I was recently surprised by an article written by Dr John Barry a prominent figure in psychology and the Chair of the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. This was titled:‘Demonising boys won’t turn them into angels’. Whilst fundamentally I agree that shaming, or stigmatising boys is unlikely to have many positive effects, I felt compelled to respond to the arguments it contains.
It was written following the murder of Sarah Everard in London (UK), the subsequent arrest of a police officer charged with her murder, and widespread criticism of heavy-handed policing by the Metropolitan Police. The events sparked considerable soul-searching in the UK and on social media as the violence, abuse, and harassment that many women experience entered the public discourse.
In my reading of ‘Demonising boys won’t turn them into angels’ I saw three main arguments. In turn:
1. Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education lessons focussing on teaching boys to respect girls may have a negative impact, shame boys, lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, violence, and alienation.
Dr John Barry cites his research suggesting that the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ may cause harm where boys hear or read about it. Agreed, that shame and stigma are harmful and counterproductive and interventions should not demonise any group. I am not aware, though, that this is the intention of anyone who genuinely aims to reduce abusive and violent behaviours and has some notion of how to do so. It is unclear who has said we should demonise schoolboys.
There may be ill-considered examples of hastily implemented and poorly designed sessions. For me, these illustrate that sensitive and effective design and delivery are paramount. Surely researchers and experts in the field could develop sessions that focus on empathy and respect in all contexts and situations (including domestic and public spheres), regardless of sex, gender and other demographic characteristics. That teach boys, girls, adolescents, young (or even older) men and women how to interact respectfully, to value one another, what expectations to hold regarding their own treatment by others, how to effectively challenge offensive behaviours. That include positive behaviours, examples of constructive masculinities, femininities, and other identities.
Is the field of male psychology not well positioned to contribute constructively, to design such interventions?
2. The majority of boys are not a risk to women… the vast majority of men want women and girls to be safe
Of course. Many men, though, will have engaged in sexist behaviours or stood by, silently complicit, whilst others have been offensive, harassed, or verbally abused women. These are all harmful behaviours, though the consequences are less well recognised than those of explicit acts of violence. It is important to recognise that feeling ‘safe’ must mean feeling safe from physical violence in addition to harassment and verbal abuse.
Reading this also kindled thoughts of the dismissive #notallmen argument seen on Twitter: it is not all men that engage in these behaviours so the conversation should not include all men. This is well countered by the #notallmenbutallwomen response: not all men engage in these behaviours but it is not always possible to differentiate those men that do and do not represent a threat, thus creating a climate of fear.
By way of illustration, in January, before the murder of Sarah Everard, during lockdown, and in the pleasant town I live in, a number of women shared their experiences in a WhatsApp thread I am part of. They described how exercising alone, outside, in the dark (it was winter, like me they have children and jobs to attend to, and, well, we all have every right to exercise when we like) led to a constant state of hyper-vigilance with assessments made about how threatening others look, routes planned carefully, the horizon scanned for danger, hiding places, and escape routes. I am not a risk to women and I do not want to be perceived as such. I do not want to cause momentary alarm and anxiety to others.
That I undoubtedly do is not women’s fault. If effective and sensitively delivered PSHE lessons, delivered en masse, could help gradually erode this environment of fear and anxiety, their potential should be explored. They should not be discounted because of a fear that they may demonise boys.
3. Men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than women
It’s unclear to me how this is relevant to women’s experience of violence. Especially as instances of verbal harassment and abuse and sexual offences are ignored in the claim. It is also important to caveat the message as women are the victims of intimate partner violence actually and relatively more frequently than men. A point perhaps lost in the current debate.
Whilst I do not experience the everyday fear and anxiety described above, doubtless other men do and men are often the victims of violent crimes. The Office for National Statistics Crime Survey for England and Wales that Dr John Barry cites stated that 2% of men and 1.3% of women reported suffering as victims of violent crime (a one-year period). But it is overwhelmingly (other) men that commit these violent crimes.
Focussing exclusively on the identity of the victim fails to acknowledge this point, one that is critical to arguments regarding the delivery of interventions such as PSHE lessons. The same Crime Survey for England and Wales explicitly stated that “perpetrators [of violent crimes] were most likely to be male, being reported as so in over three-quarters of violent incidents (82%)”
It is also essential to acknowledge that ‘violent crimes’ and ‘sexual offences’ are reported separately. The Crime Survey for England and Wales indicated that 84% of sexual offences are committed against women (including 90% of rapes) with 2.9% of women experiencing sexual assault and 0.7% of men. Whilst headline data related to the identity of perpetrators is not readily available it seems implausible that male perpetrators would be less frequently responsible for ‘sexual’ than ‘violent’ incidents. Indeed, where reported (rape or penetration) the figure is >98% (though this is perhaps likely to be the most imbalanced figure).
In response to Dr John Barry’s article I would argue that men’s victimhood does not diminish women’s. That sexual offences are relevant to the discussion. That the statistics indicate an overwhelming culpability on the part of (a minority of) men. That the primary focus should rest on perpetrators and their behaviour. That we should recognise that addressing these issues stands to benefit us all, victims, perpetrators, and beyond.
We should also consider whether men experience violent and sexual offences because they are men. Or because they are particularly vulnerable or disadvantaged or marginalised men. Or because they are in high risk situations. Do women experience violent and sexual offences because they are women?
Finally, if we wish to reduce incidents of (some) men committing violent offences, sexual offences, verbal abuse, harassment, if we want to encourage respect, empathy, compassion, if we want to help protect the victims of these offences (men, women, everyone), if PSHE lessons are not an answer… what is the alternative? What can and what should be done? Can male psychology provide an answer?
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