Archive for July, 2012

What can be learned from the now notorious Reddit rape thread? Most of the commenters beneath Megan Carpentier’s CiF article think the answer is nothing – the apparent confessions of rapists and abusers are unverifiable, they (quite rightly) say. Any analysis of their content must be suspect. The conclusions Carpentier draws are built on sand.

Well, I disagree.

As I said in a comment here , I believe most of the Reddit admissions are probably genuine. In browsing them, countless thousands of readers were exposed to the anecdotes about rape that tally strongly with at least 30 years of research into criminology and forensic psychology. Even if every post were pure fiction, the stories they tell are astonishingly true to life.

Despite hundreds of posts of condemnation, any doubts I had about the value of the Reddit thread, and indeed the value in linking to it, evaporated when I read just one post from the commenter gherkingirl. Over many years she has written and blogged with insight, compassion and enormous courage, about her experience as a rape survivor and her own pursuit of justice. In this comment she described her reaction to perhaps the most harrowing and disturbing of all the confessions, which she said could just as easily have been written by the man who first raped her.

“I came away finally seeing that it wasn’t something we victims had done. It wasn’t our hemlines or our flirtatiousness or taking a cab or having another chardonnay. It was because a certain type of man wants to rape.”

She expanded upon the point movingly and eloquently on her own blog:

“For years I’ve known deep down that it wasn’t my fault I was raped. It wasn’t what I was wearing or what I’d been doing, but I’ve always ultimately felt that there is something inside me that makes this violence happen to me. Like a spark on a flint in certain lights, there is something that surfaces and is why I’ve had so many frightening overwhelming experiences with men and been raped twice. I don’t know what it is. I can’t put my finger on it and it’s too painful to ask other people what it might be. But it would explain why men treat me so aggressively while being nothing like it with other women. But reading this comment, for the first time since I was raped, it occurred to me that these assaults aren’t something to do with me. They’re something to do with the type of man who thinks and acts like this.”

One of the most controversial aspects to the rape debate is the attribution of responsibility. We hear it in every discussion on rape – some variation on “of course the rapist is entirely to blame, but women must surely take some responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour.”  We see this in the traditional crime prevention advice, issued both through formal channels and bar-room punditry, that focuses on the potential victim and what (usually) she can do to keep herself safe – not walking alone through dark and isolated places; ensuring her drink isn’t spiked; not becoming insensibly intoxicated; or  – at its most notoriously crass “avoid dressing like sluts.” We even saw this applied to children, by a vicar no less, on BBC Question Time in the aftermath of the Rochdale grooming case. “They go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place”

The feminist lexicon describes this as ‘victim-blaming.’ I don’t think that term is helpful. The people issuing these opinions don’t intend to blame the victim, and I’m sure it doesn’t feel like that as they say the words. Consequently they become defensive and angry when it is suggested that they’ve done it. A better phrase would be something like ‘responsibility-shifting.’ These comments shift at least some of the responsibility for preventing the crime from the perpetrator to the victim. Repeated endlessly, as a refrain of popular wisdom and so-called common sense, they inevitably leave many rape victims thinking there must have been something they could have done to have prevented it happening.

The message is damaging to survivors, but perhaps more importantly, it is downright false. The Reddit thread found none of the respondents talking of their victims flaunting their sexuality with miniskirts and boob-tubes, dancing naked on pool tables or shamelessly prick-teasing their attackers according to stereotype. On the contrary, the serial rapist referred to above explained how he selected his victims meticulously by their shy and insecure personality-type, and planned his attacks down to the finest detail of his preferred modus operandi. Others described taking advantage of girls in their sleep, or riding roughshod over the consent limits of their girlfriends or dates. Every one described himself as being in control of his actions, making a conscious decision to rape. There was nothing any of their victims could have been reasonably expected to do that would have prevented the attacks occurring.

The other consequence of shifting responsibility is to portray sexual assault as an inevitability, a fact of nature. Go out without your umbrella and you might get caught in a rain shower, go out in a miniskirt and you might get caught in a rape. There is I think a serious risk that this serves to normalise rape in the minds of rapists. Rather than thinking sexual assault being something done by aberrant, cruel, destructive individuals, it is something done to careless or helpless victims. Of course some rapists with sociopathic tendencies will be indifferent to such concerns, but the Reddit posts reveal others who were racked by indecision, guilt and uncertainty. It might only take such a slight cognitive twist to make some potential rapists think better of their intentions.

There are many other lessons that could be learned from the Reddit thread and subsequent discussion, but this one alone is enough to justify the initial thread, and the articles on CIF and elsewhere. I think Megan Carpentier was wrong to say that the people who need to be educated about rape are our men and boys. It goes deeper than that. It is society – men, women, boys, girls and the intangible strands of our culture that still need to be educated, and if it could learn one lesson it is that responsibility for rapes lies foursquare with rapists, and nowhere else.

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We live in a viciously gendered world. Roles for both men and women are socialised into us from the day we are born and heavily reinforced from all quarters until the day we die. Men are raised to perform certain roles, just as women are. The masculine gender identity is built upon the  repression of many, perhaps most, emotions. We have self-preservation instincts trained out of us, with narratives around courage, heroism and self-sacrifice. Violence is integral – we are taught to tolerate and expect it from others and to inflict it upon others in response to attack, challenge or insult. And then we wonder why some boys grow to be violent men.

The result is a model of adult masculinity which must be directly implicated in mental and physical ill-health, suicide and criminality. It is exploited, and indeed encouraged, by systems of governance which turn boys and men into cannon-fodder. It largely explains why men make up 92% of workplace deaths and about 95% of prison places. It’s why male babies in England and Wales are 27% more likely to be murdered than girls before the age of one, 40% more likely before the age of 5 and 45% more likely to be murdered before the age of 16. It is partly why* more males than females die among every age cohort, of pretty much every cause. It’s also why men are seen to be, and often feel emasculated by caring and parenting roles or working with children. It’s why male domestic violence victimisation is commonly mocked and usually unreported, like male rape and other sexual abuse.

It is often assumed that aggression, risk taking and violence are inherent to maleness, a product of testosterone or neurology. This seems unlikely. If it were true, why would boys need to have all of these traits literally beaten into us by parents, teachers and (above all) our peers? Why would we need such extensive social shaming and so many conformity triggers to make them stick? Perhaps there is a nugget of truth to some generalised assumptions about gender differences, but even if so, they are magnified many fold by social intervention.

And none of it, literally none of it, is a privilege. One salutory exercise, I think, is to pick up a war book like All Quiet on the Western Front or The Naked and the Dead or Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and read it through the lens of gender politics. What do we see? Young men, often still in their teens, dragged by legal and social obligation into visions of hell from Goya’s nightmares. They weren’t selected by suitability for the role by personality or physicality, they were sent to be killed, tortured, maimed and traumatised, and indeed to kill, torture, maim and traumatise others, on one characteristic alone: their gender.

I did recently pick up Norman Mailer’s book again and skimmed a few random chapters. When I first read it more than 20 years ago, I was shocked by the shameless misogyny. Only now could I recognise that the characters’ attitudes to women (and I suspect Mailer’s too) were forged in a furnace of dehumanisation and brutalisation. It must be hard to feel compassion for your wife at home or the prostitute on the corner when you’ve spent the day slaughtering other men. Mailer would later write that “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honour.” Such as the honour, perhaps, of desperately trying to shove your best mate’s intestines back in through the gaping hole in his stomach.

Lest you think these atrocities now live only in history books and novels, bear in mind that there is still male-only compulsory military conscription in about 80 countries, or more than one third of the nations on Earth. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million conscripts are believed to have died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Had they survived, most would be younger than I am. This is not history. This is now.

Of course civilians, often women, die in huge numbers in modern warfare, in no less horrific circumstances. But they are not chosen to die because of their gender. And we should need no reminders of mass rape campaigns and other colossal war crimes against women and girls that so often accompany conflicts. The difference is that these are (rightly) identified as gender crimes and major international bodies are dedicated to campaigning against them, combating them and prosecuting the perpetrators. It is not uncommon for an army to conquer a territory, separate the women and girls to be raped, and the men and boys to be murdered. But only one of those is usually considered a gender crime.

The standard liberal feminist or egalitarian stance here is that it is patriarchy that genders war. Sexism decrees that women are too weak, too delicate for the battlefield so it must be left to the bigger, stronger, braver men. The solution, they argue, is for equal combat roles, equal conscription, equal numbers of women and men doing the killing and dying. I find that obscene. In what moral universe is it a better to have as many women slaughtered on the front line as men? As a culture we have always tended towards casual indifference to the deaths of ordinary men, and been comparatively sensitive to the loss of ‘innocent’ women and children. It’s the first value that needs changing, not the second.

Another feminist response is to say that, horrific though it may be, this is not sexism. Sexism is the systematic oppression of one gender by another. I don’t agree with that definition, but never mind. So this is not the oppression of one gender by another, it is the oppression of one gender by the values of the ruling class. What do we call that then?

I do not pretend I have a magic wand to hand. We are talking thousands of years of cultural habits that need to be challenged here, and quite literally all the powerful vested interests in the world. But then we said the same about feminism once. What I do know is that before you can solve any problem you have to recognise that it exists and identify it for what it is.

If you don’t want to call this sexism, then fine, call it what you like. By any other name, it smells just as foul.


CREDIT WHERE DUE: Much of the inspiration and booklearnin’ for this post, though not the conclusion, came from David Benatar’s recent book The Second Sexism, which I wrote about here.


* CORRECTION 26/07/12 – An eagle-eyed Twitter follower pointed out that the original sentence here was “It is why more males than females die among every age cohort…” which is probably a bit of an overstatement. There may be physiological reasons why boys are more likely to die of some illnesses.  However since boys are less likely to seek help with medical problems, (just as they are for problems with mental health bullying, and abuse) and since the same effect applies to pretty much all relevant types of disease, it would seem far-fetched to imagine that physiology accounts for all of it.


[note: this post began life as a comment on the F-Word blog entitled The Male Feminist. Since tidied up and clarified]

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Anyone who follows debates around the statistics on intimate partner violence will know that there are plenty of myths, legends and zombies in circulation. Some of them go back decades. As a seasoned observer of such things, it feels like something of an honour to watch as a new myth is born before our eyes.

Yesterday the official homicide statistics were released by the Office of National Statistics. In keeping with the trend of previous years, there has been another fall in the murder rate, which is great news of course. The manifold reasons and explanations as to why the murder and homicide rate might be falling are complex, and I won’t even begin to cover them here. But in breaking the news for the Guardian, home affairs editor Alan Travis picked up on one explanation, which apparently originates with the ONS head of crime stats,

John Flatley, the ONS head of crime statistics, said two-thirds of murders involved partners or former partners or other kinds of family killing.

I don’t know where this quote was taken from, it is curious that it appears to be a paraphrase rather than a direct quote (ie there are no quotation marks). But pay attention to the phrase “or other kinds of family killing.”

Give or take the havoc caused by the occasional serial killer or spree killer, trends in homicide statistics are surprisingly consistent. The details of the latest homicide statistics won’t be published until January, but unless something truly unprecedented and spectacular has occurred, I’ll assume they follow the same trend as in previous years. For the past decade at least, slightly more than two thirds of murder victims are known to their killer – they are family members, household members, friends or acquaintances, and I would presume this is the category to which John Flatley was referring.

But as so often when journalists report statistics, a game of Whisper Down the Lane has occurred. (Yes, that is the approved, politically correct name for the old kids’ game, according to my own personal PC guru – my 10 year old son in a multicultural primary school.)

Travis’s report was discussed on Comment is Free by the normally scrupulously dependable criminologist Professor David Wilson, who said:

If the vast majority of murders come from within the home, it’s in changes to domestic life and policy that we find the most important factors behind the fall in the murder rate. Compared to 30 years ago, domestic violence is now treated as a far more serious crime.

Wilson goes on to praise innovative domestic violence interventions and adds:

The authorities are not only more aware of violence against women and children in the home but are now more willing to intervene with families earlier to prevent violence escalating.

Meanwhile over at the Spectator, Nick Cohen goes further, praising the success of feminism for the fall in murder rates.

My old friend Alan Travis of the Guardian explains the decline by pointing out that two thirds of murders involve a (nearly always male) partner abusing his (nearly always female) partner or ex-partner. Crime has fallen because society’s attitudes to domestic violence have changed utterly.

All of this would be wonderful if true. Unfortunately it isn’t.

The number of women killed by partners or ex partners over the past decade has hovered very consistently around the 100 per year mark. In 2010/11 there were 94. Since 2001 we’ve had a high mark of 117 and a low mark of 80 (in 07/08), but the overall trend is static.

I repeat, the figures up to June 2012 have yet to be released, but the only way the overall drop of 86 homicides could be explained by a fall in the number of female DV deaths would be for the number of women killed by their partners to have fallen to very nearly zero. If that is true, I’ll be celebrating with the best of them, while gobbling chapeau sandwich.

The whopping great mistake in all these reports (which may or may not originate with the ONS themselves) is to include ‘friends and acquaintances’ as domestic violence casualties. They’re not. Many of these ‘acquaintances’ may be rival drug dealers, for example.  In fact, in 2010/11, the “friends and acquaintances” category was by far the largest subset of the group, accounting for 204 murders – more than twice as many as female DV victims. Every previous year shows the same pattern. The full category also includes children killed by parents; parents (including elderly relatives)  killed by their children; sibling murders; husbands killed by wives and various ‘other’ combinations. Rather than accounting for over two thirds of murders as Cohen claims, in 2010/11 only 17% of homicides were women being murdered by their partners.

The most depressing part of this is not the factual inaccuracy, but that the myth being created is actively dangerous for women. The sad truth is that domestic violence deaths are the one major category of homicide statistics that are bucking the trend on violent crime. They are not falling – they are remaining stubbornly persistent.

Domestic violence services of all sorts are facing horrific cutbacks from local and national government and drop in charitable funding. These services are needed as much today as ever. It is horrifying to think that the establishment readers of the Spectator might reassure themselves with the thought that the need for intervention is less than it was. Cohen’s celebration of feminist achievement is premature, ill-judged and does no one any favours.

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In 1984 a poultry farmer called Sun Guiying became the first Chinese peasant to buy her own car. I still recall the government-authorised photos of her, standing with her family in front of their shiny Toyota. Now we can look back on her beaming smile as a watershed in global economic history. Recently Forbes reported that Chinese women are queuing up to buy luxury sports cars. A third of China’s millionaires are women, and there are now three times as many Maseratis and twice as many Ferraris sold in that country as in the west. Hold that thought.

In a interview with Caitlin Moran published in Slate magazine today, we were told that only one percent of the world’s wealth is owned by women.  It’s a familiar claim. It can also be found in the introduction to Kat Banyard’s Equality Illusion, and last year, in a sobering open letter to mark the recent International Women’s Day, singer Annie Lennox, a UN Ambassador for Women, reminded us of the full version: “women do two-thirds of the world’s work for a paltry 10 per cent of the world’s income, and own just 1% of the means of production.”

I use the word ‘reminded’ with care, because we’ve heard this claim before. It’s been used on previous International Women’s Days, and is regularly quoted by the UN, the World Bank, or anyone who takes their information from that source. Lennox’s letter was printed in dozens of leading national newspapers around the world, and according to Google on the relevant day it was re-published on the internet 10,800 times in 24 hours. So it must be true. Must it not?

Perhaps it was once. The claim goes back to before the first days of the internet, before the earliest of online archives. Indeed you can trace right back to the programme notes for the UN Women’s Conference, Copenhagen, 1980, which references a 1978 International Labour Organisation paper which was no more specific than “according to some estimates…”

Suppose it was once true, back in the mid to late seventies. Could it be that with everything that has happened in the past 30+ years, the massive expansion of the female workforce in the developed world, the economic growth of China and India, the economic liberalisation of Russia and Eastern Europe, all this has made precisely zero difference to the global average wealth of women? It seems unlikely to say the least.

The American sociologist Philip N Cohen has been tracking what he calls the “1%” meme for years. He has dedicated considerable effort to establishing whether the claim could be true.

When we think of the number of dirt-poor, destitute women in the world, you might think it seems credible. But wait. The vast bulk of the world’s wealth is concentrated in a tiny number of hands; hands that include the likes of Lillian Bettancourt, Elizabeth Windsor and Oprah Winfrey. Indeed, Cohen has calculated that just one small specific group – single American women – hold between 1.6% and 3% of the world’s wealth between them. So even if the entire net wealth of the world’s married women, all European, Chinese and Japanese women, every other woman on the planet were precisely zero, the figure still could not be true.

When the World Bank launched its World Development report last Autumn, President Robert Zoellick used the stat in his speech, even though it does not appear in the report itself. Nonetheless the Wall Street Journal and others reported it as if it did.

If the world’s most powerful economic body won’t kill off this zombie, who will? There is plenty of valid, incontrovertible evidence as to the economic, social and political repression of many women in many parts of the world. Depending upon 30 year old factoids of dubious provenance doesn’t make the case for global women’s liberation, it casts a cloud of doubt over even the most reliable statistics. It also traps the debate like a fly in amber, oblivious to genuine progress, change and achievement. Meanwhile the achievements and stories of so many women around the world, those who have followed in the footsteps of Sun Guiying, are erased from the picture, with little remaining but the fading memory of a smile.

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What is the job of a comedian? To make us laugh, you say?

I disagree.

Laughter is but one skill of their trade. Saying a comedian’s job is to make us laugh is like saying a taxi driver’s job is to turn a steering wheel. No. Like the cabbie, the comic’s job is to take us somewhere. A great comic can make us think afresh, help us to see the world and our lives from a different angle. Comedians are no different in that sense from novelists, painters, film-makers, poets or any other creative artists.

That’s not to say all comedy should deal in matters of political significance or philosophical profundity. The absurdities of our language, bodily functions or a trip to the supermarket are just as valid as Mark Thomas’s systematic 90 minute deconstruction of the machinations of a petrochemical multinational. But whatever their shtick , comedians should be (and usually are) aware that they are taking their audience somewhere, however happy, sad or dark that place may be. I don’t go to see Stewart Lee or Doug Stanhope to be taken to a happy place, and I don’t go to see Michael McIntyre or Patrick Kielty… actually that sentence ends there.

I believe comedians, like all artists, should take some responsibility for where their journey ends. Fare, please, don’t forget the tip.

My timeline this morning was filled with not one but two Twitter furores (Twittores?) about rape jokes. In an LA club, Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh had reportedly replied to a heckle saying rape jokes are never funny by pointing at the heckler and asking “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” In a subsequent, and it must be said half-hearted apology, Tosh claimed it was out of context, adding in the obligatory 140 characters: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.”

I’d scarcely caught up with that story when I heard the rumblings of a new Twitterstorm, this time with Richard Herring at the eye. Wait a minute… Richard Herring? Richard Herring? The impeccably PC, comedic scourge of discrimination and prejudice has made a rape joke? Really?

Well, to be accurate, Richard Herring had made a not-rape joke. In an interview with the Metro paper, he recalled a put-down he’d once used against an annoyingly loquacious heckler: “You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub,” he’d said. What Herring meant, as he attempted vainly to explain to his Twitter followers, was that Rohypnol would be a handy way to shut the heckler up. The way it was understood, by at least some of his detractors, was ‘You’re so ugly you couldn’t even get raped.’ To return to our analogy, cabbie Herring intended to take his passengers to the station, but took a wrong turn and dumped them in the canal. I despise the modern trend of the ritual public apology but I’d like to believe, at least in private, Richard is thinking: “whoops.”

One of my favourite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called “If Websites were people” and in particular their delicious skewering of fauxminist magazine Jezebel. One of the best moments shows the Jezebel character in a restaurant. Her date says “I’m starving” and she eyes him suspiciously: “was that a rape joke?” she asks. Despite being genuinely concerned about humour which makes light of rape, or which trivialises or mocks the experience of victims, I’m also concerned about the McCarthyite zeal with which the evil rape joke is hunted down and its author persecuted into repentance and contrition.

I was in a comedy club just last week, and my favourite act by far was young and (I hope) rising pottymouth comedian. In her set, she made a joke about being fistfucked in her sleep by a violent, butch lesbian bully. I won’t reveal the punchline, because I think you should go see her for yourself if you can. Suffice to say I laughed like a howler monkey, and so did the entire room around me. I’d lay long odds that the South Manchester audience was 90% educated, leftish, pro-feminist Guardian readers, but how many got up from their seats in disgust, or booed or hissed or heckled? Precisely none. I doubt any of us stopped to think, hey, was that a rape joke? The answer, unlike Richard Herring’s effort, was an unquestionable yes, but we were too busy laughing to notice.

Context matters, not just in the intention but in the comprehension. You could grade rape jokes in order of acceptability according to who is being raped, who is doing the raping, and who is telling the joke: man; woman; victim; rapist.

One of the clichés of this debate is that the question should not be ‘is it offensive’ but ‘is it funny.’ I don’t think that is enough. From a moral and political view, it is not just whether the joke is funny, but where the humour takes us. The comedian I saw last week didn’t take her audience anywhere they weren’t happy to visit. Richard Herring took his somewhere that neither he nor most of his audience intended to go. Daniel Tosh, on the other hand, appears to have known exactly where he was going: he was using the cultural power of rape to take his audience, and a specified target in particular, into a slightly more fearful, hate-filled, uncomfortable world. For what my opinions are worth, I find that pretty loathsome.

All artists, in whatever medium, should be aware of their own responsibilities, but their primary responsibility is to their own art and their own consciences. It makes no more sense to me to argue that a comedian should never mention rape than it would to argue that a novelist should do the same. Comedy is an appropriate vehicle for any issue, but that doesn’t mean any joke is appropriate. In attempting to witch-hunt rape jokes out of existence, feminists risk stifling a popular medium, on a vitally important topic. I believe, reluctantly, that artists of all stripes need to be free to make the world a darker, nastier place with their writing, their work or their performance, but they should also be prepared to accept the inevitable response. Whether the topic is rape, dead babies or skipping to the supermarket, a joke is never just a joke – it’s a journey.


When I wrote and published this, I hadn’t quite anticipated just how big the Tosh story was going to get. It seems every man, woman and dog has now stated their piece about the case, with many good points along the way. In among the piles of pixels, there were two pieces in particular I saw which stood out for me. Lindy West again proved herself the jewel in Jezebel’s purse with How To Make A Rape Joke   – which manages to be not only insightful but funny (see, it can be done) while poet/rapper El Guante cuts right to the heart of the issue in his blog here.  Go see.



I’ve had a message from the comedian I was praising in the original edit of this article. She’s just got a new day job and has asked me to take her name off this. I’ve left the content in, but edited out her name. Hope no harm has been done and very much hope she doesn’t give up the night job!

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As you may have heard, the world’s economy has had a bit of a hiccup of late.

OK, not so much of a hiccup, more of a rapid tattoo of gutwrenching paroxysms. Our global dosh donkey was last seen coughing up its lungs into a bloody puddle all over a copy of the Wall Street Journal. (I hope you don’t come here for incisive economic analysis, because that’s about as technical as I get.)

Explanations for the crisis have come from all sides and in all flavours, but one particular theory has proved astonishingly stubborn. Apparently it is insufficient to note that, over many years, politicians encouraged a minuscule elite of avaricious bankers, traders and financiers to become caught in a spiral of risk, fraud and amorality, selling each other money that didn’t exist and then buying it back with money they didn’t have for ever higher rates while taking their cut at every stage. Oh no. There wasn’t anything wrong with that system at all. The real problem was that there was too much masculinity.

The best expression of this theory is the ubiquitous quip, usually attributed to either Christine Lagarde or Harriet Harman, that the crash would not have happened if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. It wasn’t a bad joke, unless you’re particularly sensitive to gentle misandry and playground level gender essentialism, but it wasn’t exactly serious analysis either.  Doubtless it would have withered in the mists of time if it hadn’t been for the media’s enthusiasm for a certain thread of research psychology, which investigates the relationship between the neuroscience of gender and the psychology of risk-taking behaviour.

Every few weeks another study comes out which uses some measure of supposed male-brain thinking or testosterone levels to explain why the traders just kept spinning that roulette wheel for one more juicy return rather than, presumably, toddling off home to cuddle a kitten and curl up with a nice Maeve Binchy.

Last week the Guardian – which has perhaps been the most enthusiastic proponent of this argument – ran a piece by Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars, which revisited the issue at length.

“Put a bunch of confident, aggressive men in the same room and reward them for taking risks, and you create a pressure cooker, from which probity and prudence evaporate like steam.”

On Thursday the BBC’s This Week ran a lead feature piece by the improbably named author and ex-banker Barbara Stcherbatcheff, arguing why women make better city bankers, with all the usual stereotypes about aggressive men and more careful, thoughtful women.

And now the influential Freakonomics blog has picked up on a study mentioned in the BPS Research Digest, which appears to show that if you make a man feel insecure about his masculinity, he will compensate with greater risk taking. The BPS Digest speculates about the part that masculinity may have played in past and present financial crises and the authors themselves are quoted as saying: “Whether manhood threats were directly implicated in the recent financial crises that continue to plague the US [and UK] economy, the current findings are at least consistent with such an interpretation… Certainly, they are suggestive enough to warrant further investigation into this critically important question.”

Before I say anything else, let me first acknowledge that I haven’t read the full paper, which does not appear to have been published yet, so the following comments are based purely on second hand reports. But from what I’ve read – I like this study. It’s one of those cheap and cheerful little experiments that uses imaginative tactics to manipulate subjects’ sense of gender identity, and then demonstrates impact upon decision making. On its own terms, it appears to be quite a cute little experiment with real world applications, albeit with a lot of unanswered questions still hanging.

What I do not understand is how it relates to the financial crisis. Actually I’d go further, I’m completely bamboozled as to how the chuffing buggery anyone could think it does.

Imagine for a moment that the results of this study had been the precise opposite – that after being made to feel less masculine and manly, subjects had gone on to take fewer and lesser risks in a gambling test, how would this have been spun? Without a shadow of doubt, we would have been told that this proves irresponsible financial decision-making is caused by an excess of masculinity. As it is, we find here that it is making guys feel less manly, not more, that drives their risk-taking. Confused? Good. It’s not just me then.

The only way this could help explain the financial crisis would be if we thought the bankers responsible for the crash were a bunch of shrinking violets, riven with insecurity about their own masculinity and desperate to prove themselves manly to their peers. Really? Maybe this is true, but it does rather fly in the face of everything else we’ve been told for the past four years or so.  Heads I win, tails you lose.

We seem to be looking at perfectly circular logic here. Male gender insecurity leads to higher risk taking, traders were mostly men who took too many risks, therefore their risk-taking must prove they were insecure about their masculinity, which must have caused them to take too many risks.

Or maybe, just maybe, their masculinity was largely irrelevant to their decision making?

There is something discomfiting about the enthusiasm of so many to attribute responsibility for the current crisis to this one specific trait of those involved. My masters degree was in psychology and there are six years of postgraduate research buried in the depths of my CV, I remain passionate about the value of experimental research in understanding human behaviour and cognition. Neuroscience, in particular, offers the most exciting breakthroughs in our understanding that our species has ever known.

And if neuroscience thus far has taught us anything, it is that the brain is malleable, changeable, it has plasticity. If you put someone in a situation that benefits from more testosterone, oestrogen or oxytocin, our neurology and endocrine system will quickly oblige. If you raise boys to be aggressive risk-takers, their bodies will produce more testosterone and their brains will begin to expect it. Those raised to be aggressive risk-takers will choose a career which rewards those traits.

The people on the trading floor were there because they had chosen and were chosen to play the role required of them. Their behaviour was not steered by their hormones, but by their employers, their clients and the system in which they worked. Amoral greed was the principle tool of their trade. Had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, those women would not have been a happy family of cuddly feminist Earth mothers but a ruthless clique of sharp, amoral, capitalist vultures, all but indistinguishable from their male equivalents. The force driving this behaviour was not neurology, but rampant corporate greed, with each individual just a cog in the machine.

I find it faintly depressing that some of those pushing the ‘Lehman Sisters’ line have been self-identified feminists. They seem oblivious to the dangers of pushing the line that men are more ‘natural’ risk takers and aggressive traders. It not only accepts a really dull and archaic model of gender essentialism, it also opens a door to employers to say, well, the high-paid position I’m filling here requires an aggressive, courageous, risk-taker, so of course I’ll appoint a man! In truth,  I suspect what is driving the logic of Harman and Lagarde is not so much their feminism as their respective professional positions – up to their eyeballs in the fetid midden of modern capitalism.

I welcome any research that helps us to understand human behaviour and cognition. I’m fascinated (if often unconvinced) by research into the neuroscience of gender and eagerly anticipate the next breakthrough. Nonetheless I’m extremely wary of a media narrative that seems to have selected masculinity as a convenient scapegoat for the crisis of neoliberal capitalism.

Don’t watch the gender. Watch the agenda.


Swapped emails today with the authors of the threatened manhood study. They graciously pointed out that their work does not depend upon gender essentialism – the results they find are more in keeping with gender effects being socially constructed, and they lean towards that side of the debate (as do I, of course). Very happy to clarify that I’m not suggesting Weaver, Bandello and Bosson are gender essentialists!

They also kindly sent me a copy of the full paper. It is interesting. Still no evidence for the idea that men involved in the financial crisis were experiencing any kind of ‘manhood threats’ at the time of the crisis, so my “how the chuffing buggery?” question still stands, I think!

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