There were a couple of words missing from Panorama‘s shockingly brutal exposé of violent malpractice within the G4S-run Medway Secure Training Centre. The same words were missing from pretty much all the newspaper and broadcast media reports that have picked up on the story since last Friday.
Towards the beginning of the documentary, the BBC’s undercover reporter explained that the residents of the children’s prison (by any other name) were officially referred to as “trainees,” but his script did not stick to that designation. At various points throughout the 30 minute film he referred to the victims of violent assault, bullying and sadism as “teenagers”, “inmates”, “youngsters”, “young people” and – most frequently – “children.”
You’ll find all of these words and a few more besides in the accompanying reports in the Mirror, the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Mail and, as far as I have been able to establish, every other national newspaper that has covered the story.
The words you will not see in descriptions of the victims of the ugly assaults are these: “boys” or “young men.”
As one solitary BBC report has revealed, all 10 of the victims of the attacks caught on camera were male. Since that one initial report, not a single journalist covering the story has either noticed or thought it worth referring to their gender. Medway itself (at the time of its last Ofsted report) held 59 boys and 11 girls, but all of the incidents recorded happened in boys’ units.
One might imagine that in the casual scrabble for synonyms that every writer employs in the working day, a few of them might have hit upon “boys” by accident, but no.
Though it is rarely noted and barely understood, this is an entirely commonplace phenomenon. Last November the Children’s Commissioner published a report into the detention of young people in solitary confinement. The report refers throughout to ‘children’ and the discussion and recommendations were presented to and through the media in strictly gender-neutral terms. Only in the accompanying data section document was it specified that more than 95% of the young people concerned were boys.
What is happening here is that a heavily gendered phenomenon is being denuded of gender, one form of the invisibilisation of vulnerable boys and men. It is remarkably similar to the passive invisibilisation I described in this post, when teenage boys participated in a research study that revealed large minorities of both girls and boys are exposed to violent or abusive behaviour in their relationships. When the study came to be reported in the media, the experiences of the boys simply vanished.
Recall too how official reports into grooming gangs have failed to mention that a significant minority of victims were male, describing them to the media as “girls.” Also remember that the Crown Prosecution Service continues to describe male survivors of child abuse, rape and intimate partner violence as victims of crimes of ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ – even if they have now been forced to tell people that they are doing so while they do it.
This invisibilisation of male gender issues is not merely widespread, it is not even systematic, it is structural. It is the product of a society that struggles to conceive of men and boys when they victims, when they are vulnerable, when they are in need of help.
There will be those who argue that we do not (or should not) perceive the gender in such cases because whatever the reasons these boys or young men were abused or violated, it wasn’t because of their gender. This could not be more wrong.
The bullying and beating of the boys in Medway happened, in large part, because they were male. That is not to say that girls in similar situations do not also face many risks and violations, but the specific offences shown had an inescapably masculine character, even down to taunting and bullying about which football team they support. The violence was macho and hierarchical. It is also essential to understand that at every stage of social alienation and criminalisation, boys are more likely than girls to see a negative outcome.
From birth, boys are more likely to be exposed to physical beatings, more likely to be abandoned by their parents, more likely to be expelled from school, more likely to be put into social services care. When the behaviour of children begins to run out of control, boys are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be given custodial sentences.
Much of this may well be because boys are perpetrating more and more serious violence, more likely to be committing crimes. The lightbulb, however, switches on when one considers the previous paragraph and realises that the reason boys are more likely to be brutes is very largely because boys are more likely to be brutalised.
Panorama showed this, in grainy, flickering, hidden micro-camera footage but it might as well have been in Technicolor widescreen. As the expert commentary wisely noted, the boys emerging from those horrors will not go out into the world rehabilitated and restored, but more angry, bitter and violent than ever.
So alhough it never identified itself as such, Panorama was a programme about male violence, in an entirely literal sense. It was a programme about how male violence is committed and how male violence is condoned, but perhaps even more importantly, it was a programme about how male violence is instilled.
If this is an issue we care about and wish to address, it is not enough to recognise one side of the coin. The first step is as simple as recognising what is happening in front of our eyes.