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Archive for October, 2012

(Originally published on The Good Men Project)

You’re a thoughtful, intelligent kind of guy. You’re interested in issues of gender, and masculinity in particular. Who knows, you’ve maybe even read a book or two. Well done. I’ve read quite a lot of books about gender too, and yes, I have learned a thing or two from them. Take Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, for example, in which I learned that gender is performative: no identity exists behind the acts that supposedly “express” gender, and these acts constitute, rather than express, the illusion of the stable gender identity.

OK I’m lying, I cribbed that from Wikipedia. In truth I got to about p.50 of Gender Trouble and realised that I hadn’t taken in a word of what had been said because I was daydreaming about the zombie apocalypse. I already knew gender was performative. I learned that aged about 15 when I first saw the Hammer schlock Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. You see, Judith Butler is all very well, but her books would be so much more engaging with a gratuitous shower scene and a couple of spectacular decapitations.

It would be a stretch to say that everything I know about gender I learned from trashy horror movies, but hell, it’s Halloween, so I’ll say it anyway: Everything I know about gender I learned from trashy horror movies. Feminists picked up on this long ago. You could paper the walls of the Bates Motel with every undergraduate or doctoral thesis that has been written on feminist horror movies: Alien; Cat People; Ginger Snaps; you know the script. Much less has been written on what the genre tells us about men and masculinities. You might conclude that men have got better things to be doing with their lives, but I’m living proof that at least one of us does not. So to guide you through the spookiest night of the year, here are the top eight lessons for men to be gleaned from monster movies.

8. Look after your mum (but don’t be a dick about it)
Key text: Braindead (aka Dead Alive)

Mothers, eh? They go through sheer hell carrying you and bearing you into the world, raise you and nurture you for a couple of decades or so, and then just when you’re ready to hook up with a nice girl and slash the apron strings, she gets herself bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and goes all zombie on your ass. We’ve all been there.

In this 1992 Kiwi gorefest by Peter Jackson (who doesn’t seem to make zombie movies these days, so officially residing in the ‘where are they now?’ file), Lionel tries to do the right thing. He stands up for Mum even when she’s chewing on a local German Shepherd. “Oh my God your mother ate my dog!” his neighbour exclaims. “Not all of it” Lionel retorts defensively.

Inevitably though, there comes a time when you have to take a firm stance.  When your beloved mum crosses a line, which may be meddling with your love life, digging out those embarrassing baby bath photographs, or feasting on the gizzards of your friends, it is time to stand your ground. Assert your independence, tell her where you stand, and if all else fails, dismember her zombie minion hordes with a lawnmower.

7. Trust your buddies
Key text: American Werewolf in London.

David and Jack are a couple of good guys who do good things together as good mates should. They go travelling together, go rambling in the wilderness, stop off for a pint in the local pub, get savaged by a werewolf on the way home. As you do.

When this happens to you, it is important to remember that you shouldn’t forget your friendship, even when your pal has returned to haunt you as a reanimated corpse. Friends give the best advice, and they’re often speaking from experience, so when your buddy advises you that you’re about to turn into a wolf and munch your way through the next full moon, he may just know what he’s talking about. Listen to him.

6. Beware the beast inside.
Key text: The Wolf Man

And talking of lycanthropy, 1941 original The Wolf Man is perhaps the creepiest horror movie ever made, and not in a good way. The real action begins when Lon Chaney Jr spies on the lovely Evelyn Ankers through a telescope as she tries on jewellery in her bedroom. He then crosses the road to her antiques shop and asks to buy a pair of earrings which he now knows she keeps in her bedroom. Dude, that is not cool. Really, not cool at all. What were you thinking?  He then asks her out – three times. She says no – three times.  He ignores her and sneaks up behind her at night after work and demands she comes with him. At the risk of becoming boring, DUDE, THIS IS NOT COOL!  If you behave like this, frankly you have nobody to blame but yourself when you get bitten by Bela Lugosi and start howling at the moon in a savage, hairy, mouth-foaming torrent of animalistic lust and end up getting brained with a silver-top cane. You’ll get no sympathy from me.

5.   Looks ain’t everything
Key text: Nosferatu

It is a truth universally acknowledged that chicks dig vampires. I’ve never really seen it myself, but a billion screaming Twilight fans can’t be wrong. The bloodsucking undead certainly get the dishiest casting – before Robert Pattison there were Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and before those Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi brought tall, handsome, brooding sexuality to their piercing glare.

But the original (and still the best) vampire movie was Nosferatu, which portrayed a very different vampiric ideal. I had a girlfriend once who was obsessed with the imagery of this film, and she would go weak at the knees when the menacing but charismatic Max Schleck crept up the shadowy staircase. If some women weren’t attracted to pasty-faced goblins with wonky ears and bad teeth the world would be a duller place, and I’d probably still be a virgin.

4. Hate begets hatreds
Key text: Candyman

I’m not the biggest fan of slasher movies, which mostly exist to teach kids that if you have sex, drink beer and smoke pot you will certainly be disembowelled by an axe-wielding maniac sometime in the next 90 minutes. Call me a wishy-washy liberal, but that seems a tad excessive to me.  I do however make an exception for Candyman. Not only is the eponymous anti-hero the dangnabbin’ coolest damned mass-murdering ghost in all of cinema, he’s also the most sympathetic.  In all honesty, if I’d been a slave who was gruesomely tortured to death for no greater sin than falling in love with a woman of the wrong colour, I’d be pretty damned pissed off about it too, even if it was 200 years ago. No, I won’t “get over it” thank you very much. If you need me to explain this in any more detail, just look in a mirror and say my name five times. If I don’t appear, try saying ‘Candyman’ instead. I dare you.

3. Love doesn’t conquer all, power tools do.
Key text: The Evil Dead

This really shouldn’t need spelling out, but when you’ve got a big old crush on a girl and you’ve managed to persuade her to come with you and your friends to a cabin in the woods, then she gets possessed by the demons you’ve accidentally released from the depths of hell and loses all interest in you, you must accept it is over. Move on. Don’t be a damned fool about it. When the time comes to bury that relationship, don’t be half-assed about it. Get jiggy with the chainsaw and put that baby out of its demonic misery sooner rather than later, or no good will come of it in the end. I should point out I am speaking metaphorically here. Very, very, very metaphorically indeed.

2.  Sex workers are people too. Even when they are zombies.
Key text: Zombie Strippers

You might imagine that Zombie Strippers starring Jenna Jameson and Robert Englund is a trashy sexploitation flick mostly made up of lengthy stripping and soft-porn sequences, possibly concluding with an eye-popping reinvention of the legendary Bangkok ping-pong ball trick. Well guess what? You’d be completely right. But as it happens (and I suspect entirely accidentally) Zombie Strippers is also the most ball-bustingly feminist trashy sexploitation flick ever made.

Don’t believe me? When one stripper at the seedy underground Rhino Strip Club is infected with a military-grade zombie virus, her performances take on a certain demonic quality. The customers love it. Her tips go through the roof as not only various parts of her costume but various parts of her body drop to the floor. Seeing what has happened, the other strippers start to queue up to become infected too. In order to become better at their work, they quite literally dehumanize themselves, by choice. Whether or not it looks like a smart choice to you or me is irrelevant. Should you be so bold as to try to “save” them from themselves, you’re likely end up as a zombie stripper supper.

1. Be a good dad.
Key text: Frankenstein.

The author of the original Frankenstein novel, Mary Shelley, was raised by a single father after her mother, the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, died in childbirth. That’s a pretty heavy psychological burden to carry through life and when aged only 19, the younger Mary poured all her anguish into the classic parable of birth and death.

James Whale’s magnificent 1931 adaptation captured the essence of Shelley’s book and presented it as a devastating morality tale about bad parenting.  There is no greater honour, and no greater responsibility, than bringing a life into the world. If you fail to do your duty, if you reject your progeny and cast it out into the world adrift, unsupported and unprepared, people might consider it a monster, and you little better. Don’t come whining to me when an angry mob of villagers turn up at your castle with flaming torches and pitchforks. You asked for it.

Author’s note:  Neither the author nor the publisher endorse or recommend the use of dismemberment, immolation or psychogenic exorcism as a lifestyle option or a solution to relationship problems. Please ensure all friends, lovers or acquaintances are confirmed zombies before decapitation. Always read the instructions before handling a chainsaw. 

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For previous blogs on this topic, please click here and here.

It’s fair to say that I’ve found the reviews, critiques and comment pieces inspired by Hanna Rosin’s End of Men rather more thought provoking and educational than the book itself.

One of the first pieces to come out was in The Atlantic, where Chloe Angyal drew comparisons between Rosin’s argument and the lives portrayed in the much-hyped HBO series Girls.

“the anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it’s like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are “ending,” suggests that even if the statistics say that they’re winning, young women feel like losers. This year’s critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham’s Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don’t feel like they’re running the world.”

I must confess this made me smile. It inadvertently (I presume) illuminates the irony at the very heart of the notion of privilege. One’s own privilege is, according to the classic metaphor, an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks – invisible not to others but to ourselves. Privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it just feels like a natural state of being, the norm.

I’ve already explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of the End of Men, and I don’t for a moment believe that women are now the dominant or privileged gender. But it is worth pointing out that if they were, according to feminism or critical theory, this is exactly how it should feel. The girls in Girls don’t feel like they’re running the world but, get this, nor do the vast majority of men. I believe much of the anger directed towards feminism from the angry dudes of the internet boils down to the disconnect between a narrative that tells men they are privileged, and the lives being lived by those guys, which feels largely powerless. They don’t feel privileged, they feel like losers, they’re floundering, they don’t feel like they’re running the world. Hey ho.

In the weeks since Rosin’s book was released, a quite almighty stramash has erupted within feminist circles. You can’t have missed it, and I won’t reiterate the arguments here, but it began with Caitlin Moran and her statement that she ‘couldn’t give a shit’ about the all-white line-up of the cast of Girls. It has since spiralled into an angry, sprawling debate that orbits around issues of privilege and intersectionality.

Of the near-endless articles and blogs thrown up by the debate, the one I liked best was by Stavvers. She offers an analogy for the concept of intersectionality that is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic by a feminist.

“one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.

I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.”

I love the vividness of this analogy, but it doesn’t quite fit with how I understand society. I’d like to offer a slight twist that perhaps illustrates a key difference between my gender politics and those of Stavvers and many other feminists.

Stavvers describes her roads in negative terms (not being male, not being white etc) whereas the analogy works better for me if we think in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. That is all I know.

I’m a white, straight , cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied male. I cannot accurately know what it feels like to be anything else, but I know perfectly well how all those things do or do not impact upon my life.  I’d prefer to think of Stavvers’ traffic as all the various pieces of shit, large and small, that life throws our way simply for being who we are. If you’re a black, lesbian, disabled woman, yes, that shit is coming hurtling at you from all sides and however hard you try to avoid it, some of that shit is going to mess you up.

I know what it is like to be a pedestrian on the highway marked ‘white.’ It’s a breeze. The amount of shit-traffic heading my way down that road is all but zero. I could lay out a sleeping bag across the white lines in October, set my alarm clock for Spring and lie down to hibernate, safe in the knowledge that not one single car, truck or bus will squish my toes. Being white is a piece of piss. The same goes for the road marked “straight.” The same goes for being middle-class, able-bodied and cisgendered. All those things are just big old lonesome highways without so much as a trundling tractor to disturb the bliss. I should know, I’ve been walking those roads for 45 years.

Crucially, however, this isn’t exactly how it feels to be male. Not to me, and not to many other men either. Standing in the middle of the road marked ‘male’, I have to dodge loads of shit-traffic. Whizzing by on one side are the gender expectations, the demands to be a stoical, self-sacrificial breadwinner and provider, a sexual conqueror, all that old, stubborn heteronormative and patriarchal bollocks. Whooshing past on the other are the prejudices and assumptions about male aggression or violence, laziness, criminality, domestic and parental incompetence and all the rest. All around are the institutional shit-trucks sent by legal structures, education policies, health services, military traditions and more. Is the road marked ‘male’ busier and more difficult to traverse than the road marked ‘female’? I very much doubt it, but it doesn’t need to be, this is not a competition.  If you’re a woman and/or a feminist and you’re reading this and sneering, thinking “that stuff doesn’t sound too difficult to me, what’s your problem?” then congratulations – you’ve just entered the precise, privileged mind-set of every angry anti-feminist MRA dude on the internet. Of course you don’t see it – it’s not your road.

Personally, all that male shit-traffic is pretty easy for me to dodge. I’m not at a busy junction. I don’t have to worry about being caught on the blindside by a juggernaut hurtling down the White Road or the Straight Road, so I’ve mostly found it pretty easy to sidestep all that shit on the Male Highway. But if you’re a boy from a poor background in a poor neighbourhood at a poor school, you’re likely to find one vehicle marked “you’re stupid” racing at you in one direction while another marked “you’re lazy” arrives from the other, and bang, the result is often academic underachievement and a NEET future. If you’re a working class black lad then heaven help you. You’ve got one shit-truck marked “you’re trouble” and another marked “you’re a criminal” and another marked “you’re violent” and bang, unless you’re lucky you are another stop and search statistic or another reluctant conscript into gang culture.

Understanding intersectionality in those terms is very useful for me. It’s a great example of how we can apply feminist thinking to the male experience and male-specific problems. It doesn’t require one to sign up to either a feminist or an anti-feminist agenda and could fit comfortably with either. It gives me a sense of perspective on my own (fairly fortunate) place in society, why the world looks like it does to me, and crucially, why it might look entirely different to others who stand on a different intersection.

So it is useful in understanding where we are, but I think it is also useful in terms of where we would like to be. At a political level, we can ask what it is about our society that is sending so fucking much shit-traffic down some of the different roads – the disabled road, the  black road, the Muslim road, the women’s road and, yes, the men’s road too. We can not only ask how we can reorganise society so there is less shit on anyone’s road, we can also constantly ask ourselves whether our behaviour, our deeds or our words and language are sending a bit more unnecessary shit-traffic down someone else’s highway.

As my final word on Rosin’s The End of Men, I’d observe that the book does not describe an improving world. It describes a world where there is more shit-traffic than ever on women’s roads, and more shit-traffic than ever on men’s roads. When I wrote previously that the transformation of the workplace and domestic realm was not a victory for feminism but a victory for capitalism, this is precisely what I meant.  If we aspire to a better society, socially and economically, for men and women alike, then counting the vehicles on the various highways of shit might be a very good place to start.

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Everyone and their dog has had their say on Page 3 of late, and I’m happy to take a back seat on that one. That probably tells you everything you need to know about my position on the question. Nonetheless I couldn’t resist following the unfolding carnage debate with interest. One issue it has raised is the question of objectification, the very nature of which was challenged on the MoronWatch blog on the topic.

I’d already been mulling over the concept when the Guardian ran Decca Aitkenhead’s interview with feminist Kat Banyard today. Among many baffling and befuddled claims from interviewer and interviewee alike (already brutally eviscerated by my friend jemima101), Banyard discussed the pressing question of Dove soap adverts, and referred to “an entire culture of objectification.”

If you’ve ever attempted to discuss or debate objectification you’ve probably found it a frustrating task. It seems to mean slightly different things to different people, or different things to the same person. It sometimes seems to mean different things to the same person in the same bloody sentence. Objectification, it seems, can mean whatever you want it to mean.

A couple of years ago I started to read back at feminist theory to get a better grasp, and really struggled. Somewhere between Immanuel Kant, Melanie Klein and Andrea Dworkin the trail went cold. Then last year I whooped with delight when I found a couple of papers by feminist philosopher Lina Papadaki which provided the best overviews I’ve seen of the links between Kant’s theory of objectification and modern feminism. As you might expect, they’re hard to wrap your head around, but this one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the easier, and you can get a good grasp by skipping from the introduction to the conclusion if your brain’s already full.

In non-traditional fashion, I’ll give you the conclusion first:

“Undoubtedly, objectification is a concept difficult to define… since it turns out to be ‘slippery’ and ‘multiple’ (Nussbaum 1995, 251). How to best define objectification, and whether this notion should be restricted to describe the morally objectionable, or expanded to cover benign and/or positive aspects of the way we see and treat each other in our daily lives is an ongoing debate.”

Objectification can mean whatever you want it to mean. I think I just said that.

In her introduction, Papadaki lays out seven features that Martha Nussbaum claimed are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object:

  1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
  2. denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
  3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
  4. fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
  5. violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
  6. ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
  7. denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Rae Langton has added three more features to Nussbaum’s list:

  1. reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
  2. reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
  3. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

I find this list incredibly useful. Most obviously, it displays the vast diversity of meaning which can be attached to the word. Langton’s three look to me closest to the usual feminist definitions of (specifically) sexual objectification, but Nussbaum’s original seven better capture the economic elements of commodification and reification which typically accompany feminist references to objectification. They also perhaps illustrate how and why feminists use the term objectification so much in respect of prostitution and other forms of sex work beyond visual pornography and nude modelling.

Looking at Nussbaum’s list, I don’t doubtthat there are some people in the sex industry, as either consumers, clients or profiteers, who view sex workers in those terms. But what I find striking is that they offer a much more accurate description of how anti-porn/anti-SW advocates (whether feminist, religious or social conservative) portray sex workers.

  1. The treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes? Check. This is self-identifying feminist Tanya Gold on a beauty pageant: “Miss University 2008 – an inter-British higher education slagfest where girls answered questions such as, “What Sex and the City character do you most relate to?” At that point I wanted to strip them of their degrees – and their over-moisturised heads – and use them as battering rams. Or tampons.”
  2. The treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination? Check. Too many instances to list, but here’s Sheila Jeffreys: “Prostitution is not about or for women, but for men. It does not, therefore, matter whether women claim the right or choice to be prostituted or whether they see themselves as victims of men’s abuse.”
  3. The treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity? Check. Jeffreys again: “Anti-prostitution campaigners use the term prostituted women instead of prostitutes. This is a deliberate political decision and is meant to symbolize the lack of choice women have over being used in prostitution.”
  4. The treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects? Check. Jane Anthony: “one class of women is granted status as wives or girlfriends at the expense of another class, whores, who are reduced to sperm receptacles for numerous men.”
  5. The treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity. Check. Every time a sex worker has been involuntarily ‘saved’ from others or from him/herself, their integrity boundaries have been violated. See the real consequences of the Olympic sex trade clampdown, Operation Pentameter, or the brilliant open letter circulating about the arrest of sex workers in Ontario, Canada.
  6. The treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold). These are too numerous to need listing, but every time someone uses the phrase “selling her (or his) body,” as opposed to selling sexual services, the sex worker is being reduced to a possession rather than an agent.
  7. The treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account. Where to begin? Perhaps here, with Glasgow Sex Worker’s account of a meeting with members of the Scottish Parliament.

I don’t for a moment present this as some kind of killer argument against the various anti-prostitution and anti-porn campaigns. There are plenty of writers and campaigners who want to reform or further criminalise the sex industry, or to restrain the spread of pornography and sexual materials, who do not resort to the crude demonization, dehumanisation and, yes, objectification of sex workers above. I should also acknowledge that there are plenty of sex industry advocates (whether amateur or professional) who employ degrading, demeaning and misogynistic language themselves.

Barring some utopian revolution, the sex industry is not going away any time soon and that means debates about the sex industry are not going away either. It is necessary and important that the debate continues. Personally I think the debate would be more constructive if, in condemning the objectification and dehumanisation of sex workers, we could all refrain from doing the precise same thing ourselves.

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A couple of people have sent me links to a petition that has just gone up on the government e-Petition site.

I’m happy to point you towards it, and make your own mind up as to whether you want to sign or not. I’ve decided I won’t, and I’ll explain why.

Here’s the text:

With statistics revealing 21 men and 94 women are murdered by a partner, ex-partner or lover in 2010 – more than 2 a week, it is time to ask HM Government to raise awareness of this ‘invisible’ crime in a “Prevention is better than Cure” approach with a greater public awareness of what Domestic Violence is.

Let us, collectively as a proud and just nation, lobby the Government to adopt a minimum one year duration UK nationwide campaign – national press, media, advertising, PR, events etc – to inform ALL in our Society as to what exactly Domestic Violence is so that we can all identify what this abhorrent crime is and so, safeguarding ourselves and those we know.

Let’s equip everyone with the information as to what Domestic Violence is, it’s characteristics, it’s negative impact on all effected by it so that we can help ourselves, help others when needed.

Knowledge is Power – and we might just save someone’s life.

I think I understand what the petitioners are saying and wholeheartedly agree with it. It  echoes strongly with a piece I wrote about Justin Lee Collins for the Independent last week, in which I argued that domestic violence can take many different forms and we’ll never properly get to grips with the problems until our institutions and systems wake up to this.

The reality is that the phrase “domestic violence” masks a diverse and complex range of phenomena and behaviours. When we quote figures that, say, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be a victim of partner violence, such statistics can be objectively true and yet disguise more than they reveal.

The article concluded like this.

Until we can develop a more nuanced, evidence-based understanding of the true nature of domestic abuse, the arguments are destined to continue and both victims and perpetrators who sit outside the expected pattern will be denied the interventions they need.

Unfortunately on the same day, Sandra Horley, CEO of Refuge, had a piece on Comment is Free that was an almost perfect illustration of the point I was making. She gave a precise and narrow definition of domestic violence as follows:

Let me be clear: domestic violence involves the repeated, habitual and random use of intimidation, whether by physical or verbal aggression, to force a woman to submit to her partner’s demands. Domestic violence is systematic, purposeful and patterned behaviour designed to gain control of a woman.

I’ll trust regular readers will immediately spot the biggest problem with this – victims of domestic violence are not exclusively female, and perpetrators are not exclusively male.  There’s a more subtle problem, however, which is that the coercive-controlling violence she describes does not describe a large proportion of domestic violence, which can be situational, mutual, occasional, reactive or seemingly random. As I said in the Indy piece:

“Although charities such as Women’s Aid still hold coercive-controlling violence to be the archetype of domestic abuse, and it is indeed often the most devastating form, it is far from the most common. In his influential work the Typology of Domestic Violence, criminologist Michael P.Johnson reported that in survey studies, only 11% of male abusers matched the profile of an ‘intimate terrorist’; fewer than half of men appearing in court did so, and even in women’s shelters, where one would expect to find victims of the most severe and sustained abuse, the abusers of more than a third of women did not match the description.

While it was long assumed that, unlike situational and mutual violence, coercive controlling abuse was an overwhelmingly patriarchal and male-perpetrated offence, recent studies by researchers like Nicola Graham-Kevan has suggested that female abusers can also display similar characteristics“.

As the two quotes illustrate, there is massive argument and debate about what exactly we mean by domestic violence, among academics, frontline professionals and interested observers like me. I don’t know (and I don’t think anyone else can know) whose definitions are being referred to in the petition. I acknowledge that the petition includes mention of male victims, which is immensely encouraging, but that is not the whole issue.

I will not be signing the new petition because, sadly, I’m almost convinced that if it were to become policy it would be used by the likes of Refuge to  duplicate much of the downright false information about domestic violence that has circulated for 40 years or more.  When there is a  call to create campaigns that are drawn from the full range of academic research and clinical experience, and which reflect the complex nature of domestic violence perpetration and victimisation, and the full range of circumstances, environments and psychological triggers from which abusive behaviour can arise, then I’ll willingly sign and shout it from the rooftops.

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Back in July, I wrote a blog entitled “A dangerous domestic violence myth is born,” which queried the claim made by journalists Alan Travis and Nick Cohen, and criminologist David Wilson, that the ongoing fall in the British homicide rate could be attributed to the simultaneous decline in the prevalence of domestic violence.

The piece was widely shared and republished elsewhere, and remains my most visited page on this blog. I also sent the link to the Travis, Cohen and Wilson, inviting them to respond. None of them did, but I had hoped that the false claim might have been nipped in the bud. I should have known better.

This week David Wilson returned to Comment is Free with his views on the horrific disappearance of April Jones. Before I go further, let me stress that I entirely agree with the meat of Wilson’s argument, which was that abduction-murder of children by strangers is exceptionally rare and should not distract us from the more immediate challenge of addressing violence and murder in the home, where the vast majority of child murders occur.

That said, there were claims made in the middle of his article which I found bafflingly detached from reality. Here’s the relevant section:

On average since the early 1970s, only six children per year have been abducted and murdered by strangers, and while that is still six children too many, this sad statistic is put into perspective when we remember that two children a week are murdered within the home.

But, here’s the good news – the numbers of murders are falling, and they are falling for one specific reason. Partly in response to pressure from campaigners, the police now treat domestic violence much more seriously than they once did. And if a man is hitting his female partner, it is probable that he will be physically, emotionally or sexually abusing his children too. So by insisting that the authorities take domestic violence seriously, we are protecting not only women, but children too.

Wilson uses the figure “only six children per year” abducted and murdered by strangers as a reassuringly low number. It struck me as quite astonishingly high. A check on Home Office crime figures reveals that over the past ten years, an average (mean) of eight children under the age of 16 have been murdered by strangers per year. The vast majority of those were not “abducted and murdered”, they  were victims of stabbings or beatings in parks or playgrounds, drive-by-shootings, deadly robberies and so on. It turns out there are no official statistics on kidnap-murders of the type we are discussing here, so we are dependant upon press reports. A quick (and very unscientific) trawl of Google news reports suggests to me that a more accurate estimate might be six per decade, not six per year.

As for the next statistic, that two children a week are murdered within the home, this turns out to be no more credible. On this we do have home office statistics.   Over the past decade, the number of children killed by a parent, carer or acquaintance averages 49, or fewer than one per week. It looks to me that, in trying to dispel myths, Wilson has vastly over-reported the risks of a child being murdered either by a sadistic kidnapper or by a family member.

I asked David Wilson for his source for these statistics over the magic of Twitter. He told me that his figures come from his own book, Innocence Betrayed, first published in 2002. I will take it on trust that the figures he quotes were once true, but I do find it disturbing that an article which purports to be about current trends depends upon data which turn out to be more than a decade old.

And then we come to my own personal bugbear, the claim that the numbers of murders are falling, and they are falling for one specific reason… the police now treat domestic violence much more seriously than they once did. And if a man is hitting his female partner, it is probable that he will be physically, emotionally or sexually abusing his children too.

There are so many flaws in this claim that it beggars belief. First, lets look at the implication that child homicides are committed by abusive men. The first factual problem here is that, unlike most violent crime, women do kill their children. Around a third of child homicides are committed by mothers (where it is an infant who dies, more than half the perpetrators are female). That alone blows a huge hole in Wilson’s hypothesis. Secondly, I’m unable to find any research that places child homicide typically in a wider pattern of domestic abuse. On the contrary, one of the distinguishing features of one subset of child killers, ‘family annihilators’  – men (usually) who kill their kids before committing suicide – is said to be that they rarely have a history of criminality and the families often appear to be stable and happy before the incident. Of course there are some cases of men who murder their children as part of a wider pattern of violence and abuse, but to attribute the child homicide rate to their behaviour alone is positively fanciful.

There is one final reason to be suspicious of a causative link between declining domestic abuse and the homicide rate of either children or intimate partners. The statistics simply don’t match the pattern.

I have graphed the total homicide rate over the past decade against the rates of both intimate partner deaths and child homicides.

Homicide rates 2001-2011

Homicide rates 2001-2011

Series 1 (blue) is the total murder rate since 2001. Series 2 (red) is the child homicide rate and Series 3 (green) shows intimate partner homicides (both male and female).  It does indeed show a significant decline in the homicide rate (if you’re wondering about the spike in 2002/3, it is explained by the 172 victims of Harold Shipman all being recorded that year). However the overall trend for both intimate partner  and child deaths remains stubbornly flat.

For illustration, I can map on the trend for domestic violence incidents, as recorded by the British Crime Survey. These are in thousands, but fit conveniently onto the same graph.

Homicide rates + domestic violence rates

Homicide rates + domestic violence rates

(Domestic violence incidents  in 000s in purple.) What this shows is that the domestic violence rate and the homicide rate follow a very similar pattern, but as we all know, correlation does not imply causation. I won’t bore you with stats and graphs, but the rates for interpersonal assault and other violent crimes follow a similar pattern. It would be reasonable to conclude that we,  as a society, and men in particular, are becoming less violent in all sorts of ways. This must not make us lose track of the fact that the great majority of victims of violent crime are nether women nor children, but adult males. The risk of violent death in the home for children and adults alike is not the outcome of this trend, on the contrary, it is a troubling exception.

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Part 1 here

This blog first appeared on Comment is Free

 

Of all the things that need to be said about Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, the most significant is that it is not entirely true. Even before the book’s US release, informed critics were pointing out numerous flaws in the social statistics, the international perspective, the economic figures and even the accuracy of her case study interviews. I’ve thrown in a little credibility grenade of my own here. The apocalyptic case for The End of Men is far from made.

Rosin’s sensationalist hyperbole and slapdash attention to detail are frustrating, because as John Harris points out, the trends she examines are all too real. The underperformance of boys and young men in education and employment should be a major concern for us all. So too should be the impossible strains being felt by many women to fulfil simultaneous roles as dedicated breadwinner, successful careerist and devoted mother. As I read Rosin’s account of an exhausted cleaner sleeping in a stairwell after the triple shift of childcare, education and paid work, or of the Silicon Valley executives who rush home to put the kids to bed at eight before returning to the office until midnight, I was reminded of Sarah Palin’s great jibe at the newly elected President Obama, when she asked her Tea Party audience: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” On the evidence presented here, the brave new world of female triumph ain’t workin’ out for nobody.

To a large extent, the newly fashioned workplace is a victory not for feminism, but for capitalism. Since the 1980s economists have used the term “the feminisation of labour” to refer to the growing premium of communication and interpersonal skills, perceived emotional intelligence and other supposedly feminine attributes at work, and also to the development of an insecure, low-paid, low status, disposable workforce. Feminist theorist Nina Power has astutely noted that the feminisation of labour has been accompanied by the “labourisation of women” – unprecedented social and economic pressures to become another busy little worker bee in the globalised hive. The financial dynamics of employment rates, wages, rents, house prices and living costs have created a snare for us all. As Power says, the personal is not political; it is always entirely economic.

With that in mind, suggesting that men take it upon ourselves to reinvent our masculinity is little more than an instruction to pull our socks up, and doesn’t get to the question of why the socks might be down in the first place. Rosin argues that women have become better than men at playing the game of modern capitalism. Harris says the solution is for men to become better at playing by the rules. I’m more inclined to think that it is the game itself that needs changing.

How could that happen? We could start by correctly identifying the problems. Men are not becoming obsolete in the home and the workplace, but a significant proportion, especially of working class and poorer young men, are being left behind on pretty much any measure of success and wellbeing. Discussions of masculinity need to acknowledge that a significant minority of men do very well out of the current norms, and they are likely to be the ones who attain wealth, influence and power. As for the others, if they feel unsure as to what their role is meant to be, it may be because the wider culture doesn’t really know either. They are no longer needed as a mass workforce or as providers for families. They don’t need self-help books; they need decent training and meaningful jobs.

Many of the difficulties in achieving genuinely equal opportunities and social equality for men and women ultimately hinge upon the juggling act of children, household and career. Much of this can only be sorted between couples or within families, but employers need to ensure not only equal rights but equal acceptance of fathers and mothers working flexibly, taking time off for a child’s illness or appointments, and of course taking parental leave. Even among better employers, too often “family friendly policies” still mean “mother-friendly habits”.

There are institutional issues too. From paternity leave rights to the practices of the family courts, even sentencing in the criminal courts, our legal framework too readily assumes parent equals mother equals woman, and it is dispiriting when even modest proposals for reform meet resistance, not least from some feminists. Many men wish to be or become more active and responsible fathers only to find they have to fight the systems to do so.

Over the coming decades, our understanding of what it means to be a man will undoubtedly change. The change will not be so much in how men see ourselves, but in how all of us see each other – our peers, our friends, our partners and lovers and, above all, our children. Portray men as lazy failures, and lazy failures they shall become. Consider boys to be trouble, and troublesome boys they shall be. Concern about cultural misandry is usually considered the preserve of frothy bloggers and unhinged men’s rights activists, but the routine denigration and mockery of any man who deviates from heroic and patriarchal gender ideals – in movies, TV and advertising, in media coverage and political discourse – should concern anyone who desires a more fair and less gender-bound society. It’s rather tragic that in identifying some of these problems, The End of Men has added to them significantly.

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[The release of Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men has sparked a veritable inferno of comment and criticism. Regular readers shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I have a lot of thoughts about the book and accompanying commentary, and over the next week or two  I’ll spell them out in a series of blogs, here and elsewhere.]

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“The year is 2012. England, traditionally a land of heroes and great statesmen, is in the grip of a new regime. The country is being run by women. They are the breadwinners, the rulers. Their state police strike terror into the hearts of the subjugated male.  In short, the roles have been completely reversed: It is the man, not the woman, who now wears the frock.”

No, this is not the introduction to Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men. It is in fact the opening of The Worm That Turned, a series of satirical sketches that first ran on the BBC in 1979. You should be able to tell them apart. One is an ridiculous dystopian fantasy peopled by domineering, violent, oversexed dominatrices and deploying hyperbole, sexist stereotyping and fanciful distortion to great comedic effect, while the other stars The Two Ronnies.

Yes, a cheap and easy shot, but not entirely undeserved. The very title The End of Men is so overblown the author apologises for it repeatedly through the book. The subtitle “…and the rise of women” is a far better reflection of the contents, but presumably might be expected to shift fewer units. Since the publicity machine began to roll on both sides of the Atlantic, informed critics have pointed out umpteen instances where factual and statistical claims are either misleading, cherry-picked to fit the narrative or downright false. The sociologist Philip N. Cohen has diligently unpicked her use of US social statistics and found them wanting, Stephanie Coontz has dug further into the economic stats, while  Mara Hvistendahl has done the same for Rosin’s claims about Asian (particularly South Korean) women.  That’s the quantitative side, the qualitative evidence has also been queried with this damning account by one of Rosin’s interviewees which suggests his experiences have been severely distorted to fit the narrative.

I’ll add one little credibility bomb of my own. In the chapter on the supposed increase in female violence and aggression, Rosin states baldly that:

“A recent British study found that women were three times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence [than men].”

From this you might reasonably assume that three times as many women as men are arrested for domestic violence in Britain. I recognised the study she references – it found that where a woman is identified as the primary offender in an incident, her chances of being arrested are three times higher. That tells you something about arresting policies of police officers, but literally nothing nothing about the prevalence of female violence.  (Actually it’s a bit more complicated than that, but never mind). In truth the study found that nine men are arrested for every one woman.

When you know that so many claims in the book are unreliable, it becomes very difficult to trust anything Rosin  says. That is frustrating, because had the research and statistics been reported accurately, the issues she wants to address would have been no less compelling. The relative underachievement of boys and men in education and employment is indeeed a hugely pressing concern. The changing roles of women in the workplace and family may be the most significant sociological phenomenon of our times. The impacts of changing gender roles upon criminality and sexual habits are fascinating.  This pudding has quite enough eggs already.

Rosin adopts the cloak of observer rather than polemicist. In the New York Times, Jennifer Homans criticised the book for being ‘carelessly apolitical‘ but I disagree – a Panglossian acceptance of the status quo is a political stance. A running theme through the book is that if women can learn the rules and play the game of turbocharged neoliberal capitalism, they can succeed in anything and everything. Rosin argues that the continuing predominance of men at the pinnacle of power – in politics, industry, business and culture – is the last gasp of patriarchy and destined to crumble. This betrays a spectacularly naive view of how true power is attained and retained. She also, perhaps unwittingly, suggests that if women of all social classes, nationalities and backgrounds are prepared to put up with sexual harassment and sexist environments in the workplace, sacrifice relationships with their partners and their children and work like huskies from dawn until midnight, then the world is their pearl-bearing oyster. I can’t be the only one to find this message less inspirational than deeply depressing. Parallel to this runs the implication that men’s underachievement is of their own making, not enough males are prepared to devote their lives to chasing every position, every promotion, every penny, whatever the cost to their personal lives. Rosin never explicitly states that modern men are just too lazy, but that is the portrait she paints. For women and men alike, the problem is not that we don’t know the rules of the game, but that the rules of the game stink.

Reappraising and reinventing our gender roles will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Passing legislation against discrimination and introducing family friendly policies is the easy bit. Adapting our cultures, our identities, our social habits and our deeply entrenched beliefs about the nature and expression of gender will take far, far longer. The End of Men conveys a sigh of resignation about our newly configured world, when what is needed is an alarm call.  It is entirely unacceptable that generations of young men are considered increasingly  obsolete by economics, society and themselves. Rosin seems to recognise this problem while also contributing to it.

The year is 2012, and the worm has not yet turned, although it is certainly wriggling in some very interesting directions. For all its shortcomings, Rosin’s book should be welcomed as a spark to an essential discussion. This is not the End of Men, but it may be the beginning of a vitally important debate.

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