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By Heartfield, 17 May 2013
Image: Peter Howson, My Great Heart, 1996

Are men in crisis? James Heartfield does not think so.

Hackney MP Diane Abbott spoke out about a ‘masculinity crisis’ at a meeting organised by Demos. She claims that young men are increasingly violent and Suzanne Moore demands to know when men will start to discuss their problem with rape and abuse. (1)

Evidence for the crisis of masculinity is hard to find. First, the idea that a crisis in masculinity could explain a rise in violence against women is particularly confused.

Intimate violence is a terrible thing, and every instance of it is to be deplored. Last year 2,333 people – overwhelmingly men - were convicted of rape and as many as 52,549 of domestic violence. But does the evidence suggest that domestic violence is on the increase? No. According to the British Crime Survey, domestic violence has been declining since 1993, falling in fact by as much as 60 per cent.

Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore dismisses men’s complaints that they are not collectively responsible for violence against women as an evasion. It was Liz Kelly at the University of North London who first argued that rape was the far end of a continuum of abuse with derogatory and belittling remarks at the other. But isolating one grotesque case, the 'grooming' and sustained abuse of several girls in care by predatory men, as Moore does, is not a good insight into everyday relations. It tells us no more about what most men are like than it tells us what most Muslims are like.

Is the man next to you a rapist or an abuser? The statistics say that almost certainly he is not. Potentially, we are all of us, men, and women too, murderers; but potential is not actual. The vast majority of the population go through life without ever murdering, raping or assaulting anyone.

Columnist Laurie Penny – quoted by Diane Abbott in her speech – identified porn consumption as a particular problem among her friends and twitter followers. (2) When she asked them, they worried whether it was affecting their relations with women. Abbott fantasised about a ‘Viagra and Jack Daniels culture’, with men demanding porn-performances from girls. It is true that the sheer availability of internet porn adds to the repertoire of young people’s vulgarity – but then older people have been aghast at youthful sexuality since the Ark.

Diane Abbott highlighted employment as a particular problem – and so it is, especially for younger men. Still men command more of full time employment in Britain than women, and somewhat better wages. The evidence so far is that more women have lost work in the current recession than men. In the longer term there has indeed been a significant change with the decline of the ‘family wage’ model that dominated Britain in the mid twentieth century. Organised labour that struck that bargain has most definitely lost out, and that has had a bad impact upon the cohesiveness of communities.

On the other hand the decline in the gendered division of labour has meant that many more women are in work and so economically independent – so that they are around half of the workforce, by contract, if not by hours. Women wage earners are probably the biggest single reason why domestic violence has decreased. The traditional working class family, with one principle breadwinner, did limit women’s freedom. Today women have greater economic independence, and a greater ability to escape abusive relationships.

These social changes are important, but do they add up to a crisis of masculinity? The debate assumes that there is something called ‘masculinity’. But evidence from European Values Survey and the British Social Attitudes survey suggests that differences in attitudes between men and women are not so great and closing all the time. Men are doing more housework that they used to, and women are going out drinking more often. Though Abbott cites a rise in homophobia as one symptom of the crisis of masculinity, men poll slightly more liberal on gay rights than women in the European Values Survey, and all are becoming more accepting. Men and women’s views on work, on politics, on violence, on children and family are pretty similar. It might seem that men are another species, with their own secret masculinity club, whose first rule, according to Abbott and Penny, is that you do not talk about it; but men are the same species as women, and there is no such club.

The caricature of masculinity as machismo, violence, porn and rape, or as ‘viagra and Jack Daniels’ is one that most men would find hard to recognise in their own lives. There is perhaps a case to be made that as gender differences in society carry less weight, the way that they are acted out as a performance becomes more obvious. Still, good cultural critics ought to be able to read the difference between the comedic performance of machismo, which is commonplace and actual domination, which is of declining importance. (The Marquis de Sade, after all, made up all his domination games to make up for the real decline of his own aristocratic class.)

The problematisation of masculinity seems to spring from a sympathy for men. But its meaning is the opposite. Pretending to care about men’s problems is mostly just an attempt to amplify uncertainties, so that the authorities can get a greater foothold into people’s lives. It is pointed that the ‘crisis of masculinity’ has not been raised by men at all – so far it has only been talked about by a narrow group of politicians and commentators, who are all women. The smorgasbord of policy interventions that the MP for Hackney has come up with – sex education, relationship counselling, mentoring – could have been plucked from any initiative on any topic for the last twenty years. The net effect of this policy focus would be to problematize and even criminalise young men who already face excessive and perverse interest by the police, schools, social and probation services. Every year police stop and search more than 1.3 million people on the streets, a humiliating experience for many young people, most of them young men. Four fifths of those permanently excluded from schools are boys.

The journalist Harriet Sergeant, who wrote up her year spent working with young gangs as Among the Hoods gave a stinging reply to Abbott’s speech yesterday: ‘There's no crisis in masculinity in the inner-city boys, there's a crisis in how the state deals with boys’.


(1) ‘Britain’s Crisis of Masculinity’ Diane Abbott, 16 May 2013

‘It’s hard not to be angry…’, Suzanne Moore, Guardian, 15 May 2012

(2) ‘Real men want to talk about sex’ Laurie Penny, Independent, 21 April

See also ‘There is no masculinity crisis’, James Heartfield, Genders 35, 2002