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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The murder of fearless journalist Pavel Sheremet must be solved - but Ukraine needs more

Sheremet was blown up as he drove to host a morning radio programme

On 20th of July Kiev was shaken by the news of the assassination of the respected Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet. Outside the ex-Soviet republics he was hardly known. Yet the murder is one that the West should reflect on, as it could do much to aggravate the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. 

Sheremet was one of the most significant and high profile investigative journalists of his generation. His career as an archetypal  examiner of the post-Soviet regimes in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia bought him fame and notoriety in the region. From 1997 onwards Sheremet became a name for fearless and non-partisan interrogation, both in print and as also as TV presenter. He paid the price early on when he was incarcerated by the Belarus government, then stripped of his Belarusian nationality and deported. Such is the way of things in the region.

Taking up residence in Kiev, Sheremet became immersed in interrogating the political life of Ukraine. He wrote for the Ukrayinska Pravda publication and also helped to develop a journalism school. Under these auspices he was a participant of a congress, "The dialogue between Ukraine and Russia", in April 2014. He reported on beginnings of the Euromaidan uprising. He warned of the rise of the concept  of "Novorossia" and suggested that Ukraine needed to reset its current status and stand up to Russian pressure. After the Russian occupation of Crimea his blame for the Ukrainian government was ferocious. He alleged that that they "left their soldiers face to face the [Russian] aggressor and had given up the Crimean peninsula with no attempt to defend it." These, he said "are going to be the most disgraceful pages of Ukrainian history."

Sheremet was blown up at 7.45am on 20 July as he drove to host a morning radio programme.

Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists. Fifty of them have been murdered since Ukraine achieved independence. However, this murder is different from the others. Firstly, both the Ukrainian President and the Interior minister immediately sought assistance from FBI and EU investigators. For once it seems that the Ukrainian government is serious about solving this crime. Secondly, this IED type assassination had all the trappings of a professional operation. To blow a car up in rush hour Kiev needs a surveillance team and sophisticated explosive expertise. 

Where to lay the blame? Pavel Sheremet had plenty of enemies, including those in power in Belarus, Russia and the militias in Ukraine (his last blog warned of a possible coup by the militias). But Ukraine needs assistance beyond investigators from the FBI and the EU. It needs more financial help to support credible investigative journalism.   

The murder of Pavel Sheremet was an attack on the already fragile Ukrainian civil society, a country on the doorstep of the EU. The fear is that the latest murder might well be the beginning of worse to come.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.