How do the Scouts get past their paedophile problem?

At the latest count 51,000 British youngsters are sitting on a waiting list for a place in a Scout, Cub or Beaver group. The cause of this lengthy queue is a shortage of adult volunteers, to the tune of around 17,000. Now the Chief Scout, TV Adventurer Bear Grylls, has launched a campaign to fill the shortfall.

Martin Daubney at the Telegraph is clear why. The risk of being labelled a paedophile is the ‘one reason’ stopping men from putting their names forward. He suggests that it is not only the fear of malicious rumours, but the accompanying concerns around the intimidating bureaucracy involved in the vetting and debarring scheme and other child protection policies.

The statistics suggest it is a bit more complicated than that. Surprisingly, perhaps, more adults than ever before now are volunteering with the Scout Association, a total of 154,000. The problems are that those volunteers have less time to give than before and secondly that more children than ever are wanting to get involved. (It would be interesting to know the gender ratio of the volunteers – it is possible male numbers are falling while female volunteers rise, but we don’t know)

That said, I have no problem agreeing with his fundamental point. I’m sure there are many, many men who would be happy to give up an evening a week to help run a Scout or Cub group but fear that others will question their motivations.

At this point let me express my unequivocal admiration for the adult volunteers who run the Scouts. I will admit that as an adult, the ethos of the movement is really not for me. I’m not in a hurry to march my own boys off to an organisation that teaches submission to God, the Queen and the military (thankfully, neither son has ever asked.) Having said that, I recognise that the volunteers are, as the cliché would have it, the salt of the earth. Countless generations of young people have had childhoods enriched by their energy and generosity. My own earliest memories include my mum going out in her Akela uniform every Monday night to run a cub pack. To this day she is occasionally stopped in the street by burly men who recognise her and thank her for her efforts 50 or 60 years earlier. It should go without saying that the vast majority of Scout Association volunteers are wonderful people.

The issue is with the minority.

I remember that even back in the more innocent days of the 1970s, there was no shortage of rumours and jokes about Scout leaders. The book by Lord Baden-Powell which set the ball rolling was called “Scouting for Boys.” Aharrharrharr. ‘Join the Cubs,’ ran the famous graffito, “one child molester free in every pack.” Stitch my sides and then hand me my sewing badge. And when I had my own couple of years in a Scout troop it turned out that the jokes weren’t so funny. We had three volunteer scout leaders. One of them, regular readers may recall, was this guy.

And so here’s the first problem with the Scout movement, as I see it. If some evil genius wanted to design a mass movement for the specific purpose of providing children to be sexually abused by predatory adults, they would probably design something that looked very much like the Scouts. All of the elements are there: the strictly enforced oaths of obedience to authority, under the stern command of God; the removal of children from their parents or carers into the hands of much-admired, trusted pillars of the community; overnight trips to remote locations; the list goes on.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying for a moment that this was ever the intended purpose of the movement. But I am saying that once such a movement exists, it would have to be a powerful magnet for those twisted individuals driven to target, exploit and abuse children. I am saying that, knowing what we now know about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, knowing what we now know about the dynamics of institutionally-based abuse, knowing what we know about the typical modus operandi of predatory child abusers it would be flat-out astonishing if the Scout Movement had not been regularly and extensively infiltrated by paedophile child abusers.

I realise this is a hard truth to accept for those who admire the Scouts, especially those who have had their own, entirely positive experiences whether as children or as adult volunteers. It is tantamount to a mass defamation of hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are entirely innocent. The same was true when concerns were first raised about the priesthood, the clergy, social care home staff, music teachers and sports coaches where, in most cases, identical dynamics were in play.

And this leads me to my second huge concern. As far as I can tell, the Scout Association itself remains almost entirely in denial about the risks it has been sheltering for over a hundred years. A couple of years ago the BBC ran one short news item about allegations of abuse in the Scouts. Within weeks, 150 individuals contacted the solicitors mentioned in the report to add their own victimisation. At the same time, the Scout Association claimed that in its entire history, they had received 48 allegations of sexual abuse.

Some might look at that figure, 48 cases, and conclude that the Scouts have never had a problem with child abuse. I look at that figure and conclude that throughout their history the Scouts have failed dismally to identify, record and act upon suspicions of abuse. To underline the point, many of those who called the solicitors after the news item described institutional failings that are painfully familiar from the other scandals.

One caller spoke of his difficulty in finding resolution after the Scout Association failed to apologise even after his abuser was convicted. Another told of how his parents’ reports were dealt with by the Scout Association internally and the abuse was never reported to the police. Unfortunately, there appear to have been numerous cases where the Scout Association failed to act appropriately after allegations of abuse were made.

Of course, it remains possible that my worst suspicions are ill-founded, that the reason there has never been a major institutional sex abuse scandal with the Scouts because there has never been a major institutional sex abuse problem within the Scouts. It’s possible. It just strikes me as vastly more credible that the reason the scandal has never broken is because, as yet, that particular stone have yet to be turned over to see what crawls out.  And yet for some reason, day by day, reports drip out. Another one today. Every one an isolated incident. Sure.

It seems to me that the Scout Association will never get past its problems with paedophile stigma and suspicion until it makes every full and transparent effort to establish what problems it has had in the past, what problems it might still have in the future, and then develops policies that get as close as they can to making it impossible that a predatory child abuser could ever operate within the movement. That means firstly opening themselves up to examination. No one could have imagined the scale of child sexual abuse within professional football until the FA were forced to open a helpline to which victims could call and report. In the first two months of the helpline being set up, they received 1,700 calls. For perspective, the number of boys training with professional football clubs is a minuscule fraction of the numbers involved in Scouting over the decades.

Secondly, Scouts (like all organisations serving children and young people) need to be far more proactive in equipping their charges with the tools to protect themselves from abuse. I’ve just been reading the leaflets that the movement hands out to different age groups on how to ‘Stay Safe.’ They are full of advice about online grooming, giving your phone number to strangers and much else. They all suggest that if you are worried you could talk to your scoutleader. Nowhere in the leaflets does it tell children what they should do if the person they are worried about IS their scoutleader.  Nowhere does it spell out anything like the Underwear rule.  Nowhere does it say that a cub or scout should never, ever be asked to keep a secret by an adult. These (and many others) are easy, zero-cost, effective steps that could be taken instantly. Going further the Scouts could set up their own helpline, akin to the FA/ NSPCC abuse helpline, to which victims of past, recent or current abuse could call.

All of this and much more could, in the long term, go towards reassuring parents and potential volunteers that children are safe in the care of scout leaders, and reassure the public that there is no reason to be suspicious of any adult who volunteers. But it also requires them to grasp the nettle, acknowledge the possibility that the movement has been providing haven to widespread child abuse. I would propose that the alternative for the organisation is to wait until the scandals burst out in their own time and on their own terms and then cope with the vastly greater resulting damage to their reputation and function.

All of this would be a painful process for the institution of Scouting. It is also absolutely essential if they are to operate as a trustworthy, responsible 21st century youth movement, and consign the sick jokes, the smears and the suspicions to history, once and for all.

It is time to end this wilful, harmful gender blindness on prison suicides

Prisons need a profound culture change if they are to address the appalling escalation in suicides, two charities have claimed this week.

The arguments put forward by the Howard League and the Centre for Mental Health are compelling and correct. Prison suicides have soared in recent years and last year a record 119 prisoners took their own lives. In an era of chronic overcrowding and staff shortages, prisoners’ mental health needs are going unacknowledged and unaddressed; acts of self-harm and even suicide attempts are commonly considered to be manipulative rather than symptoms of distress and emotional crisis; a ‘toxic’ and violent prison culture sees staff struggling to maintain their own psychological health, never mind that of the prisoners.   [Read more…]

Gender equality? Meh

Those with the patience to read through the comments on this blog might have come upon an interesting exchange towards the bottom of my last blog thread.

Some of our regulars were taking issue with me over the issue of equality and my habit of saying “Meh” to demands for equal treatment of men and women. I thought it would be worth a thread of its own to set out what I mean.

I’ve written before that there is a commonly held fallacy that the way you achieve social equality is to treat everyone equally. The problem is that if you start from a position of inequality, to treat everyone equally is to sustain and conserve that inequality and it can even serve to widen inequalities (consider the effect of a flat poll tax on economic inequalities, for example.)  There’s also the analogy that if a 5’ tall person is standing up to their neck in water and a 6’ person is standing alongside up to their waist in water, and you add another six inches of water to the barrel, you are treating them equally  – but not fairly. [Read more…]

On the psychology of domestic violence

Just before Christmas, Dr Ben Hine gave a public lecture in London entitled ‘Challenging the Gendered Discourse on domestic violence.’

The lecture is now online in two parts, totalling about 90 minutes, and if you are interested in the social psychology around domestic violence it is absolutely essential viewing. I’m a big fan of Ben & his work, we’ve collaborated in bringing together the Men and Boys Coalition and generally I think we couldn’t be much closer together on the same page, politically.    [Read more…]

From the Home Office to the Independent: crying out for gender-inclusive policy

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. [Read more…]

My coach, the child abuser

At the current count as I write, eleven men have now contacted Cheshire police to report sexual abuse committed against them by Barry Bennell and/or other paedophile abusers from the world of professional football. Everyone who understands the dynamics of these cases fully expects the reports to keep coming. Once the seal has been broken, the lid will rarely go back on the jar.

When I was around 11 to 13, I played in a kids football team which in one respect was very, very different to Whitehill FC or Crewe Alexandra Juniors, where Bennell first met Andy Woodward, David White and other boys he abused. They were a hugely talented group, some of whom who would go on to play for top professional clubs and even the national team. We were abject rubbish. Really. If the circumstances were different I could tell you some hilarious stories about our incompetent blunders. Right now I don’t feel like laughing.

We did, however, share one significant detail. As with them, our coach was a serial and prolific child abuser. [Read more…]

Introducing the Men and Boys Coalition: How the British men’s sector has come of age

Four years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece in the Guardian asking whether International Men’s Day could become the seeds of a new kind of movement for male gender politics. I described attending the National Conference on Men and Boys, where I found a diverse range of organisations and individuals with different specialities and interests but all committed to developing constructive and progressive solutions to problems affecting boys and men.

It seems like it has been a long, long four years, but I am proud and delighted to tell you that today the rarefied halls of the Houses of Parliament will be the venue for the launch of a brand new Men and Boys’ Coalition, representing over 50 of the UK’s leading charities, academics and campaigners in the field of men and boys’ welfare. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that this is the day when a new kind of men’s movement comes of age. [Read more…]

Why we brought #1BlueString to the UK

A couple of years ago I came across the US-based organisation 1 in 6 which works with and campaigns for male survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. I was particularly taken by their campaign #1BlueString, which invites guitarists to show solidarity with the 1 in 6 men and boys who have lived through sexual violence, by replacing one of the six strings of their guitar with a blue one.

As an enthusiastic amateur fret-botherer myself, I emailed the campaign at the time asking if they could ship to the UK and was told no, for the time being it was strictly a US initiative. Shortly after, during one of my regular chinwags with Duncan at Survivors Manchester we found out that we had both, separately and independently, been badgering the team at 1in6 to bring their blue strings to the UK. [Read more…]

A Safer World For Everybody: Discussing International Men’s Day in the House of Commons

Three weeks ahead of International Men’s Day, this morning the House of Commons hosted a brief yet highly significant discussion. Philip Davies (yes, him again, I know) placed a question to the Women and Equalities ministerial team, asking how the government planned to mark International Men’s Day this year.

In response, the minister began her remarks with the most predictable, tedious, hackneyed and ignorant quip imaginable. Yes, you’ve guessed it:

“I think women could be forgiven for thinking every day is International Men’s Day.”

Ah hurr hurr hurr stitch my bloody sides, no one has ever said that before. Yawn.

But hold on. After that, something interesting happened. Lots of interesting things happened. I considered how to write about the ten minutes or so that followed, but I think the best approach might be to type up the most interesting transcripts and add a few words of commentary as we go along, a sort of nearly-live-blog. The brief exchanges brought up a whole raft of what might be called the FAQs of IMD and crystallised where the debate has got to in 2016, for both good and ill.

Davies got things going by quoting the Prime Minister Theresa May:

‘I recognise the important issues that this event seeks to highlight, including men’s health, male suicide rates and the underperformance of boys in schools, these are serious issues that must be addressed in a considered way.’

This is, to my knowledge, the first time a British PM has acknowledged the purpose of and need for IMD and so is, in itself, significant. Caroline Dinenage (education minister) took up the question from there.

“The role of the government’s equalities office is to tackle inequality wherever we find it, and as parents of sons up and down the country we will all be conscious about the issues he has mentioned and the Prime Minister has mentioned. However, I am also aware that there are parts of the world where girls are routinely subjected to genital mutilation, forced marriage and sexual violence and for me, Mr Speaker, equality is not a zero sum game.”

The ‘However’ there is significant. The only way it can make sense is if, contrary to her protests, she actually does believe that equality is a zero sum game. Why else are we talking – almost immediately – about women and girls in response to a question about IMD? In fact the two sentences above are a total non-sequitur. If she doesn’t believe that talking about issues faced by men and boys somehow detracts from or otherwise impacts upon issues facing women and girls, why is it even there? More significantly, the minister might need to learn that there are also many parts of the world where boys are routinely subjected to genital mutilation, forced marriage and sexual violence and the fact that this apparently has not occurred to her is the best argument imaginable as to why we need IMD.

Next up, Labour MP Chris Matheson:

Would the minister agree with me that International Men’s Day would give an opportunity for men who are fathers of daughters to express concerns such as why those daughters might have to wait another 30 years for equal pay or to give men the platform to express concerns as to why there continues to be a problem in this country and abroad of violence against women and girls?

 

CD: He is absolutely right that International Men’s Day in the UK does take a very gender-inclusive approach and therefore believes that issues affecting women and girls are also resolved… He is absolutely right to say that while focusing on the very important issues that International Men’s Day raises, we must never forget all the women around the world who are suffering every single day.

It’s a minor and very personal point, but allow me a quick moment of self-congratulation that the phrase ‘gender-inclusive’ has made its way into Hansard for the first time.

A little later there was a similar exchange involving another Labour MP, Liz McInness

LM: “International Men’s Day aims to promote gender equality and highlight male role models, and yet in the UK two women a week are killed by a partner or an ex-partner and we clearly need urgent action to tackle deeply ingrained and damaging inequality. Does the minister agree with me that we need to support campaigns to tackle misogyny and sexist attitudes and that men have a crucial role to play in this?”

CD: “Mr Speaker I couldn’t have put it better myself. She is absolutely right to point out that last year 81 women were killed by violent partners or ex-partners and in fact 19 men were killed by violent partners or ex-partners as well. That is why this government is absolutely committed to tackling violence against women and girls and it is of utmost importance we put more money into this than ever before and we will not rest until this happens.

In these two exchanges, I think we see the most common prevailing attitude on the left towards International Men’s Day. In essence it says “Yes yes, we understand that boys and men have problems but they’re not as important as the problems faced by women and girls so we shouldn’t be talking about that, we should be talking about this instead.”

The hivemind of the Internet, many years ago, came up with a name for this. It’s called ‘whataboutery.’ It is a rhetorical technique that seeks to derail and close down a debate which someone does not want to happen and turn it into the discussion they do want to be having. It is probably true to say that whataboutery of this nature is most commonly used (at least online) by antifeminists attempting to derail and close down discussions of women’s oppression and make it all about men, so it is rather ironic to see it flipped in an attempt to block any consideration of male-specific issues.

But you know what? I am more than happy to take up the challenge from the likes of Matheson and McInness. Can we use International Men’s Day to talk about male violence and the damage men cause? Hell, yes. Let’s talk about how we brutalise boys and young men into cultures of violence, let’s talk about how we define masculinity in terms of our capacity to inflict and tolerate beatings, not just against women but primarily against other men and boys. To Mr Matheson and Ms McInness I say this, if your most pressing concern for men these days is men’s own violent behaviour then please do, use the occasion to host a debate, write an article, run a stall, whatever you like. IMD is for you as much as it is for me. As it happens there are many pro-feminist groups such as White Ribbon campaigns which do indeed use IMD for just this type of event. Seek them out, support them. IMD is for everyone.

Likewise if your concerns around gender equality are around the gender pay gap or workplace rights, feel free to host discussions about workplace cultures, about long-hours, the protector-provider constructs of masculinity, the problems men have accessing equal parental leave etc etc, all of which directly account for much of the gender pay gap. IMD is for everyone. Knock yourself out.

On top of that, (unlike the minister perhaps) I genuinely DON’T believe equality is a zero sum game. On the contrary, the lives, happiness and wellbeing of men and women are interconnected, intertwined and interdependent. I believe men gain in all sorts of ways when women are liberated from the constraints of gender inequality and oppression. At the same time when we begin to liberate men from their disproportionately unaddressed mental health problems and social isolation, their dependence upon drinking & drugs, their poisonous workaholism, their educational and economic underperformance, their violent cultures of masculinity etc etc etc, then the winners are not just those men, but the women and girls with whom they share a life, a family, a neighbourhood, a society. I say it again, International Men’s Day is for everyone and has the potential to benefit everyone.

So, personally I am more than happy for people of all political perspectives and persuasions to mark IMD how they want to, or to ignore it if they prefer. What I cannot willingly accept is a disingenuous ploy to close down any discussion of men’s issues under a thin disguise of concern for women.

Though it grieves me somewhat to have to lower myself to this level, I feel this is the point to actively address the pitifully ignorant and offensive ‘joke’ with which the Minister began this discussion. “I thought every day was International Men’s Day?”

Here’s the thing about men. As a gender (relatively speaking and globally) we have a lot of power. We have a lot of platforms. We often have loud voices. But as every mental health professional will tell you, as every doctor will tell you, as more than a few wives and girlfriends will tell you, one thing men tend to be absolutely terrible at is speaking about our own problems, admitting to our own vulnerabilities, confessing our own weaknesses. This is true of men as individuals and it is equally true of men as a gender.

The truth is that International Men’s Day really is just one day of the year. It is just one day when we actively encourage men, women and institutions to think, speak and act about male-specific issues. And as someone very firmly on the left, it genuinely pains me that so many of those with whom I would like to stand, shoulder-to-shoulder seem determined to actively prevent us having that conversation.

But let me end on a very positive note.

There was one other question raised by an MP today.  Philip Hollobone MP asked a slightly odd question, but it garnered the most heartwarming response we could have hoped for.

PH: “In seeking ways to celebrate International Women’s Day, no doubt the minister has looked around the world to see which countries do this best. Which countries around the world celebrate International Men’s Day the best and will she take note from their example?”

CD: “I am aware that there are 60 countries around the world that celebrate International Men’s Day and there are various different ways that they do that, focusing on men’s heath and wellbeing, highlighting discrimination against men and any inequalities they face, improving gender relations and gender equality. This creates a safer world for everybody, Mr Speaker, and is always to be commended.”

Creating a safer world for everybody. I couldn’t have put it better myself.