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

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

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

On the psychology of domestic violence

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

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

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

This week has offered us a couple of vivid illustrations of why gender-inclusive policies are so desperately and urgently needed across the political and media strata.

Just to put what follows in context, please consider the story that has dominated headline news for the past four weeks. At the latest count, police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse by 83 suspects with involvement in 98 football clubs, on the basis of reports made by (or about) more than 350 men.  One might think this alone would be enough to remind officials and commentators that boys and men are far from immune to crimes of intimate violence. On top of the raw numbers, evidence is mounting that the sport as a whole was steeped in a culture of (at best) systematic indifference to the welfare and human dignity of boys and young men in their charge. [Read more…]

Reflections on political violence and its aftermath

Has there ever been a violent act that had a single cause? I doubt it.

Last Saturday night in Orlando, Omar Mateen took an automatic rifle into an LGBT nightclub, slaughtered 49 innocent people and left a similar number grievously wounded and maimed.  The next evening on Sky TV, presenter Mark Longhurst caused a storm by repeatedly insisting that the murders had nothing to do with the victims’ sexuality or the killers’ homophobia but was purely in the modern tradition of Islamist terrorism, and that this was not an attack on the LGBT community but on ‘humanity.’. One of his guests, the (gay) Guardian columnist Owen Jones walked off the set in disgust. The next morning the UK set about enthusiastically dividing itself into one or other camp. As the days have gone by, various other jigsaw pieces have emerged: Mateen had a history of abuse; his father is close to the Taleban; he was a closeted homosexual; come on everyone, pick your horse and flog it.

This morning the same country is reeling in shock at the brutal killing of Jo Cox, a member of parliament and much-admired champion of human rights, asylum and refuge and international development, not to mention mother to two small children. Initial reports suggested her killer had shouted ‘Britain first” during and after the fatal fracas, leading to the instant assumption that was an act of fascist terrorism inspired by the increasingly ugly and racist tone of the EU referendum campaign. Within a few hours a second explanatory narrative had emerged that insisted the alleged killer Thomas Mair had no interest in politics but was, surprise, surprise, a “loner with a history of mental health problems.”

Mair is alive and in custody, so presumably we will eventually get reasonably informative answers to these questions. I have no stomach for adding to the speculation beyond pointing out that ‘mental health problems’ is not any kind of an explanation for a violent act. Yes, there is a minuscule subset of psychiatric conditions which can cause people to behave violently under certain circumstances, and there are various so-called personality disorders which provide a convenient label for other seemingly irrational or destructive acts. From what little we know thus far, there is little to suggest Mair fell into either category.

The truth is I don’t know why Mair might have felt motivated to go to his MP’s surgery with a refurbished vintage pistol and a knife and right now, neither do you.

We have been here many a time before.

Was Richard Reid a disturbed delinquent, shuffling from prison to criminal lifestyle to cause to cause, desperate for validation or a religious fanatic radicalised by murderous hate preachers?

Was Elliot Rodger a rich young white man driven by rampant entitlement and violent misogyny or a deeply damaged, mentally ill, autistic victim of bullying, loneliness and isolation?

Was Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Guardsman Lee Rigby an Islamist fundamentalist terrorist or a borderline schizophrenic on a narcissistic suicide mission?

Was Dylann Roof a violent white supremacist intent on murdering as many African-American people as he could or (again) a disturbed loner with a history of mental illness?

Was Paris bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam a devout Muslim intent on establishing a global caliphate or a jobless stoner drifting in search of an identity?

Was Aileen Wournos a cold-hearted serial killer or a terribly damaged victim of exploitation and male violence who finally cracked?

And so on and so on and so on.

If and when we are honest with ourselves, the answers to all of the questions above are yes to all of the above and much, much more and no to all of the above and much, much more. Human actions, particularly those with potentially profound, life-changing consequences, are never taken because of one reason. Even when we consciously decide to do something for specific and discrete reasons, our decisions are made within personalities that have been forged by an entire lifetime of influences. Deeds of deliberate and extreme violence often erupt out of a raging internal volcano of anger, frustration and bitterness which long predate the immediate trigger or conscious motivation for the act.

In a very astute post this week, written after Orlando but before Birstall, the blogger Carter wrote:

If I have learned anything about understanding anger it is that the first step in helping myself, and others, is understanding that anger is not a first order emotion; anger exists, and flourishes, because of something else we feel or have experienced.

Learning to say not ‘I feel angry’ but ‘I feel angry because…’ is essential.

I cannot complete that sentence for Omar Mateen. Beware anyone who tells you that they can. Responsibility for that could only have rested with Omar Mateen, and he is not going to complete the task.

We can never know how Mateen would have finished that sentence. It is likely we will never know how Thomas Mair would finish that sentence, because it is likely that even Thomas Mair doesn’t really know. So where does this leave us?

Personally, it leaves me with a claggy, gnawing disgust at the reactions to political violence on all sides. I am certainly not immune to the instinctive, kneejerk reaction that seeks to hold someone or something responsible for horrible crimes, and the more horrible the crime, the stronger the urge to extend that responsibility wider. A powerful bit of my soul wants to blame online neo-Nazis like Britain First or even Nigel Farage and the racism of the Leave campaign for the murder of Jo Cox.  The same bit of my soul wants to blame global geopolitics, fundamentalist religion and homophobic social mores for the murders in Orlando. I have realised this instinct is something I must resist.

Instead, I try to fall back on two truths. The first is that in every single case I have listed in this post, the killers who committed the crimes are entirely responsible for their own deeds. They cannot and should not be excused or mitigated far less justified. Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox because he wanted to kill Jo Cox.

The second truth is that every single one of us is the product of the society we create and tolerate. A society which tolerates or foments racist bigotry and hatred will, at its fringes, tolerate and foment racist violence. A society which tolerates or foments misogyny and homophobia will inevitably include misogynistic and homophobic violence. A society which considers civilian casualties to be a price worth paying as collateral damage in pursuit of political ends cannot be surprised when individuals take this to heart and put it into practice.

It is in the nature of political violence that the perpetrators want to make us complicit in their crimes, by noticing, by reacting, by debating, by responding. Of course we cannot just ignore crimes like these, nor can we simply ignore the politics in political murder. We can, however, resist the temptation to slip into pat solutions that do nothing to enlighten or explain, but merely bolster a pre-existing ideological position.

We know domestic abuse of men is a problem. The real question is, what do we do about it?

This week at Manchester Crown Court, Sharon Edwards was convicted of the murder of her husband David. His death was the end of a short but horribly violent relationship. Pathologists found sixty different wounds at the post mortem, including older stabbing injuries all over his body. Friends and colleagues told the trial how he had regularly used make up and a litany of lies and excuses to cover up his injuries. After the jury’s verdict, it emerged that the murderer had a series of previous arrests and convictions for domestic violence against her ex-partners.

The verdict sparked a flurry of media commentary and discussion of varying levels of accuracy and insight. The most depressing exchange of the week came on BBC Woman’s Hour which invited Mark Brooks from the Mankind Initiative to explain that men being murdered by their female partners was a bad thing, and radical feminist violence researcher Marianne Hester, apparently to argue the opposite.  Hester responded to questions about female-perpetrated domestic homicide by saying it happens because women need to use weapons because they aren’t as big and strong as men, and suggesting repeatedly (and without a hint of a shred of evidence), that women who perpetrate deadly violence against male partners are usually doing so out of self-defence – in effect slandering the victims of domestic homicide and blaming them for their own deaths. (For the record, the only UK research to have investigated women’s motives in intimate partner homicides found that a fewer of a quarter of offenders cited self-defence as their motive. Most killed out of anger or jealousy.)   [Read more…]

A case of marital rape and the limits of legal protection

A horrible sexual violence case has collapsed in Exeter, in the south west England. Last year a woman reported to police that her husband had repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted her. After he spent four months on remand, the wife has now decided that she wants to move on with her life and is now unwilling to testify in court.

Because it is a case of marital rape allegations, the accused cannot be named as that would identify the alleged victim. [Read more…]

The left must speak uncomfortable truths about migration and sexual violence

I have mostly spent January eye-rolling so hard I’ve practically detached my retinas. It began when news first crept out from Cologne after New Year’s Eve, as across the media and the internet vast swathes  of anti-immigrant right-wingers and racists who had never in their lives uttered a word of concern or complaint about sexual violence suddenly  reinvented themselves as the bestest feminists in town, for whom nothing was more important than ensuring that never again would an innocent (ie white) woman be mauled by a disgusting, patriarchal (ie brown) man.

Well, racists gonna racist. But I was eye-rolling too at my peers on the broad left, the manner in which they continue to squirm and tiptoe around the extraordinary, horrific accounts from Cologne. I thought this had peaked last week with the remarks of Jess Phillips MP on Question Time that equated those events with any Saturday night on Birmingham’s Broad Street. The criticism she has since received has mostly focussed on outraged residents, coppers and civic leaders from the city saying “how dare you malign our city?” while simultaneously denying, downplaying or disbelieving women’s experiences of the extent of sexual harassment and assault on a typical British night out. I saw it the other way around. I was stunned that Phillips could so easily deny or downplay the statements from nearly seven hundred women that they had been sexually assaulted and/or robbed within a few city blocks in just a couple of hours, and so blithely dismiss the unique severity of that. I’m sure Phillips did not intend to suggest Cologne was really no big deal, but that was the precise effect of her words. [Read more…]

Medway, male violence and invisibilisation

There were a couple of words missing from Panorama‘s shockingly brutal exposé of violent malpractice within the G4S-run Medway Secure Training Centre. The same words were missing from pretty much all the newspaper and broadcast media reports that have picked up on the story since last Friday.

Towards the beginning of the documentary, the BBC’s undercover reporter explained that the residents of the children’s prison (by any other name) were officially referred to as “trainees,” but his script did not stick to that designation. At various points throughout  the 30 minute film he referred to the victims of violent assault, bullying and sadism as “teenagers”, “inmates”, “youngsters”, “young people” and  – most frequently – “children.” [Read more…]

When aversion to victim-blaming becomes a danger

Whatever solutions there may be to reduce sexual violence in society, as a general rule* they do not and should not involve persuading potential victims to change their behaviour.

There are two broad reasons why. The first is factual and criminological, that there is very little evidence that there is any significant relationship between how (usually) women dress, where they go, what they do, how they behave and the prevalence of sexual assault. If there is, it tends to be that the more socially and sexually confident and assertive women are as a gender, the more independent of mind and behaviour they become, the safer they are from sexual assault. The best statistics we have are from the US (and there is no reason to believe the picture in the UK is any different) and they show that over the past 40 years or so, as the social, economic and sexual liberation of women continued apace, rates of rape and sexual violence tumbled. While statistics are impossible to attain, no serious observer would doubt that in countries where women are actively oppressed to the point of being shrouded in burqas and imprisoned in the home, rape is endemic.

The second reason is political, or ideological. Throughout human history, society has used the risk and the fear of rape and sexual assault as a powerful mechanism to control women’s behaviour, to police their independence, sexuality and free expression, to demand that they remain dependent upon male protectors, male chaperones and male power. So one important front in the battle for women’s liberation over those same 40 years or so has been to step out from that shadow of fear, and that has required the development of alternative (and more effective) solutions to reducing the risk of sexual assault than persuading women to hide away.

Now, I know that many of my readers will look at the paragraphs above and snort in derision. Frankly I don’t care right now, I’m not interested in debating them today. They are there to (hopefully) explain in broad and simplistic terms why most feminists are strongly opposed to campaigns against sexual violence that focus on the behaviour of the victim rather than the attacker, and they also explain why, on this front, I think those feminists are right. You don’t have to agree, just accept that those are the arguments involved.

While I am broadly on board with the feminist consensus in this area, there is a limit to those principles, and I think it was badly breached in the column by Laura Bates in the Guardian today. Laura takes a handful of recent instances where the police have issued warnings to women, and asks: “Why do the police still tell women that they should avoid getting raped?”

The five examples she lists have something in common. Every instance referred to specific sexual offenders whose modus operandi was to attack strange women on their own in public places. Four of the five warnings were in the immediate aftermath of attacks. The fifth involved an exceptionally dangerous sadistic sex offender who had escaped from prison and was believed to be at large in Manchester (he has since been recaptured I am relieved to say.)

Sex offenders who attack strangers in public are actually exceptionally rare, as a proportion of all rapists and abusers. But they do exist. And when they are active, they will often attack several times in a short period of time in the same area using the same methods. It would be an appalling dereliction of duty were the police not to warn the public that such an offender were operating in a specific area, and that a specific section of the population (in this case lone women) were particularly at risk.

The types of warning issued in these circumstances are profoundly different to the more generalized “WOMEN! KNOW YOUR PLACE AND DON’T GET RAPED” type of posters and billboards which do, sadly still sometimes appear. However many police forces are moving on quickly. Greater Manchester Police, condemned by Laura Bates in the article for telling women to take care until Millman had been recaptured, do in fact run an exemplary awareness campaign on sexual violence, developed in conjunction with local campaigners and charities including Rape Crisis and our friends at Survivors Manchester. It concerns me that police may start to disengage from campaigners around sexual violence if they feel that they are being criticised and attacked just for doing their job of trying to keep the public safe.

It is patently obvious that a central core of Laura’s argument is simply untrue. She asks:  “How absurd would it seem if we were to apply similar logic to any other crime?”

The answer is, not remotely absurd. Here are some examples gleaned from literally two minutes on Google news search today:

Police urge public to consider some “simple steps” to combat burglaries in the darker nights. He advised that lights on timers are changed and that residents leave radios on while out for the evening. 

Police warn of risk of cyber crime 

Police warn public to avoid fake dating sites 

Thames Valley Police is urging residents to be vigilant of fake lottery scams and is warning people not to respond to any communications claiming they have won a lottery, sweepstake or prize draw.

A SPATE of garden burglaries has prompted police to warn people to be on their guard in Llanelli… Police officers have carried out a mass leaflet drop warning the public to take extra precautions. 

It is also the case that where there is a specific and heightened risk to other groups of people, the police will behave identically. Here’s a report of police teaming up with LGBT campaigners to warn men cruising on Clapham Common that they were at heightened risk.

Regular readers will know it is not like me to leap to the defence of the police. Just on this occasion, we need to give them a break. I entirely understand the need to avoid victim blaming and to ensure responsibility for rape remains squarely with rapists. That cannot involve obstructing the police from attempting to protect people from specific and immediate dangers.

————

* When I say sexual violence will not be reduced by persuading potential victims to change their behaviour, that is not necessarily entirely true. There is (albeit inconclusive) evidence that coaching people to be assertive and alert to risks through such initiatives as “resistance programmes” can reduce people’s susceptibility to assault. There is also some evidence to believe that sexual offenders deliberately target those who appear vulnerable and submissive. This evidence should not be considered heretical or dangerous, it needs to be debated and investigated further, in my opinion. But it is also far removed from the traditional behaviour policing of “don’t wear a short skirt, don’t get drunk, don’t be a flirt…” etc which normally permeates these debates.