We want our sons to challenge masculinity, not be harmed by it. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Male violence is a greater threat to our sons – so why are we so over-protective with daughters?

It’s a difficult line to walk when you are raising boys. The path of non-violence is the only one worth following, yet by doing so, are you denying your sons a fighting chance in a dog-eat-dog world?

“Lock up your daughters!” So says the slogan on a sleepsuit for baby boys. In a culture that rewards predatory behaviour in males, I guess it’s always best to start ’em young. It’s no wonder parents of girls feel anxious, though. Writing in the Telegraph, Ian Douglas argues that “we dads are right to be more protective of our daughters” (even if he does not literally recommend locking them up). You only have to look at Gamergate, writes Douglas, to understand “the difference between having a son and having a daughter”:

If what happened to Zoe Quinn, or Anita Sarkeesian, or the possibly-not-even-existent daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, or any woman with a job or a violent partner, happened to our sons, we fathers would be just as strenuous in our efforts to ease their trouble, but most of the time it doesn’t. It happens to our daughters. And that’s why we’re still overly protective of them, arguably more so than ever.

Reading that, I suppose I should feel relieved. I might be female myself but I don’t have any daughters, just sons. Nothing to worry about there, right? Well, not unless we consider the fact that two thirds of all victims of lethal male violence are themselves male. But who’d want to consider that? It only makes the issue far too complicated.

When we talk about violence and gender, we tend to think of male perpetrators and female victims (unless we’re indulging in a spot of wilful whataboutery in order to undermine feminist campaigns). Rarely is it argued that since men are particularly vulnerable, they should not go out alone at night or drink above a certain limit. Since men are, potentially, both victim and perpetrator, it seems we’ve resolved to let them fight it out amongst themselves.

As a parent of boys, I find this disturbing. While those raising girls might be faced with the awful yet relatively straightforward paradigm of vulnerable girl/evil world, for those of us with sons it’s more complex. If I attempt to protect my son from his own aggression and that of others, aren’t I pushing him towards “girl” status – the status of a victim? But if I toughen him up and prepare him to fight, am I not just creating another aggressor in a world where over 90 per cent of them are male? As long as masculinity remains powerful, it seems there will never be an in-between.

“Mother’s Pride”, a song on The Beautiful South’s 1990 album Choke, articulates the problem beautifully. You can raise a son how you want, but in our pink and blue world, he will either be too soft (“with a year’s supply of sandwiches and fairy cakes / that she provides for him to eat at dinner breaks”) or too hard (“he’ll always roam the yard looking for a fight / he’ll pick on all the kids who are twice his height”).  And so this is the dilemma – do you want a mummy’s boy (“with a head full of get your laces tied and woe betide”) or a father’s boy (“with a head filled up with devil dogs and genocide”)? Do you want your son to kick or be kicked? As long as we maintain our obsession with gender, the choice has to be between aggression or victimhood, masculinity and femininity stripped bare. 

My elder son’s football coach tells them not to play “like girls” (despite one of the team members being a girl). Don’t be weak, don’t be vulnerable. After all, the other team are bound to be playing “like boys.” Be on the offensive, or else you’ll have aligned yourself with the weaker sex and you know what we do to them. And where does this flight from potential vulnerability lead? To fear of, and aggression towards, other human beings. Even if you believe Oscar Pistorius thought there was a male intruder behind that toilet door, Reeva Steenkamp still died as a result of male violence, male aggression, male fear. It is self-perpetuating, this nihilistic kill-or-be-killed bullshit and we start teaching it to our sons from an early age, on the football pitch, on the TV screen and in every discussion of male violence which presents it as something that is “just there.” 

When people talk about “masculinity in crisis” I think there is real fear of violence – fear of other men – underpinning it. It’s not just men feeling terrified of women and girls are encroaching on “their” space. It’s men knowing that letting go of an immoral, unjustifiable dominance puts them at greater risk of those who are still clinging on to it. We talk of men needing to drop their defences in terms of discussing emotions, but maybe what we really need to discuss is actual, physical risk. The only way for men to stop killing other men – and women, too – is for someone to propose a ceasefire and nobody wants to go first (hence rather than dare to dismantle masculinity entirely, we skirt around the issue, hunting for new “male role models,” all the while polishing the same old turd).

Recently my younger son, a huge Frozen fan, asked to go to a school fancy dress disco dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle. We’d spotted an outfit in Sainsbury’s – a long, sparkly blue dress, complete with a silver wig. Despite the well-intentioned warnings of grandparents, I let him wear it. A dress is a dress. So he arrived and there was a lot of fascination – and some mockery – of this “boy dressed like a girl”. He didn’t care and went and got his nails painted blue to match his dress. I felt proud of him. His disregard for social norms makes him strong, not weak. And yet there was a part of me that still feared the consequences of this “like a girl/not like a boy” definition imposed upon him by his peers.

I don’t want my son to positioned as “victim” and right now, this is how girlhood is constructed, as a necessary complement to masculine aggression. I want my boys to challenge masculinity; I want them to be the people they really want to be, without having to renounce maleness (and hence leave masculinity fully intact) should they wish to do the things we currently associate with being female. But as long as the cult of masculinity remains so powerful and so violent, I feel guilty for encouraging them away from it unless I can be sure other parents are doing the same. If you don’t push your sons to fight in a dog-eat-dog world, isn’t that just denying them a fighting chance? The more I think about this, the more I start to understand parents who gender stereotype the hell out of their sons, even if that’s something I’ll never do. To me, the path of non-violence is the only one worth following, yet sometimes it can feel like sticking a massive sign marked “Kick me” on your children’s backs.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.