There’s enough blame to go around. But the real question is how we can support men to keep them from becoming abusive.
I’ve no doubt that many men in the UK are, like me, depressed by what seems to be an steady stream of news stories recently about sexual abuse of women and children. The case of a gang from Rotherham in the North of England is the most recent and possibly most shocking example—shocking because of the scale of the abuse, the apparent disinterest and lack of support for victims from police, social services and the other people whose job was supposed to be to protect children, and because of the likelihood that there are and/or have been similar patterns of abuse and indifference in other parts of the U.K.
This was obviously not a rare or one off pattern of activity by predatory men abusing vulnerable female victims, so we can’t avoid the question any longer. How or why can ANY man actually get turned on and gratified by abusing and damaging a child? We urgently need research which can provide an ‘explanation’ for this, and some ideas about what can be done about it, rather than looking the other way from a mixed feeling of shame and helplessness, or just calling perpetrators ‘evil’, an easy category which offers no useful insight or understanding into the true motivation for their behaviour.
Violence, including sexual violence and abuse is a kind of illness which needs to be recognised and understood so that a cure can be found. At the moment, we are at the stage of physicians in the 1700’s who had no understanding of how disease was transmitted, other than some fanciful theories, and so were totally ineffectual in preventing it. The problem is too prevalent, and the results and damage done too severe, to put it off any longer.
Meanwhile, we revile the damaged individuals who commit this kind of abuse, perhaps getting some satisfaction from feeling that, however much of a mess we may be in…at least we’re not “that bad”! But maybe these abusers are in some ways just extreme versions of the predominant way that male sexuality, and our ambivalent relationship with ‘femininity’, is shaped and expressed in our culture (and many others, unfortunately). Because of a fear of not living up to social expectations about ‘manhood’, it is hard for many ‘normal’ men to feel freely able to experience and express the range of emotions which would let them be fully human. Living with the continuous pain of being cut off from an essential part of their emotional life may lead some men to feel so fearful and stressed, even inadequate, that they react in extreme ways which are damaging to others, and ultimately to themselves.
Just as thin models are notoriously not representative of most women, which can make many women feel inadequate and depressed, with unquantified negative consequences for their relationships and their mental well being, so most men feel as if they fall short of the macho ideals represented as heroic in contemporary cultural myths, with inevitable damaging effects on their attitudes and behaviours in the ways indicated above..
Hopefully the media world will catch up soon to a better understanding of the fuller range of ways in which a ‘real’ man might think and act, but in the meantime each of us can encourage that process by insisting on being true to, and expressing, our full range of feelings, without worrying if other men will try to shame us for that. We need to recognise that shaming is rooted in their own fear and envy, and if we insist on our right to be our true selves we may give them the ‘permission’ they need to change and begin to be free of the constraints of the ‘man box’, with a reduction in any need they might have to ‘prove’ themselves using violence or abuse.
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