity of boys and young men in their charge.
It was into this cauldron of anguish, horror and lifelong pain that the Home Office launched its ‘Violence Against Women and Girls: National Statement of Expectations.’
If you’re new to this blog you might reasonably wonder what the issue of hundreds of boys being raped and abused by older men has to do with Violence Against Women and Girls? The answer is in the introduction to the document:
We know that these crimes are disproportionately gendered which is why the Government’s approach is framed within a VAWG strategy – our new strategy was published in March 2016. However, men and boys can also be victims of violence and abuse and the approaches set out in this national statement will benefit all victims of these crimes.
Yes, we are back on this well-trodden trail. The Home Office’s strategies for addressing sexual and intimate violence, against anyone of any gender, are wrapped up under the banner of Violence Against Women and Girls. And yes, that includes those 350 former footballers.
As I’ve argued many a time before, this is distressingly offensive and harmful on its own terms. Amongst the many psychological issues reported by male survivors of sexual or domestic abuse, perceptions of demasculation are widespread – the idea that either the survivor himself or those around him will consider him less of a man because this has happened to him. Every time a government body uses this formulation it is a painful slap in the face for male survivors.
However, there is an even bigger problem here. It is that the statement in the quoted paragraph above “the approaches set out in this national statement will benefit all victims” – is very largely false. Yes, there are some policies that are important for all survivors, irrespective of gender, but to a large extent the issues faced by male and female survivors are different and the services and policies they need are also different. It is striking that the policies which the document imposes are often gender-specific when referring to women and girls. For instance:
- consider whether an individual may have complex needs or suffer from multiple disadvantage and, if so, the services in place to manage these. Women and girls with learning disabilities; mental health problems; drug/alcohol dependency and those facing homelessness are disproportionately subject to domestic and sexual violence. Victims of VAWG with complex needs are likely to come into contact with other services and systems (such as mental health, substance misuse or homelessness). Commissioners should consider how these detect and respond to women’s experiences of VAWG and trauma, which are likely to be widespread amongst their female service users.
- assess and build in access to mental health service provision for victims of all types of VAWG, effectively linking up such services with, for example, health services, Rape Crisis Centres, specialist BME women’s services or support for adult survivors of child sexual abuse
Scour the document and you will not find one equivalent example of a policy that in any way addresses the gender-specific needs of male survivors. Not one. This strategy of nominally including male victims in a VAWG strategy serves one purpose and one purpose alone – to allow ministers and administrators to claim to be meeting the needs of male survivors while in practice doing nothing.
The morning after the Home Office statement was published, another story about sexual abuse and exploitation hit the headlines. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies published its report into disciplinary proceedings and corruption, and revealed that there had been 436 allegations of police officers exploiting their position for sexual gain in the past two years.
The data published by HMIC did not have any gender breakdown at all. It is a matter of fact that around 70% of police officers are male, and of course the large majority of offenders in any type of sexual abuse tend to be male, and the majority of their victims tend to be female. However given the prevalence of sexual abuse of boys by men in authority (and the fact that there have been some successful prosecutions of policemen recently) it is certain that some of the victims of this exploitation will have been male.
It is also well-established that wherever women are in positions of authority or power over vulnerable young men, a few will exploit that relationship sexually. We have seen this on innumerable occasions with teachers, social workers, aid workers, detention officers etc. It would be frankly remarkable if the 436 allegations against police officers did not include at least a small number of such cases. A quick Google search easily pulls out cases of female police officers exploiting a vulnerable elderly man and indeed other women.
Nonetheless the Independent yesterday saw fit to run a quite astonishing opinion piece by prominent feminist commentator Sarah Ditum tells us that it blew her mind when a news report described the victims in these cases of police exploitation as “people.”
Here’s the headline, which (for once) is a pretty fair reflection of the article that follows:
The problem isn’t that police officers sexually exploit people – it’s that men in the police sexually exploit women
You can parse that in a couple of ways. I think the kindest interpretation would be that she genuinely believes all the offenders in this story were men, and all the victims women, or at least so close to 100% in each case that it makes no difference. The less charitable interpretation would be that she accepts female officers can be abusive and/or that victims can be male, she just doesn’t think it is a problem when they are.
I’ll confess I have just typed then deleted several blunt remarks about Sarah Ditum and her track record, so let me quickly skip forward to say that in one, albeit rather oblique, respect, she is right. Sexual exploitation and abuse are gendered as crimes and social phenomena. It doesn’t help anyone to rip it out of a gendered context and refer to either the victims or the perpetrators as ‘people.’
The problem here, and it is a real one, is that the data collection by HMIC (and possibly behind that, the individual police forces supplying the data) was not gender-specific.
As someone who is involved, both as a writer and an activist, with male survivors of sexual abuse, I urgently want to know whether and to what extent there is a problem with boys and men being sexually exploited by police officers. (For starters, I have friends and colleagues who specialise in support and outreach work with young male sex workers. I will ask them when I get the chance but I am pretty sure I already know what they will say.)
Without identifying the diverse gender dynamics at play, we have no way of understanding the true picture behind these statistics, and no way of devising policies and strategies that will protect those in need.
It is far from ideal to be describing the victims in these cases simply as ‘people.’ But of course the only thing worse would be to describe them, without qualification, as ‘women.’ This is what Sarah Ditum wants and, shockingly, it is what the Home Office still does.