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...]

A short list of shits I could not give

Pretty much every day I’ll be sent a message of some sort inviting me to show my support for some gender-based campaign, cause or petition. Often they are concerns that I share, and I will help as I can. Other times I will give the issue some thought and consideration and conclude hmm, nope, sorry, but I really don’t give much of a shit.

For the sake of discussion, let me offer a short, and by no means exhaustive list of shits I really could not give:

  • Books and merchandise declaring: Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them
  • Nipples on Page 3 of the Sun
  • Adverts portraying men as being useless in the kitchen or changing nappies
  • Men’s Health advocating an unattainable body beautiful for men
  • Lads mags in newsagents
  • Sexist T-shirts
  • Miley Cyrus videos
  • ‘All Men Are Bastards’ knifeblocks
  • Pink ladypens
  • The sexual politics of Grand Theft Auto
  • Builders stripping off in Diet Coke ads

The list could go on and on. I should explain that I don’t actually like any of the things above. On the contrary, I find them at best tacky and dispiriting, at worst hateful and depressing. In all cases the world would probably be a slightly better place if they did not exist. However every single one of them is less of a problem in its own right than a symptom of a deeper malaise. We live in a world in which the entire human experience is co-opted, synthesised, commodified and sold back to us in a never-ending cycle of demand.

I do not see how we can call upon the publishers of Men’s Health to tone down the chiselled abs in their photo spreads without acknowledging the niche it fills in a culture of narcissism and self-obsession, a spectrum that stretches from sculpted torsos (and airbrushed Vogue stars) to obesity and eating disorders. For too many people, the glossy fantasy fills a void, and the problem is not with the fantasy, but with the void.
In all these cases, the products themselves are not the problem, they are the representations, the totems, the Aunt Sallys which poke up from a swamp of cultural alienation, misogyny, misandry and gender construction. Knocking them down might make us feel better momentarily, but do nothing to purify the waters.

An argument I have often with feminists (and others) is whether so-called sexualisation or pornification of our culture is getting worse all the time. I would challenge anyone old enough to remember the 1970s, when I was a child. The janitor in my primary school had a nude calendar on the wall of his little store-room, which we would see every time we were sent to collect a bucket and mop after some little poppet vomited in class. When I went with my dad to any ironmonger shop, tyre repair place or garage there would be nudes all over the walls. Light family entertainment involved Benny Hill running around trying to molest nubile young nurses at double speed. Most of it is almost unimaginable now.

What happened? It had little to do with bans, prosecutions or petitions. Things got better because our culture slowly, gradually changed as a whole. What had looked funny began to look tacky. Awareness of sexism as an issue slowly spread. We grew up a bit.

Personally, I’m not so bothered about the kinds of cartoonish or extreme examples of sexism in the list above. Most of the time they jump up and down shouting “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a piece of ridiculous sexist trash!” and so can be easily ignored and dismissed. I’m much more bothered about low level, insidious, ubiquitous conditioning of restrictive gender roles, our personal interactions and (above all) our interactions with children.

It seems to me that most of the complaints about gender representations wilfully avoid context and ignore all counter-evidence. Here is a typical example:

We all know the stereotypes—the femme fatale, the supermom, the sex kitten, the nasty corporate climber. Whatever the role, television, film and popular magazines are full of images of women and girls who are typically white, desperately thin, and made up to the hilt—even after slaying a gang of vampires or dressing down a Greek phalanx.

I recognise these stereotypes, of course, but I’m also aware that when the TV is on in my house, it rarely shows anything like that. It shows Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Eastenders, with their arrays of strong, fully-rounded female characters driving the plot. Or if I have (rare) control of the remote, flashy trash like CSI or 24, with their full complement of women detectives, spies, scientists, pathologists and computer geeks.

Cultural misandry, of the type highlighted by Nathanson and Young in their series of tedious whingeing books, concerns me even less. Most of the time, our TV and other media present us with an endless parade of white, middle-aged, middle-class men being in charge. They’re in charge of the stuff going on on the news, they’re in charge of the murder investigations on the detective series, they’re in charge of the grand villainous plans in the movies, they’re in charge of the ball on the football pitch. They are saving the day, they are rescuing the heroine, basically if shit needs doing, we assume a man will be doing it. Anyone who denies this is true needs to log out of Reddit for five minutes and open their fucking eyes.

So when writers of sitcoms or 30-second commercials want a cheap laugh, what do they do? They play with and subvert our expectations, our deeply ingrained assumptions that men (and especially middle-aged white men like me) are in charge and in control. A middle aged white man? One of those people who is meant to be running the whole world and he can’t even work a washing machine! Hahahaha. Geddit? Am I amused? No, not really. Am I offended? Get a grip.

I’ve even seen it suggested that these types of representations of men prove there is no such thing as patriarchy or male privilege. This is, frankly, the dumbest argument this side of a UKIP conference. The truth is the exact opposite – the demeaning representation of men in popular culture is a corollary and a direct consequence of our privilege. If you want a world where middle-aged men aren’t brought down a peg or two, help to create a world where middle-aged men don’t need to be brought down a peg or two.

Having said all that, I wholeheartedly approve of efforts to monitor and critique the media we consume. Some representations are actively harmful – I would include within that, for example, portrayals of sexual violence as glamorous, sexy, or enjoyable to the victim, or portrayals of domestic violence as legitimate reactions or expressions of frustration (and I include the stereotypical soap opera wife throwing cups at her husband or hitting him with a frying pan.) Some media representations actively undermine efforts to improve our society and they must be subject to criticism.

So in a way I am kind of glad that someone out there is berating Rupert Murdoch for continuing to flog his tabloid bogroll via Barbara from Basildon’s bare boobs. I am kind of glad that someone is pointing out that actually most men are quite capable of working a washing machine. Just don’t take it personally if I fail to share your outrage.

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.

 

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.

Trollololol, BMJ

So, it is pretty funny that the British Medical Journal is trolling us.

 

Participants, setting, and design

To be eligible participants had to be part of a couple and willing to take part in the study. We carried out a parallel trial with one man and one woman in their own home. It was decided without consultation that the female participant would prefer to be right and the male, being somewhat passive, would prefer to be happy.

The male was informed of the intervention while the female participant was not (this form of pre-randomisation is known as the Zelen method2). The female participant was blind to the hypothesis being tested, other than being asked to record her quality of life.

Discussion

The results of this trial show that the availability of unbridled power adversely affects the quality of life of those on the receiving end.

Strengths and weaknesses

The study has some limitations. There was no trial registration, no ethics committee approval, no informed consent, no proper randomisation, no validated test instrument, and questionable statistical assessment. We used the eyeball technique for single patient trials which, as Sackett says, “more closely matches the way we think as clinicians.”3

Generalisability

Many people in the world live as couples, and we believe that it could be harmful for one partner to always have to agree with the other. However, more research is needed to see whether our results hold if it is the male who is always right.

 

It’s even funnier that the science correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post and Medical Daily fell for it hook, line and sinker and, inevitably, Men’s Rights Activists are up in arms. 

Trollololol. Season’s Greetings, friends.

Why calling out Russell Brand is a revolutionary act

It has often been suggested that the demolition of the Berlin Wall marked not only the collapse of soviet communism, but the end of modernist political ideology – not only Marxism and state Fascism, but also nationalist liberation and anti-colonial movements, the European social democratic  consensus and other models of reformist controlled economies, each of which was based on some kind of empirical formula for managing and improving society.

Modernism had actually been dying for a while. Foucault famously identified one of the first major ruptures in modernism with his  writings of the Iranian revolution in 1979, which – at least on a superficial reading – gave qualified support to the spiritually driven, anti-modernist (if not postmodern) overthrow of the Shah and (more controversially) the nascent brutalities of a new Islamist theocracy. Around the same time in the USA, the Christian fundamentalist right was an emerging force, with powerful political figures devoting as much thought to predictions of the ascent of souls in a rapture as they did to the decline of the dollar in a recession.

Meanwhile the dominant economic narrative followed the zeitgeist, with an almost religious belief in the power of free markets and unfettered liberalisation and globalisation sweeping all before it.

Grassroots opposition to power took a similar turn. By the 1990s, overt opposition to capitalist power came not from democratic socialists in the Labour Party, or hardboiled Marxists in the trades unions, but from a rag-bag counterculture which grew out of the peace convoys to become eco-warriors and anti-roads protestors; Reclaim the Streets activists then the anti-Globalisation rioters of Seattle, Prague and Genoa. The same spirit now informs the global Occupy movements, Anonymous Hacktivists, UK Uncut taxtivists and, since approximately last Thursday, Russell Brand.

I have seen many of the movements above at very close quarters, and can say from experience that almost everything that could be said about the anti-capitalist movements of the past 25 years could be said about Russell Brand. He is our strengths and our weaknesses personified. On the plus side is the inescapable charisma, impertinent humour, imagination, intelligence, creativity and unwillingness to accept a status quo that is, in so many ways, unacceptable. On the downside an arrogance and self-righteousness that sits ill with a rather superficial analysis and prospectus; and a tendency to lean on and exploit the social privileges which we claim to be challenging.

But perhaps the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of all is our detachment from fundamental ideological principles. Modern anti-capitalists, for the most part, neither know nor care about Marx and Bakunin, Gramsci or Bookchin. We adhere to no dogma, subscribe to no agreed principles and champion no manifesto.  This can leave us like a feathery, gossamer strand, blowing with the wind. It is precisely that quality which allowed the Peace Convoys to evolve so easily into the environmental movement and from there to a mass global campaign against the World Trade Organisation and on down the line. I am glad of that. But it is also that post-ideological fluidity that can see the Anonymous brand being used one day to bring about a glimmer of justice for the Steubenville rape victim and the next to broadcast the most rancid anti-Semitism; it is the post-ideological detachment that saw representatives of Slutwalk London tweet their support for rape-charge dodger Julian Assange; the same ideological detachment that sees Occupy campers calling out for radical social change while attempting to cover up and excuse allegations of sexual assault and rape within their own ranks.

For the past week, the radical left (at least in the UK) has been twitching with the urge to support Russell Brand’s (at times) brilliant rhetoric about our sham of a democratic system and the grotesque injustices and inequalities of our world; while at the same time struggling to reconcile this with his history of overt sexism and occasional rank misogyny.  Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour debated the issues with at times alarming frankness.

I do not believe in utopias. Political struggles are never about building the world we want to see, because by the time we built it our needs and desires have moved on. We are always on a journey, never at a destination. Part of that journey has to be about refusing to accept what we find unacceptable. Above all, we must refuse to accept what we find unacceptable in those who are seen to be, or assumed to be in a leadership role.

I don’t know exactly what kind of revolution Russell Brand wants to see, I’m not sure he does either, but I’d assume that, like me, he believes in the power of change, the reality of alternatives. Part of that has to be a revolution in gender roles. As I say in the “About” section of this blog, I believe we should try to build a society where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. To do that we need to challenge injustice, prejudice and discrimination. We need to minimise political and interpersonal oppression, abuse and violence. And we need to find compassion and empathy for those who suffer and struggle, whatever their identity, whatever their gender.

One implication of that belief is that we cannot pick and choose which injustices, prejudices and discriminations we indulge, and which we challenge. The solution to the Russell Brand dilemma, it seems to me, is neither to indulge or forgive what we might find unforgivable, nor to forever exclude anyone who has ever said or done a bad thing as if we were dividing the world into pure and impure. The solution is to challenge sexism, racism, class elitism, transphobia or whatever else, as and when it arises. That’s not to say that every challenge must be heeded and accepted uncritically, but everything must be up for critique.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing I have read from Russell Brand this week is in his Guardian piece today, where he says:

“One thing I’ve learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol’ sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let’s face it, a bit racist. I don’t want to be a sexist so I’m trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.”

As ever with Brand, it is difficult to untangle the sincerity from the camp showmanship, but I’m prepared to take him at his word on this. He is reflecting on his own attitudes in response to criticism, and that is what we all should do when told that we’ve been a bit of a dick.

The modern anti-capitalist movement has no politiburo to lay down edicts, no tribunals to expel dissenters; no party constitution to consult on positions and it is all the better for that. However in their absence, we need a bit of internal analysis, self-awareness and a preparedness to criticise our own. Those who respond to that with reflection and a willingness to change are behaving in a genuinely revolutionary manner. The reactionary alternative is not challenging our own racism, sexism or oppressive tendencies, but indulging them.

One final exchange with Mike Buchanan

So I thought I’d said about as much as I wanted to say to Mike Buchanan of Justice for Men and Boys.

Then I received an email. Since in my last thread I’d publicly stated that if Mike were to offer one of his public challenges to me I would probably  file it in the bin, Mike didn’t issue a challenge. Instead he issued a “request.” And he’d gone to all the trouble of typing it up into a letter on headed notepaper and printing it to  a pdf and everything. 

I should have just filed it, as promised. But I couldn’t resist. My reply is below. After this, I promise, I shall move on to more interesting matters.

_______________________

Dear Mike,

Every day I read things that are not true. Our newspapers are full of things that are not true. Our politicians say things that are not true. People write me letters and emails telling me things that are not true.

For example, your letter to me, after a preamble and quoting my words at length, begins:

‘We live in an era when the EU has announced its intention to introduce legislation to ban anti-feminist speech, a matter not mentioned by any major news outlet in the UK to the best of my knowledge.’

The reason this has not been mentioned in any major new outlet is because it is not true. It is not just slightly  factually mistaken, it is palpably, unequivocally 100% false. The EU has made no such announcement. The EU does not have the legal power to prescribe domestic law on areas such as hate speech to nation states, even if it wanted to – and there is no evidence that it does
want to.

What the article on A Voice For Men describes is a document prepared by an NGO called the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation - which has no authority whatsoever  – who have submitted it to the European Parliament Civil Liberties Committee (which itself has no meaningful authority whatsoever) and if you read the actual document, it amounts to suggestions to nation states as to what laws they might want to pass against hate speech. I can find no evidence that the European Parliament Civil Liberties Committee plans to do anything with it. You really shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet, you know.

You go on to say:

‘You must surely be aware of how feminist-friendly the British media are.’

No. I am not. The Guardian is certainly very feminist-friendly, as is the Independent. They have, between them, fewer than 300,000 daily circulation. The Daily Mail and the Sun between them have around 4 million. The Evening Standard, the Telegraph, the Star, the Express and the Times have another two and a half million or so between them. For every column with a vaguely feminist tint by Suzanne Moore or even Janet Street Porter, there are the dozens of columns by Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, James Delingpole, Peter Oborne etc etc etc.

This does not begin to address the point that the great bulk of news coverage - on issues such as family policy, female celebrities, coverage of crime, coverage of economic and political matters in the vast majority of British media is not what anyone could call feminist friendly.

You ask, ‘Is it not one of the duties of the media to challenge prominent figures who make ‘unequivocally, demonstrably false claims?’

Yes, it should be. And the more important the claim, and prominent the figure, the more important it is that they are challenged. When we look at the downright falsehoods uttered almost daily by Iain Duncan Smith about benefits claimants, by Michael Gove about schools; the utter falsehoods about the EU that regularly appear on the front pages of the Mail and the Express; about immigration and asylum seekers by the Sun and the Star, we should all be deeply concerned. These lies and falsehoods have a major and damaging impact on our political culture and democracy, and in some cases create real and often horrific hardship for vulnerable individuals.

In comparison to the above, whether or not the (with all due respect to her) almost entirely obscure and powerless feminist Caroline Criado-Perez is accurate in what she says about the impacts of women on the boards of companies strikes me as almost entirely trivial.

Quite a large proportion of my output as a writer is devoted to challenging or correcting falsehoods and mistakes on issues of gender that circulate in the media. Those include falsehoods and mistakes propagated by feminists,  by men’s rights activists, and by those such as Hanna Rosin who float somewhere between. I actively support and champion projects such as fullfact.org which are devoted full time to correcting the innumerable mistakes and falsehoods in the political and media realm. I don’t need any prompts, challenges or ‘requests’ to challenge any specific writers or campaigners, I have a whole media smorgasbord to choose from on any given day of the week if  I so choose.

I certainly don’t need advice to pick out feminists as being uniquely dishonest or untrustworthy. When compared to the shameless mendacity and full-blown propaganda of the corporate right wing media, feminist activists and journalists are, frankly, small beer. To single out feminists would be to imply that feminists are uniquely guilty of dishonesty or inaccuracy and that would be, ironically enough, both dishonest and inaccurate.

So the answer to your request is no. In the meantime, if you are really concerned about truth and accuracy, you might want to consider issuing one of your ‘public challenges’ (or indeed ‘requests’) to A Voice for Men to demand that they delete their entirely false claim that the EU intends to introduce legislation to ban anti-feminist speech.

You are very welcome to publish both your letter to me and this response, should you have the decency.  In the meantime, I don’t intend to continue our correspondence in any serious way. I find that in order to have a sensible conversation with you, I have to spend a good few minutes correcting the innumerable mistakes and falsehoods in everything you write, and to be honest, I have more important things to do with my time.

All the best

Ally

 

Magic Trick: Chris Brown and the disappearing child sex abuse

Less than a week after Victoria Coren-Mitchell was calling for nuance in how we discuss and describe difficult issues like the sexual abuse and rape of children, Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian has adopted a novel approach – simply ignore it.

Aitkenhead was interviewing R&B star and convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown. She began the piece with a journalist’s conceit: promising her interviewee the benefit of a blank slate to tell his story. One senses how it is going early on.

His parents divorced when he was seven, and before long he and his sister and mother were living with her new husband in a trailer park, where in the past he has described lying in bed listening to his stepfather beat his mother.

A couple of paragraphs later, my stomach turned over.

He lost his virginity when he was eight years old, to a local girl who was 14 or 15. Seriously? “Yeah, really. Uh-huh.” He grins and chuckles. “It’s different in the country.” Brown grew up with a great gang of boy cousins, and they watched so much porn that he was raring to go. “By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I’m saying? Like, girls, we weren’t afraid to talk to them; I wasn’t afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it.” (Now 24, he doesn’t want to say how many women he’s slept with: “But you know how Prince had a lot of girls back in the day? Prince was, like, the guy. I’m just that, today. But most women won’t have any complaints if they’ve been with me. They can’t really complain. It’s all good.”)

I spent many years writing feature interviews, albeit at a rather lower level then Decca Aitkenhead’s prime weekly national column. Nonetheless I know a scoop when I see one. Chris Brown is here disclosing that he was seriously sexually abused at eight years old, by a girl in her mid-teens. By that age he had already been exposed to so much pornography that he considered himself ready to be sexually active. You might think it warrants a follow up question or two, a few lines of journalistic commentary, anything to draw the reader’s attention to a dramatic and important revelation. In fact Aitkenhead does the journalistic equivalent of changing the subject after an awkward fart has slipped out.

The quoted paragraph is grimly fascinating. There is not the slightest suggestion that Brown considers himself a victim, not for a moment does he suggest he was anything but in control of the situation. First he makes a joke about it. Then he flaunts it as a badge of masculine achievement and slides quickly – far too quickly – into boasting of his sexual prowess. This is precisely how many abused boys rationalise and cope with their experiences in a culture where men can never admit to weakness, and particularly never admit to having been used and abused by a girl. By the end of the paragraph, the reader could easily forget that he was eight years old. Eight.

I can quite understand why Brown would think of the experience in these terms, and would not doubt for a moment that the way he described it to the Guardian is exactly how he describes it to himself. For this he should neither be chided nor condemned. However for Decca Aitkenhead to describe it simply as ‘losing his virginity’ is repugnant. Worse is the casual indifference with which the interview simply moves on from there to the next question. At no point is the term ‘abuse’ mentioned, far less ‘raped.’

Regular readers will know I am loath to play the rhetorical trick of reversing genders, but in this case it is surely appropriate. I repeat, he was eight years old. If a female interviewee described a sexual encounter at that age with a 14 or 15 year old boy, would Aitkenhead be so coy with her language, so casual with the reveal? It is inconceivable. Chris Brown is quite entitled to rationalise the incident in whichever way works for him, but the rest of us should not simply accept it without acknowledging that it is a profoundly unhealthy interpretation.

Of course we do not know what additional quotes ended up on the cutting room floor, but it is important to consider why this section of the interview was published as it was. The first factor is that our culture still has a real problem in acknowledging and recognising male sexual victimisation by women, even when it is verbalised vividly in front of us. There may also be a race element at play here too, the stereotype of the hypersexualised black man  – part demonization, part assumed status, part fungible objectification – may amplify damaging assumptions about insatiable masculine sexuality. I’m reminded of a 2009 interview with a different R&B star, when Lil’ Wayne made a similar disclosure to TV presenter Jimmy Kimmel. That interviewer persisted with a level of ‘wayhey’ banter about being “seduced” by a grown woman at age 11, even when it became clear that the star was deeply uncomfortable with the tone.

My strongest suspicion, however, is that Aitkenhead quickly moved on from the topic for another reason. Chris Brown sits on a very specific pony on the pop media carousel. He is the bad boy; the woman beater; the villain of the story. He is the abuser so shameless that he commissioned a tattoo on his neck looking remarkably like the bruised face of his battered girlfriend, Rihanna. To suddenly portray him as a victim of child sex abuse would upset the narrative, invite sympathy in place of scorn. It would be a brave journalist who would risk that barrel-ride. It is so much easier to present him as a porn-crazed sex beast from an early age. Unsurprisingly, it took the Daily Mail only a couple of hours to turn the Guardian interview into that precise story.

It is a mistake, of course. It does the victims of child rape no favours to assert a linear path from abused to abuser, and whatever light the new revelations might shine on Chris Brown’s personality, they do absolutely nothing to excuse or explain his own violence. He continues to choose his own path and must take absolute responsibility for his own behaviour.

Meanwhile it does no one any favours to hide the sexual abuse of children behind euphemism or journalistic sleight of hand.

Just checking in…

I haven’t had time to add any sparkling new content (or even sludgy prose) to this blog for a week or so, normal service should resume shortly.

In the meantime, a couple of pieces of mine have gone up elsewhere this week.

In the Guardian, I reflected on what Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon might mean for the people of Dunblane, where Murray himself survived the 1996 school massacre.

Men from central Scotland are not known for our smiley, flamboyant extroversion at the best of times. In Murray’s case one senses that he has constructed a thick protective wall around himself. Perhaps he cannot easily let emotions spill out, because with only the smallest crack, the deluge would be overwhelming.

 

And today in the Independent I cover the astonishing survey from the Royal Statistical Society which revealed just how grossly skewed is our typical assessment of the state of the nation, from benefits and the economy to crime figures and religious affiliations.

our impressions of society are formed by looking at individual factoids and scare stories as if through a long thin tube, only ever seeing a snapshot rather than the full panorama. We then depend upon cognitive biases and heuristics to fill in the gaping blank spaces.

Your thoughts on either of these would be welcome. Or alternatively just continue arguing about all the other things you’ve been arguing about on all the other threads which, let’s face it, is exactly what you’ll do anyway.

What do men see when they see Page 3?

SERIES: FROM THE HETPAT ARCHIVES

Note: Four months on from writing this, Rupert Murdoch has yet to announce the scrapping of Page 3 in the Sun.  However this week he has announced that they’re abolishing the patronising little speech bubbles ‘News In Briefs.’ Sarah Ditum has applauded the decision at the New Statesman. Her argument is persuasive, I think, except for where she digs up the same myth about male sexuality that I took on here.

First published, February 12th 2013

 

So Rupert Murdoch has hinted on Twitter that he may be rethinking his 40 year mission to deliver a daily couple of nipples to the breakfast tables of the nation.

In a reaction on Comment is Free, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett argued that nudity is not the principal problem with Page 3. “The presence of a few designer labels in the crucial areas makes little difference if the poisonous attitude remains the same,” she wrote. I broadly agree. My general take on the issue is that The Sun is a paper which peddles the exploitation, vilification and undisguised hatred of, well, just about everyone. The focus on Page 3 seems to me to miss the broader point, but more precisely, my problem with the tradition is not the nudity, but the way that it uses women as decoration, implying that a woman’s most significant role in the news media is to provide eye candy for a predominantly male market. Related to that, my main problem with the campaign against Page 3 is that by focusing on the nakedness, it veers rather close to an anti-nudity, even anti-sexuality narrative. It seems to say that exploitation is just fine, so long as you keep the boobs covered up.

While I generally agreed with Rhiannon’s main point, there was one paragraph in the article that betrays a profoundly mistaken view of what Page 3 is and does, and how it is viewed by men. It’s an extreme example of an argument that is often made by feminists within this debate.

I remember, as a teenager, how awful it was to be sitting next to a man on the bus leering at Page 3. I remember the embarrassment, the discomfort, at the lascivious drool coming from his chops, and the physical revulsion at his presumed erection from looking at a girl pretty much the same as me

…it’s about the sense of entitlement, the presupposition that an entire page of a national newspaper should be given over to the sexual gratification of men

Of course one can never underestimate the diversity of human personality and sexual behaviour, and I need no convincing that women experience the most rank sexual harassment and intimidation on public transport. I will take it on trust that at some point(s) in her life Rhiannon really did find herself sitting next to some freak who was “leering at Page 3” with “lascivious drool coming from his chops” in such a way that she presumed he had an erection from all the “sexual gratification” on display. I do, however, strongly reject the implication that this is how men typically view Page 3.

Straight men generally find pretty young women attractive. They are drawn towards them. Pretty young women with clothes on are attractive, and pretty young women with fewer clothes on are even more attractive. Boobs are nice to look at. I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in making that assertion.

Murdoch started putting semi-naked women in his newspapers back in 1970 to attract buyers, in exactly the same way that car show exhibitors drape models over the bonnets of their cars. He figured that if men are attracted to women with their tops on, they would be even more attracted to women with their tops off. And he was probably largely correct about that.

However attraction is not the same thing as sexual arousal. If images in The Sun or any other paper were genuinely sexually arousing they would actually lose readers. Murdoch has always wanted The Sun to be something that families could have lying around the breakfast table. That’s why the classic Page 3 look has always been strangely sexless and innocent, all happy cheerful smiles rather than the sultry, seductive pouts of pornography, even softcore porn.

Here is a fundamental truth about men: we hate getting erections at inappropriate moments. It is embarrassing and (literally) uncomfortable. The greatest horror is to get an erection at work or when surrounded by your mates. Men (and teenage boys in particular) develop all kinds of squirming techniques and tactics to try to disguise them. If we thought reading the Sun was likely to produce spontaneous erections at inopportune moments, we wouldn’t buy it, or we would but would keep it hidden under the mattress with the porn mags.

I suspect one of the reasons why Murdoch is now considering covering up the nipples on Page 3 is because he realises that they’re not actually that important a part of the equation. He started using them 40 years ago because he thought he could get away with it and it might add to sales. He now knows he could take them away and it wouldn’t really make any difference, because the nipples really aren’t what it is all about.  The likelihood is that Murdoch can grant campaigners their victory, get some good PR, and continue to use women in the same exploitative, sexist, decorative way he always has.

There is a tendency among some feminists to assume the worst of male sexuality. I understand where that has come from, but it can lead debates on topics such as sexualisation, porn and objectification to be conducted rather at cross purposes, and to generate a lot more heat than light. I don’t doubt for a moment that when a woman (especially a very young women) sees a man looking at The Sun, and specifically Page 3, she might be made genuinely uncomfortable by it. She may genuinely believe that the man is awash with lust, drooling with sexual gratification and sheltering a raging boner underneath his newspaper. I would suggest that unless the man has just escaped from decades in a monastery or is about 12 years old, this is almost certainly not the case. Much more probably he is thinking something like “she’s cute, nice tits, what a ridiculous speech bubble they’ve given her. Wonder if United will win tonight.

Perhaps there was a time when Page 3 was still sufficiently new, daring and shocking to produce a frisson of genuine sexual excitement, but those days had passed long before even I hit puberty  – a long, long time ago. When I was 13, round about 1980, we boys were on a perpetual hunt for sexual stimulation of any kind. Copies of Mayfair and Penthouse would be dealt and shared like valuable contraband. Even then Page 3 would barely register. It was what you might wank to if you couldn’t get hold of your mum’s Kay’s Catalogue lingerie section.

This wouldn’t matter too much were it not for one nagging concern. I can’t help thinking that the reason many women suppose that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire is because so many other women have told them that Page 3  is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on that particular myth.

I have no wish to undermine or resist feminist campaigns against Page 3, on the contrary I think it we’d have a slightly better society without it. On the other hand, I’d prefer if we could have that debate and that campaign without the need to further demonize male sexuality. Whatever Page 3 might be about, it is really not about sex.