The flesh is weak: On the Erection Equals Consent rape myth

Rape myths take many forms, and male victims have their own myths to bust.

CONTENT NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS BRIEF BUT GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Whenever an article appears about the sexual abuse of men and boys – especially abuse perpetrated by women – you can almost guarantee that a comment will appear saying something like: ‘well he couldn’t have been that unwilling if he got a boner.’

It is an incredibly damaging and harmful myth, for at least five reasons which I shall detail later in this post, but first let me do my best to convince doubters that it really is a myth. [Read more...]

Traditional circumcision ceremonies: Averting our eyes from the bloodshed

I don’t often do the cross-posting thing, but I have a piece up on the Guardian today that I feel rather strongly about and thought should share with you here

The death and deformity caused by male circumcision in Africa can’t be ignored 

The more I read about the rituals and the extent of suffering involved, the more appalled I am that it continues with so much official blessing and so many wilfully averted gazes.

A point I didn’t really have space to address in the article is that the pain involved, the suffering involved, the risks involved –  of injury, permanent scarring and even death – are, I think, intimately tied up with the business of proving oneself a man. Those pushing these ceremonies are very reluctant to adopt safer, more humane alternatives as this undermines the entire purpose, which is more about the suffering and health risks than anything else. It’s a very extreme and rigid test of masculinity. I find it very revealing that in the participating cultures, men who opt for medical circumcision under clinical conditions are shamed as cowards.  [Read more...]

Throwing domestic violence victims to the wolves

 

The Guardian’s front page story yesterday made depressing reading on every score. The impacts of the coalition government’s austerity package have tended to fall disproportionately and viciously upon the most vulnerable, those least able to fend for themselves and kick up a fuss. Few acts look more callous and heartless than turning one’s back on victims of domestic abuse in order to square the annual balance sheet.

Within the sorry litany of bad news, perhaps the most depressing spectacle was witnessing advocates for one group of abuse victims throw another group of abuse victims to the wolves. I refer of course to the journalist Sandra Laville and interviewees from women’s organisations attributing their dire situation to the need to provide services to male victims too.

[Read more...]

How I learned to stop worrying and love their #ListeningToMenFace

Poehler Fey

There was a moment when I was browsing the #ListeningToMenFace tweets over the weekend when I wondered whether it might be considered genuinely harmful.

If you’re a twit-refusenik or somehow missed it, this was a hashtag under which women, mostly but not entirely from feminist corners, posted photos, animated gifs of the faces they make when men talk to them. Some were posed selfies, most were celebrity grabs.

After laughing my way through the first few dozen entries I saw, the sheer weight of numbers began to wear me down. Had it become, I asked myself, something of a misandrist parade? An opportunity for women not just to strike back against the prevailing winds of patriarchal social mores but to gratuitously elevate a one finger salute to half the population of the planet?

I scratched my chin, cocked my head in a moment’s contemplation, then came to the following conclusion: “Ally…. get a grip and stop being such a butthurt bucket of toss.”

So yes, we can add the #ListeningToMenFace to the ever lengthening list of Fucks I Could Not Give. The key flash of realisation for me was that if so many women could identify with the joke and feel motivated enough to join in, there was a real and genuine itch there which needed to be scratched. And truth be told, looking at the photos, the videos and the gifs, a pretty hefty hunk of them looked rather familiar. Not only can I conclude that a lot of different women have shown me their #ListeningToMenFace over the years, I can add that on most occasions it was probably entirely deserved.

We live in a society where relationships between men and women – whether intimate, emotional, social or economic – are governed by myriad expectations, assumptions, habituations and complex etiquette. This means that, to some degree, most of us talk slightly differently to people of a different gender. Many of us might like to to think that we are immune to such habits. Most of us would be wrong, I think, but even if it were true, we all still interpret the other person’s words and behaviour through a lens that is coloured by their gender.

If we ever build a society free of restrictive gender norms, we might find ourselves in a position where the notion of a #ListeningToMenFace or indeed a #ListeningToWomenFace has no purchase or meaning, no humorous or satirical kick. As it is, I get why #ListeningToMenFace is funny. I also get why a #ListeningToWomenFace tag can be funny too, and if anyone expects me to argue it is different when men do these things about women because power relations blah blah, then sorry – a bit of gentle, impertinent ribbing of women by men is similarly lodged in the fattening file of Fucks I Could Not Give.

And of course it didn’t take long for the first such tweets to appear. The one truly saddening and worrying thing about this minor kerfuffle is that this evening when I looked, the top image under #ListeningToMenFace was this endearing photo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (above), the top image under #ListeningToWomenFace was the serial killer Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. A bit of gentle ribbing was answered by a reminder of brutal misogynistic violence. As the meme would have it, this is why we can’t have nice things.

I will not, however, allow that kind of unpleasantness to spoil anyone’s fun. As an original contribution to the #ListeningToMenFace game, I must pay tribute to my favourite fictional woman of recent years – Chloe O’Brian from 24. Without wishing to downplay her vital role in preventing umpteen biological weapons attacks and nuclear explosions, or to ignore her technical brilliance, but for all that her true genius is in pulling a #ListeningToMenFace. I mean, look.

chloe_listening

 

And it wouldn’t be right to leave you without my own #ListeningToWomenFace. I did contemplate a gif from Scanners of that dude’s head exploding, but while I have had a few days like that lately, it really wouldn’t be accurate. The truth of my #ListeningToWomenFace is probably something like this:

ghostbuster

 

 

#ViolenceIsViolence: Watching the reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Much worse is to come, however. Neate continues:

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

 

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

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

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

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

Slap-happy columnists and the dangers of generalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to be a douchebag

There’s a marvellous scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when the brutal drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey asks the raw recruits what they know about (Texas spree killer) Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. He goes on to praise their marksmanship, points out that they learned to shoot in the marines, and tells his young charges that before they leave the camp, “you will be able to do the same thing.”

I was reminded of this scene when reading Clive Martin’s piece in Vice today entitled How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the vicious, murderous accuracy of the sniping, I just felt deeply uncomfortable about the morality of the choice of target.

Lined up in Martin’s telescopic sights were the young men one sees in bars and clubs, primped and pumped up with bench-presses and anabolic powders, inked with tatts and soaking up admiration, primarily of their own gaze. They were variously described as ‘erections in vests'; ‘a Calvin Harris remix of a Springsteen song that doesn’t really work’ and ‘Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.‘ Like I say, you have to admire the sniping.

Beyond the creative insults, there is some genuine insight. Late in the piece Martin acknowledges:

 

But while it’s easy to scorn the banality – and the vanity – of the modern British douchebag, they’re only products of their environment. An environment that has very little to offer them any more, other than gym memberships, intentionally ripped clothes, alcohol and creatine. The institutions that gave British men a sense of wellbeing have been ripped apart. Nobody trusts the police any more; nobody wants to join the army because no one believes in its wars; traditional industries have been decimated and the only thing to replace them are stifling, mind-numbing positions in service and retail. 

Because of this, British men have tried to reimagine masculinity, in a hyper-realised, childish, desperate way. A new kind of machismo, built on fake bravado and vanity. British men are looking up to faux-hawked, peacocking, rich maniacs like Mario Balotelli for inspiration, because they really have nowhere else to look. Their bosses hate themselves and their dads hate them.

I can’t help but look at this emerging culture and wonder if they’ve basically retreated from a world that doesn’t want the young British male any more.

Boiled down, what we have here is Diane Abbott’s speech on the crisis of masculinity rehashed with added abuse for a hip, sneering audience, the MPs description of a Viagra and Jack Daniels generation served anew as ‘Monster cocktails and Creatine.’ Like her, the piece picks out a hugely salient but tiny minority and demands that they represent the grand themes of a generation. Where they differ is in their concerns. Abbott at least presumed to be concerned about the actual harm caused by her phantasms of moral panic – particularly the violence, abuse and exploitation of young women, but also the harm done to these men themselves. The Vice article does not even begin to make such accusations. There is no suggestion that the young men under discussion are abusive, criminal or violent, indeed they are mocked and denigrated for being fundamentally ‘soft’ under their muscle mass. Their only offence, it seems, is aesthetic. The author slates them as douchebags and arseholes, not because they have done anything to harm anyone, simply because they offend the author’s delicate sensibilities.

On first reading, I understood the piece as an exercise in arrogant, elitist, class-based anthropology. On closer inspection, I realised it was worse than that. At no point does the writer indicate that he has ever talked to the men he describes, ask them what motivates them, what their interests are. Does he even know that they are the ‘sons of the miners and the metrosexuals’ left in ‘mind-numbing positions in service and retail’? For what it is worth, the two guys I’ve known who most closely fitted the stereotype on display here were middle class kids with degrees, working on the creative design side of the media. Go figure. What we are presented with here is not social anthropology, but a sneering freakshow.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the social consequences of a post-industrial neoliberal society, in which the traditional gender roles that once operated simultaneously as safety blankets and straightjackets have been ripped away. One manifestation of this might well be a superficially puerile, hedonistic narcissism that is more likely to nourish self-destructive depression than fulfilment or social progress. Another might be an individualistic, scornful self-righteousness, cultural snobbery and deeply divisive cultural circus sideshow peddled by Vice magazine.  

There’s more than one way to be a douchebag.  

Breaking the silence on male abuse victims.

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

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

First published at the Independent

—————————————————————————–

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A history of ad hominem gender shaming

I blogged recently about my disdain for those who respond to any man writing favourably about women with the swipe “you’re only saying this in the hope of getting laid.”

Several respondents pointed out, quite correctly, that this is just one strand to a wide family of ad hominem attacks, all of which focus on the putative conscious or unconscious psychological motivations behind an expressed opinion.

It pops up in all political arenas (the phrase ‘the politics of envy’ is a classic example) but it seems especially prevalent in gender debates. Examples include dismissing feminists as being fat, ugly, sex-starved, bitter and jealous of more attractive women, or the precise mirror image – dismissing men’s activists as being sad, socially inadequate, resentful virgins who live in their mother’s basements.

It’s the kind of lazy thinking we all slip into occasionally – and yes, I’m sure there are plenty of blots on my own copybook, before you rush to point it out. Nonetheless it is an intellectually bankrupt, politically corrosive and degrading, and very often entirely untruthful approach to debating issues, whoever is responsible.

One might expect such cheap and nasty rhetorical tricks in the mucky trenches of the online gender wars. It is rather more surprising to find a prime example in an acclaimed, scholarly, academic history book.

My current light reading is a recent book by Ben Griffin entitled: The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights. Yeah, I know, I’m a barrel of laughs at parties. Anyway, in many respects it is a fascinating work, exploring a really interesting idea that since each gender is largely defined in opposition and contrast to the other, the gradual emancipation of women and reinvention of femininity through the 19th Century was both a cause and consequence of a parallel and contemporaneous reconstruction of male gender roles. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Victorian conceptions of fatherhood and paternity. It is useful to be reminded just how fluid and transient such seemingly immutable attitudes prove to be.

But here’s the ‘but.’ One particular point of interest for Griffin, which appears sporadically through the book but also gets a whole chapter to itself, is an urge to psychologically profile the most vehement anti-suffrage members of the Victorian parliaments. These guys were, I am quite happy to concede, unbearably reactionary, misogynistic dinosaurs with an unedifying attachment to brute, traditional masculinity, the type of politician who, were they around today, I would doubtless be writing articles and blogs about – mocking and condemning their appalling opinions. I hope I would not fall into the trap which, with 150 years’ of distance, catches Griffin.

It is not enough to the author that these men were wrong, misguided by anachronistic ideology or religious beliefs. He feels the need to pathologise them like the history department’s answer to Fitz from Cracker. These men, Griffin alleges, doth (or didth) protest too much. Hence Sir Henry James was “a lifelong bachelor” with “an unusually close attachment to his mother.” He “exhibited a visible interest in cases of unusually close attachment between men.” He was, according to one rumour, the secret lover of Lord Randolph Churchill, but according to another, responsible for a full household of illegitimate children.

Meanwhile Charles Newdegate MP represented “a similar case of exaggerated filial piety…. indeed the relationship seems to have been exceptional in its intensity.” What’s more, “there is no surviving evidence of him having ever expressed any interest in women at all.”

On a slightly different tack, another ardent advocate of patriarchal supremacy was very much married. Alexander Beresford Hope MP opposed every reform of women’s civil and legal rights, but he had secrets of his own. At home, we are told, his most striking characteristic was his “absolute devotion to [his wife] and complete surrender of his will to hers, never opposing or thwarting any of her wishes but always thinking of and anticipating her views and desires.” You might think this makes him sound rather lovely (the original source was the MP’s daughter, after his death), but that is not how the author sees it. Instead it stands as evidence that Beresford Hope’s anti-feminism was a reaction to being a henpecked husband.

Summing up, the author argues:

“any interpretation of their speeches has to take into account the fact that the speeches were not simply statements of anti-suffragist belief; they were also efforts to create masculine identities. By entering the battle to oppose women’s suffrage these bachelor mummies’ boys presented themselves as hard-headed men of business or as chivalrous knights set on protecting the fairer sex. These were identities that served to compensate for the fact that these men fell far short of the masculine ideal, and as such we should not underestimate the attraction that entering the debate on women’s suffrage held for these tarnished defenders of the patriarchal order.”

My objections to all this are twofold. The first is based in social science and psychology. As the likes of Adorno and Eysenck pointed out more than 50 years ago, all political views are, to an extent, underpinned by personal cognitive processes and/or personality. All of our politics are to an extent shaped and influenced by our personal histories and our private lives. It is striking that this type of forensic diagnosis of political positions is only ever applied to people we disagree with, never to ourselves or those on our own side. Were there not MPs who supported suffrage who were submissive to their wives or quietly homosexual? Almost certainly, but Griffin doesn’t explain away their progressive views on that basis, although either would be an easy case to make. Once we start to go down that route, all debate and discussion quickly becomes reductive and ad hom.

The second problem I have with all this is, I think, a more serious matter. Griffin clearly considers himself to be a progressive type, his allegiances are overtly pro-feminist and his references are peppered with post-structural gender theory from R.W. Connell et al. For all that, I can’t help but find his analysis subtly but profoundly reactionary. The glee he seems to take in nudge-nudge innuendo that anti-suffrage MPs were secretly gay strikes me as more than a tad homophobic, and so too is the repeated conflation of ‘confirmed bachelor’ with ‘mummy’s boy.’ The passage about the henpecked MP seems to be shaming the man for being insufficiently dominant in his own home.

I realise I’m probably being harsh, but I can’t help reading Griffin as saying that if you don’t agree with his enlightened modern views on gender, there must be something wrong with you, and in the case of these MPs, what was wrong with them was that they were secretly gay, lacking in masculine, heterosexual independence, or excessively subordinate to women. Um, hello? Isn’t this just old heteronormative, patriarchal gender policing wrapped up with a new progressive ribbon?

Whether or not Griffin is guilty as charged, there is an unfortunate tendency, particularly among male feminists, to create new, feminist-friendly hierarchies of masculinity which (conveniently) place them at the top. However well intentioned, slogans like “real men don’t hit women” still reinforce the false notion that there is such a thing as a real man, an ideal man, against whom all others should be compared. I don’t think it is helpful.

The sad truth is that some real men do hit women (or other men), some don’t. Some real men are gay, some real men are homophobic. Some real men lean left politically and some to the right, some real men oppose women’s rights and others support them. That was true in the 1870s, it remains true today, and if we want to challenge the views of those we oppose, we need to take on their arguments, not their personal lives.  

Male victims, screening and victim-blaming

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

Towards the end of the piece, it states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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