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

 

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

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

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

British values for toddlers? The fine line between stupid and, uh, clever

After approximately five minute in her new job, Nicky Morgan has managed to float an idea so resoundingly idiotic that it almost deserves applause for effort.

In a consultation document published today, the Minister for Education suggests that local authorities should strip funding for early years childcare provision if the provider does not adequately teach ‘British values.’

This, of course, demands to be mocked and parodied. My instantaneous reaction on Twitter was to say “My 6 year old is at playscheme today. If he doesn’t come home wanting to conquer Ireland and shout at foreigners I’m reporting them to Nicky Morgan.”

Even the Guardian’s explanatory note that this would include such topics as ‘liberty and democracy’ doesn’t help. Believe me, as someone who has helped a couple of kids traverse a route out of babyhood and toddlerdom, the last thing you want to teach them about is liberty. The world is a benign dictatorship until your kids are at least five (but ideally about 27.)

Once I’d stopped swinging wildly between hilarity and despair, I popped over to the consultation document to have a look for myself. And you know what? Brace yourself, but there’s a germ of something not too silly in there. As the great philosophers once said, it’s a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever. [Read more...]

Getting into bed with Christian fundamentalism: Behind the APPG report

In the wake of Mary Honeyball MEP’s efforts to push the whole of Europe towards adopting the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising the purchase of sexual services, the British media gave generous coverage yesterday to a new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Most of the papers obediently parroted the line that after hearing expert testimony from 413 different witnesses and organisations, the MPs were recommending the ‘legalisation‘ of prostitution but the criminalisation of buying sex and tougher policing of pimps. The current law, they reported, is an inconsistent mess which (pretty much) nobody thinks effective.

I have no intention of raking over the Nordic model debate yet again. I will quickly point out that to make the provision of a service legal but the purchase of the same service criminal would strike me as the ultimate example of an inconsistent mess. I would add that from what I have heard and read from sex workers themselves, the single greatest hazard to their safety is probably the legal bar on joint working and shared premises, which arises directly from efforts to combat pimping and brothel-keeping. Every sex worker I’ve heard comment on yesterday’s report seems in agreement that the proposals would put them at greater risk and further marginalisation, and I see no reason to argue.

I would note too that yesterday’s report, as a piece of research, is pretty dreadful. There is no attempt to record, report, quantify or evaluate the full range of evidence and opinion submitted to the inquiry, leaving a strong impression that the committee had simply cherry picked the snippets of testimony which fitted with their pre-ordained positions and ignored everything else. While the report admits to receiving contrary submissions, there is no attempt to explain or justify the route from evidence to recommendations.

Perhaps the most troubling detail is barely mentioned in the report itself. The All Party Group which funded it is made possible by the provision of a secretariat and expenses from a charity called CARE – Christian Action Research and Education, which spends more than £400,000 per annum purely on ‘influencing public policy.’ This not only includes supporting the All Party Group on prostitution, it also involves providing (at the last count) a dozen free interns for sympathetic MPs.

So who are CARE? To quote the Telegraph:

 

Care describes itself as a “mainstream Christian charity bringing Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy”. A closer look at its website appears to contradict the claim to be “mainstream”. The organisation’s published doctrinal basis is distinctly fundamentalist and among other things talks of “the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. In other words, the Bible is the literal truth.

CARE are furiously and proudly homophobic, to the extent that one MP (a gay Christian) once described them as ‘a bunch of homophobic bigots.‘ They were heavily involved in lobbying against the introduction of gay marriage and against the repeal of Section 28, while they believe in prayer as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Perhaps most disturbing is their position on abortion. They directly fund the network of CareConfidential crisis pregnancy centres in the UK, where counsellors were recently filmed undercover claiming abortions would increase chances of breast cancer and could predispose women to becoming child sexual abusers.

At this point, allow me to step back for some perspective. For those unfamiliar with British parliamentary process and convention, All Party Parliamentary Groups are not formal, official bodies. Unlike (highly influential) select committees, they have no official remit, no official authority, not even a budget (which is why they go cap in hand to ‘charitable’ lobbyists to pay the bills.) All it takes is 20 MPs or peers with a shared interest to decide to form a group. Consequently there are APPGs on everything from greyhound racing and crown green bowls to jazz appreciation. The report published by the APPG on prostitution yesterday carries no authority and does not compel the government to act in keeping with its recommendations.

However, what we have seen is a major new offensive in a long-running propaganda war. Few people reading the newspapers yesterday will have appreciated that the APPG is a self-selecting cabal, dancing pre-planned steps of religious and ideological conviction, to a tune played by bunch of extremist, fundamentalist bigots. They will be unaware that the recommendations of the APPG are, surprisingly enough, all but indistinguishable from the policy positions previously laid out in CARE’s own documents. What readers of the press across the political spectrum, from the Mail to the Independent to the Guardian will believe is that a group of MPs has spent a year collecting and examining expert testimony then concluded that the Nordic model was the best approach to take.

This is a profoundly dishonest and disingenuous contribution to the debate. It is no longer a shock to find leftwing and / or feminist politicians jumping into bed with rightwing religious fundamentalists, accepting their favours and cash for the cause. Dworkin and McKinnon were doing the same with Reagan’s pals on the fundie right back in the early 80s. However it is important for democracy that if these unlikely bedfellows are going to be engaged in such unholy relations, they do so in the full glare of sunlight, not skulking in the shadows.

How to lie with statistics, chapter whatever

Over the past few weeks a graph has been tweeted into my timeline several times, purporting to show that “Domestic Violence Crime has #climbed 31% since April 2010.”

DV_EvidenceUK

The tweet was originally sent by an account called “EvidenceUK” which declares ‘The purpose of this account is to factually correct the errors and lies peddled by Tory Newspapers & MPs during the 2015 General Election Campaign.’ The graph is sourced to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, and the figures on the graph are accurate. The only inaccuracy is the detail of the tweet. The first bar does not show the data from April 2010. They actually show the data from the year before.

An accurate graph for domestic violence since April 2010 would look like this. (Note, I have taken these stats from the precise same data set linked to from the original. They are the same data)

DVStats2

 

They show not a 31% rise in domestic violence incidents – but a 3.3% fall in domestic violence since the Tory / coalition government came to power.

Now as regular readers will know, I rarely miss an opportunity to have a swipe at the Tory party and the current government, but I do also care about honesty and accuracy in media and reporting. There is a widespread myth that domestic violence has been increasing significantly since the last election, and there is not a shred of evidence that it is true.

To get an accurate understanding of what is happening with rates of domestic violence in this country, take a look at the graph over the past 20 years – again, drawn from the precise same data set linked to in the tweet above.

DVstats

If you look closely you can see the historical low point of 2009-10, and a slight rise to the most recent quarterly update from July this year. However the long term trend is quite clear – domestic violence rates plummeted between the mid 90s and the mid 00s, and have been bobbing along fairly consistently ever since. Yes, they took a bit of a spike in the year to March 11, but immediately reverted the year after. In fact the ONS statisticians are quite clear that there has been no statistically significant change in the domestic violence figures, year on year, in more than a decade.

Someone looked at this whole data set to produce this graph, and must have known exactly what they were doing when they cherrypicked a statistical lowpoint to draw their comparisons. This type of statistical legerdemain is a source of constant annoyance and frustration, more so when it comes from people with whom I would like to be on board. There are plenty of reasons to despise the current government and plenty of genuine reasons to condemn their track record. Mischief like this simply makes me lose faith in those sharing the information, and that helps no one.

 

 

Why calling out Russell Brand is a revolutionary act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final exchange with Mike Buchanan

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

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

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

_______________________

Dear Mike,

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

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

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

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

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

You go on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best

Ally

 

A personal manifesto for men and boys

It would be a fair summary to say that I was not overly impressed with the policy proposals put forward by the new political party, Justice for Men and Boys.

Among the hundreds of comments that followed my blog on the matter, at least one reader pointed out that while I had been forthright in my criticism of the ideas put forward by J4MB, I  had not offered any constructive alternatives. It was a reasonable point.

I am still fundamentally opposed to the very idea of a factional party to represent the interests of one gender, however I would be interested in developing a programme of ideas that could be urged upon all mainstream political parties to address some of the very real gender specific issues facing men and boys today. So I have developed the list below as a very personal manifesto.

In reality, many of the changes we need to improve the welfare and wellbeing of men and boys do not lie in party political policies, but are cultural and psychological – relating to how we, as a society, construct our notions and norms of masculinity, broader gender roles, and how we, as men, choose to perform those roles. Nonetheless, politicians and governments can play a role in steering such efforts, and even within the strictures of globalised freemarket capitalism, with all the violence, alienation, isolation and exploitation inherent to the system, there are still changes that could be made that would make a real and meaningful improvement to the lives and welfare of men and boys, and indeed women and girls.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of ten policy packages that are not utopian or idealistic, but could feasibly be added to the manifesto of any existing mainstream political party which had the determination, imagination and courage to put them into action. I would welcome any suggestions for revisions, additions or alternative ideas.

An alternative manifesto for men and boys.

 

  1. Fatherhood. Initiate a National Fatherhood Strategy to encourage involved and active fathering from birth onwards. Actively include fathers in all routine perinatal and postnatal health provision and information services, including screening new fathers for health and mental health needs, as we do mothers. Provide up to six months statutory parental leave entitlement to all new parents, to be taken at any time before the youngest child begins school. Make father & toddler activities a funding priority. Reward employers who support active fathering with accolades, awards and rewards. For separated families, children’s needs and welfare must remain centre, however the need for children to maintain a strong relationship with both natural parents where possible must be emphasised. Revise family court proceedings so that a resident parent who deprives children of agreed contact with the non-resident parent may no longer be considered an appropriate primary carer.Background notes: Discussion of father’s rights and obligations too often begins at the time of family breakdown. We need to revolutionise fatherhood from the moment of birth, moving closer towards the Nordic model of active fatherhood. This will require commitment and investment from government, employers, women and men alike. ***
  2. Education. Form a Royal Commission on Boys’ Education, to investigate best evidence and form solutions to the academic underperformance of boys in schools and their disengagement from learning.Background notes: Politicians and wider society has for too long ignored the growing crisis in boys’ education, specifically education of boys from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities. Gimmicky simple solutions are unlikely to be beneficial, and there is considerable debate among educationalists as to the causes of the crisis and effective solutions. Turning the situation around will take many years, but the first step has to be recognising and diagnosing the true nature of the problem.

    ***
  3. Employment and training. Significant investment is required in manual labour-intensive employment, to provide better prospects for young men without academic ambitions. The first step should be a programme of affordable home building, revitalising the social housing sector and addressing the homelessness crisis. A ‘Carbon Army,’ as recommended by the New Economics Foundation, installing energy-saving home-improvements such as insulation and double-glazing to every home in the country, would have significant long term economic and environmental benefits while providing extensive employment and skills training opportunities.Background notes: Unemployment among men, and particularly working class and BME men, began rising in 2004 and remains stubbornly high. People aged 16-24 are three times as likely to be unemployed as older workers, and young men about 33% more likely to be unemployed than young women [source].***

     

  4. Mental health, depression and suicide. Revise national strategy “Preventing Suicide in England” to recognise male gender as a primary risk factor. Implement in full recommendations of Samaritans report Men and Suicide and Men’s Health Forum/Mind report Delivering Male. Department of Health to work with NICE & medical profession to improve diagnosis of depression in men, especially recognising anger, aggression, risk-taking and substance abuse as potential diagnostic symptoms.Background notes: The national suicide prevention strategy makes no mention of male gender as a risk factor, despite men being more than three times as likely to die by suicide. Strategies for identifying and treating male depression have to recognise that men with mental health and addiction issues are often more likely to be encountered by police than their GPs.***
  5. Men’s health. Add specific responsibility for men’s health to the brief of the Parliamentary Under Secretary for health; Initiate a major campaign by Public Health England to address men’s health inequalities; implement in full the proposals on men’s access to health services proposed in the report Challenges and Choices by Men’s Health Forum (2009).

    Background notes: Although boys and men are more likely to die of all comparable treatable illnesses at every stage of life, there is no government policy to address the problem. A search on “men’s health” at the Department of Health website produces literally zero relevant results. This has to be a national health priority.

    ***

  6. Violence prevention strategy. National strategies to address Violence Against Women and Girls, in education, public health and social policy, should be extended to become campaigns against interpersonal violence. Assaulting children under the auspices of discipline must be outlawed. Sex and relationship education should be revised to place enthusiastic consent at heart of the syllabus for both boys and girls.Background notes: More than 2 million violent incidents were estimated to occur in England and Wales last year. 62% of the victims and 80% of the perpetrators were male. Men are more than twice as likely to be murdered as women. More than half a million violent crimes affected children aged 10-15, with boys accounting for more than two thirds of victims [source]. Research shows that wherever corporal punishment is used, boys are beaten more frequently and more severely than girls [Source]. For every three girl children who die by homicide, four boys will – in every age group from birth onwards. [Source.] Strategies to prevent violence against women and girls, in education, social policy and public health are important and should continue, but as part of a wider anti-violence campaign. Such efforts would not diminish campaigns against VAWG, on the contrary they would make them far more likely to succeed.

    ***
  7. Victim support. Provision and funding for social support and therapeutic care for victims of violent crime, including intimate partner and sexual abuse, should only be made on basis of need, not gender.Background notes: The needs and circumstances of male and female victims of abuse and domestic violence are not identical. It is entirely reasonable that gender-specific facilities and services are made available where appropriate. It can never be acceptable for situations like this to arise, where male victims of rape and childhood sexual abuse are actively excluded from support and funding opportunities.***
  8. Support for care leavers.  The Children’s Act must be amended to extend statutory duty of care to the age of 25, with the option of extending residential care to 21, as proposed by the coalition of charities, the Care Leavers’ Coalition.Background notes: Although social services and care policy are rarely seen as gendered issues, they are. There are more boys than girls going into the care system at every stage, and they stay for longer. Overall, 62% of children in care are male. After leaving care, one in every 144 girls who was in care at 16 will be in prison at age 19. The statistic for boys is 1 in 23. By the same age, 51% of these young women will be living independently, compared to 36% of males.  [Source] According to research by the Who Cares? Trust, 30% of those who are homeless had been in care at some point in their lives, as had 25% of prisoners.***
  9.  Prison reform. Initiate and implement a “Corston Report for Men.” Make prison a last resort for punishment, reserved for dangerous, violent and incorrigible offenders. Invest the multi-billion pound savings in mental health, addiction and community desistance services.Background notes: The British obsession with prison sees us locking up more men than any country in Western Europe bar Spain. Around 95% of prisoners are male. Since imprisonment is known to be the least effective method of reducing reoffending, the result is a hugely expensive breeding ground for crime, as well as a humanitarian disgrace. Two-thirds of male prisoners have a reading age of 11 or less. More than 70% have at least two diagnosed mental health conditions and one in ten prisoners had experienced auditory hallucinations in the preceding year.

    ***

  10. Circumcision. Legally prohibit the practice of infant circumcision by untrained, unqualified practitioners, in non-clinical conditions and without anaesthetic. Launch public information and education programmes to discourage unnecessary surgical procedures in line with the British Medical Association’s position, in a move towards negotiated phasing out of infant circumcision.

Background notes: Personally I would love to see a total end to ritual infant circumcision, but implementing a legal ban would be dangerously counter-productive, pushing the practice underground, and such a demand is politically untenable. However preventing the horrific unlicensed practices which result in widespread complications, lifelong scarring and even deaths and serious injuries is an urgent necessity.

***

The stupid, the hypocritical and the downright evil: A response to Justice 4 Men and Boys

Earlier this year, Mike Buchanan, a British Men’s Rights Activist, announced the formation of Justice for Men and Boys (and the women who love them) a political party which he hopes to be standing in the 2015 general election. The announcement was enough to generate a small flurry of media reports, including an interview on BBC Woman’s Hour.

Several people approached me at the time, either suggesting I should write a reaction piece for the Guardian or inviting me to blog about it on other sites. I declined. To be blunt, I was less than impressed by the idea and saw no particular reason to add to whatever publicity was already afloat. If I’m honest, I was kind of hoping that if we all ignored it, it would go away.

Jump forward to October, and J4MB has yet to go away, and Mike Buchanan has personally approached me a few times, by email, Twitter and blog comments repeating an invitation to offer feedback on his policy consultation document. Since Mike (I’ll assume we’re on first name terms) is invariably well-mannered and polite, even when I’m quite rude to him, it seems churlish to continue to ignore him. So, belatedly, I’ve agreed to share my thoughts on his idea.

It would be safe to say Mike and I are not really on the same page, politically. We are scarcely on the same planet. I endured my political blooding in the East of Scotland through the 1980s. I joined picket lines and rattled cans to support striking miners in Fife and Stirlingshire, and watched entire communities being sacrificed on the altar of monetarist, free market ideology. I watched as men and boys, (and the women who love them), had their lives, their futures, their families destroyed, first by dogma, then by drugs, despair and depression. Through much of the 1990s, I worked for the Big Issue in Manchester, trying to help an entire generation of homeless young men and boys (and a few women too) cope with the personal legacy of those policies, amplified by devastating cuts to benefit entitlements from 1988-90 that had left them desperate and destitute. If there is one person I hold more responsible than anyone for the myriad problems still facing men and boys (and the women who love them) it is Margaret Thatcher. Mike Buchanan gleefully describes that woman as his political idol.

To underline the point, Mike Buchanan has also said that where there is not a J4MB candidate available, he might encourage supporters to vote for UKIP instead. I would sooner have my gizzards ripped out through my gullet than cast a vote for that malodorous sack of racists, xenophobes, homophobes, misogynists climate science denialists and unrepentant National Front alumni. As I say, Mike Buchanan and I are not exactly on the same page.

Then there is the very notion of a party for men and boys. While I am deeply immersed and engaged in male specific gender issues, a factional interest party is pretty much the polar opposite of where my gender politics are at. I believe men’s and women’s welfare, prosperity, fulfilment and happiness are entirely interlinked and interdependent. As soon as you begin to set one at odds against the other, as if it were a zero sum game, you have lost me. I would, incidentally, say the exact same if anyone suggested a feminist political party to represent women and girls (and the men who love them.)

With all that out of the way, I’ll turn my attention to the actual proposals put forward by J4MB in their consultation document. First thing I notice is what is not there. There are absolutely no proposals to address the most important issues facing men and boys today – underemployment and unemployment, especially among working class and ethnic minority men. There is no solution offered to the savagery of the globalised neoliberal free market which has deprived working class men of the industries and culture that once offered respect, identity and pride. The two specific problems listed by J4MB which disproportionately affect working class men are homelessness and suicide rates. These are the two areas where Mike Buchanan has failed to come up with a single idea for policy, even by the ninth revision!

Of the policies that are here, there are twenty of them, mostly simplistic one or two line ideas, accompanied by various snippets of background information. To be fair, there are about three of four of them which are not entirely stupid, hypocritical, ill-informed or ill-advised. I’ve mostly skipped those for length. As for the rest? Well….

1. Legislation:  The government should ensure that future legislation and guidance doesn’t discriminate against or disadvantage men and boys, either directly or indirectly. Anti-male discriminations in existing legislation and guidance should be removed.

 So far so good.  I have no objection to an explicit commitment by government against discrimination, although it is worth pointing out that this already exists in law, under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010, particularly the provisions on the Public Sector Equality Duty. So this is a bit “I demand you fly this plane to Cuba / But we’re already going to Cuba / Oh.” If there’s a problem here, it is that lawyers and politicians cannot always agree on what discrimination is in practice, and whether, for example, a law to prevent discrimination is a form of discrimination. For example, the Sex Discrimination (election candidates) act 2002, which allows all-women shortlists, is actually non-gender specific. It would also allow all men-shortlists if they were required to rectify an anti-male discriminatory situation in a party. There’s nothing in this proposal to address that dilemma.   There are deeper issues with the background notes.

Whenever there are gender biases in legislation and guidance, or in state provision of services, they invariably favour women and/or girls at the expense of men and/or boys. This is a particular assault on men as taxpayers – 71.2% of income tax in the UK is paid by men, and only 28.8% by women. British men collectively pay £64 billion more income tax annually than British women.

It is trite but necessary to point out that the majority of income tax is paid by men because men earn the great majority of total income. What is being said here is actually much more insidious and dangerous than that. The logic appears to be that parliament should legislate in favour of those who pay the most tax, as if political representation were a purchased privilege. This flies in the face of all principles of collective democracy. By this logic, parliament should not legislate to help or protect the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, or anyone else who is paying less into the national coffers. It is not just women who should be appalled by this extreme Randian thinking.

3. Education –
a) The government should work towards a target of gender balance among both primary school teachers and secondary school teachers.

I agree with this. The lack of male teachers may not be the biggest issue for boys in education, but getting more men into teaching would be no bad thing for many, many reasons. To do so we would need legislation, programmes and guidelines designed to create this ‘desired’ gender outcome.

b) The government should repeal legislation, terminate programmes, and withdraw guidelines designed to create ‘desired’ gender outcomes.

Oh. I think I see a slight problem here.

The background notes to this section say: “The government shouldn’t be in the business of social engineering. Children and young adults should be left alone to study whatever subjects they want.” Getting more men to train as teachers in order to produce desired educational and social outcomes is about as clear a case of social engineering as one could ever imagine. Hypocrisy, much?

But wait. It gets better.

4. Employment.
a) The government should cease funding employment-related initiatives which are designed to discriminate in favour of women and girls and/or discriminate against men and boys, either directly or indirectly, in both the private and public sectors.

b) The government should adopt recruitment policies to work towards a target of 50% male/female employees in the public sector

So J4MB wants to implement employment-related initiatives designed to discriminate in favour of men and boys in areas where they are under-represented, while simultaneously abolishing programmes for women and girls in areas where they are under-represented. I repeat, hypocrisy, much?

5. Family support.
a) The government should set a date after which state support will not be provided for women having new babies which they are personally (or with the support of a partner and/or others) unable to care for financially.

 b) The money saved by the foregoing action will fund tax allowances for married couples.

The wording of this suggests the plan is to remove all state support to families who need it, while continuing to provide it for those who do not. This may just be sloppy drafting, but the part that is clear is what matters. J4MB wish to drive single mothers and their children into Dickensian destitution, starvation and homelessness. There is no appropriate phrase to describe such an idea other than this: It is pure evil.

6. Marriage and divorce
The government should introduce compulsory prenuptial agreements for couples planning to marry. Couples who cohabit but don’t marry will be deemed to have signed a standard prenuptial agreement on the day they first cohabited. After taking account of the reasonable accommodation needs of any children involved, the division of assets will be in line with the relative earnings of the two individuals following the date of marriage (or first cohabitation), and individuals will retain the assets they owned on the date of their marriage (or first cohabitation)

Now this is just weird. After a bunch of downright terrifying libertarian whackjobery, we now have the idea of bringing rigid, almost Stalinist state intervention into our most intimate and personal of relationships. It is also a non-solution to a largely imagined problem. A large majority of women (and indeed men) suffer significant financial hardship as a consequence of divorce, as a raft of research demonstrates. The fantasy of avaricious ex-wives living in luxury on the paycheque of their ex-husband is (at least outside of Beverley Hills) little more than a sexist myth

7. Domestic Abuse

The government should ensure that resources directed towards victims of domestic abuse / violence (‘DA’) are allocated taking full account of the relative numbers of male and female victims of DA, and the need for children to be in a safe environment.

With one change of word, I would agree with this. Resources should not take account of relative numbers, but of specific needs. That is not the same thing. A large proportion of nominal victims of domestic abuse, as counted in the BCS/CSEW for example, (whether male or female) neither want nor need intervention and support. Those who do should get it, but it is not a numbers game.

9. Paternity fraud

a) The government should introduce compulsory paternity testing for all babies, at birth, and both parents informed of the result of the tests (verbally and in writing) within a week of the babies’ births.

Woah, Stalin is back. Get yer nose out of my relationships, Uncle Joe (and Uncle Mike.)

b) The government should only require men to have financial responsibility for a child if he’s previously signed a legal declaration (witnessed in a solicitor’s office) that he’s willing to support a child who results from the sexual relationship in question.

You what? It’s not clear if we’re talking all men here, including those married and co-habiting, but let’s be generous and assume it is aimed at fathers who are not currently in a settled relationship with the mother-to-be. It’s also not clear whether this legal agreement is to be signed prior to childbirth, or prior to conception. In either case this proposal is to make paternal child support entirely voluntary. If a woman is pregnant and not of extensive independent wealth, and her boyfriend refuses to commit to supporting the child, what is she meant to do? Remember, J4MB have already promised to remove all state benefits. So she has the choice of raising her child in absolute poverty or an abortion. But wait…

19. Abortion law reform

The Abortion Act (1967) should be amended to remove the right  to have elective abortions on the grounds of increased risk of  injury to mental health if the pregnancy isn’t terminated. There’s  no evidence to support the claim that abortion reduces the risk of injury to mental health. These grounds have been misused to  offer women ‘abortion on demand’, which wasn’t the stated intention of the Act when it was introduced.

It is true that as a historical quirk of British abortion law, in order to secure an abortion a woman must demonstrate that proceeding with the pregnancy would damage her physical or mental health. Around 98% of abortions in the UK are granted under these grounds, and virtually all of those are on grounds of mental health. The sensible thing, as recommended by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and others, would be to amend the law to offer abortion on demand. What J4MB are proposing is the abolition of abortion rights in the UK, for all but a handful of cases.

I appreciate your patience in reading this far. This has been a long blog. There are still some other proposals which are variously trivial, ill-judged or unspecified, but I’m losing confidence that the the contents of my stomach will remain in their rightful place. Let me highlight just one final proposal, which should tell you everything you need to know about J4MB

16. Retirement age

The government should set the ages at which men and women are entitled to receive the state pension, at levels which ensure men and woman can expect to draw the pension for the same number of years.

My eyes drifted over this on the first few readings, assuming it would be recommending equalisation of retirement age (already legislated for, of course). Then I read it more carefully. What is being suggested is that women should be forced to work four to five years longer than men before being allowed to claim their pensions, as punishment for stubbornly refusing to die on schedule.

My first impressions of Justice for Men and Boys was that it was a bit of a laugh, a bit of a joke, and the people behind it were probably a little bit silly. Having carefully gone through their proposals, I have revised my opinion slightly. I’m not laughing any more. Of course they have as much chance of winning votes as I have of winning the Olympic 100 metres, and that’s worth a giggle, but it remains depressing that there are people around, in whatever numbers, who have such contempt if not hatred for women (and especially single mothers) that they would seriously propose some of these ideas, and distressing that audience-chasing media platforms are willing to give them a broadly uncritical platform.

 

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.

Official: The Conservative policy on single teenage mothers

After three years picking on the disabled, the poor and the unemployed, you might have thought the Tories would have run out of easy targets to bully. But no, today they decided to pick on one of the most unfairly demonized and mythologized sections of the population: single teenage mothers.

Cynics among you might imagine that this is a shameless piece of tabloid-rimming, a play to the lowest common denominator of public prejudice. But you’d be wrong. The new Tory approach was a carefully thought out policy, as demonstrated by the policy page on their official website.

Just in case they one day get around to changing it, here’s a screengrab

loremtories(click to enlarge)

You might think the policy is to make single mothers learn Latin. You’d be wrong. This isn’t Latin, it is Ipsum Lorem, the meaningless gobbledegook that designers use as placeholder text when they’re waiting for actual content to come in.

Nice to know they give these things so much careful consideration and planning, isn’t it?

 

[Big hat tip to @belovedsanspoof who pointed me that way.]