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.

Domestic abuse, disability and a great man’s courage

Back in the late seventies, to my prepubescent eyes, Eddie Kidd was quite simply the coolest guy on the planet. The motorcycle stuntman seemed to be a perennial presence on John Craven’s Newsround and Blue Peter, highlighting his latest daredevil leaps over gullies, gorges or strings of double decker buses. While the USA had Evel Knieval, all jumpsuits, rhinestones and Confederate flags, we had Eddie Kidd, a sneering, punky, denim and leather-clad teenager. No contest.

The courage and determination which took Eddie Kidd to stardom stayed with him, even after a horrific accident in 1996 left him with severe physical disabilities and brain damage. Doctors declared that he would never walk again, but five years later he completed the London Marathon. It took him 43 days but he finished it.

It must have taken a similar kind of courage for Kidd to open himself up on his experience as a victim of domestic abuse. In August, his ex-wife was imprisoned for five months for a series of assaults that included kicking, punching and throttling him, accompanied by foul verbal attacks, sometimes in full view of witnesses. Last week Kidd told the Sun on Sunday:

“As a man, any man, to be beaten by your wife is desperately humiliating and, in a way, shameful.  I ended up blaming myself – thinking she had taken too much – or, that it was my fault. I took on so much when I was riding. Then after all the stunts, all the fanfare, I am sat in a chair being beaten by my wife and there is nothing I can do.”

This desperately sad story brings into sharp focus one of the most neglected aspects to domestic violence policy: disability, and especially its interaction with masculinity. Home Office research has found that both men and women with disabilities are around twice as likely to become victims of abuse as their non-disabled equivalents and while disabled women are at greatest risk of all, disabled men are at significantly greater risk than non-disabled women. An analysis of users of a male victims’ helpline in the US revealed that 17.9% of callers were disabled. Other research has found that disabled people are likely to suffer greater trauma and mental ill health as a consequence than other victims of abuse.

To its credit, the domestic violence sector has at least begun to address the very real needs of disabled women, in terms of identifying abuse and providing appropriate interventions. Academic searches bring up swathes of papers, books and chapters on the needs of disabled women at risk. In contrast, when the charity Abused Men in Scotland published a recent systematic review of evidence on male victims’ needs, they were forced to admit: “An extensive search produced no specific literature on disabled men and domestic abuse.”

Numerous studies have suggested that disabled people are less likely to report abuse than others, and that men are less likely to do so than women. It is reasonable to presume that disabled men are uniquely isolated from support. We might hope that health and social care professionals would be attuned to these risks, and yet if one looks at the stated positions of their relevant national bodies, there is cause for concern.

The Royal College of Nurses provides a resource sheet on domestic violence which begins with the words “Increasingly, nurses working in all specialities are expected to respond to women who are experiencing domestic violence.” It continues in that vein for ten pages, mentioning male victims only once, to dismiss their significance. The British Association of Social Work resource section has 28 documents on domestic violence and not one of them addresses the needs of male victims. When the Royal College of General Practitioners launched a new training package on domestic violence, their chair was quoted as saying “this vital work [will] develop the skills and confidence of GPs and transform the lives of many women and children.” NHS London provides an extensive resource site for health professionals on domestic violence which presumes male perpetrators and female victims throughout.

In practice, many individual doctors, nurses, social workers and other frontline care professionals are sensitive and aware of male victims, especially those with disabilities. Victims and their advocates report that sadly, many are not and one might ask for how long their national organisations are going to legitimise that failing. This week NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence closes a major consultation on domestic violence policies across our health services. Let us hope it provides a platform for change to systems and attitudes which currently leave many of the most vulnerable victims neglected, forgotten and at risk.


Nagging: No laughing matter


So runs the headline on The Sun’s front page this morning. It refers to a court judgement in which Julie Griffiths of Staffordshire has been spared jail for breaking the terms of her anti-social behaviour order imposed last December for shouting and screaming at her husband at such volumes that it persistently disturbs the neighbours.

The story goes back to 1999 when she was first served with a noise abatement order. She was fined £500 when she breached it  in 2010. Environmental health officers installed monitoring equipment in a neighbour’s home in July last year.She then breached the noise abatement order 47 times between July 4 and October 22, 2012. Last December magistrates imposed a five-year ASBO after she pleaded guilty to failing to comply with the requirements of the notice. Since then Griffiths, the court heard, has continued to disturb her street with shouting, swearing and slamming doors while berating her husband Norman, 63.

A Daily Mail report, from the time of the Asbo last December, said:

Neighbours yesterday said living next door to Griffiths had ‘been hell.’ One, who did not want to be named, said: ‘Everyone in the street is sick to the back teeth of her. ‘Everyone just feels so sorry for her husband Norman who is the sweetest man you could ever meet.  ‘He must have the patience of a saint.’

According to the Daily Mail today Councillor John Williams, cabinet member for stronger neighbourhoods, said: ‘Ms Griffiths’s neighbours continue to suffer from her dreadful behaviour despite the Anti-Social Behaviour Order but we will do all we can to see that action is taken to stop it happening in future.

Now I can’t be the only person to be rather disturbed by the reporting of this. Her repeated offence is annoying the neighbours, as if they are the primary victims here, The case is being treated identically to someone who insists on playing Metallica CDs at full volume, morning and night. But she is not just making noise. She is, by all accounts, persisting in severe and persistent verbal partner abuse. It would appear to be textbook coercive-controlling abuse, by any of the definitions of domestic violence applied by all agencies,

Now it could well be that her husband has no wish to take any steps himself to change her behaviour or find any kind of protection or relief from her bullying. That is entirely his right, and if he does not want to do anything about it I would not for a moment advocate prosecuting her for domestic abuse or seeking to break up the household.

However I do take exception to the language and vocabulary used to recount the sordid story. Not only does the word ‘nagging’ have an ugly history as a misogynistic slur, it would appear to be grossly inaccurate description of what is happening here. Nagging is when you tell someone to take the bins out, they don’t do it, so you keep at them until they do. Nagging is not yelling, screaming and banging doors so loudly that the council noise abatement team repeatedly prosecute you.

it has taken us a long, long time to lose the euphemisms attached to domestic violence. Police, for the most part, do not dismiss partner assaults as “just a domestic” (or not publicly, at least.)  We no longer talk about an abusive husband as having a “strong hand” or a male victim as a “henpecked husband.”

It’s more than high time that we dropped this particular N-word too.


This is what is crude about circumcision, Lynne Featherstone

When I write about the ritual infant circumcision of boys, I try to avoid lazy and crass comparisons to female genital mutilation. FGM, in the form of clitoridectomy (as commonly practised in countries like Somalia), is a horrific procedure that causes unfathomable pain and trauma at the time it is conducted, followed by lifelong sexual pain and dysfunction. There is no question that the physical impacts and health risks of FGM are genuinely incomparable to those of male circumcision, or to give it a less euphemistic description, ritual male genital mutilation.

So making trite comparisons between FGM and MGM is unhelpful and obscures differences. It is often unhelpful to even hint at comparisons. That is why I was appalled and repulsed by Lynne Featherstone MP, who at the Lib Dem Conference today used the exact inverse analogy to make a rhetorical point.:

“It’s a practice that has been going 4,000 years and, without wishing to be crude about this, quite frankly if it was boys’ willies that were being cut off without anaesthetic it wouldn’t have lasted four minutes, let alone 4,000 years.”

I’m guessing that Featherstone has never sat in a court and listened to testimony describing an untrained practitioner taking a pair of kitchen scissors to the penis of a four-week old boy, without anaesthetic, dabbing it with olive oil and then leaving him to bleed to death. I have. When I read her words, the first image that flooded my mind were those vivid descriptions of the death of Goodluck Caubergs in Manchester last year.

Perhaps Lynne Featherstone has never heard of Angelo Ofori-Mintah  who died in London, aged 28 days, after a Rabbi told his parents to daub his uncongealed wound with Vaseline. He lost three quarters of his blood before he died of cardiac arrest. Perhaps she hasn’t heard of the baby in Bristol who suffered a fractured skull after falling off a table during a home circumcision. She may not know that Manchester children’s hospital treats an average of three babies a month with botched circumcision wounds, she may not know that 45% of babies circumcised at an Islamic school in Oxford suffered medical complications. She may not know that well over 100 baby boys die from complications after circumcision every year in the USA alone. While her eyes are on Somalia, she may have missed the story from South Africa where 30 boys died in one province alone during the “circumcision season”, with another 300 hospitalised with dehydration, gangrene and septic wounds, at least ten of whom had to have their penises amputated.

The truth is that nobody has got a clue what the true global toll of death and injury from male circumcision might be, because global bodies such as the World Health Organisation make no efforts to find out.  With around 30% of the world’s baby boys being circumcised every year, many in countries with minimal medical care, it is likely to be in the tens of thousands at the least.

Yes, the probabilities of mortality or morbidity following female genital mutilation are certainly far higher. However the other side of that coin is that while FGM is prohibited and abhorred in all but a handful of cultures on earth, male circumcision is tolerated and encouraged. Around one in four baby boys born on the planet this year will be subjected to an unnecessary ritual mutilation, the overwhelming proportion of which will be carried out without anaesthetic and not under surgical conditions.

Featherstone said she didn’t want to be “crude” and in that, I suspect she meant by using the word “willies.” Her crudeness is not in her vocabulary, it is in the grossly tasteless indifference and ignorance she shows to the fact that for 4,000 years we have indeed been taking knives to baby boys’ willies, countless numbers have died as a result, innumerable more have suffered botched mutilations, sexual dysfunction, pain and suffering,  and rather than “putting a stop to it in four minutes” we have turned our backs, averted our eyes to the blood, closed our ears to the screams and let it happen.

The startling facts on female sexual aggression

For the past year or so, any time I’ve written about men’s sexual aggression towards women, I could almost guarantee that someone would comment beneath about women’s sexual aggression towards men, usually referencing the US Centre for Disease Control’s Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010.

This huge victim survey made a surprising finding. It suggested that the rates of men being forced to penetrate women over the past year was identical to the rates of women reporting being raped, each 1.1%. Lifetime prevalence of the crimes were 4.8% for men and 17.8% for women. Meanwhile men reporting sex through coercion was 1.5% over the past year (6% lifetime) compared to 2% (13% lifetime) for women.

I’ll be honest that I was, for a long time, extremely dubious about these data. They fly in the face of everything we presume to know about sexual violence. They had to be a rogue result, either the product of some sampling error, a result of differing interpretations of coercion and compulsion by male and female respondents, or some unexplained bug in the methodology.

So I began to do what I always try to do, and find out for myself. For a long time I drew blanks, it seemed there simply was no corroborating evidence. Most of my usual criminology bibles and texts on sexual assault came up bare. Then slowly I began to catch glints of light – a reference in a paper here, a link in a discussion there.  As is the way of research, suddenly the pieces began to tumble out in front of me. What I found astonished me. It turns out the CDC results are not unique or unprecedented. There is a raft of research going back to the 1980s making very similar claims.

I know many readers of this blog will be as sceptical as I was. So I will do something I don’t normally do, and post a whole bunch of academic references, with the relevant findings. You can check them to your heart’s content. Alternatively just skip to the discussion below.


Aizeman & Kelley, 1988 – 14% of men (and 29% of women) reported they had been forced to have intercourse against their will

Anderson 1998 – Survey of 461 women (general population) 43% secured sexual acts by verbal coercion; 36.5% by getting a man intoxicated; threat of force – 27.8%, use of force – 20%;  By threatening a man with a weapon – 8.9%.

Anderson, 1999 – 43% of college women admitted to using verbal or physical pressure to obtain sex

Anderson and Aymami (1993) 28.5% of women reported the use of verbal coercion, 14.7% had coerced a man into sexual activity by getting him intoxicated and 7.1% had threatened or used physical force.

Fiebert & Tucci (1998) – 70% of male college students reported experiencing some type of harassment, pressuring, or coercion by a female

Hannon, Kunetz, Van Laar, & Williams (1996) – 10% of surveyed male college students reported experiencing a completed sexual assault perpetrated by a female intimate partner

Hogben, Byrne & Hamburger (1996) Lifetime prevalence of 24% for women having made a man engage in sexual activity against his will.

Krahe, Waizenhofer & Moller (2003) – 9.3% of women reported having used aggressive strategies to coerce a man into sexual activities.  Exploitation of the man’s incapacitated state: 5.6% Verbal pressure: 3.2%. Physical force: 2%. An additional 5.4% reported attempted acts of sexual aggression

Larimer, Lydum, Anderson and Turner (1999) 20.7% of male respondents had been the recipients of unwanted sexual contact in the year prior to the survey. Verbal pressure was experienced by 7.9%, physical force by 0.6% and intoxication through alcohol or drugs by 3.6%.

Muehlenhard and Cook (1988) 23.8% of male respondents had engaged in unwanted sexual activity as a result of threat or physical force, and 26.8% reported unwanted sexual contact as a result of verbal pressure. For unwanted intercourse, the prevalence rates were 6.5% for physical force and 13.4% for verbal pressure.

O’Sullivan, Byers and Finkelman (1998) Overall incidence of 8% of women reporting sexual aggression for the academic year preceding the survey. Intercourse due to use of threat or physical force 0.5%, by use of alcohol or drugs 0.5% and attempted intercourse due to threat or use of physical force also 0.5%. Of male respondents, 18.5% reported having experienced sexual aggression. Specifically, 3.8% reported experiencing unwanted sexual intercourse due to use of alcohol or drugs, and 2.3% reported attempted intercourse due to threat or use of physical force.

Poppen and Segal (1988) 14% of women reported lifetime incident(s) of perpetration (including both verbal coercion and physical assault)

Russell and Oswald (2001) – 18% of women in a college sample reported engaging in sexually coercive behaviors, ranging from verbal threats and pressure to use of physically aggressive tactics.

Russell and Oswald (2002) 44% of college men in their sample reported being subjected to a sexually coercive tactic.

Shea (1988) Women’s reported lifetime prevalence – 19% for verbal coercion; 1.2% reported having physically assaulted a man.

Sisco, Becker, Figueredo, & Sales (2005) – A third of women reported that they had verbally harassed a person or pressured the person into performing a sexual act that the person felt uncomfortable with while roughly one in ten performed a coercive sexual act that would be considered illegal (e.g., sexual acts that involved a person who was unable or unwilling to consent)

Sorensen, Stein, Siegel, Golding and Burnam (1987) Lifetime prevalence rate of 9.4% and an adult prevalence rate of 7.2% for men’s sexual victimization (male self-reports).

Struckman-Johnson (1988) – 2% of 355 female college students reported they had forced sex on a dating partner at least once in their lifetime.

Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1998) – 43% of college men reported experiencing a coercive incident, of which 36% reported unwanted touch and 27% reported being coerced into sexual intercourse.

[As I was almost done completing this list, almost inevitably, I discovered that someone else – Martin Fiebert to be precise – had already compiled a similar one.  The bastard. Anyway, it’s here, and contains many of the same papers plus many more]


Where does this research lead us? Most obviously, to the conclusion that female sexual aggression in relationships is far more common than I, and I suspect most people, usually presume. It is a huge, and almost entirely invisible phenomenon with many, many unacknowledged male victims.. There are also enormous heffalump-traps here. Firstly, the research does not show that women are as likely to sexually aggress as men. Where there is a direct comparison (eg the very first reference) they tend to show that men are at least twice as likely to sexually aggress as women. Nor does it imply that a man’s experience of being sexually coerced or assaulted by a women is in some way parallel to a woman’s experience of being sexually coerced or assaulted by a man.

Let me bring in an anecdote. When I was at a student party once, around 25 years ago, a very drunk (and physically rather large) woman came on to me, very strongly indeed.  I tried to escape with a tactical toilet break. She followed me into the loo, forced me up against the basin, pushed her tongue into my mouth and her hand into my jeans. I had to summon up quite a lot of physical strength to escape. This may sound strange, but my understanding of the incident, then and now, was not that I had narrowly escaped being raped by her, but that she had narrowly escaped being raped by me. She was in no state to be making such a choice. When her hand grasped my cock it reacted and for a moment I considered letting her have her wish. I refrained, partly because I knew I would regret it afterwards, but more importantly because I knew it was highly likely that she would regret it, if not immediately, then certainly the next day. (I was also pretty sure she was going to throw up any minute, and if I didn’t fancy her much to begin with, that certainly wouldn’t have helped.)

It was all a bit icky at the time, but minutes later she’d wandered off and passed out on an armchair, I sighed with relief, shrugged off the suggestive leers from my mates, grabbed a beer, rolled a spliff and all but forgot about it within minutes.

Had the details of the incident been the same, but the genders been reversed – had I been the obnoxiously drunken man who forced my way into a bathroom with a woman, thrust my hand into her pants and pinned her against a wall, it would have (very probably) been a far, far more terrifying, traumatizing experience for the victim. Nobody would have questioned that it was an attempted rape.  Is this a double standard? Probably, but it is one born of thousands of years of cultural, sexual and gender conditioning, not to mention the political context, in which the ever present threat of rape has been used as a primary tool of male domination over women. We can question that, strive to move on from it, but we cannot simply wish it away.

That said, if I lacked either the strength or sobriety to extricate myself from the situation, I might well have had a very different recall of the event.  In one of the many studies into this subject, Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1994), found that most men who experienced unwanted female contact had ‘mild negative reactions’ (a fair description of my feelings, I’d say), However about one fifth of the men had strong negative reactions – some were traumatised, damaged, psychologically harmed by the experience.  That is of course far lower than the proportion of women who are seriously traumatised by sexual assaults by men but there is also research going back as far as 1982 (by Sarrel and Masters) demonstrating severely negative psychological and psychosexual consequences to male victimization. We are taking a long time to wake up to this problem.

It seems apparent (and I choose those words with care) that whatever the incidence of female sexual assault of adult males, our society is not teeming with men who have been seriously psychologically and emotionally damaged by experience of female abuse and assault. I recently asked a friend, a clinical psychologist, whether it was something that came up often, and he replied that in a 20 year career, he could only recall two clients who disclosed such issues, both of which had occurred as part of a broader pattern of partner abuse and domestic violence. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean serious casualties do not exist, nor does it invalidate the experience of men who were less lucky than me, more vulnerable than me, or more traumatised than me. Nor does it preclude the possibility that many damaged men simply never confess their nightmares to anyone, even their professional therapists.

What should we take from awareness of the extent of female sexual aggression? First, just that  – awareness. Men need to be aware that there are women out there who will exploit them, not feel isolated or shamed if it happens to them, and be prepared to seek and accept help and support if they need it.

Society needs to be aware that it is a serious issue, not a joke, not always a trivial matter or something that belongs in the News of the Weird section. Abigail Rine at The Atlantic has written a couple of excellent pieces [here and here] about our cultural hypocrisy on the issue recently. We need many more writers like her.

Our mental health and social care systems need to be more alive to the extent of the issue, be open to the possibility that emotionally and sexually troubled men might be troubled for this very reason. And this might sound bizarre, but perhaps women need to be aware that they can and do assault and abuse men. I strongly suspect many women genuinely believe that any man will be (literally) up for it at any time, and will always be glad of a sexual thrill. This is as much of a rape myth as any other.

Above all, this knowledge should yet again give us pause to consider our collective understanding of the nature of sexual consent. I don’t think we can entirely untangle female sexual abuse of men from male sexual abuse of women. Both stem from a willingness to exert selfish power or sadistic cruelty, placing sex in a framework where we take what we want and get what we can, rather than give what is wanted.  Perhaps greater enlightenment on this topic could help to further break down all abusive sexual behaviours, to the benefit of male and female victims alike.

Was just prompted by a chat on Twitter to realise that it might be useful for some to include links to support organisations.

If you are a male survivor of any form of sexual abuse and would like support or advice.

In the UK:
n the US:

(if you can suggest any other organisations I should link to, please let me know below)




The Equal Treatment Fallacy

I’ve heard it said that the root of all religious and secular morality is contained in the Christian dictum: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a seductive and simple message, and will get you through day to day interactions better than the average Facebook meme aphorism, but it is not a solution to social injustice.  The belief that the route to social justice is to treat everyone equally is dangerously flawed.

First, a rather violent metaphor. Imagine you have two Roman gladiators squaring up in the Coliseum. One is dressed in full body armour and helmet and armed with a slingshot. The other is barehanded and wearing a loin cloth. Under those circumstances a rule to say that the two combatants could only fight by throwing stones at each other would make anything but a fair fight.

In socioeconomic terms, the fallacy is best illustrated by Anatole France’s brilliant observation. “In its majestic equalitythe law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”  To treat rich and poor alike is to treat them entirely differently.

The fallacy appears often in gender debates. It crops up in discussions of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse, where hard-of-thinking members of my gender often splutter “But I’d love it if someone sexually harassed / sexually abused me!”

In recent weeks I have seen it applied often to the debate around misogynistic abuse on Twitter, where the ‘do unto others’ dictum has been viciously inverted. “I wouldn’t give a shit if someone threatened to rape me, wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, so you have no grounds to complain if I do it to you.”  

At the heart of the fallacy is an obliviousness to both individual and collective differences. No two individuals will react identically to a threat of violence, but since we are socialised into gendered phenomenology and face different real world risks, stresses and pressures, the impact on the typical man and the typical woman will be different. This is not to say a threat of physical or sexual violence against a man is acceptable or even that it is less unacceptable. It is to say that the difference is not quantitative, it is qualitative.

As you may have noticed, last week I wrote about penises in the Guardian. I took a fair bit of grief in the comments, and even from some valued friends on this blog, because I didn’t write the piece that most readers (at least most of the male readers) wanted me to write. They wanted a storming rebuttal of Suzanne Moore’s rules for managing you penis or a turning of the tables – a man to write the equivalent rules for managing your vaginas. I had tried to satirise both that demand and Moore’s article in a quick, snarky blog-post on this site, but I had no wish to take that particular point any further.

Critics were quite right to say that the Guardian would never publish the same article written by a man about women. However this misses the point that it would be impossible for a man to write the same article about women. Even if the genders (and genitals) were reversed while leaving the rest of the words in place, it would still be a very different article because of the surrounding cultural and political culture. With hindsight, my Guardian piece didn’t explain this very well, but this is what I was trying to say when I pointed out:

Our culture, media and politics have, for thousands of years, positively bubbled with men telling women what to do with their reproductive organs, whether it is instructing against using them too often or too rarely, using them too young, leaving them until they are too old, or medically intervening in their natural and/or God-given functions. Pertinently, many of those voices have been backed by the machineries of state, politics and religion.

I don’t think the Guardian should have published Moore’s article, because it was patronising, needlessly insulting, divisive and, above all, just a very poor article by her standards. It was self-contradictory, muddled and switching awkwardly between irony and sincerity. (Whatever political and ideological differences I have with her, I do believe Suzanne is one of the most brilliant polemicists in the British media. I’ll often accuse her of having a bad argument, rarely of writing a bad article). However that is not the same as arguing that an organisation such as the Guardian should only ever write about men in the same way they (or we, if you like) write about women and vice versa. Equal treatments do not have equal impacts and effects.

What is the alternative to ‘Do unto others…”? I’m not being entirely mischievous when I suggest that it is contained in a very different kind of dogmatic canon: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

That was intended as an economic principle, of course, but I think it very much applies to social policy and even interpersonal communications. “To each according to their needs” is a good working definition of respect at both individual and policy levels.  I also believe it applies strongly to those issues where men face gender-specific issues and disadvantages. Do male victims of violence or abuse need the same interventions, services and framework of understanding that female victims do? No, often they don’t. Their situation is likely to be different in key respects, and so too should be the response – to each according to his needs.

One of the points raised repeatedly by campaigners for men’s physical and mental health is that services are built on assumptions of patients’ needs, which in practice often mean women’s needs. One explanation proffered for boys’ underachievement in school is that the education system has in recent decades shifted from treating every pupil equally as if they were male towards treating every pupil equally as if they were female. Neither option is truly fair. It seems to me that men’s activists too often routinely demand whatever they perceive women to be getting (not least victimhood) and too rarely analysing and demanding what it is that men actually need.

The logical endpoint of the Equal Treatment Fallacy is the belief that if we treat everyone equally, then everyone will become equal. The truth is that in an unequal system, if we treat everyone equally we maintain the unequal status quo. That’s why you’ll never get me to agree to follow the modern trend to claim to be an equalist, rather than a feminist. I’m neither.

None of this is to excuse or justify rudeness, hypocrisy or negative stereotyping. Arguing that misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry is OK or politically constructive. It just means it is qualitatively different and should be understood differently. I don’t blame the 2000+ commenters on Suzanne Moore’s piece for reacting angrily to her trolling. I’ve reacted similarly to other provocations plenty of times. She was being insulting and I don’t blame anyone for feeling insulted. I would caution against using the saga as an argument for false notions of equal treatment. There is really no such thing.

10 Rules for Managing Your Vagina

I might write something more earnest about this when I get the chance, but just for now…

Ten Rules for Managing Your Vagina

No.1: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No. 2: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No. 3: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.4: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.5: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.6: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.7: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.8: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.9: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.10: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.


UPDATE 08/08/13

I’ve written some additional thoughts on Suzanne Moore’s piece here. Might as well point out that I had no desire to write a line by line take down or rebuttal – this blog catches my feelings about it as well as anything I could say at length. But it did set me off on some tangential musings on, well, penises.


What should a men’s movement look like?

In preparation for the upcoming National Conference on Men and Boys, Glen Poole has posted an interesting poll.

Picking up on Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent article arguing that there’s a need for a men’s movement, Glen asks what it would or should actually look like.

His list is a fairly accurate reflection of the different flavours of men’s activism currently at play. I’d perhaps suggest there should be a category for social conservatives and traditionalists, who although my political opposites, are a definite presence within the debates.

Many are  perfectly compatible and quite rightly you can click more than one. I’m not entirely sure there is a clear line between the different categories (I’m not quite sure of the distinction between numbers 4 and 5, in particular.)

In answer to the question, I think the men’s movement is really all of the above and more, and perhaps it needs to be. I include in that the positions with which I profoundly (and often furiously) disagree. But dynamic democracy requires debate, and debate requires different positions. I also think you could draw up a similarly diverse list of models and strains of feminism, many of which furiously disagree with and even  despise each other, but the movement requires that diversity for its intellectual health, and most people within feminism are happy to accept that, whatever their disagreements, they are all feminists.

Anyway, I’ll reprint the list, and then add my own Number 11. Except it isn’t really a Number 11, it is more what Number 5 would look like if I’d drafted it! .

Glen’s list

1.    A Men’s Liberation Movement

A global men’s liberation movement would be pro-feminist and focussed on liberating men from rigid gender roles on the past and helping men to address unhealthy male behaviours and develop and promote healthy masculinity.

2.    A Men’s Human Rights Movement

A global men’s human rights movement would tackle feminism head on and address all the areas of life where men’s human rights are under attacked, with a particular focus on tackling laws, policies and initiatives that favour women and girls and discriminate against men and boys in the process.

3.    A  Men’s Rites of Passage Movement

A Men’s Rites of Passage Movement would ensure that all men and boys had the opportunity to take part in rites of passage work with the support of other men and help every boy make a safe and healthy transition into manhood in the process.

4.    An Integral Men’s Movement

An Integral Global Men’s Movement would seek to unite everyone committed to improving the lives of men and boys no matter what perspective they came from and seek out areas of common interest and opportunities to work together for the greater good.

5.    A Men’s Social Justice Movement

A Men’s Social Justice Movement would focus on areas where men and boys experience inequality or problems with their health, education, family life, personal safety, social care needs etc and take action to find solutions to these issues.

6.    A Religious Men’s Movement

A Religious Men’s Movement would help to solve the problems that involve men and boys by actively working to bring more men to God—with a focus on one religion only (whatever that religion is).

7.    An Interfaith Men’s Movement

An Interfaith Men’s Movement would work across religious boundaries to help solve the problems that involve men and boys by actively working to bring more men to a life of faith, no matter what that faith is.

8.     A Fathers’ Rights Movement

A Fathers’ Rights Movement would seek to ensure that every child knows the love of their father by tackling the failings of the world’s legal systems which favour mothers particularly when parents are separated.

9.    A Shared Parenting Movement

A Shared Parenting Movement would work to unite mums and dads to help men and women equally share the responsibility of caring for their children, looking after the home and earning money through a rewarding career.

10. A Men Go Their Own Way Movement

A Men Go Their Own Way Movement would encourage and support men to “go their own way” and live their lives free from any problems associated with being in a long-term relationship with a women.

And Awkward Ally’s Number 11,

11. The men’s flank of the social justice movement. 

A movement that challenges male-specific issues and injustices from a holistic and humanitarian perspective, recognising that economic and social justice issues are interlinked, inseparable and intersectional.


So, there’s the options. If you feel so inclined, please cast your vote here and let me know your thoughts below.

Zimmerman, Martin and patriarchal misandry: An intersectional analysis

The analysis of President Obama’s press conference on the George Zimmerman verdict focussed quite correctly upon America’s ongoing issues with race. I have no wish to once more revise the debate as to whether the verdict was reasonable or not (if you’re interested, I agreed with every word of Deborah Orr’s piece the other day) but there’s another aspect to the death of Trayvon Martin that has gone almost unnoticed.

When all the dust and bluster is cleared away, the inescapable likelihood is that Trayvon Martin would never have died had he been white.  However as Obama subtly acknowledged, there is another part to that equation. Look at his words carefully:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.

Not every reference in his address specified gender, but most did. Yes, black women are also subject to racism, to prejudice and suspicion, and I do not for a moment seek to downplay that. However it goes without saying that assumptions about race and ethnicity intersect and react with assumptions about gender to create very different outcomes.  It was not just that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he were not African-American, he would probably still be alive today if he had not been male.

Black men in the US are the most vulnerable racial-gender group for almost every known health condition. in 2001 their life expectancy gap to Asian women was 21 years. In 1990 it was reported that black men in Harlem had a lower life expectancy than men in Bangladesh. There are similar statistics in education, in employment, in mental health and, most famously, in the criminal justice system as both prisoners and victims.

To understand this we need to appreciate not only the assumptions that are made about black people, but also the assumptions that are made about men. In both cases we are talking not only about the externally imposed prejudices, but also internalised markers of identity -what we ourselves believe to be the appropriate and acceptable ways for someone like us to behave, assumptions which are inevitably informed by and reactive to dominant cultural values, including racial and gendered stereotypes.

To understand why Trayvon Martin died, we need to understand how society perpetuates narratives about the criminality and violent tendencies of men. That helps to explain why Zimmerman made the assumptions he did about the 17 year old, and also perhaps why the pursuit became a deadly confrontation (without necessarily having to apportion blame on either side.)

This seems to me a grimly profound example of what feminists and critical race theorists call an intersectional relationship. When different strains of prejudice and oppression collide they are not just added to each other in a 1+1=2 formula. They react with each other like reagents in a test tube, to create a new and unique. I’ve argued before that contrary to some feminists’ claims, misandry is indeed a thing. So too is black misandry – the stereotyping, negative prejudices and oppression visited very specifically upon black men – which is different not just in degree but in quality from either half of the whole, in other words there are assumptions made about black men which do not routinely apply to either all black people or to all men (aspects of sexuality or probable gang membership, for example.)

One very useful insight of millennial feminism has been that different oppressive structures (eg sexism, racism, homophobia etc) are not independent, but mutually supportive. Patriarchy is strengthened by racism and so has a vested interest in preserving it. Homophobic structures are given protection by transphobic attitudes, and all the vice versas, all the different combinations. This is (broadly and simplistically) what is meant by kyriarchy. If one accepts this logic, it should be a contradiction in terms to be a transphobic feminist or a racist gay rights campaigner.

I do accept this. I believe that the systematic gender oppression of men is an essential element of the economic system, running alongside and parallel to the systematic gender oppression of women. Feminists say that patriarchy hurts men too. I’d go further – I believe patriarchy hates men too. Since my last couple of blogs on these issues I’ve cautiously started adopting the phrase patriarchal misandry. One Twitter feminist described this as “the single most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” and given my general disagreements with the same person, I take that to be a validation. The phrase captures for me how psychological, emotional and physical traumas are imposed routinely or sporadically upon men purely as a result of their gender, in large part in order to nail them to their expected place in the social order. That place that includes being the oppressor of others, whether you want to or not, and it includes not just the gender hierarchies of society, but the racial, sexual, social and economic hierarchies of society.

Having said all that, I think anyone who is concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of men has to understand how sexism. racism, homophobia, ableism and every other form of oppression and imposition are all part of the same package. A men’s activist who remains indifferent to the mechanics of racism is as self-defeating as the transphobic feminist. A men’s activist who actively contributes to misogyny or homophobia is bolstering the very system he presumes to change.

The Trayvon Martin tragedy hinges on negative stereotypes, but in different contexts supposedly positive stereotypes can be equally harmful. I wrote recently about a men’s group co-ordinator from London called Kenny D’Cruz, who commissioned me to help tell his story of his struggles with his own mental health. Kenny came to the UK as a refugee from Uganda. Fleeing the most terrible dangers, he lived through months in transit camps and years of racism in a small, all-white Welsh town. But the oppression which may have done the greatest damage to his emotional wellbeing was when he was separated from his father at the airport in Uganda and told  “You are the head of the family now, you must look after your brother and mother.”

This expectation that a 9-year-old boy would be head of a household (which still included his mother, incidentally) is deeply patriarchal and sexist. It can also be deeply damaging, as it proved to be in Kenny’s case. It is simply unreasonable to expect a small child to take emotional responsibility for the wellbeing of a traumatised family, (however symbolic it may be, and in Kenny’s case it wasn’t). This is an extreme example of the social forces which, at root, can largely explain so many of the issues in health, wellbeing and social attainment for men today. The pressures which drive men to be big cheese on their block, in their gated community or in their merchant bank are to a large extent the same pressures that drive men to the prison gates and the psychiatric wards.


Fathers 4 Justice:solutions lies in our families, not our family courts

Note: I ran this at the Guardian yesterday. It’s a topic that some of the regulars here have seemed keen to discuss, so here’s a repost


It appears to be the season for symbolic gestures. Last week Fathers4Justice (F4J) activist Paul Manning was arrested and charged for gluing a photo of a child to Constable’s The Hay Wain in the National Gallery. The incident occurred two weeks after another F4J activistspray-painted over a portrait of the Queen in Westminster Abbey, and three days before a similar attack on a statue in the same cathedral. That act was done in the name of a different group, Stolen Children of the UK, although a F4J activist was also reported to be in attendance.

After Manning’s arrest, F4J put out the daddy of all passive-aggressive statements. It is calling on their supporters to continue independent acts of nonviolent direct action, adding:


“The organisation said it was also now refusing to engage with national media over what it described as deliberately inaccurate and misleading reporting of the campaign and the crisis in the family courts. It was also refusing to deal with the government, police, courts, judiciary and any other organisations involved in family law and said it was considering shutting down all conventional social media.”


This may come as good news to the national media, government, police, courts, judiciary and the nation’s fine art restoration business, but to everyone else it can be little more than a symbolic gesture. F4J has always despised the political and media establishment and the feeling has been mostly mutual. Their speciality was always the symbolic gesture.

If ever an issue required willingness to compromise and negotiate, it is family dispute settlements. The latest F4J gambit portrays them as stubborn, immutable and hostile – not the symbolism intended. I do not question that the men (and women) involved in F4J feel a sincere and burning sense of anger and frustration at their circumstances. They would counter that a willingness to compromise and negotiate gets them nowhere, either politically or personally. However the timing of this particular announcement is intriguing.

This week the children and families bill entered its second reading. The bill offers changes to family court proceedings, including the introduction of a statutory assumption of shared (though not necessarily time-equal) parenting. The proposals are a hotchpotch of ideas, largely ignoring therecommendations of the Norgrove report and pleasing virtually no one. Legal commentators warn that the proposed wording is sufficiently vague to make rulings more complex than ever. F4J has dismissed it as “a feeble cocktail of proposals [and] a charter for conflict and fatherlessness”. One might call it a symbolic gesture.

We need more than gestures on all sides. Family courts rule on the 10% of breakups that present the greatest difficulty. These are, almost by definition, marked by conflicting accounts, bitter allegations and at least one if not two unreasonable parties. Each is usually convinced of their own rectitude and their ex-partner’s wickedness. The adversarial legal system then throws petrol on the flames. Every ruling on the best interests of a child is a best guess and a judgment call, and so subject to assumptions, prejudice and prevailing cultural values. It is not just that we don’t know for sure whether the system is working adequately, it is that it is literally impossible to say objectively whether the system is working adequately in any one case, far less for all 500,000 adults and children entering the system per year.

If the workings of the court are an opaque mess, the political debate around it is often worse. Commentators often quote statistics on initial residency rulings, without acknowledging that most unresolved disputes centre on maintaining the agreed contact – an entirely different issue. The Ministry of Justice’s own research finds that fewer than half of cases that return to court due to non-compliance result in secured contact. Sweeping generalisations are made about “deadbeat dads”; separated fathers are portrayed as probable abusers or, from the other side, innocent victims of terrible injustices. In reality every case is unique and adversarial courts are not only the last resort, they are the worst resort.

Arrangements for shared parenting cannot begin in the family court. They need to begin from the moment of birth. Far more separated fathers maintain satisfactory relationships with their children in Sweden than the UK, and it is not because their courts have a magic formula, it is because fathers are assumed to be equally responsible parents from the word go. We don’t need symbolic gestures. We need a wide-ranging and holistic revolution in parenting, and fatherhood in particular. Without that, the family courts will continue to wrestle with impossible knots, and separated fathers will continue to cry out in anger and frustration.