No Excuses

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Some men hold misogynistic views. And some men commit terrible acts of violence against women. So far, so obvious. Such individuals must be held to account and brought to justice and we need strategies to combat both ignorant prejudice and criminal aggression. Case closed.

Except it isn’t, because the problem is much bigger. The problem is systemic and it lies in a specific place. It is evidently not true to say that men are the problem: but it is true to say the problem lies among men. The problem is with a form and type of maleness. And we need to be honest about that to have any hope of addressing it.

Visible and distressing examples of this have been evident recently in a hostile and misogynistic male culture inside the police force. It is nearly two years since Wayne Couzens murdered Sarah Everard. In response, a report into attitudes and cultures in policing was produced by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS).

The report investigated eight police forces. It found that ‘a culture of misogyny, sexism, predatory behaviour towards female police officers and staff and members of the public was prevalent’ in all eight. The inspectors said ‘we believe that the poor behaviour towards women we were told about is prevalent in many – if not all – forces’ across the country. This is not the distant past: this is now. The report was published four months ago into current police forces serving today.

A few weeks ago police officer David Carrick admitted 48 counts of rape carried out over 17 years. There were nine complaints about his behaviour during this time. All the complaints were dismissed. Following his conviction the Met admitted that ‘our mindset should have been more determined’. 

What these horrifying episodes make explicit is the link between attitudes, behaviour and culture and acts of criminal harm. We can never know whether or not Couzens and Carrick were influenced to commit their crimes by the culture around them; but we can be sure that this culture is what enabled and excused them and others like them.

This is the context in which we should view the similarly toxic culture of online misogyny. One influencer in particular, now under arrest in Romania, has recently gained much attention. The individual himself does not warrant naming and the less fuss and focus he gets the better. What matters is that too many boys are citing him as an influence.

Perhaps they want to provoke by claiming to admire him; perhaps they really are impressed by his materialistic brag and bigotry. Either way many column inches and many meetings in the education sector have been given over to how to address and counter such views in boys. The question we should ask is the one the Met is finally starting to address: is our mindset sufficiently determined?

One of the insidious ways prejudice continues is when it is met with half-hearted opposition or even amused tolerance: when people hearing a racist or homophobic comment roll their eyes or chuckle sadly or remark ‘you can’t say that any more’. While we all hope that this is diminishing, it still occurs – and often it feels as if this kind of indulgence is at its worst when it comes to casual sexism and misogyny. Too often it is met with a smirk on the one hand and a resigned shake of the head on the other. Or with the ultimate enabler: it’s just boys being boys. As was said of a former US President: it’s just locker-room talk.

As a girls’ school we have a role to play. We have to make our students aware of this issue and do all we can to equip them to tackle it. One of the key arguments in favour of single-sex education for girls is that they go on to be more assertive in mixed company when they leave. Their voices have not been drowned out during adolescence, but strengthened – and they go on to use them.

Alongside that we have to demand proper attention is given to this issue among boys and men and those responsible for their education and guidance. One of the most heartening statements of intent is the one used by the boys’ school just around the corner from The Abbey. Reading School’s mission is to ‘build good men’.

This idea of character education is especially strong in single-sex education – similarly, The Abbey exists to develop confident, purposeful and joyful women. It must be what lies at the heart of all education, single-sex and co-ed.

Above all this is not about binaries or opposition. As we continue to evolve our understanding of gender we can and should focus on what is universal: our common humanity. Tackling problematic maleness is a shared endeavour: because violence and hostility towards women, like all acts of violence and hostility and all acts of prejudice, diminish humanity and diminish us all.

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