Everyday sexists or exceptional sickos? Observing hostile public masturbation

Laura Bates this week devoted her Everyday Sexism blog on the Guardian to the issue of men masturbating in public, specifically as a means of harassing women. Based on the contributions submitted to her website and over Twitter, she made a convincing case that this is one of the more common forms of harassment women experience, and her correspondents made a convincing case that it is also one of the most disturbing and frightening.

Beneath the line, an interesting and at times furious debate erupted. Some commentators, mostly men, I suspect, suggested that this should not be considered a form of sexism, it is instead the work of ‘sickos’ or ‘the local lunatic.’ Others, mostly women I suspect, responded that the men they had encountered behaving like this had been wearing suits and ties and showed no other sign of being mentally ill or generally disturbed. Some suggested that the experience is so common that it must be a large proportion of men who are doing this. This opinion, needless to say, was not well received by many men.

It was a debate that raised a lot of really interesting and important issues, and I thought they might be worth unpicking. My initial sense is that public masturbation is not a thing – it is several different things. Examples quoted in Laura’s piece include men masturbating when alone in a train carriage with a woman and leering at her; a woman discovering ejaculate in their hair from someone sitting behind her in a cinema; frotteurs rubbing themselves against a woman in a crushed tube train; people catching someone hiding in the bushes and masturbating while watching them in secret and even a man walking down the road, apparently unperturbed with his penis in his hand.

While these have an obvious superficial similarity, I’d suggest that they are actually all different phenomena and may have very different forensic profiles.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on public masturbation, with the intent or expectation of being seen and eliciting a reaction. This is clinically classified as exhibitionism, which is a very common form of paraphilia. As long ago as 1973, JM McDonald noted in the original textbook that fully one third of sexual crimes reported to police were exhibitionism of some sort. A Swedish survey of the general population found that 4.1% of men and 2.1% of women admitted that they had, at some time in their lives, experienced sexual arousal by exposing their genitals to strangers. This suggests that the behaviour, while only performed by a small minority, is not freakishly unusual. It should be noted that despite those survey results above, the incidents which are reported to police (a rough proxy for incidents which could be considered threatening or traumatic) virtually all offenders are male. Adult male victims are almost unheard of. Child victims are roughly evenly divided between boys and girls.

Paraphilias (as sexual disorders are described in the psych literature and textbooks) are not generally considered to be mental illnesses, although – like personality disorders – they fall under the remit of mental health professionals when they begin to cause harm or distress to either the individual or those around him/her. So an exhibitionist, even a compulsive, repeat offender, is not necessarily ‘mad’ or mentally ill. Paraphilias also appear throughout the population, and there is some (albeit disputed) evidence that they are slightly over-represented among better educated, higher social-class individuals, which would validate the point about offenders wearing business suits.

However this gets complicated when one notes that exhibitionism, like other paraphilias, often appears in a pattern of comorbidity with mental illnesses, personality disorders and neurological disorders – spanning everything from autistic spectrum disorders to temporal lobe seizures.

The final piece in this puzzle is that exhibitionism also commonly appears in a pattern of co-morbidity with other paraphilias and sexual offending behaviours. So a persistent sex offender who commits contact offences – up to and including rape – is reasonably likely to have a history of other offences that include exhibitionism. It is also true that a small number of offenders commit these offences prolifically, so there will be far more women who have encountered such behaviour than there will be men who have committed it.

The sad but inescapable truth is that most people who display hostile paraphilias begin their ‘careers’ in perversion at a young age, usually still in childhood. A large proportion have been victims of childhood abuse of some sort, often but not always sexual. This does not make their behaviour understandable, acceptable or forgiveable.

Without getting lost in philosophical debates about free will and determinism, paraphiliacs have responsibility for their own beliefs, their own behaviour and their own values. The vast majority of victims of child abuse do not go on to abuse others. Most people with atypical sexual desires or who respond to unusual sexual stimuli find safe, non-abusive expressions for those urges and desires, ideally with an enthusiastically consenting partner or at least a rich fantasy life.

One can be mentally ill, one can be a misogynist, and one can be or neither, or both. I don’t think it is any kind of a stretch to include this type of behaviour under the banner ‘everyday sexism.’ It happens commonly enough and undoubtedly has a heavily gendered dynamic in the overwhelming majority of cases. On the other hand, the people committing the offences probably are not ‘everyday sexists’, they are what the textbooks call ‘deviant’ or disordered sexual offenders. There is no contradiction there.

So are these offenders damaged, disturbed, mentally disordered individuals or are they women-haters, sexists and misogynists? I’d hazard an educated guess that most are both. 

—————

Some more reading I found useful today:

Niklas Langstrom (2010) The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Exhibitionism, Voyeurism,and Frotteurism

Sex and Sexuality: Sexual Deviation and Sexual Offenses. Ed Richard D. McAnulty, M. Michele Burnette

Lee et al, 2002 Developmental risk factors for sexual offending   

 

Can we finally nail down those male victim statistics?

Dear Anna

I’m genuinely grateful for this post on your blog Economista Dentata which delves into the ONS statistics on domestic abuse. After the week I’ve had, I really hope this gives me the opportunity to establish some recognised consensus as to the best available knowledge on some controversial questions, and the fact that you identify the sources of your claims and ‘show your workings’ (forgive the cliché) gives me hope that this could be a really constructive exchange. I hope you would be willing to consider this an ongoing dialogue, so I will make no apologies for asking you some questions and I’ll very much look forward to your answers.

I will go through what I take to be your main points, if you think I have missed anything significant or misrepresented your points, please correct me, I assure you it will be inadvertent.

Before diving headlong into some data, let us clearly define our terms. In theONS definition, domestic violence has a narrower definition than domestic abuse….

The two terms are not interchangeable – domestic abuse covers the entire x- axis: domestic violence excludes non-physical abuse. As the title suggests, Mankind’s video focuses on the physical, but over and over, the statistics Ally cites refer to all abuse. The effect is to muddle the eye of the reader.

 

I willingly accept that the ONS draws a distinction between ‘domestic abuse’ and ‘domestic violence’ – the latter being a narrower category which excludes non-physical abuse. You make a valid criticism that I use the two terms interchangeably without clarification, which could cause confusion.

However as you know, I was addressing points made by Polly Neate from Women’s Aid. Women’s Aid, and indeed the Home Office, define domestic violence as:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse:

psychological

physical

sexual

financial

emotional

That was also the definition I was using (for the record, it is one I accept and agree with.) You will notice that this definition of domestic violence is wider than the ONS one, indeed it is pretty much identical to the ONS definition of domestic abuse.

So I hope you would agree that by the definition quoted above, the claim made by Mankind Initiative about the percentage of victims of domestic violence who are male is not categorically inaccurate.

Are we agreed so far?

That said, it is fair to point out that we now have two operating definitions of domestic violence, one which includes non-physical abuse, and one which doesn’t.

It is important to note that victims can experience more than one type of abuse. Unless I’m missing a trick, it is therefore impossible to know from the figures on your graph (and here) exactly how many men and women were subjected to domestic violence by the strict ONS definition.

Your graph is partnered by this ONS table (click to enlarge)

Table 4.11

There were 700,000 male victims of domestic abuse and 1.2 million female victims of domestic abuse last year. We do therefore know how many men and women were subjected to each of the subcategories of abuse.

If we’re to be exact with our sums, I make it 37% of victims of domestic abuse are men, not 40%. I’ll accept those corrections.

From Table 4.11 we can also say that:

Men make up only small percentages of sexual violence and stalking victims. No argument from me there, although they are much, much smaller groups than the non-sexual abuse category.

There were 392,000 male victims of non-physical (emotional and financial) abuse (56% of 700,000) and 612,000 women (51% of 1.2m). That means 39% of victims of this type of abuse were male.

We can repeat this calculation to find that 329,000 men and were subjected to threats or force compared to 588,000 women, so 36% of victims of this type of domestic abuse were male.

Within that category:

17% of those subjected to threats were male.

31% of those subjected to minor force (‘pushed you, held you down or slapped you’) were male.

41% of those subjected to severe force (‘kicked, hit, bitten, choked, strangled, threatened with a weapon, threats to kill, use of a weapon or some other kind of force’) were male.

Looking at those statistics, especially the last one, while we can probably agree that it is never possible to capture a complex phenomenon like intimate partner abuse in a single statistic, would you not agree it is reasonable for a campaigning charity like the Mankind Initiative to tell a general, public audience that 40% of victims of domestic violence are male?

If not, can I ask you directly, what do you think would be a reasonable calculation, from all available evidence, of the proportion of victims of domestic abuse / violence who are male?

 

–—————–

 

We might all want to take a breather here, before I move on to your next point!

 

–—————-

So, to the data: there are several sources for this, which rather unhelpfully from our viewpoint have different methodologies. This notwithstanding, the ONS is pellucidly clear in its Summary and throughout: “Women were more likely than men to have experienced intimate violence across all headline types of abuse asked about.” Note: they do not say the likelihoods are of a comparable magnitude.

Yet this is the argument, that over and over again, Ally, in his defence of Mankind Initiative’s video, tries with more or less subtlety, to push.

I have very little to say about this beyond the fact that it is not true. I’ve said (and continue to say) that men make up a significant minority of victims of abuse but nowhere, in my recent blog or anywhere else, have I ever said that men were equally likely to face abuse. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has the Mankind Initiative. 40% versus 60% is not “comparable magnitude” of likelihood. I simply do not know where you have got that from and I would respectfully ask you to withdraw it, or at least explain what it is I’ve said to give you the wrong idea, so I can be careful not to say it again.

–———–

Ally says: “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.” (Ally’s blog)

But, seeing as 40% of domestic violence victims in the UK are men…”(HuffPo)

Not only is that NOT the first fact stated on the Women’s Aid page

Whoops, my fault. It is the first statistic quoted on the domestic violence page of the Women’s Aid website. I hold my hand up and apologise for the error.

but he has compared a statistic about domestic violence to one about domestic abuse, in order, it seems, to minimise the violence women suffer and exaggerate that suffered by men.

See above. I maintain that according to the definition of domestic violence used by both the Home Office and Women’s Aid, it is not inaccurate to say that around 40% of domestic violence victims are male.

The time frames are also different: Ally cites Women’s Aid ‘in her lifetime’ – but the ONS data refers to reported incidents in the last year; the sample sizes are not the same: Women’s Aid’s statistic refers ALL women in the adult female population not the percentage of victims referred to by the ONS.

This is a fair point, in that I did switch between annual and lifetime figures, which is sloppy. However the Women’s Aid statistic of lifetime prevalence does indeed come from the BCS/CSEW – the exact same data that provide annual figures. To be accurate, the latest CSEW gives the figures of “30% of women and 16.3% of men had experienced any domestic abuse since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 4.9 million female victims of domestic abuse and 2.7 million male victims” – which is slightly more than one in four women. But the key point is that this estimate refers to victims experiencing any one incident, not a repeated pattern.

As this page demonstrates, Women’s Aid themselves acknowledge that the “one in four women” figure (like the “one in six men” figure) is indeed based on single incidents, not repeated and prolonged patterns. So while I didn’t make my case very carefully in the original blog, the point very much still stands. Women’s Aid use single incident statistics when they want to demonstrate how commonplace domestic violence against women is, then discount single incident statistics when they want to claim domestic violence against men is rare.

–———-

Ally and Mankind also leave unaddressed that men will be perpetrators of violence against men in relationships, as well as being victims (it’s worth noting that of all incidents of all kinds of violence in society, the majority are committed by men); domestic violence and abuse against men will not take place solely in heterosexual relationships (the same caveat, of course, applies to women).

It is true that some partner violence against men can occur in same sex relationships, as of course can some partner violence against women.

Thankfully, the ONS have also considered this so we do have the data (albeit the most recent is from 2008/9) It is here, on Page 76. I appreciate the table is sideways on the pdf, so to save you some contortionism, the main points are that partner abuse victimisation among:

  • Heterosexual men = 4.1%
  • Heterosexual women = 5.9%
  • Gay/ bisexual men = 8.9%
  • Lesbian/bisexual women = 17.3%

I would advise not reading too much into the gay / lesbian / bi categories which can be complicated by all sorts of factors (not least margins of error with small groups). The key statistics are the first two. Among purely heterosexual populations, there are (very slightly more than) four male victims for every six female victims. Another way to put that is that about 40% of heterosexual victims of partner abuse are male. If we include same sex relationships in the analysis the proportion of victims who are male does not go up, it falls.

–———–

His attempt to redefine domestic violence by volume of incidents a victim suffers is puzzling at best: to quote Mankind’s own slogan ‘ViolenceisViolence’ whether it’s once or a thousand times.

Forgive me if I’m being dense here, I don’t understand this point. I think you may be referring to my responses to Polly Neate’s attempts to redefine domestic violence by volume of incidents. It was her doing that, not me. She appeared to be suggesting that domestic violence is only real domestic violence if it happens repeatedly, as a pattern.

If you’re puzzled by that, hey, join the club. I quite agree, #ViolenceIsViolence whether it happens once or a thousand times.

–—

In order to end male violence in society against women, we need to understand and name the problem.

 

I don’t disagree with that. At no point have I denied male violence, and I am on a lifelong mission to attempt to understand it. I’m also quite happy to name male violence as male violence.

However male violence is not the only type of violence in society and I have spent much of the last week fielding angry attacks from those who would appear to demand that I accept it is, against all evidence to the contrary.

 

Ally Fogg calls himself an ally to feminists.

 

Actually he doesn’t. I am sometimes called that by others, but believe me, I’m called a lot of worse things too.

 

 

Tackling the facts about the World Cup and domestic abuse

With the World Cup approaching, as predictable as a catastrophic metatarsal fracture or an unfathomable miss by Lampard, the police have issued warnings of a sudden spate of domestic violence incidents coinciding with every England game.

Equally predictably, voices from the manosphere shout “HOAX” and suggest that such claims are a fabricated, bogus defamation of men and their (ok, our) harmless hobbies. The rebuttals tend to recite the well-known case of the Superbowl domestic violence myth or, slightly more pertinently, an article by Christina Hoff-Sommers published at the time of the last World Cup.

As someone who loves drinking, loves football, and especially loves drinking my way through the World Cup, I would love to be able to reassure everyone that all these stories about drunken British football fans beating their wives (or, on occasion, their husbands) are an urban legend. Sadly they are, with a few caveats, very largely true.

Since Hoff-Sommers wrote her piece last time round, this research was published by Kirby et al which does demonstrate a large and significant effect. Yes, it is drawn from a localised sample, which can raise issues, but otherwise it seems sound and does address many of the problems which have cast doubt over previous claims in this area – for example controlling for seasonal variations in domestic violence rates.

A few years ago, a Scottish football supporters’ webzine investigated claims by Strathclyde police about a spike in violence on Old Firm match days (that’s the Glasgow Rangers-Celtic local derby, overseas guests). They requested the figures and, with great fanfare, proclaimed the police to be either mistaken or dishonest. There was no noticeable difference in DV incidents on Old Firm match days.

I submitted my own FOI request and got the raw data. At first glance, they appeared to be correct. There was no match day effect. However something peculiar happened – while there was not a significant rise in DV reports on match days, there was a very large rise the day after match days.

After a few phonecalls with a helpful Strathclyde Police data analyst up in Glasgow, we established that there was one data set drawn from the informal daily incident log, which ran with police shifts, ending at 5am. However the data released on request was the official recorded incident data, which ran midnight to midnight. A large proportion of the “match day” domestic violence incidents were happening between midnight and 5am, and were not showing up in the daily statistics. It was a salutary reminder that not only do we have to keep a close eye on those who release and act upon official statistics, we have to keep a similarly close eye on those who seek to debunk official statistics, even through such channels as the Freedom of Information Act.

As I mentioned however, there are caveats. We should bear in mind that there are more police on duty on match days. They may, therefore, be more likely to catch couples who are brawling / assaulting each other in public. These cases will show up in the statistics. It is also possible that the publicity and warnings surrounding domestic violence on match days is, to an extent, effective. It might encourage victims to call for help when otherwise they would not have done.

Most significantly, however, we should bear in mind that it is not only football matches that cause such spikes in domestic violence. The figures also rise a lot on bank holidays and (of course) occasions such as Christmas and New Year. Last month Manchester saw its worst weekend for domestic abuse this year, worse even than New Year. Why? Apparently for no other reason than the sun came out and people got thirsty. An exercise I have always wanted to undertake (remind me sometime) would be to access domestic violence data for occasions such as royal weddings or the Queen’s Jubilee, when a national holiday and street parties are actively encouraged. I strongly suspect we would see the same effect, although for some reason the media seems reluctant to highlight those risks.

There is one final point that must be made about this research. A couple of recent papers in medical journals by Zara Quigg and colleagues (here and here)  have examined emergency department injury data on World Cup match days. Once again, the effect is there – a significant rise in admissions should be expected. What is less often mentioned is that the great majority of injuries are to men, with young adult males (18 -34) alone representing more than half of all admissions. The gender difference in hospital admissions which exists every weekend does not narrow on big match days – it increases.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I do not doubt that this is overwhelmingly men’s violence against men. From a male point of view, this is our problem. However there is a widespread assumption that such casualties are self-inflicted – lads going out, looking for a fight and coming off worse. That can happen, but research into street violence shows that a lot of incidents are unilateral or the result of several assailants attacking one victim. No level of violence is a tolerable level of violence.

I support and endorse campaigns which highlight the increased risks of partner abuse around football matches. The myths on this score are propagated not by police and charities, but by denialists. Having said that, I’d like to see a little more acknowledgement that the risks are not only faced by women.

On that note, I wish you an enjoyable, successful and above all, safe World Cup. It’s Samba Time!

#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.