Me and my #MaleTears: Facing the consequences of ironic hatred

I used to work in a feminist bookshop – it was much like any other bookshop, except it didn’t have a humour section.

That gem is perhaps the best example I know of the self-armouring joke. It plays on a cruel and unfair stereotype, but those whom it targets are left defenseless, unable to criticise the joke because to do so would validate it.

It sprang to mind when reading a paragraph in Amanda Hess’s piece in Slate which celebrates ‘ironic misandry’ as a weapon in the arsenal of modern feminism. As one of her interviewees states:

“It’s a good way to weed out cool dudes from the dumb bros.” As Zimmerman puts it: “The men who get annoyed by misandry jokes are in my experience universally brittle, insecure, humorless weenies with victim complexes,” while the “many intelligent, warm, confident feminist men in my life … mostly get the joke immediatly and play along. They’re not worried I actually want to milk them for their tears.”

Prior to reading these lines, I had always been happy to file items like ‘Male Tears’ mugs under the ever-expanding List of Shits I Could Not Give. I really don’t bristle when I see the hashtag #KillAllMen, however I do object to the fingertrap which establishes that if I do get annoyed it means I must be a brittle, insecure, humorless weenie.

So as one who is far too old, ugly and battle-hardened to worry about the opinions of hip young feminist Tumblrista, it falls to me to stick my head above the parapet and say actually no, this is not just harmless fun.

Inevitably, there is a moral spectrum here. There are many occasions when feminists or anti-racism activists raise perfectly legitimate issues of racism or sexism, only to be met by entitled whining about loss of privilege. Think of those who grumble about not being allowed to sexually harass strange women in the street, or who complain that political correctness means they’ve lost their free speech to call black people by the n-word. An ironic reference to male tears or white tears under those circumstances is probably entirely justified. It is the feminist or anti-racist equivalent of a reference to the world’s tiniest violin.

The line can be crossed, I think, in a couple of ways. The first is in ironic celebrations of violence. I can see no significant moral difference between Paul Elam‘s satirical ‘Bash a violent bitch month’, misogynists’ so-called banter in the form of rape jokes and threats, or a feminist’s satirical ‘Kill All Men.’ I’ve made no secret of where I stand on the so-called ‘TERF wars’ within feminism, but when Caroline Criado-Perez posted a collection of the images and tweets she’d collected that relished violent fantasies, I can no more excuse or justify those than I could the equivalent hate-speech from radical feminists towards trans people.

Of all the violent memes in circulation, the one I despise the most is ‘Die in a fire.’ It was always deeply unpleasant, but a few months ago I was rubbernecking a twitter argument involving someone I know. He was instructed to die in a fire. While I am sure his detractor did not, I knew that this man is a Manchester firefighter who only a few weeks before had experienced two of his courageous colleagues doing exactly that.

The other serious problem with ironic hate is that it quickly crosses over into ironic and studied indifference to real hatred. The last time I wrote about male suicide, I checked the Twitter links to see what people were saying and found a tweet by a self-identifying feminist that simply linked to the article with the words ‘Male suicide. LOL.’ Similarly, when I got caught in a recent avalanche of hate from a small coterie of radical feminists, they took to discussing my broad work and interests, leading to this charming contribution.

male_suicide_tweet2

I’m no angel, and in writing this I’ve had to consider my own occasional habit of writing things like ‘Eat the rich’ or ‘first up against the wall.’ I do think there is a slight difference in that I’d be pretty confident none of my readers have lost friends or relatives in revolutionary insurrections or outbreaks of class-based cannibalism, but when all is said and done, it is probably equally unjustifiable. I shall do my best to practise as I preach.

As with all issues of free expression, I do not urge bans or legal intervention as a solution. I urge everyone to accept responsibility for the consequences of their words. If you use violent imagery and hateful expressions, people will assume you are violent and hate-filled. If you wish to portray yourself as a campaigner for human rights and equality, and you play with the language of violence and oppression, don’t be surprised or complain if others assume you and your movement are violent and oppressive. This shouldn’t be a particularly difficult rule to grasp.

By the way, I did used to work in a feminist bookshop. It didn’t have a humour section.

British values for toddlers? The fine line between stupid and, uh, clever

After approximately five minute in her new job, Nicky Morgan has managed to float an idea so resoundingly idiotic that it almost deserves applause for effort.

In a consultation document published today, the Minister for Education suggests that local authorities should strip funding for early years childcare provision if the provider does not adequately teach ‘British values.’

This, of course, demands to be mocked and parodied. My instantaneous reaction on Twitter was to say “My 6 year old is at playscheme today. If he doesn’t come home wanting to conquer Ireland and shout at foreigners I’m reporting them to Nicky Morgan.”

Even the Guardian’s explanatory note that this would include such topics as ‘liberty and democracy’ doesn’t help. Believe me, as someone who has helped a couple of kids traverse a route out of babyhood and toddlerdom, the last thing you want to teach them about is liberty. The world is a benign dictatorship until your kids are at least five (but ideally about 27.)

Once I’d stopped swinging wildly between hilarity and despair, I popped over to the consultation document to have a look for myself. And you know what? Brace yourself, but there’s a germ of something not too silly in there. As the great philosophers once said, it’s a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever.

The relevant section of the document describes ‘exempt childcare providers’ as those:

which the local authority has reasonable grounds to believe—

(aa) does not actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs; or

(bb) promotes, as evidence-based, views and theories which are contrary to established scientific or historical evidence and explanations;

Now, let’s clear the stupid out of the way first. It is highly inaccurate and (let’s be kind) a bit xenophobic to describe belief in democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and all the rest as ‘British values.’ Most of them are originally Greek values, come to think of it, the remainder are shared by the overwhelming majorities of cultures on Earth. In an accompanying statement the DfE said early years education providers “will be expected to teach children about fundamental British values in an age-appropriate way. For children in the early years, this will be about learning right from wrong, learning to take turns and share, and challenging negative attitudes and stereotypes.” Because filthy foreign kids don’t learn any of that stuff, right? Damn it, they barely know how to queue.

Describing these values as ‘British’ is a dogwhistle revelation of the thinking behind this clause. The government is (or wants to appear to be) worried that it might find itself funding a creche run by some Abu Hamza-type radical who is ta king taxpayers’ cash to indoctrinate tiny kids into extremist beliefs.

As Beatrice Merrick, the chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education noted “there is no evidence of extremist values being promoted in nurseries anywhere – not Islamic ones, at least.

However, strip away the nonsense about Britishness, and this would be rather a welcome change. It would prevent religious groups of all flavours – including Christians – accessing early years grant funding in order to run Bible classes or the equivalent, or to operate under an ethos of bigotry. While the proposed rules may look to be targetting those from non-white, non-Christian communities, I could easily imagine that those falling foul of these provisions (notably the ‘bb’ section) may turn out to be evangelical Christians.

It is rather ironic that including the rather redundant words about ‘British values’ Morgan will win the admiration of the conservative right and the ire of the radical left, but if adopted, the measures would be likely to create a welcome safeguard for secularism  and may one day end up with the Daily Mail bleating about persecuted Christians not even being allowed to teach kids that the world is 4,000 years old and that the gays will burn in hell.

It is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever.

 

Throwing domestic violence victims to the wolves

 

The Guardian’s front page story yesterday made depressing reading on every score. The impacts of the coalition government’s austerity package have tended to fall disproportionately and viciously upon the most vulnerable, those least able to fend for themselves and kick up a fuss. Few acts look more callous and heartless than turning one’s back on victims of domestic abuse in order to square the annual balance sheet.

Within the sorry litany of bad news, perhaps the most depressing spectacle was witnessing advocates for one group of abuse victims throw another group of abuse victims to the wolves. I refer of course to the journalist Sandra Laville and interviewees from women’s organisations attributing their dire situation to the need to provide services to male victims too.

 

Specialist safe houses for women and children – which were forged out of the feminist movement in the 1970s – are being forced to shut by some local authorities because they do not take in male victims.

The change in focus has been devastating for the Haven in Coventry, a charity which has run the city’s women’s refuges for 43 years, but is fighting for survival after its service was decommissioned by the council in favour of self-contained accommodation units and new accommodation for male victims.

The Wolverhampton Haven, which has run the refuges for 41 years, is having its funding from the city cut by £300,000 and – as it struggles to maintain services – has been forced to reserve some of its places for men, even though it has had no male referrals to the accommodation so far.

 

Horley called for an urgent review of the commissioning process across the country and criticised the focus on male victims as deeply flawed.

“The vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women,” she said. “Of those who experience four or more incidents … 89% are women.”

 

If I may borrow a line from Sandra Horley, the focus on male victims is indeed deeply flawed. Let’s begin with some perspective. Last night I contacted Mankind Initiative, the only national charity that specifically represents male victims of domestic abuse. They obviously need to know about availability of services around the country.

As of this morning, there are a grand total of 58 refuge places around the country that can be used by men. Only 13 of those are specifically reserved for men, the others can be (and usually are) taken up by women. By contrast there are around 4,000 refuge beds for adult women, 7,000 that can be used by women and/or children. The total number available for men is actually slightly lower than it was five years ago. Another way of thinking about this is that even if it were still true that women are 89% of those victimised six times or more (a statistic from 2001, by the way), men would represent one in nine of those victimised repeatedly, two in five of those subjected to incidents of severe violence, and are able to access fewer than one in 100 available refuge beds. To blame the shortage of facilities for women on the availability of services for men is not just misleading, it is downright perverse.

A casual reading of the Guardian’s piece would lead one to believe that charities are being forced to provide services for men which are then not being used. There is not a shred of evidence that this is true.

The specific example given is Wolverhampton Haven which is being ‘forced to reserve some of its places for men, even though it has had no male referrals to the accommodation so far.’ Wolverhampton Haven has not had any referrals so far because it has not offered any services to men so far. If one looks at their website, it clearly says at the top and bottom of every page that they offer services to women and children.

I contacted Wolverhampton Council, who told me:

Wolverhampton City Council has a contract in place to support both female and male victims of domestic violence. We don’t specify the number of each gender that should be supported – the service is expected to respond according to demand.”

The new contract was negotiated with the Haven last December. The charity has yet to initiate any services for men, has yet to advertise any services for men, and is showing no apparent readiness as yet to accept referrals of male victims.

Meanwhile down the road in Coventry, the Haven is “fighting for survival after its service was decommissioned by the council in favour of self-contained accommodation units and new accommodation for male victims.”

What has happened in Coventry is that the council has increased their budget to support victims of domestic violence by £250,000 per year, a rise of around 25%. That’s right, a rise. The contract has indeed been lost by Haven but the (unnamed) body that is taking it on is offering increased refuge provision from 40 units to 54 – an increase of 33% in beds. I don’t know what proportion of those will be taken up by men, but I would bet my house that they will account for fewer than 14 of them.

Last night I spent some time online, imagining I was a male victim of domestic abuse in Wolverhampton or Coventry and looking for local help. I found nothing. Literally nothing. At some point in the future, I hope I will be able to repeat the exercise and discover that yes, there is an organisation that is willing and able to help, whether with outreach and support, counselling and advice or, at the most desperate last resort, a bed for the night. As someone who has worked, advocated and volunteered for male victims, I refuse to be made to feel guilty about that.

The cuts being imposed upon the domestic abuse support sector, as a whole, are savage and shocking. Responsibility lies squarely with the coalition government and their austerity policies, despite being delegated to unfortunate local authorities. The only decent, human response must be for everyone who genuinely cares about and cares for victims of abuse to stand as one, oppose cuts, support victims and fight our corner. I wholeheartedly agree with Polly Neate of Women’s Aid that the domestic violence strategy (and its funding) should be national and co-ordinated, and so too should the sector. To see women’s groups exploiting the current austerity cuts to exercise their longstanding resentment about provision of (even the most paltry and inadequate) services to male victims is a gruesome and ignominious spectacle.

The fantastically fly new Freethought Blogs Friday Open Thread

Woohoo! As you’ve probably noticed, FTB has finally come good with the long-promised site overhaul.

I think the front page makes a lot more sense now, and everything is just a wee bit more stylish.

I am, however, all too aware of the first rule of the Internet, which is that NOTHING MUST EVER CHANGE.

So I will welcome your comments below saying:

“OMG this is the worst thing ever, you’ve made it look all wrong, why is the button to do wotsit over there when it is meant to be over here I like it over here I need it over here and the typeface looks all wrong and when I leave a comment it jumps up and down on my screen you have seriously RUINED this site, no, that’s not right, you have RUINED MY ENTIRE LIFE I WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!!!”

And by tradition, you must continue leaving  such comments for precisely 11 days, after which time everything will suddenly seem  normal and you’ll forget it wasn’t ever thus.

If you want to be more specific, in all seriousness we realise there are a lot of bugs and quirks and things to be ironed out, we are compiling a full list, so if you notice anything that’s obviously borked do let me know and I’ll pass it on.

—-

If you want a conversation opener that is a bit less meta…. I’m really pleased and grateful to Glen Poole at InsideMAN magazine  who has interviewed one of the authors of the recent British Academy report into prison reform which called for radical reform of prison policy, with a specific eye on male gender issues.

At the risk of sounding like I’m blowing my own trumpet, Professor Nicola Lacey of the LSE makes several points which I’ve been banging on about for years. Considering I have often felt like a voice in the wilderness, this has been a bit of an airpunch moment for me. Short report here and full interview here

Anything else interesting on your radar, my friends?

 

Charting the decay of male beauty? Bring it on.

Male beauty

A typical man yesterday. Photo included for illustrative purposes and not in any way to drive up  blog traffic. Oh no. MARIUSZ026 (4400670850) by Arno roca’ s eyes –  via Wikimedia Commons.

Does anyone remember the male midlife crisis?

There was a period of time which I think probably began in the 1970s and lasted about 20 years, in which a staple trope of sitcoms, soap operas, drama and even highbrow literature was the man aged around 40 to 50 with a couple of decades of marriage behind him, whose kids were growing or grown, and would suddenly become disillusioned with his life achievements and consumed with his lost youth. He would overcompensate by buying a leather jacket and an electric guitar, a motorcycle or a Porsche. He would typically have an affair with his secretary or leave his wife for a woman twenty years younger.

As a man who is now that exact age, I almost feel cheated. I was quite looking forward to a new guitar, at the very least. But the golden age of the male midlife crisis is long past. I’ve been struggling to recall the last textbook example from popular culture, and I think it was probably Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, released in the dying weeks of the 20th Century. Compare Walter White in Breaking Bad. Had this series been made in the 1980s, this would, I think, have been written as a midlife crisis story. In this century it was written instead as an endlife crisis. Tellingly, when Walter was attempting to disguise his new secret life, everyone assumed he was following the old script and was having affairs, just about the one moral transgression he wasn’t pursuing.

Yes, of course men still have affairs, buy expensive gadgets they don’t need, and human psychology hasn’t changed much. The manifestations, however, those with cultural salience, have changed. Today you are less likely to find the anxious 40-something man browsing the Harley Davidson showroom and more likely to find him in a gym crunching his abs in a desperate effort to restore a six-pack.

These thoughts were sparked by Suzanne Moore’s column today, in which she pondered the ways in which our culture processes the physical decline of the ageing male body in the era of TOWIE and ‘Sporno’. Although there wasn’t much in the piece I disagreed with, I found it a little frustrating, as if it stopped short of reaching its conclusion. In fact I think it ends just at the point where it gets really interesting:

This gap in our visual culture, though, is not accidental. The bodies we see least of are those who are in power: the ageing middle-aged man. It is almost as if they have something to hide.

I think the crucial word missing from Suzanne’s piece is ‘money.’ It is no coincidence that the recent resurgence of the male as physical object of sexuality and beauty (as a cultural trope, at least) has occurred at the exact same time as a decline in the pre-eminence of the male as an object of status, success and wealth.

Only a couple of generations ago, there was still a dominant popular notion that if a woman wished financial security for her children or full-blown wealth and status for herself, the obvious and usual way to attain it was to bag herself a man with potential or actual wealth. The income of a household was assumed to be entirely inseparable from the income of the man. We can still see remnants of this in, for example, the would-be WAGs hanging out in the clubs where they hope to meet a professional footballer, but it is a rapidly dying phenomenon.

I’m not suggesting that any of this (on the part of either men or women) is conscious, far less manipulative. Our ideas of physical attractiveness are very largely socially constructed. To a certain extent almost all of us adapt to what we perceive to be the attractive traits of the day, from the trappings of hairstyles and clothes up to our body shapes or the car we drive. Simultaneously, what we find desirable is, to a degree, what culture tells us to find desirable. I should add that (thankfully for the likes of me) trends are there to be bucked. Human attraction is immensely diverse and unpredictable and there will always be someone out there who is drawn to the big-eared, skinny ,ginger bloke with an emaciated wallet and a bulging bookshelf.

As a broad rule, the liberation of women’s careers, choices and lifestyles is, I am sure, directly culpable in the rise of male body perfectionism and the decline of the old-school midlife crisis. When a woman can secure her own income, conspicuous symbols of male wealth and status must lose their cachet. Men, unconsciously of course, have cottoned on to this and realised that given a straight choice, an attractive woman would now rather run her fingers over a well-toned torso than over the keys to a sports car.

As a well-meaning liberal who dwells on the problems of contemporary man, a lot of people expect me to furrow my brow and fret about the growing pressures on men to be physically perfect (or at least pass muster round the pool.) In truth I struggle to raise much concern about it, and this is part of the reason why. Yes, of course we have to be wary of the mental health consequences, self-esteem, eating disorders and all the rest, but almost anything is dangerous when taken to extremes. As a general rule, I think the resurgence in appreciation of male beauty is an inevitable and healthy consequence of an increasingly egalitarian society. If, as Suzanne Moore suggests, this will inevitably lead to the decline of male bodies being “obsessively charted,” then so be it. I think we can take it on the chin. Or more accurately, the paunch.

Is banning Community Resolution for domestic violence the right move?

The ‘i’ paper today has a dramatic and troubling front page. “Police letting off domestic abusers with a slap on the wrist” it proclaims.

Glossing quickly over the unfortunate irony to the metaphor, the full story is carried in the commuter tabloid’s grown up sibling, the Independent, with a rather more honest title. “Violent partners let off with ‘slap on the wrist’ orders, says Labour.” 

The story heralds a speech today by Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, which will flesh out more details on Labour’s proposed new  legislation that will, among other changes, ban the use of Community Resolution Orders (CROs) in cases of domestic violence. The story is fleshed out with statistics and quotes from Women’s Aid to illustrate and explain that domestic violence is not a trivial crime, it rarely occurs as a one-off, and should therefore be inappropriate for these community settlements. CROs are primarily designed to deal with very minor offences and anti-social behaviour offences by minors.

What is the scale of use of these orders? Well we are told that their use has more than doubled in the past five years

Figures from Labour’s data from 15 police forces show the frequency with which Community Resolution has been used to deal with domestic violence more than doubled in four years. There were 6,861 cases in 2012 and 2013, an average of more than nine a day, compared with 1,337, fewer than four a day, in 2009.

There are 42 territorial police forces in England and Wales, and I presume the figures above come from the 15 forces providing data. For sake of ball park estimates lets assume they represent about a third of the total, which means erring on the side of generosity, perhaps there are around 10,000 CROs issued for domestic violence each year.

This does sound like quite a large number.

On the other hand, in 2011/12 there were 796,000 domestic violence incidents dealt with by police in 2011/12 and around 90,000 prosecutions. There are real and pressing concerns that the number of cases police are prosecuting seems to be declining sharply (this is also the case with sexual violence) and a strong suspicion that this may be due to heavy cuts to police staffing levels and resources.

But the key point is that we have no idea whether the 10,000 CROs that have been issued with regard to domestic violence offences arise from more serious incidents which 5+ years ago would have led to criminal charges and have been effectively demoted, or less serious offences which five years ago would have resulted in a caution or no further action. Considering that we are only talking one CRO for every 80 reported incidents, and nearly 90% of domestic violence call-outs do not result in prosecution, I should think it  is highly likely that at least a large proportion of these CROs are not being offered as alternatives to prosecution, but as alternatives to no action at all.

What other factors could be contributing to up to 10,000 CROs a year?

At the risk of bringing down the wrath of the feminist movement on my head, let me utter a heresy: Not all incidents of DV/DA constitute serious violent crime. A couple argue in the street, one party pushes the other and a passing police patrol car intervenes. Bingo, you have a domestic violence statistic.

One of the most common reasons why police fail to prosecute DV/DA cases is that the victim refuses to co-operate. She or he (or perhaps a neighbour or passer-by) calls the police while an incident is frightening, but the moment the immediate danger has passed, there is no wish to involve the authorities any further. This, of course, is an immensely difficult and complex scenario to navigate as it is almost impossible to separate motivations – love, loyalty, fear, intimidation, distrust of the police and courts and many other emotions may be interacting and influencing the decision. Under these circumstances I can imagine some victims agreeing to be part of a CRO settlement when s/he would not agree to provide evidence as a witness for the prosecution.

We should also bear in mind that the group responsible for the most partner violence is young people. As a wee anecdote, I remember when I was about 15 one of my mates had an argument with his girlfriend and she slapped him hard enough to leave a mark. His parents saw it and interrogated him, then they hit the roof when he told them, and they reported the girl to the police. She was given a stiff talking to, my mate was mortified, and (sorry to say) the rest of us thought it was hilarious. Had there been CROs available, that might well have been the route the police would have gone down. Would that be so wrong? I don’t see it.

I realise that I am now starting to sound like an advocate for CROs as a response to domestic violence. I’m not. In most cases I can easily agree that it would be an inappropriate response.

If there is evidence that CROs are being used inappropriately, in such a way as to put a victim in greater danger, then that  should be identified, highlighted and stopped.  What I am saying, however, is that I do not accept that CROs can never be an appropriate response.

The truth about partner abuse is that it is a wildly diverse, complex phenomenon. A one-size fits all response from police and prosecutors is a retrograde step. I want victims to be given the most protection they can get. I want offenders to be deterred, dissuaded and prevented from hurting others and punished where they do. My concern over Cooper’s proposals are less about preserving CROs and more about preserving the principle that to provide the best possible protection for victims, we need flexibility, imagination and courage.

The feverishly fundering Friday open thread

Well I don’t know about where you are, but here in Manchester this week it’s been hotter than a gusset in a chorus line. The tar between the cobbles has been bubbling on the streets, the whippets have been refusing to whip and some of us have even removed our flat caps.

I’m told that today London has suddenly gone all thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening, me.

Gallleo. Gallleo. Gallleo Figaro.

I’m jealous.

How’s things in your corner of the world?

And what has been catching your interest?

Sket-list scaremongering and scepticism

I wrote recently about my concerns over the way the media handle the issue of girls, gangs and sexual violence. In a nutshell, it seems to me this coverage is generally needlessly titillating, exploitative and salacious, painfully simplistic about the social dynamics of gang violence and it often actively, if inadvertently, dances to the melodies of racist agendas.

On Sunday the Observer ran a news piece which could have been an object lesson in the above. Within 48 hours it had been picked up and republished, almost word for word, by sleazy tabloids like the Star and right wing rags like the Daily Mail. Among the people sharing and eagerly discussing the original on Sunday were the official Twitter account of the British National Party and countless other racists and fascists.

The article made a series of extravagant claims. It alleged that:

London gangs are drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rape targets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.

The so-called sket lists (sket is street slang for “sluts”) have, according to youth workers, prompted attacks so brazen that girls have been dragged from school buses and sexually assaulted. Police and charities say they have recorded an increase in the use of sexual violence by gangs, including incidents of revenge rape, where the sisters and girlfriends of rival gang members are targeted.

Other claims in the piece included this quote from Det Supt Tim Champion of the Met’s Operation Trident:

“The first thing we had to do is stop people killing each other. The focus now clearly is on women. It’s as prevalent as carrying a knife or a gun – raping a girl in a gang.”

It goes on to add:

Figures from the Safer London Foundation reveal that more than 500 young women were victims of gang-related sexual violence in the past year, a figure Hubberstey describes as just the “tip of the iceberg”.

Scotland Yard’s latest intelligence identifies 3,495 gang members in 224 gangs in London, although just 40 were found to be female.

I’m sure we’ll all agree these are shocking claims. They are also for the most part quantifiable and verifiable claims. Call me cynical if you like, but I thought I would try to verify them.

Let’s begin at the top.

1. “Police and charities say they have recorded an increase in the use of sexual violence by gangs”

I asked the Metropolitan police what increase they have recorded in the use of sexual violence by gangs. They replied:

We have no specific figures relating to the sexual abuse of girls by gangs.”

That’s that then.

So what about the charities?

2. Figures from the Safer London Foundation reveal that more than 500 young women were victims of gang-related sexual violence in the past year, a figure Hubberstey describes as just the “tip of the iceberg”.

I asked the Safer London Foundation what methodology they had used to calculate the figure of more than 500 girls?

The 500 figure is actually the number of young women we’ve supported in the areas we work in London in last year.”

I asked to clarify whether these were specifically victims of sexual violence by gangs?

The young women we support have experienced sexual violence and exploitation (which covers a range of forms of abuse including but not only assault and rape)”

So while this shows SLF is doing good work with vulnerable and exploited young people (something I do not remotely question, incidentally) the figure as presented in the Observer and repeated elsewhere is wrong on several counts. These 500 girls were not necessarily all victims of sexual violence and any crimes committed against them did not necessarily happen in the past year. We are still none the wiser as to the true extent and trends of sexual violence by gangs.

As to the most dramatic claim in the article.

3. London gangsare drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rapetargets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.

These lists would, quite obviously, constitute significant evidence of serious criminal activity, including potentially rape and sexual assault, or at the very least criminal conspirancy. One would expect the gang specialists in the Met’s Operation Trident to act swiftly in response, most notably in warning or offering protection to any women whose names were appearing on, effectively, hit lists for rapists. One would expect any youth or community worker who encounters such a list to act responsibly in passing on such information to the police as a matter of urgency. While Blackberry BBM is notoriously difficult for the police to intercept and monitor in real time, gang members are being arrested for one reason or another on a daily basis and their phones are routinely seized and inspected for evidence.

So bearing all that in mind, how many ‘sket lists’ have the police in London encountered, this year or ever?

“We have received no direct evidence or reports of so-called ‘sket-lists.’”

This does not of course mean that such lists do not exist, however I think it does warrant a sceptical side-eye. The claims in this piece were attributed to unspecified charities not police (I would presume Safer London Foundation were the source).

As it happens I’m pretty sure that sket lists, in one form or another, do exist. I first heard them mentioned three or four years ago in the context of reams of research into early sexualisation and ‘pornification’ (I’ve racked my memory trying to track down the source this week but drawn a blank, apologies.)

In that research, sket-lists were used as an example of teenage misogyny and bullying. They were described basically as a digital version of an old-school toilet wall – lists of local girls who were rumoured to be promiscuous or ‘sluts.’ Teenagers would pass them around and add the name of any girl who they felt deserved it.

This, of course, is horrible, but entirely believable. It’s the kind of things kids have always done, albeit with added technology.

It is also entirely credible that a young woman whose name appears on such a list is more likely to be targeted for sexual assault, abuse or rape. That would fit perfectly with the mindset of the sexually abusive personality. So I can quite believe that young people involved with SLF or other agencies have told youth workers something along the lines of: “Yeah, the gangs target girls whose names have appeared on sket lists.”

I’m speculating, of course, but this strikes me as entirely credible. Saying “gangs target girls who have a reputation for being a bit of a slut” is – while grim and depressing – vastly less sensationalist than suggesting that gangs are handing around lists of names of targets specifically so they can be singled out for rape and assault, which was the clear implication of the Observer’s report.

I have one final doubt about the Observer’s report. It relates to this:

Hubberstey said gang members were taking advantage of low conviction rates for rape, viewing sexual violence as a less-risky means to inflict pain on rivals or spread fear than carrying a weapon

I can offer no hard evidence that can rebut this claim, so feel free to ignore me, but I have to say, from my knowledge of criminology and the dynamics of gangs this really doesn’t ring true to me.

Crimes of violence and abuse rarely have cold calculations of costs and benefits behind them. They happen out of anger, rage, hatred, fear, temper and sadistic cruelty. Gang crimes, in particular, are driven by momentum. It is messy and irrational. Someone is robbed, so someone is stabbed, so someone else is shot, and in the ensuing chaos gangs grow as people seek protection. Within all that people are sexually abused, exploited and raped. All my instincts tell me that what dramatic falls in youth crime generally, falls in anti-social behaviour, drug use and problem drinking, and most importantly precipitous falls in gun and knife crimes, gangs should be getting smaller and less active, and their associated problems and impacts, including sexual crimes, should be similarly in decline.

The Metropolitan Police tell me that despite having (literally) no evidence of the extent and trends in gang-related sexual violence:

We do believe it is an issue which remains significantly under-reported which is why we are mapping the extent of the problem and where it is prevalent, so that we can work effectively with our partners to identify suitable ways of intervening.”

This is to be welcomed on every score. I hope that when the mapping is complete, they are forthcoming not only with the bad news, but with the good. In the meantime, I do wish the media would ease off on unsubstantiated, dangerous and damaging scaremongering.

Making sense of a senseless horror

Local newspaper reports in London this week recounted bare details of a horrific court case relating to the manslaughter of a four-month old baby. The 19-year old mother pleaded guilty to starving the baby to death as well as separate charges of child cruelty to two other children. She was given an 18 month suspended sentence and various restrictions that included a ban on looking after any children for the next two years.

I picked up the story from a tweet linking to the Men’s Rights sub on Reddit. The OP invited comparison to another case where a man was sentenced to eight years in prison for shaking his baby to death in a rage because she was crying while he wanted to play a video game.

On the face of it, the suspended sentence on this woman was remarkable. The posters on Reddit/MensRights claim that this is a typical case of ‘pussy pass’ where women can literally kill and walk away from court with not so much as a slap on the wrist. Several comments were along the lines of “anyone who does this should be strung up by their toes and flayed alive.” Others attributed the verdict to the fact that there are, apparently, ‘many rad fems in the British government.’

Anyone who follows British law and child protection issues would realise that this sentence is far from typical. It’s generally true that mothers tend to receive slightly shorter sentences than fathers in cases like this but the difference is not that profound. This is so far off the scale of normal that I wondered if it might be some bizarre reporting mistake. This was underlined by the strange absence of outrage or even raised eyebrows in national and regional media.

I dug deeper. I have to tread carefully from this point, because I found a court report which I am pretty sure flouts the reporting restrictions in this case (the mother’s name and some other relevant details should have been withheld to protect the identities of her two surviving children, and it was not) I’m not going to link to it or reproduce it for my own legal protection, however the key details are reproduced below.

MILE END, TOWER HAMLETS A teenage mum who was forced to marry an older man in [COUNTRY REDACTED] when she was 13 is facing jail today for killing her four-month-old daughter.  [NAME REDACTED] has admitted the manslaughter and cruelty to two other children [NAMES REDACTED] under the age of 16.

 

Suddenly the case takes on a very different aspect.

What appears to have happened here is that the victim of forced marriage and child sex abuse, who by the age of 18 had already given birth to three children, perhaps allegedly as a consequence of repeated rape, proving incompetent and incapable of properly feeding and caring for those children. It’s by no means unlikely that she found herself incapable of caring about or loving those children.

With just this smidgen of background information, suddenly this sentence appears less a calumny of justice and more a proportionate and compassionate response to an utterly horrendous and complex case.

The tight-lipped silence of most media might well be explained by the possibility of ongoing criminal charges against anyone involved involved in the forced marriage (including the husband, perhaps.) This is one of those multi-layered cases where reporting the details of one trial and verdict could risk prejudicing the outcome of another (hence my own ultra-cautious approach here).

I don’t blame the Reddit denizens for accepting the initial reports at face value. It took a wee bit of journalistic nous and experience on my part to track down additional details and start to make sense of it.

However this sorry saga does illustrate the dangers of rushing to squeeze every news story into such a shape as to match one’s prejudices. It may also show that when it comes to media reporting of difficult and complex cases, sometimes telling a small part of the story does more damage than telling none of it. Sometimes the only responsible way to tell a story may be not to tell it at all.

It’s time to stop defaming our boys

The most remarkable news report appeared on Salon and a few other outlets this week. Reporting research by the school of public health at Columbia University, published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, the coverage recounted findings that were so shocking as to take the breath away.

Dr David Bell and colleagues had conducted qualitative research interviews into teenage boys aged 14-16 and found that… brace yourself… they’re actually kinda sweet. The sample of 33 boys came from an economically deprived, primarily African-American community, where there were known to be high STI transmission rates (in other words, this was a group of boys who would traditionally be expected to have some of the most problematic attitudes from a public health perspective). Among the findings were that the boys described a high degree of ‘relationally-oriented beliefs and behaviours’ such as a desire for intimacy and trust in relationships, as against pursuing sex as an end in itself or a status symbol. There was little in the way of sexual objectification, homophobia was rare.

Both sexually inexperienced and sexually experienced participants sought meaningful relationships with nice-looking romantic partners with “good personalities,” a sense of humour, and future goals. Respect was an important characteristic. They reported that in their experience it had usually been the girls, not themselves, who had initiated both romantic and sexual engagements. They described their own vulnerability – emotionally and with regard to their sexual inexperience.

Now of course we should be cautious of reading too much into one study. There may have been something about how these interviews were conducted, or how the interviewees were recruited, which produced these results. But I spent many years doing community media work with inner city young people, including some quite troubled and difficult teenagers who had been excluded from school or who were involved in the youth justice system. I also have many friends with teenage boys and know them and their pals, and this research rings a lot more true to me than most of the coverage we see of young people and their relationships.

Case in point. Last week shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper announced plans for a Violence Against Women Act if Labour wins the next election. (Just for the record, other than a few quibbles I don’t disagree with most of her proposals, but that’s for another day.)

In making her announcement, she wrote a long piece for the Independent with the provocative title “We must educate our sons to save our daughters” which set out her views on young people and abusive relationships. Amid several bold claims, Cooper stated that: “According to the Children’s Commissioner there is clear evidence that violence in young relationships is growing.”

 

I raised every available eyebrow at this. I follow the work of the Children’s Commissioner pretty closely. Over recent years her office has commissioned and published several reports: into young people and sexual consent; on gang-associated sexual exploitation and sexual violence; and into the extent of, and possible harm caused by, the widespread availability of pornography. Not a single one of these reports even attempted to map trends in relationship violence.

I contacted the office of the Children’s Commissioner and a spokesperson confirmed that these reports did not specifically look at whether young people are more violent now than in the past. When I asked if this meant that Cooper was wrong in attributing the claim about relationship violence “growing” to the Commissioner, she replied with a slightly dissembling “As you will have noted from our first statement to you, Yvette Cooper’s comment is a possible conclusion, although we did not feel able to make a similar statement given the other interpretations that would be equally valid.”

I take that to be a very diplomatic version of “Yes.”

Before I proceed let me stress that violence and abuse in young relationships really are a significant and serious problem. Young people are at the greatest risk of all types of violence, including partner abuse. You are more likely to be assaulted by a partner or sexually assaulted between the ages of 16 and 24 than all the rest of your adult life put together. When you shine a light into the darkest corners, into the experiences of vulnerable children in care or in gang-culture, you will reveal horrific instances of abuse and appalling risks of exploitation and harm.

However – and this is the key point – it was ever thus. Is there any actual evidence to tell us whether things are getting worse or better?

Actually yes, there is. It is not perfect or conclusive by any means, but the British Crime Survey (now the Crime Survey for England and Wales) collects detailed data on intimate partner violence, including breakdowns for age groups all the way down to 16-19 year-olds. This doesn’t help us with younger children, of course, nor can we assume that all 16-19 year olds have partners of the same age, but as a rough yardstick measure, it is as good a metric as there is available.

The data, unfortunately, is scattered through the chaotic shambles of the government data archives, and to my knowledge no one has previously assembled this data into one table or graph. You’ll notice some years are missing. I have, however, done my best to include every figure I could find for the three categories of crime most associated with relationship abuse: partner assault (non-sexual); sexual assault; and stalking. The results are here. [click to enlarge]

16to19FemaleTrends

Notwithstanding gaps in the data, it is very difficult to make the case from here that young people’s relationships are becoming more violent. On a crude point to point comparison, between 2004 and 2011, young women aged 16-19 became about a third less likely to be subject to partner violence; about a third less likely to be subject to sexual assault, and about two thirds less likely to be stalked.

(If you are wondering, the trends are very similar for male victims, and for male and female victims aged 20-24. I don’t want to blind you with data.)

That’s not all. Those familiar with domestic violence trends might be aware that the big fall in prevalence of domestic abuse really happened earlier – beginning around 1995. Data from that time are even harder to track down and methods of defining and classifying have changed significantly, so direct comparisons are impossible. This analysis of the 1996 BCS classifies ‘domestic abuse’ approximately in the way we now classify ‘severe violence’ (hit, kicked, use of weapon or similar.) By current data, this accounts for less than 30% of all domestic abuse. Even using that older, strict definition, in 1996 10.1% of 16-19 year-old girls said they had been victims of partner violence. As a very rough sketch, that would suggest that a young woman’s risk of experiencing severe violence from a partner might have dropped by about 70% since 1996.

None of this should come as a surprise, although I do not doubt it will to many. It is entirely in keeping with a raft of other evidence that shows young people are vastly less violent than they were a few years ago. They commit fewer crimes and get arrested less often. They drink less and take fewer drugs. All of this is well-documented with reliable data for anyone who actually takes the trouble to find out.

Against this evidence, claims by Yvette Cooper, much like Diane Abbott’s characterisation of a porn-crazed, ‘Jack Daniels and Viagra’ generation, is tantamount to blunt defamation of a whole generation of young men. What’s worse, considering most of this is coming from the nominal left, is that the negative stereotyping and unjustified damage to reputations this causes will not be spread evenly through the population. The general assumption will never be that these teenage girl-beaters, abusers and rapists are the public school-educated, middle class sons of politicians and journalists – the fear and suspicion will land disproportionately instead upon the working class boys, the black and minority ethnic boys, precisely those who are already struggling hardest against stigma and stereotyping and who are already falling furthest behind in social, educational and economic attainment. As the research from Columbia suggests, this may well be an almighty calumny.

It is time to stop defaming our boys.