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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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser