Chris Grayling can ignore prison rape. Hundreds of victims have no such luxury


Today the Howard League published their long-awaited briefing on coercive sex in prisons, despite the best efforts of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to block their work.

It’s an important document which covers well the difficulties of research in this area, noting the difficulties in gathering reliable data at the best of times, but especially under a political regime which is brutally uncooperative. It does not shy away from the difficulties in categorising and defining coercive and abusive sexual activities, noting that as well as violent assaults, prisons are rife with subtle coercion, including prisoners choosing or being obliged to perform sexual acts to pay off debts, for protection or in exchange for tobacco.

Another important (and sadly very topical) point noted is that MoJ statistics do not record any data on sexual assaults or abusive acts committed against prisoners by staff, despite evidence from the US to suggest that this can be relatively commonplace and despite gutwrenching testimony of appalling sexual abuse by staff at young offenders institutions in particular.  [Read more...]

Sket-list scaremongering and scepticism

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

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

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

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

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

[Read more...]

Making sense of a senseless horror

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

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

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

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

It’s time to stop defaming our boys

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

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

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

No excuses: Yewtree, the stars and the victim-blaming


content note: brief details of sexual assaults are relayed later in this piece


Unlike Neil Lyndon, I was too young to experience the legendary decadence of the 1970s. I did, however, party my way through the chemical kaleidoscope of the late 80s and 90s, a time which bore many similarities. Hedonism was at a premium, good judgement and self-restraint were in scarce supply and, as one of Lyndon’s friends recalled of the previous era, at times it almost seemed like everybody was fucking everybody.

Except not quite. I remember once my (three male) housemates and I stumbled out of a club, pie-eyed, in the small hours. As we waited for the all-night bus we got chatting to some similarly mashed girls. They asked us if we had any weed and pretty much invited themselves back to our place. At some point a kind of collective ripple of realisation ran among me and my mates that these really were girls, not women. When someone asked how old they were they just giggled and said something vaguely flirtatious. We let them toke on a couple of spliffs to help them land gently from whatever they’d taken earlier then sent them grumbling back to their mums and dads. I never did find out their ages but a few days later they turned up at our door in their school uniforms at lunchtime. I was out, but my horrified housemate reported that tin the cold light of day they looked about 15 at most.

I recount this very mundane story to make a very mundane point. Not screwing children really isn’t that difficult, if you are any kind of decent human being. Even when they are dolled up in party gear and make-up, you can tell. Even when you’re shitfaced on the finest pharmaceuticals Hulme has to offer, you can still tell. Had any one of us grown men taken one of those girls to our bedrooms – even with her apparent consent – we would have known exactly what we were doing. I simply refuse to believe that teenagers in the 1970s were so very different that one couldn’t tell.

So I have little sympathy if Neil Lyndon or any of his friends from the time are waking up with the cold sweats expecting a knock on the door from Operation Yewtree. Just because they thought they could get away with it at the time, doesn’t mean it was right at the time. Justice delayed is still justice.

However there is another point on which Lyndon’s piece is deeply, grotesquely ill-conceived. I have not seen a single shred of evidence that any of the known victims of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and others were enthusiastic groupies who threw themselves at their heroes in pursuit of an intimate connection. Of course in the 1970s, just like today, there were hormone-crazed teenage girls, either side of the age of consent, who actively pursued sexual contact with adult crushes – whether pop stars, DJs or their teachers. While it is absolutely 100% the responsibility of the adult to ensure they do not abuse children, this is irrelevant in the cases under discussion. These victims were not carefree libertines inspired by Erica Jong’s notion of the zipless fuck. They were vulnerable victims of abuse, assault and rape.

There must be thousands of women, now in their 50s and 60s, who had teenage encounters with pop stars and celebrities through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I do not doubt that many were under the age of legal consent at the time. I have known personally several women who would willingly own up to those kinds of experiences without any apparent regret. I am not excusing the men who took advantage of them when I note that these women are NOT now phoning up the police to report themselves as victims of historic sex crimes.

Neil Lyndon, and all those making similar points, should go back and read again the testimony of the victims in the trials of Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, or the inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile. Read the stomach-turning testimony of the shy young girl who had never had a boyfriend, whom Savile met in hospital. He befriended her family, offered to take her out to buy chips, then raped her in his camper van outside the chip shop.

Lyndon should read again the account of Stuart Hall’s victim, who was only nine years old and in her own bed when the TV presenter crept into her room and molested her.

Lyndon should think on the evidence of the victim of Rolf Harris who was just 13 when she was first molested as she climbed out of the shower while on holiday.

I could continue but I hope the point is made. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of stories like these. Not a single witness in any of the trials has remotely matched the image conjured by Lyndon of lascivious, enthusiastic teenage sexpots entrapping poor, helpless male celebrities.

What we have in Lyndon’s piece is an extended exercise in the most extreme, literal form of victim blaming. By conflating the very real and all too human victims of serial sexual predators with enthusiastic participants in a carnival of orgiastic sex, he is saying that the victims of these criminals were actively complicit in their own abuse. This is a gross slander on the victims themselves, and an appalling misrepresentation of history.

Madman or MRA? Looking beyond easy answers to the Santa Barbara massacre

Note: I’m already concerned by the cult of personality growing around Elliot Rodger. While acknowledging that all discussions, including this one, risk adding to that, I’ve opted not to link to any of his YouTube videos, comments or his manifesto. I do not doubt you can find them yourself if you must. 


Katherine Cooper, aged 22, and 19-year-old Veronica Weiss were shot dead while standing outside a university sorority. Christopher Michael-Ross, 20, died while shopping in a deli. As I write, the names of three other victims of the murder spree in Santa Barbara, California remain unknown. [See note below] As so often with these cases, it is sickening but unavoidable that while the details of those squandered lives will soon be forgotten by most, the name of Elliot Rodger will forever lurk somewhere in the depths of our memories.

There is so much to this tragedy that we do not yet know, but conversely we already seem to know so much. It is never wise to leap to assumptions about the motivations of violent individuals. In the case of Rodger, this is proving almost impossible. Rarely has a crime of this nature appeared to have such an open and shut motivation.

In the first reports, he was described by witnesses on the scene as ‘a madman’ or ‘crazy.’ This was underlined soon after when it emerged that he had been under some form of psychiatric treatment. This was never an adequate explanation. Mental illness alone very, very rarely drives people to kill. Hate, bitterness and rage, on the other hand, does so daily. Rodger may or may not have been ill, he may or may not had diagnostic label on his personality or neurological function, we do not know. What we do know, without question, is that he was spitting with misogyny.

Shortly before the killings began, Rodger uploaded a series of increasingly horrific YouTube rants, in which he explained that he was going to kill women – specifically blonde, sorority girls – as revenge for their refusal to have sex with him. He had left hints of his plans, alongside overt race hate, on several other forums, under his own name. He had uploaded a 140-page justification for his crime to the internet, providing the world not only what mental health professionals call a ‘complete history’ but also detailed, gruesome details of his planned massacre, giving it the title ‘My Twisted World’. In keeping with the cliches of a cheap movie script, Rodger turned out to be the son of a successful Hollywood director. He was a good-looking, rich kid who drove a BMW and attended film premieres. And from his own words, he was a bitter, angry, hate-filled virgin.

It also emerged that he was an active member of a notoriously misogynistic internet forum for men called ‘PUA Hate.’ Several bloggers and online news sites immediately began describing him as the ‘MRA shooter.’ Strictly speaking, this is probably inaccurate. There is a corner of the internet known disparagingly as ‘the manosphere’ which has several distinct compass points, united only by their shared misogyny. While people and ideas certainly seep between them, in practice they have very distinct interests, and often spend almost as much energy hating each other as they do hating feminists. Among several other manosphere communities, there are men’s rights activists, (MRAs) who mostly deal in political issues and gender relations, and there are pick-up artists (PUAs), who strictly concern themselves with sex, specifically how to manipulate women into bed.

Beyond those groups however, there are strange fringes such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) and those who describe themselves as ‘Incels’ meaning ‘involuntary celibates.’ These are men who are not just angry because women won’t have sex with them, they’re even angry with the PUAs who suggest that women might have sex with them. It was in this last group that Rodgers appeared to have found a community.

In Rodger’s manifesto there is no sign of even a slight interest in gender politics. He does not use the vocabulary or logic of MRAs, there is no ranting at ‘feminazis’ or other tell-tale signs of MRA ideology. Indeed, it is striking that the manifesto, unlike that of Anders Breivik, reveals no kind of political consciousness at all. For Rodgers, this all appears to have been entirely personal.

Was Rodger radicalised by what he read online? It is likely that while his anger and hatred were consuming him, he sought out those he considered like minds, rather than vice versa. We may never know. He says in his manifesto that the PUA Hate site confirmed his thinking:

The Spring of 2013 was also the time when I came across the website It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me. Many of them have their own theories of what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. Reading the posts on that website only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are. Most of the people on that website have extremely stupid opinions that I found very frustrating, but I found a few to be quite insightful.

I sense an inevitability to the debate that will unfold in coming days. Feminists and their allies are already spinning this as the work of an MRA and a consequence of men’s rights ideology. MRAs, I do not doubt, will become defensive and probably find some way to blame feminism – some PUAs are already going down that route. I don’t think any of that is meaningful or helpful, and may provide a convenient moral escape route for some people who should really be looking to their own hearts and consciences.

Rodger does not appear to have identified as an MRA, and a debate as to whether or not he should be so described will be a pedantic distraction. The ugly truth is that, across much of the manosphere, his rantings are not especially unusual. Somewhere on the internet right this very moment – whether on an Insel site or an MRA site or an MGTOW site or Twitter or Facebook or an atheist forum, it really doesn’t matter – an angry young man will be spitting out his hatred of bitches, whores and sluts. Could Rodger have been dissuaded had he been challenged, rather than indulged in his rants? Frankly I doubt it, he would merely have dismissed his detractors as yet more weak cowards, but can we be sure? I would challenge those who laugh along with violent misogynistic fantasies online to imagine looking in the eyes of the families and friends of Rodgers’ victims and declaring their consciences to be clear.

There is another sense in which the easy explanatory narrative may be dangerous and misleading. To blame either mental illness or online misogyny for these crimes is to dodge the question of where those deranged beliefs, the anger, the nihilism, the hatred originated. Spree killers, as Michael Kimmel recently pointed out in Angry White Men, are invariably racked by aggrieved entitlement – they believe they have an inalienable right to status, to success and to sex. When those natural rights fail to materialise, they become angry and violent. But there is another aspect to the profile of a spree killer, which Rodger also describes in detail in his manifesto. Like pretty much all known spree killers, Elliot Rodger was systematically and severely bullied by his peers. The boys beat him while the girls looked on and laughed. When a rampant narcissistic entitlement meets the social humiliation and mockery of the bullying victim, the results can occasionally be deadly.

I say this cautiously as an outside observer, but it seems to me that whenever tragedies like this occur in the USA, the media and political discourses hone in on gun ownership (entirely reasonably, I stress) and on teen culture – whether rock music, video games or violent movies. In this case we can probably add online men’s forums. I”ve yet to see serious attention be devoted to the culture of bullying that would appear to continue unabated, even actively encouraged as hazing rituals, within American schools.

Nothing can be done to bring back the victims of Elliot Rodger, or undo his evil. The best we can do as a society (including the international online community) is to ask ourselves what we might do to prevent another such incident occurring. Answering that question demands that we look far beyond the quick and easy solutions, however tempting they might be. 


NOTE: The names of Rodger’s murdered room mates have now also been released. Please spare a thought for the friends and families of Weihan Wang (22), Chen Yuang Hong (20) and George Chen (19)

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.

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.


Policy on ending sexual violence – a thought experiment

The UK government has a policy page on ending sexual violence.  Here is what it doesn’t say:



Too many young lives are blighted by sexual crime. Rapists and sexual abusers carry out a quarter of all violent crimes committed in the UK.

We want to reduce crimes of sexual violence and stop young people becoming involved in sexual violence. We are committed to making our communities safer places for everyone.


The Home Office, along with other government departments, is working to reduce sexual offending in England and Wales.

We have:

  • introduced new offences of threatening sexual behaviour which will improve prosecution rates
  • dedicated £1.2 million to fund 13 support workers for boys vulnerable to becoming involved with, or suffering from sexual violence
  • made Sexual Threat Injunctions for under 18-year-olds available to the police and local authorities
  • introduced changes to sexual assault legislation in the new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill currently going through Parliament. We are creating an offence of conspiring to commit sexual violence, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and increasing the recommended penalties for rape and sexual assault
  • In November 2012, we held a national sexual offending conference and released a follow-up report to Ending Sexually Abusive Behaviour. The report sets out how the government will support people working locally to stop sexual abuse. Help is available in a number of areas including health, education, Jobcentre Plus, community safety teams and criminal justice partners.

Communities against sexual offending fund

The Communities against sexual offending programme and fund was launched in 2011, and continued until March 2013. The funding was broken down as follows:

  • £3.75 million to London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands – these areas see more than half the country’s rapes and sexual assaults
  • £4 million to 200 voluntary organisations across England and Wales who are working to stop young people from committing rape or sexual assault
  • the scale of the problem of sexual violence
  • the causes of sexually abusive behaviour
  • what can be done by government and other agencies to stop the violence and turn around the lives of those involved


Ending sexual violence: a cross-government report, published in November 2011, set out detailed plans to:

  • provide support to local areas to fight the problem
  • prevent young people from becoming involved in sexual violence in the first place – with a new emphasis on early intervention and prevention
  • offer ways out of sexual offending for young people who want to break with the lifestyle

Alice X’s report

In June 2010 the Home Secretary asked Alice X, whose sister Belle was raped in 2008, to investigate sexual crime. She looked at schemes running in local communities that are working to stop young people from committing sexual violence.

Ms X published her report, Tackling rape together – a review of local anti-rape projects in February 2011. The report made a number of recommendations including:

  • anti-sexual violence presentations for school children
  • more data sharing between police, schools and other agencies on local issues
  • a best practice website for local organisations
  • more work with young children to stop them getting involved in sexual violence



As I say, the policy page above is not real. However I didn’t write it from scratch. What I did was took the government’s policy page on knife, gun and gang crime and, as closely as I could, simply transposed the policies onto a different problem.

The result is a page that looks very, very different to the government’s actual policy on sexual violence (contained within a policy on violence against women and girls, which opens up a very different set of questions that I’ll skip for now).

The real policy page focuses almost entirely upon victims and what can be done to support and protect them. While the gun, knife and gang policies address the criminal behaviour of the offenders (and the social causes of their offending), the sexual violence policies focus almost entirely on the victim. Rather than striving to prevent people committing in the first place, it is content to improve management of the consequences. Rather than trying to understand and address why people begin to sexually offend, it seems to accept sexual offending as an inevitability, in a way we refuse to do with gang, gun and knife crime. The policy does show a remarkable paucity of determination and ideas of how to actually prevent sexual violence happening in the first place.

Of course we can’t simply legislate away sexual assault, and even the best education programmes or community efforts would be unlikely to eliminate sexual assault altogether. That said, I can’t help wondering if we wouldn’t move faster with a cultural shift – all the way up to the top of the tree – which recognised that rape and sexual offending aren’t just forces of nature, hanging out there in the street like a stubborn rainstorm but are consciously chosen acts of personal volition.