#ViolenceIsViolence: Watching the reactions

I am not a fan of advertisements or public service broadcasts which purport to be scientific experiments. I’m not convinced that 8/10 cats really do prefer your Kangachunks over other products, nor that some actress really does feel like the appearance of wrinkles has been reduced after six weeks of using inventyserum oxide. I’m particularly cynical about hidden camera exercises which catch the reactions of oblivious passers-by and which can only be produced by editing down endless miles of footage into a few seconds of final cut.

So while I’m a great admirer and supporter of the work of domestic violence charity the Mankind Initiative, my heart didn’t exactly leap when I first saw their new online ad to support a campaign they call #ViolenceIsViolence.

I will now hold up my hand and say I was wrong. The video has been viewed six million times in little over a week, sparked widespread debate across mainstream media in Britain and across the world. Many online discussions have focussed on double standards and asked readers to speculate on the question, what would you do? Almost instantly it has become one of the most effective pieces of campaigning for men’s issues I’ve ever seen.And the reactions have been telling. By that, I do not mean the reactions shown in the film, they speak for themselves. I mean the reactions from across the spectrum of gender politics and domestic violence campaigners.

First, the good news. I have seen many supportive comments from individual women and feminist groups, including local Women’s Aid charities, who have been happy to express unequivocal support for the message that #ViolenceIsViolence and violence is wrong.

I’m more baffled by the reaction of American blogger and manosphere-watcher David Futrelle, who picked up on a Spanish academic’s blog to ask the question: Is the Mankind Initiative’s #ViolenceIsViolence video a fraud?

Using the type of forensic analysis which in the good old days t’internet used to establish that the moon landings were fake or that Woody Woodpecker shot JFK, David demonstrates that the two minute campaigning video must have been (wait for it) EDITED! He then goes on to demand that the Mankind Initiative and the company who made the video release the original, raw footage so that he, or whoever, can go through analysing it frame by frame to verify its authenticity.

Why would anyone want to do this? Does David Futrelle or anyone else really deny that society generally reacts differently to female on male violence than to the reverse? Among my own original, ill-aimed gripes at the video, was a sense that the point it was making was so glaringly obvious it verged on the banal. Do you need to be convinced of how differently people consider female on male violence? Try reading a newspaper. Try reading social media whenever there is a factual or fictional case on the TV. The Mankind Initiative’s video provided a short, sharp, easily understood illustration of a long-established fact. Was the video a fraud? No David, it was an ad.

So far so silly. Far more troubling was the reaction of the leading national domestic violence charity, Women’s Aid and their chief executive.

Polly Neate initially published an article on the Daily Telegraph, then followed it up with an appearance on BBC Women’s Hour. Neate did make one good and important point, which is that intervening in public incidents of domestic violence can be dangerous and counter-productive for all involved, a point which I agree should have somehow been acknowledged in the video. The rest of the article was shocking, notably her implication that the success of this video might put women at risk. In particular, she took issue with the statistic which appears on the last frame of the film, that 40% of victims of domestic violence are men.

Mankind’s video ends by showing a statistic that 40 per cent of domestic violence is suffered by men. This figure, while it does come from the Office for National Statistics, can be misleading. It’s important to remember that domestic violence, the type of abuse where you are living in utter fear of your partner, isn’t a one-off incident: it’s about ongoing and repeated violence. Women make up 89 per cent of those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence.

It’s also really important to recognise that in the remaining 11 per cent, men are more at risk when they are in same sex relationships. Quite simply, proportionately very few perpetrators of domestic violence where there is ongoing abuse are female. Despite this, female perpetrators are three times more likely to be arrested than men. As men commit 96 per cent of all violent crime, it is difficult to understand why these statistics are so hard to accept.

 

There are so many problems with this it would be tedious to list them all. Every single statistic above is questionable, dated or downright false, so I will restrict myself to one key point. If you go to the Women’s Aid page of statistics, the very first fact stated there is that one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. This statistic comes from the exact same ONS data set from where we get 40% of victims being male. If by domestic violence we mean ‘ongoing and repeated violence… those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence’ then more than two thirds of female victims of DV simply disappear – they don’t exist. The figure of 89% comes from Walby and Allen‘s analysis of the 2001 British Crime Survey. If we were to use the ‘four or more’ condition to define domestic violence, from that same study, only 32% of victimised women qualify, meaning that the number of women who are a victim suddenly drops from one in four to around one in 13. Women’s Aid cannot have it both ways.

In practice, Women’s Aid do not restrict their services to women who have been subject to acts of physical violence four or more times by the same perpetrator. On the ground, quite rightly and importantly, they help women (and in some cases men) who have been subjected to all kinds of physical, emotional and psychological abuse, including those who have been victims of a single incident. It is highly dishonest to pretend that the only victims worthy of consideration are those suffering repeated, severe violence.

Much worse is to come, however. Neate continues:

It is totally understandable that organisations want to highlight the issue they are campaigning on, to increase their profile and encourage people to support their cause, but campaigns such as these influence important decisions that affect survivors. We have been told by local Women’s Aid federation organisations that they are funded locally on the basis they have to provide services to male victims, and they are rarely used despite putting time and money into promoting this.

 

The first thing to note here is that there is not a shred of objective evidence that any women have suffered or been denied services because funding has been diverted to provide services for male victims. When challenged by Mankind Initiative’s Mark Brooks on Women’s Hour, Neate failed to provide any details, reverting to ‘well it’s what we’ve been told.’ Secondly, if it is true that some local Women’s Aid organisations are finding there is low take-up for services aimed at men, it could be because an organisation called ‘Women’s Aid’ with a history of denial with regard to male victims and some profoundly problematic attitudes going all the way to the very top might not be the most appropriate organisation to be providing services to men. Just a thought.

Most significantly, however, we must compare and contrast the attitudes of the two charities on this front. Every time I have heard Mark Brooks speak on the media or in public, he has gone to great pains to stress that he believes there should be more funding for female and male victims, and that it would be obscene to argue that women should be deprived of any services in order to provide them to men instead. He wants to join with all domestic violence charities and campaigns to demand more and better services for all victims, irrespective of gender. Women’s Aid will not return this courtesy.

I cannot conceive of any other charity that would actively attack the campaigning and fundraising work of another. We do not see lung cancer charities running attack pieces against effective breast cancer campaigns. We don’t see Water Aid asking people not to give to Aids charities.

Domestic violence services of all types have struggled against devastating funding cuts over the past four years. People in need have been deprived of interventions that could offer vital, even life-saving support. If that trend is to be reversed, it will only happen by everyone who cares about the issue joining as one and demanding help for those in need. It cannot help to have one charity turn on another in an ignominious display of one-downmanship.

Slap-happy columnists and the dangers of generalisation

I hate to say I told you so, but when I wrote last week that our culture has a problem conceptualising female violence, one or two of those commenting below seemed less than convinced. Perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly, but with impeccable timing, up popped the Observer columnist Barbara Ellen to provide the perfect illustration.

In discussing the Jay-Z / Solange incident, she made several bizarre and troubling claims. It began with a now-familiar slice of victim-blaming,  pondering what Jay-Z must have done to ‘provoke’ Solange. It got worse when she elided group generalisations with the specifics of an individual incident: “The differences in physical size and/or strength between the sexes mean that most men are simply not physically scared of most women.” 

This is probably true, but has no bearing on whether any one man is physically scared (never mind physically hurt) by any one woman. Ellen’s entire column showed zero understanding of the real dynamics of interpersonal violence, and particularly the complexities of how men react to violence, and female violence in particular.  The real stunner, however, came in a paragraph that was so wrong as to verge on the downright wicked. I am utterly stunned that the editors allowed it through:

What’s more, women tend to be aware of this, if only subliminally. Some females might have periods in their life when they get “slap-happy”, primarily when socialising, maybe when attention seeking, usually when drunk (guilty!). When they stop this behaviour, it’s usually because they’re ashamed, embarrassed or have belatedly realised they’re disgusting dogs who can’t hold their drink. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely to have anything to do with men being frightened of them. On the contrary, it’s wired into the female DNA that in the main they’re under threat rather than the threat. 

When I wrote about our difficulties in conceptualising female violence, this is precisely what I was talking about. Ellen cannot conceive of female on male assaults as violent crime, just as embarrassing drunkenness. What do these women do when they are going through their “slap-happy” phase?

Consider Coral Millerchip, perhaps, who last summer attacked Jovinder Singh, a frail, 80-year-old man, dying with Alzheimers, knocking him to the ground and then spitting on him. He was so traumatised that he lived out his remaining few months of life in fear, unable to venture outside alone.

Or maybe she is imagining the high-jinks of the Hackney woman who last week greeted the gardener on her housing block by pouring sulphuric acid drain cleaner over his head. Or the Devon nightclubber who assaulted two men, one of whom she leaned in to whisper in his ear then sank her teeth into his cheek. Apparently she is ashamed and embarrassed now, which sounds familiar. Another woman who is ashamed, embarrassed and forgetful this week is the Ipswich woman who removed her shoe and used it to beat three men around the head.

These are just a few snapshots of the 75,000 women arrested for violent crimes in this country each year, picked out from the first few pages of Google News.  Their crimes are not a joke, a rarity or an irrelevance.

Notwithstanding the usual debates about rates of intimate partner violence, It is certainly true that for every woman committing a violent act, there will be several men. Male violence, in both prevalence and severity, remains the most pressing criminological trend in our society. To acknowledge that does not require us to simply ignore or dismiss female violence, whether targeted at men, women or children.

In one respect Barbara Ellen is correct. Context does matter to this debate. It is not necessarily ‘the same’ when a man hits a woman as when a woman hits a man. It is not the same when a large, physically fit music superstar is being attacked with a burly bodyguard to protect him as when a frail, disabled man like Eddie Kidd is being battered behind closed doors by the woman he loves.  It is not the same when Charles Saatchi grabs Nigella Lawson around the throat in a public restaurant as when a couple of destitute street-drinkers brawl over their last swigs of lager. The truth is that no two violent relationships are the same, no two violent incidents are the same, no two victims are the same, no two  perpetrators are the same. It is impossible to say sure how dangerous a person is based on their identity or gender, how scary, or indeed how scared such a person might be when placed in a violent situation.

Generalising about how someone might react to being violently attacked, generalising about someone else’s capacity for violence is a fool’s errand. If we are serious about reducing violence in society, we will not get there by starting with a position that some types of violence are somehow more acceptable than others.

 

Solange, Jay-Z and our problem with female violence

So much needs to be said about the assault on Jay-Z by his sister-in-law, Solange Knowles, and the subsequent media reaction. A lot of it is should be so self-evident it barely needs spelling out. Yes, if the roles were reversed the reaction would be very different. No, headline writers of the world, this was not a “fight” – that word would imply mutual participation, this was a unilateral assault. No, social media users of the world, an incident of family violence is not the most hilarious topic for your jokes and memes. Yes, corporate PR executives who hijack jokey hashtags about violent crimes to share advertising slogans, you do have an extra warm and spiky corner of Hell awaiting you. And no, concerned observers and commentators of the world, you may not speculate on what Jay-Z might have said or done to provoke or deserve it. Physical assault is never justified by the victim’s behaviour. Do I really need to point out to where that kind of thinking leads?

Buried within all this, the affair shows up a peculiar problem our society seems to have in conceptualising women’s violence. Had the wobbly security camera footage shown a man assaulting a woman, we would have had a full range of explanations and an accompanying vocabulary immediately to hand. He’s a batterer, a bully, an abuser. Had it been one man attacking another man, he would be a thug, a lout, a hooligan. A violent woman, by comparison, does not compute, we do not even have the words to describe her. This may well explain the initial instinct either to laugh or to blame the victim, the latter leading to an equally contemptible urge to applaud or even celebrate the assault, despite a complete lack of any background information.

We may not have the language to describe them, but violent women are far from rare. In England and Wales alone, around 75,000 women were arrested for violence against the person last year, accounting for more than a fifth of all such arrests. Far more women were arrested for violence than for shoplifting. It is often assumed that any violence women instigate is relatively harmless, but the evidence suggests otherwise. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, women are around 50% more likely to be victims of any kind of partner abuse, but when restricted to ‘severe force’ that difference almost vanishes, with 1.1% of men and 1.3% of women being victims in the past year.

Where does this reluctance to acknowledge women’s capacity for violence originate? It would appear to be the offspring of a bizarre marriage of convenience between traditional, patriarchal social conservatism and a rather blinkered and idealistic textbook feminism. Compare and contrast the patriarchal view of women as nurturing, maternal, gentle and submissive with those of influential feminist pioneer Kate Millett, which I have quoted before but are worth recalling: “Force itself is restricted to the male who alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence. Where differences in physical strength have become immaterial through the use of arms, the female is rendered innocuous by her socialization.” I think it is safe to say she never went to any pubs round my neck of the woods.

Many of us have lived a reality that belies the wishful thinking of patriarchs and feminists alike Violence can explode as a reaction to anger, frustration, disrespect or – above all – a threat or history of violence. Scientists are now beginning to piece together the neurological mechanisms by which a person who is exposed to violence will develop an increased capacity to inflict it upon others in turn, and that is not restricted by gender.

If we wish to live in a society with less violence of any kind, we do not get to pick and choose which violent episodes we find tolerable. The society which is laughing and cheering when a woman kicks and punches her brother-in-law in an elevator is a society where children are growing to learn that violence is an acceptable response to insult or frustration. That is a society where violence against our partners, families or strangers can be justified and excused, and thereafter a society where we are bidding farewell to our sisters, daughters, brothers and sons in an ambulance or a hearse.    

Girls, boys and gangs: beyond villain and victim

Right wing thinktank the Centre for Social Justice is the latest body to turn a concerned gaze upon the issue of girls’ involvement with gangs. This is one of those stories that seems to surface every few months and is reported every time as a shocking, scandalous new exposé.

In truth there is little or nothing in the CSJ report that wasn’t reported in the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report in November last year, or by Channel 4′s investigation in 2012 or by Carlene Firmin of Race on the Agenda (ROTA) in 2011 and 2010.

It was Firmin whose work really deserved to be considered groundbreaking, and is still shocking today. She interviewed 350 girls who were directly involved in gang culture or gang-affected communities, who reported endemic sexual exploitation and rape alongside experiences as victims, perpetrators and conspirators in various violent and serious crimes.

Firmin’s work with ROTA was a milestone because, at least as far as the public and media narrative was concerned, it marked the end of a decade of textbook moral panic and folk devils about girls and gangs – gleeful tabloid tales of knife-wielding girl gangs roaming the streets like XX chromosome droogs. As the work of Susan Batchelor has convincingly shown, there is little evidence that girl gangs, in any meaningful sense, have ever existed in the UK. That is not to say that girls are not involved in gangs, but the nature of that involvement remains opaque.

The ROTA reports highlighted how a lack of serious research and investigation into the extent and nature of girls involvement with gangs was hampering provision of necessary support and exit services. Subsequent research has added nothing to this dearth of meaningful data, indeed the new report quotes Patrick Regan of charity XLP saying:

“The biggest issue with girls and gangs is that we simply don’t know the full extent of what is going on. Everything seems to be indicating that we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg and the current data fails to reflect the majority of the girls’ involvement.”

Into this vacuum has slipped a new narrative that risks taking on the character of a whole new moral panic. Over the past four years, discussion of girls in gangs has been strictly limited to the position of victim. Part of this is about social and economic victimisation, with reference to childhoods in care, or abusive families or social exclusion, slum housing and poverty. Overwhelmingly, however, the headlines have focussed on sexual exploitation.

There are many horrific accounts in these reports of gang rapes, punishment rapes, revenge rapes and more. The anecdotal evidence is plentiful enough that no one should doubt that youth gang culture is sheltering some appalling sexual violence, even if we really have no idea about the true extent of the problem. Alongside that, however, there is a rather salacious subtext that is exoticised by a glossary of street talk – “links”, “line-ups”, “wifeys” that pays scant interest to issues of consent, agency, motivation and intent. The assumption seems to be that a sexually active young woman from a poor background is, de facto, being exploited.

I spent the best part of a decade doing community media projects in a notoriously gang-affected area of South Manchester. I worked with and alongside young (and sometimes not so young) people who were inside, outside and exited from gangs, including work with convicted young offenders. I saw a lifestyle and culture that is entirely built on exploitation. The street gangs exploit the vulnerability, fear and hopelessness of brutalised and neglected young people just like themselves. Older drug dealers and thieves to manage their businesses by exploiting the aggression, anger and territorial habits of teenagers and their clawing, desperate desire for some kind of status, respect or validation.

Within that, it is all but impossible to untangle who is exploiting and who is exploited, who is the villain and who is the victim. The reality is that almost everyone involved meets either description from one day to the next, or at the same moment. People do horrible things, commit horrible crimes, as a way to avoid becoming victims of horrible crimes. All of this is true for boys just as much as it is for girls.

The perfect illustration of this is contained in the CSJ report. In the section on sexual exploitation, they provide testimony that on occasion, “female gang members in their late teens are being pressured to have sex with young boys in gangs, sometimes as young as 10, as part of the initiation process of those boys into the gang.”

Both in the report itself and the attendant media coverage, this anecdote was presented purely as an example of girls being exploited by gangs. It does not appear to have occurred to anyone that what is being described here is not just the sexual exploitation of a young woman but also a crime of serious child sex abuse against a young boy. In the reporting of this one piece of evidence we see the male victim of a serious, psychologically traumatising crime being entirely erased. Within the narrative the boys are instrumentalised to the point of irrelevance – they only feature as incidental objects. Am I the only one who finds this shocking? And am I the only one who thinks that our willingness to overlook the brutalisation of young boys might be a bloody big part of the problem?

As I see it, we have made significant progress in how we consider girls in gangs. Yes, at times the media can be patronising and romanticise away the agency of young women who willingly choose to exercise disturbing violence, brutality and cruelty, not least to other young women. It is, however, better that we err on the side of compassion and understanding of how they ended up behaving like this.

What I struggle with is our unwillingness to apply the same rational framework, the same degrees of empathy and sympathy to young boys who are similarly victimised, brutalised and vulnerable. A paradigm which holds all gang-involved young women to be innocent victims in need of rescuing and all gang-involved young men to be vicious, sexually exploitative criminals is not only infantile and inaccurate, it is actively obstructive to producing the shifts in policy and culture that could help to keep safer young women and young men alike.

Some important findings from the ONS crime stats: Intimate & sexual violence

The Office for National Statistics have published the latest crime statistics for England and Wales. As they do almost invariably, the mainstream media have published selected figures without any trends or historical context, to provide alarming headlines. Typically, the Guardian proclaims “Domestic violence experienced by 30% of female population, survey shows.”

It is true, after a fashion, if one chooses to define domestic violence as any one single adult lifetime incident of emotional or financial abuse, threat or minor force’ by any partner or family member. That is not, however, how most people (including most agencies and academics) would choose to define domestic violence. The total is here

CSEWTotalCount

If we look at the table which breaks down the experience of all those victims, a rather less dramatic picture emerges.

CSEW1Abuse_Type

This shows a couple of interesting things. The first is that only about a third of all victims reported any instance of severe force or serious sexual assault. Of course some forms of non-physical abuse can be devastating and terrifying, but it is important to note that the reality of the data is not quite as dramatic as headlines would suggest.

The second notable thing here, I think, is that while (as most of us realise) female victims of most forms of intimate violence are more numerous, male victims here were much more likely to report having experienced severe force as women. This doesn’t match the stereotype which paints male violence as severe and frightening, and women’s as trivial acts of self-defence.

Where headlines like the Guardian’s really slip up though, is in hiding the trends. You really wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but we are in the midst of an ongoing and dramatic decline in partner violence. A rather more appropriate headline would be: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AT AN ALL TIME LOW. You could go further. Partner violence is at an all time low. Sexual violence is at an all time low. Stalking is at an all time low. Domestic homicides are at an all time low. And if you’re wondering, for male victims the rates hit an all time low in 2010/11 and have remained roughly constant since.

As these tables show, both male and female victimisation has dropped by about 20-25% over the past decade. (Regular readers will know that the decade prior to that saw even more dramatic declines. Partner violence was at its peak in the mid 90s) The trend is probably clearest on physical violence, but even sexual violence against women is now at the lowest point since records began.

CSEW2Trends

The trend is even more marked in the domestic partner homicide figures. There were 75 women killed by partners and ex-partners last year, and 15 men. In 2004/5 the equivalent numbers were 106 and 39. It goes without saying that any homicide is one too many, but it would be wilfully obtuse to ignore the good news here. (Should also be pointed out that figures are just about the only police stat that can be relied upon for accuracy.)

CSEWHomicides_domesticr

Elsewhere in the data, another couple of statistics that intrigue me, because they are so unexpected. If anyone can offer credible explanations, I’m all ears.

UPDATED: THE FOLLOWING APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN A MISTAKE IN THE ORIGINAL DATA TABLES, SINCE CORRECTED (see comments, and hat tip to Unity at Ministry of Truth

First, it appears that the majority of serious sexual assaults on women are committed by strangers. This flies in the face of received wisdom, which holds that women are much more likely to be raped or seriously sexually assaulted by their partners, loved ones and acquaintances. Look

CSEWRelationships

The only explanation I can offer is that the dramatic improvement in rates of domestic and relationship violence – including much improved capacity and greater willingness of people to leave abusive relationships – mean that those types of assaults have become less common, while frequency of stranger attacks have remained broadly unchanged. I had a quick look at the stats from last year, and they were heading in the same direction, which would confirm that.

One final point regards the consequences of intimate violence on the victims. A point I’ve often seen raised in relation to male victims is that compared to their female equivalents, they are less likely to live in fear and terror, less likely to be traumatised, and are therefore in less need of support, protection and services.

Well the CSEW asks a question in that vein, and it turns out that yes – male victims are less likely to have lasting psychological damage from their abuse – but the difference is marginal.

CSEWconsequences

In a nutshell, 4 out of 10 female victims have lasting psychological impacts, but so do 3 out of 10 men. Five women in a hundred feel suicidal, so do three men in a hundred. Yes, there are differences there, but I’d suggest they are not dramatic enough to really operate as justification for any kind of discriminatory policy.

Some final notes on the CSEW, from which these stats are drawn. For those who don’t know, it is a survey of around 50,000 people and is one of the best regarded, most reliable victim surveys in the world. But it is not perfect. There are problems with it – notably it misses data from people on the margins of society, who are temporarily homeless or who have chaotic lifestyles. There are always doubts about the accuracy and honesty of subjects’ reporting in surveys like this. There is a particular issue with the intimate violence modules, which is that it does not record high multiples of instances – it is counting the numbers of victims, not the numbers of incidents. So the CSEW does not really pick up on rates of systematic coercive controlling violence which (some researchers claim) is the type of DV which is most likely to be male perpetrator – female victim.

For all that, what the CSEW does do is provide really quite reliable data on trends. Whatever doubts we may have about total counts and some of the details, I’d be pretty confident that what this survey is telling us about the long-term trends is pretty much true. And that really is good news, whatever you might read in the newspaper.

Breaking the silence on male abuse victims.

You may recall a few months ago I was helping Survivors Manchester to lobby government for access to funding for male rape  victims, who were explicitly excluded from the large Rape Support Fund.

I’m delighted to let you know that today the Ministry of Justice announced a new dedicated fund for male victims or rape and sexual assault. They are also throwing their weight behind Survivors Manchester’s #BreakTheSilence social media campaign. I was asked to write something for the Independent today, which was one of the most gratifying commissions I’ve had for a while.

First published at the Independent

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Today’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice of a new fund for male victims of rape and sexual violence is hugely significant.

The significance is not in the sum of money. While £500,000 is more than welcome, and will make a huge difference to the funded organisations and their clients, nobody would pretend it can do more than scrape at the scale of a problem which impacts an estimated 72,000 new adult victims every year and untold numbers of children. Nor does the significance lie in acknowledgement of the problem – charities have previously been funded for limited work with male victims, and in the light of historic sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church and social service care homes, no one can plead ignorance as to the extent of horrors involved.

The significance is not even in the campaigning victory of charities like Survivors Manchester, who have fought persistently against the flagrant injustice of male victims being explicitly excluded from funds set up to provide care and support to victims of rape and abuse – although that achievement should not be overlooked. The historic significance of today’s announcement is that it marks the first time that a British government of any stripe has ringfenced any quantity of victim support funding specifically to help men and boys. It may only be half a million quid, but it is a priceless milestone.

Although male victims make up a significant minority of cases of child sex abuse and of adult sexual, domestic and relationship violence, their specific needs and circumstances are often pushed so far to the margins of debate and policy that they all but disappear. In mainstream political and media narratives, the terms sexual violence and relationship violence are taken to be synonymous with the phrase ‘violence against women and girls.’

This has consequences for male victims which go far beyond access to funding and resources. The voices and views of male victims are often excluded from debates about the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes, despite considerable evidence to show there are specific and complex issues around men’s and boys’ willingness to report and testify. Debates around cultures of victim- blaming often focus exclusively on women’s supposed behaviour or appearance, almost never on men’s sexuality, despite extensive evidence that male victims, just like female victims, are commonly assumed to have been ‘asking for it.’

While our society still has a long way to go before it treats the sexual abuse of women with the seriousness it requires, the equivalent journey for men has barely begun. Prison rape jokes in particular are almost ubiquitous. The ugly reality of that issue is stomach-churning rather than comic. One study drew upon interviews with ex-prisoners. The evidence was that while fewer prisoners are raped in British prisons than some people might imagine, those who are victimised are typically singled out for their physical and mental vulnerability and attacked repeatedly by multiple perpetrators. Detailed data on the extent of the problem in the UK remains elusive however because, shockingly, no one has ever commissioned or authorised the research to find out.

A different issue confronts the sizeable minority of male victims whose abusers are female. Despite clinical literature demonstrating that such victims face similar risks to other abuse survivors of post-traumatic symptoms, guilt, emotional and mental health risks and sexual dysfunction, victims often report feeling entirely isolated by a cultural denial of their existence. Boys who are abused by older women are told they should consider themselves lucky or grateful. While there is a large weight of evidence demonstrating that surprisingly large numbers of adult men can be victims of coercive or violent sexual abuse by women, their needs and situations are all but entirely ignored.

Perhaps the strongest argument for reserved funding for male victims is that if government won’t help victims, nobody will. Charities working specifically with male victims tend to be desperately under-funded, the sad truth is that they are not considered the most sympathetic causes. Social psychologists have found that both genders, but especially men, are more likely to give to women in need than to men, which is generally attributed to socialised notions of chivalry. If ever you wanted an example of the feminist dictum that patriarchy hurts men too, it is right here.

Perhaps things are slowly changing. Similar points were made for many years about funding for research into male-specific cancers, but in recent years initiatives like Movember and Men United have brought glimmers of light to the gloom. Alongside the new funding, the Ministry of Justice have thrown their weight behind the survivors’ charities social media campaign, #BreakTheSilence. Further support has come from the cast of Hollyoaks, which is currently running a sensitively-handled storyline of male rape. It is perhaps this gradual, public unlocking of the issue which, more than anything, can bring hope to survivors.

Abuse is not a team game

Like Suzanne Moore, I am in no rush to Tweet or blog my opinions on the allegations made by Dylan Farrow about Woody Allen. Of course I have my own suspicions about the most probable truth of events that occurred in her childhood, but not only am I in no position to do any more than guess, I struggle to see who gains from the kangaroo court of Twitter. The notion that expressing support for the alleged victim will provide comfort and succour to either Farrow herself or victims of sexual abuse at large strikes me as bogus – at the very least I can see how any comfort it might provide is more than cancelled out by the accompanying trivialisation. Likewise, the notion that standing up for Allen strikes a blow for the wrongly accused everywhere.

To make either claim is to generalise out from one specific, complex case with unique individuals and unique circumstances and make them symbolic representations, even totems for wider socio-political debates. We can (and should) do that with fictional and historical characters. To do so with real, living individuals and current cases strikes me as profoundly dangerous and misguided.

I have watched the debate unfold over recent days with gnawing, even nauseous discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I was able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it when I started to see the inevitable tweets hashtagged #TeamDylan and #TeamWoody – that was when I knew we were not dealing with a meaningful debate but a synthesized, mass-participation role-playing game in which people picked their sides, adopted their character, and went into a make-believe battle, one in which one can do the fighting without the bleeding, safe and secure in the knowledge that one can withdraw at any time and that the whole game will anyway be forgotten in a week or two.

I began to despise the #Team trend during the saga of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi. Over the previous couple of years I had seen use of the tag migrate from tweets about reality TV shows like Big Brother to be adopted by fans of pop puppets – whenever a bad headline appeared in a tabloid, fans would rush to declare #TeamJustin or #TeamHarry. So far, so silly. Then one Sunday in June, a paper ran those horrific snaps of a famous, powerful man apparently assaulting his much-loved, more famous wife outside a restaurant. The photos set off a chain of events that included a marriage break-up (with children involved) and a court case with allegations of drug-use. I do not blame people for having sympathies or opinions about the events and the people involved. I do utterly condemn those who adopted the stylings and language of reality TV and pop gossip to engage themselves and make themselves part of the story, when the story is something a mortally serious as sexual or domestic abuse. [See footnote]

To declare oneself on someone’s team is to position oneself not as a supporter or a fan, but as a player, an active participant in an unfolding drama. Could anything be more narcissistic than to locate oneself in the midst of the human tragedy of others? Knowing that Nigella Lawson herself acknowledged and thanked #TeamNigella does not, to me, excuse or improve matters. It just emphasises that she was caught at the heart of an almighty public circus and that her private life was now public property.

What’s worse, I think, is that such language and behaviour actively degrades the suffering of real people. It is hardly an original insight to note that celebrities’ lives are experienced by the rest of us as fictions, the impressions we get of the famous are largely moulded and shaped for better or worse by publicists, by journalists, by editors, by agendas. There has to be a line where this stops being an acceptable source of colour, amusement, humour and harmless titillation in our postmodern lives and becomes exploitative, corrosive and degrading. I would propose that wherever the line is, sexual abuse of children and intimate partner abuse are well across it.

Commercial media has a vested financial interest in dehumanising celebrities’ personalities, caricaturing their complexities and fictionalising their lives into a soap opera or a reality TV show. For a long time, we went along with that. Thanks to social media, we are now the prime culprits.

 

UPDATED PS – Literally seconds after I’d posted this I saw that @stavvers had written a compelling blog as to why Suzanne Moore is wrong, focussing on another hashtag  - #IBelieveHer or #IBelieveDylan.

Just for clarity, I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with that. As I’ve written many a time before, “I believe her” (or him) should always be our default response to victims’ reports of abuse.  And I think “I believe”  is a perfectly legitimate expression of opinion.

That said, I remain deeply uncomfortable about using celebrities as avatars of profound political truths in circumstances like this – it quickly becomes less of a discussion than a circus.

Male victims, screening and victim-blaming

Crimestoppers, an official UK central government public information service, today published a piece about male victims of domestic violence on their blog. The piece was authored by Ippo Panteloudakis, a staff member from Respect UK, the charity which runs the Men’s Advice Line and which accredits DV perpetrator rehabilitation schemes, among many other responsibilities.

Towards the end of the piece, it states:

Although attitudes are changing, gender stereotypes make it difficult for some to think of men as victims, i.e. men must always be strong and if they are physically stronger they can’t be victims.

This is true, of course, and we should welcome its inclusion. Unfortunately the very next paragraph goes on to say this

Another issue some callers bring is the use of violence by both partners – working out who the ‘primary perpetrator/aggressor’ is in these cases and who was genuinely in self-defence is crucial if we want to manage the risk and increase the safety of victims. It is well established by now that some perpetrators approach victim services claiming they are the victim in their relationship. This has important implications for service delivery as perpetrators may be offered support as victims and victims as perpetrators.

One of the nastiest stereotypes that hovers around male victims of intimate partner violence is that he must have done something to provoke it, to deserve it, or that the abuser must have been defending herself because the man is invariably the violent one. There is no evidence that this is true for male victims any more frequently than it is for female victims, and yet this type of victim-blaming would be immediately hounded out of the room if it were applied to women.  Indeed, Erin Pizzey was famously excommunicated from the feminist / domestic violence realm about 40 years ago for making exactly this point about  the women she saw in Chiswick.

Last summer I praised the excellent report by Abused Men in Scotland which evaluated the experiences of men accessing services for victims and survivors. One point this report picked up was that some men who had called the Men’s Advice Line felt as if they were being themselves ‘screened’ as perpetrators and all but accused of being wife-beaters when they called for help. It should not  take much imagination to appreciate how damaging that can be to the trust relationship between a vulnerable person seeking help and the agency which is supposed to be supporting him.

The Men’s Advice Line reacted angrily, firing off a letter to AMIS demanding retraction and correction, and insisting that they did not practice “screening”, they merely “risk and needs assess.” Brian Dempsey, author of the original report, provided a response that was, I think, quite definitive. According to Men’s Advice Line’s own published data, their helpline workers ask sufficient questions on first contact to make a (supposed) assessment of whether the caller is a victim, a  perpetrator, a victim who uses violent resistance or a perpetrator whose victim uses violent resistance.

Brian Dempsey’s response also notes that in July 2013, while these letters were bouncing back and forth, the noted feminist academic Catherine Donovan appeared on Women’s Hour and praised Respect  / MAL for they way in which they “screen” callers to establish whether they are victims or perpetrators.

The reality is that there is no straightforward model of family violence. Some instances happen with one violent controlling bully who batters the other party without retaliation. Such offenders can be male or female, and so can their victims. A large proportion of family violence (most research suggests as much as half) is to some extent reciprocal and mutual, with no easy answer as to who is starting it, who is escalating it, who is aggressing and who is acting in self defence. Asking who is the perpetrator and who is the victim is meaningless. The answer to both is both. The urge to carefully delineate callers into perpetrators and victims is a simplistic attempt to divide the world into goodies and baddies and much of the time the world just does not work like that. It must be noted that other services for victims of partner violence – not only all services for female victims but also the Mankind Initiative Helpline and Dyn Project in Wales run successful and acclaimed services without the need to screen or “risk and needs assess.”

Someone who approaches a victim support service – whether a helpline, a refuge or anything else – must be assumed to be in need of support and be offered the help they need. There is a good argument to say that as part of the support process, all victims should somehow be offered help with any violent or aggressive tendencies of their own. Raising such an issue without alienating and adding to the distress of victims would be an exceptionally delicate and difficult task. Which is why Respect  / MAL’s cavalier approach to the issue is so deeply concerning.

 

 

Instant reflections on the Natsal survey on sexual coercion

Today saw the publication of the new edition of the Lancet journal, which is largely devoted to Britain’s largest survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyle: Natsal

Much media attention was devoted to the findings on rape and sexual coercion, or as the researchers call it, non-volitional sex.

To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time a UK-based survey of this size has asked men and women the exact same question in the same context about their experience of non-consensual sex. After looking at many studies from around the world which have found surprisingly high response rates among men when questioned on the issue, it is worth noting that this survey is more in line with expectations. Here’s the full description from the methodology:

“We asked women and men about their experience of sex against their will since the age of 13 years, in the computer-assisted self-interview section of the questionnaire, in which heterosexual sex was defined as including “vaginal, oral, or anal” and same-sex sex as including “oral (or, for men only, anal) sex or any other contact involving the genital area”. Only participants who reported having had heterosexual intercourse or sex with someone of the same sex since 13 years of age were routed to these questions. The first question was worded “Has anyone tried to make you have sex with them, against your will?” Participants who responded “yes” were defined as having experienced “attempted non-volitional sex”, and were then asked “Has anyone actually made you have sex with them, against your will?”, which was used to define the experience of “completed non-volitional sex”.

 

the results were that 9.8% of women and 1.4% of men reported having been the victim of non-volitional sex. For easy comparison, that would mean that for every eight rapes, seven were of women and one was of a man.

Some points to note. First, the  wording of the question used on this survey is stronger than in many of the studies I wrote about in the previous blog. There is little doubt that it describes rape, rather than what we might call ‘reluctant sex’ or gentle coercion. This might explain why the gender difference is wider than in some other surveys.

On the other hand, I continue to wonder if many male victims of female sexual aggression simply don’t think their experience counts when they are asked about this. I do wonder whether the response rate might have been a bit higher if the question had specified “has anyone, male or female, actually made you have sex with them, against your will?”

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

The other detail in the report which caught my attention, which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, was that among both male and female victims the median age for the last incidence (of non-volitional sex) was at a very early age – 16 for men, 18 for women. For men, there was no difference in this between different age cohorts, but for women, the youngest group (16-24) and the oldest group (65-74) had significantly lower incidence rates than other groups.

This would, I think, appear to shadow an effect that we have noted in the US before, but I’ve yet to see confirmed in the UK – which is that there was a large rise in the rate of rape of young women over the  1970s to the 1990s which has since gone into decline, which would, of course, be welcome news. It also highlights why estimates of lifetime risks of a crime like rape – the incidence of which is not evenly spread over a lifetime  - are fundamentally flawed. Claims like “1 in 5 women will be raped” “1 in 10 women will be raped” or any such calculation are fundamentally flawed. (Same goes for men, of course.)

I’m still going through other sections of the report, and shall update you if I find anything interesting.

So how do we eliminate violence against women?

Today, November 25th, is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I’ve always liked the unequivocal absolutism of this demand – it’s not just a call for awareness, or even a reduction, but the total, final eradication of violence against women. As the Situationists used to say: Be reasonable – demand the impossible.

What I’m less clear about is what we are meant to do to achieve this aim. The day is also known to many as White Ribbon Day, when men around the world pledge never to use or tolerate violence against women and to actively work to end it. I’ll confess I’ve never been comfortable with this campaign. It may be unfair, but it always looks to me like the gentleman doth protest too much, it seems to say “look at me, I don’t beat or rape women!”  Whoop-de-fucking-do, well done you, have a ribbon.

It’s not that such campaigns do any harm. I don’t for a moment buy the argument that campaigns like this are misandrist, implying that all men are potential rapists and wife-beaters, that is paranoid poppycock. I just don’t think they offer any meaningful solution. I also have a deeper, philosophical problem with the politics behind the campaign. As with the slogan “Only men can stop rape” it places the power, the agency and the control of the phenomenon entirely within the gift of men. That is not necessarily entirely helpful – what men can grant, men can take away. I don’t think the use of violence (against anyone) should be an option. The natural right to live free from violence and exploitation is not anyone else’s to grant or rescind. I’m much more comfortable with the campaign slogan of Scottish Women’s Aid: “Together we can stop it” or perhaps the lyrics of Twisted Sister’s feminist classic (no, really) We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.

There’s another reason why the White Ribbon campaign strikes me as inadequate. For any one person, violence is (usually) a choice made with free will and each of us has personal responsibility for our own actions and decisions. However those decisions are not made in an individualist bubble, but are steered, prompted and motivated by a lifetime of experience and social conditioning. The way I like to think of this is that if you lock a hundred people in a cool, calm, well-ventilated room for 24 hours, the chances of someone punching someone else might be fairly slim. If you switch off the air-con, let the temperature rise, play aggressive, edgy music ever more loudly, the chances of a punch being thrown increase considerably. Whoever threw the punch remains responsible for their own actions, but not in conditions of their own making. The way we mould society, through politics, culture and our own interactions, create the environment in which violence occurs.

I agree with many feminists that, to some extent, male violence against women is informed by patriarchal gender roles – the idea that women should be subordinate to men and kept in line, that they are men’s chattel or playthings. This is true  in many parts of the world today, has historically been true in developed societies and, to a certain extent, still remains so. Challenging vestigial or active gender inequality and male cultural dominion are worthwhile ends in themselves, however this does not and cannot explain all violence, nor even all violence against women. To focus purely on violence rooted in patriarchal dominance is to leave the bulk of the problem unaddressed and therefore excluded from any solutions.

Violence takes many forms, has many meanings and many causes. Today, by coincidence I presume, Professor Murray Straus addresses the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Atlanta with a major and important new paper.  He used data from 15 different countries to demonstrate that university students who were spanked as children were significantly more likely to engage in criminal activity on each of nine different measures – six of which related to violence against others, including partner violence. The findings remained true even after controlling for background, parenting style in other respects and childhood misbehaviour (in other words, it wasn’t the case that children were beaten because they were already more naughty).   The effect was strongest where the child had been beaten by both a father and a mother.

Previous research by Straus has found that a child who grows up in a family where adults are violent to each other is almost three times as likely to display violent behaviour in adulthood. Another study found that a child subjected to physical abuse who also witnesses domestic violence is between five and nine times as likely to become an abusive adult. Over the past 40 years, the developed world has turned against corporal punishment, grown less tolerant of violence and bullying in the playground and physical and sexual abuse in the home. We have also seen precipitous drops in most forms of interpersonal crime and violence. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Ending violence against women will not and cannot be achieved in isolation. Male violence against women is one hub of a psychological and sociological network and is ultimately inseparable from men’s violence against men, women’s violence against women and men and, above all, adult violence against children. For good measure, we could probably add in the economic and social violence of inequality and political injustice.

Eliminating violence against women is a far-reaching ambition. To achieve it, we may need to reach much farther than anyone is prepared to acknowledge.