Ageing men are changing men? The debate on men and crime

As men we have to recognize that our gender is more prone to violence and most sorts of crime. But does this mean we are unchangeably so? Personal experience, critical thinking and collective action can present a more optimistic picture, says Richard Johnson. 

Richard Johnson
4 June 2013

Cynthia Cockburn’s and Ann Oakley's article The cost of masculine crime argues for a close connection between masculinity, violence and criminal behaviour by building an accumulative statistical picture of  the huge disproportion between men and women in this respect. This has stimulated a debate on openDemocracy 5050 that ranges wider than criminology, encompassing how we think about gender difference, in its negative, power-based effects. As the article puts it: ‘what is it with men and power?

In what follows, I want to reflect briefly on the 62 comments to the article that followed, especially those from men, express some reservations of my own about the Cockburn/Oakley arguments, and sound a more optimistic note about the future than the critical itemization of male power, especially in statistical form, can allow. In this I will mainly draw on personal experiences of men seeking to change individually or through forms of co-operation.

Angry men; ageing men

Some men have responded to the article with flippant and diversionary comments. Some have acknowledged the force of the associations but exempted themselves and most other men from them. Another response has been to direct attention towards biological reasons for gender difference. A few men acknowledge that these are associations that could be remedied socially and that this is a responsibility of men themselves. Knowing that I have the capacity for violence within myself while being rather law-abiding, I also feel challenged by the implied political reproach: ‘why don’t you DO something about it’? 

I am interested in the differences in men’s responses. Generationally, there are important differences in the ways men have encountered feminism. I am 73 and my generation experienced the full weight of early feminism, often in a fierce or ‘radical’ form. It influenced our women friends, colleagues, students, daughters and partners and challenged us very directly and in intimate ways.  We were often, in our 30s and 40s, in ‘pre-feminist’ and unequal marriages and over-invested in our work identities. This prompted much heart-searching and attempts to change our personal lives. In my own case for instance I went half-time at work, gave up some ambitions, then ‘retired’ altogether, to try to be a better companion, carer and father. Until quite recently, this more urgent side of feminism, as experienced by men, seems to have become less insistent. Alongside the obduracy of men, there have been real concessions and gains for some women, like the progress of young women in education and the entry to many professions.  Perhaps also the search for greater complexity in gender theory, including the fear of making gender divisions seem necessary, essential, or singularly oppressive, has removed some of the political ‘oomph’ from feminist theory. From this view point, then, the Cockburn/Oakley arguments seem rather ‘moderate’ and certainly careful and reasonable .Be that as it may, there is now for sure a revival of feminist insurgency in debates like this one, in activities like those of the London Feminist Network, UK Feminista, Radfem and the F-Word and in global gender movements of different kinds in India, or Russia or Arab countries. And I welcome it. But I can imagine that these new feminisms, especially where they point at male violence, abusive sexuality and the sexualisation of young women in Britain, feel especially challenging to later generations of men who were not exposed to the earlier women’s movement.

Masculine crime and method

I do however have some reservations about the Cockburn/Oakley article, not so much about the data, more with the inferences and perhaps with the method used, which is basically a form of critical statistics. Their approach is to accumulate evidence of the disproportion between men and women in prison and in criminal activity, especially in violent crime. Interestingly they point out how these differences are obscured by the ways figures are presented and that the problem of ‘the masculine excess’ of violent criminality is rarely if ever posed, let alone dealt with in policies.

That men are usually the perpetrators of crime, however, does not mean that the gender order is always its main source. Cockburn and Oakley don’t actually say it is, but I feel violence against women is their underlying model of criminality. I do believe that gender relations of power and inequality run through all social phenomena, so there is of course a gender dimension to all criminality. However, violence and criminality may be a response to some insult, threat or need that derives from a different source. It may also be an expression of deep-rooted vulnerabilities that only a deeper ‘psycho-social’ approach to gender (and other relations) can reach. A lot of crime, for instance, most obviously crime against property, is related to class inequalities and those around ethnicity or race. Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s studies, especially The Spirit Level suggest that the most crime-ridden developed societies are those that are most unequal, overall, economically. So, even as gender reformers, we need to be alive to a range of other social differences and inequalities.

There is also a danger of falling back on a kind of common-sense, social-reforming view of ‘crime’ itself, when ‘law and order’ is actually a political issue on multiple fronts. Perhaps this danger is strengthened by another feature of the method Oakley and Cockburn employ, which is an interesting and ingenious attempt to put a figure on ‘the masculine excess’ in terms of financial cost. This, however, further makes all crimes equal. The dangers of this flattening of the crime problem to a technical measurement are most evident in ‘crimes’ like collective riot and uprisings. The urban riots in Britain in  August 2011 for instance, can be read as a kind of class-based protest against neglect and gross disrespect with a strong anti-police element. Thus, the old Marxist-Feminist and socialist debate about priorities is still relevant.  Do we have to change class conditions before we can change the gender order, or is cross-gender solidarity and respect for women’s causes within ‘our movement’ a key condition for any social transformation?  These ‘old’ debates retain relevance: we still have to negotiate the class-gender contradictions, as a theoretical as well as a political task.

Grounds for optimism?

Just as the ‘posh boys’ that dominate our politics in Britain can’t grasp the inescapable sufferings of poor people, so it is a real struggle for men, often, to grasp the ways they oppress in the gender order, or bully in public debates. A key feature seems often to be a less developed ability to empathise which, I would argue, is learnt in the actual practices of caring which women do more. Particular ideologies further cover up these blank spots in immediate experience, as when it is argued that women are now ‘equal’, and men instead are oppressed.

So to change things for the better I believe there have to be particular practices, which involve critical thinking not only among women but also among men. And there is indeed a long history of men’s politics of different kinds. It has sometimes been articulated through pacifism and the peace movements, sometimes through ‘dissident sexualities’, sometimes through questions of men’s health and wellbeing. Often from at least the late nineteenth century onwards, it has been in direct response to a contemporary feminism. Similarly there is considerable academic research in ‘men and masculinities’, a field with its own classic references by now, as in the work of R.W.Connell. And the most promising forms of men’s politics are not limited to directly serving men’s immediate interests (such as genuine unfairness in child custody law) but address ways that men can change to the benefit of both men and women, thereby modifying the oppressive aspects of the gender order.

It’s important to research, write and debate not just the things that are wrong but also the alternatives that are developing, often unrecorded, in people’s everyday lives. If we are interested in building an alternative future, we should be specially curious about the cases that are in tension with the norms or lie outside the population sampled  - the many men who are not criminal or violent for instance. Or we might want to look in closer detail at the contradictions and personal difficulties of men caught up in hegemonic masculinities, their motives in fact to change. This sort of research, often ‘ethnographic’ or even auto/biographical in style, is good at getting close to the contradictory realities which are people’s everyday lives.

In my immediate circle of family and friends, for instance, I experience great diversity of gendered relations in the household, all very different from the model I inherited from my ‘aspirant’ parents. These fresh arrangements nibble away, in practice, at the premises of separate spheres and patriarchal relationships. Often they occur because people love and respect each other and want to make their relationships work under difficult practical circumstances, though this is often premised on broadly feminist assumptions. Everyone benefits from removing sources of conflict and unfairness. Where boys (and girls) are growing up in such innovatory contexts they will have a very different modeling than men like me had from our own parents. So change will come. It is happening anyway, but in dispersed ways and therefore not generalised as a movement or a tendency. Moreover it is only when we look at the actual diversity of practice – at the range not the norm – that we also start to doubt the more simplistic versions of biological determinism.

Especially important to me is the possibility of change for older men. I have been involved in an ‘Ageing Men’s Group’ since the 1990s. Our project is precisely to explore how ‘ageing men are changing men’. One conclusion is that retirement or semi-retirement from waged work– has allowed us to redefine relationships with partners in ways that are more equal and also enabled more caring relationships with children, grandchildren, male friends and others. We have also learned that it is possible to redefine relationships between men, in less competitive and anxious ways. Influenced again by feminist ideas and practices, we have constructed a small male public in which it is possible to be less secretive about life’s problems and more accepting about our differences. Around the group there is also a network of friendships, sustained by meetings, phone calls or the Internet. I have learned, perhaps for the first time to trust other men, even in a collective context.

We meet four or five times a year, always have a ‘go-round’ to exchange stories of our lives and then usually tackle a specific theme associated with masculinity and/or ageing. These themes have included death, dying and palliative care, relationships with partners, gender ambiguity, ageing bodies and sexualities, caring roles, and latterly – and more grandiosely perhaps - the urgent search for alternative social and gender forms, alternative that is to the neo-liberal deformations. It may be that older men and women can make, are making, a specific contribution here. We are not only active members of civil society organisations of many different kinds, but may also play a part in imagining and realizing a better and more hopeful social future.


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