Knife crime and masculinity

knifecrime graffiti

One would need to live on another planet to escape the media’s constant preoccupation with knife crime, and particularly the numbers of teenage boys murdering other teenage boys.

But amid all this ‘moral panic’ generated by the media, there is one glaring omission and that is the gender issue. On 29 May, The Metro (a free London newspaper) ran with the front-page headline ‘Knife Crime: A Horrific Slice of Reality’. The story was about the government’s latest attempt at tackling knife crime. In an attempt to prevent young people from engaging in acts of physical violence against other young people, the government has decided to invest in a £3 million publicity campaign. This campaign will feature graphic images taken from a medical photo library which show images of what happens when a body is penetrated by a knife.

The aim of this campaign is supposed to shock young people and deter them from carrying knives. But, there are some glaring omissions. Firstly, such images will have no effect whatsoever on the teenagers and youths who carry knives, whether it is to protect themselves or to perpetrate violent acts against other teenagers and youths. Secondly, a poster campaign does not even begin to address the complex issues concerning increasing numbers of teenagers and young people carrying knives.

And then, the gender of both perpetrators and victims has been deliberately omitted. It is not ‘children’ but overwhelmingly boys stabbing and murdering other boys not ‘youths’ and most certainly not ‘teenagers’. But neither the media nor the government wishes to acknowledge this glaring omission, because to do so would be to acknowledge the problem is not gender neutral.

Instead, we are being subjected, not only to a media moral panic, but also simplistic claims by both government and media that parents are supposedly responsible for the numbers of boys murdering other boys. Obviously parents are not controlling or supervising their ‘children’ (meaning of course boys) sufficiently and are therefore responsible for this latest spate of violent crime. The term ‘parents’ does not in fact refer to both mothers and fathers, but rather mothers. Responsibility for childcare is predominantly seen as the preserve of women, and very quickly I am hearing claims that mothers are to blame for not controlling their children’s (meaning sons’) behaviour.

We are hearing demands that mothers, yes mothers, but not fathers are expected not only to monitor their children’s (sons’) movements and behavior 24/7 but also check their children’s’ (sons’) pockets before they leave the parental home, to see if they are in possession of a knife or knives.

If it was not a serious matter, such a demand would be dismissed as either a nonsensical idea or, more importantly, society abdicating all responsibility for the complexities and reasons for male-on-male violence.

But society and government prefer simplistic answers and, as always, there must be a subordinate group available for the male-dominant group to blame and hold accountable.

Since masculinity is sacrosanct and cannot be critiqued, we can always fall back on scapegoating women, or rather in this particular instance mothers. Obviously these boys are out of control. Blaming individual mothers for teen boy perpetrators enables society to ignore that this issue is a male problem not a female one.

Note that whenever we hear parents being made responsible for their boys’ behaviour and blamed for ‘allowing’ their boys to commit acts of violence upon other boys, this does not in fact refer to mothers and fathers, but rather single mothers. Single mothers, as we all know, are supposedly selfish, self-centered and the vast majority are claiming welfare benefits rather than seeking employment. Likewise we are constantly bombarded with the claim that boys, but not girls, need ‘male role models’ in order to learn how to become a ‘real man’. Girls, we presume, need no role models because being female means their sole purpose is to become men’s sexualised and disposable commodities. It is not surprising that so many boys are committing male-on-male violence, given these ‘single mothers’ are refusing to live with their biological fathers, whose presence would ensure the wayward son/sons are sufficiently supervised and learn via their father how to become a ‘real man’.

The media is replete with images of violent adult men who commit acts of sexual violence against women and girls and who also engage in brutal male-on-male violence

No-one, it would appear, questions just what qualities make a ‘male role model’ apart from the biological aspect. But, at the same time, femaleness in itself continues to be devalued and dismissed because anyone female rather than male is believed to be an inferior human being. Yet, despite a mother being female, she is supposedly innately endowed with power and the ability to control and supervise her son’s behaviour and male indoctrination. This is what patriarchy believes and therefore it must be true despite evidence to the contrary. As I have already stated, a boy’s socialisation into adopting narrow definitions of masculine behaviour do not occur via the mother supervising and teaching her son how to become an adult male. All boys learn what society considers to be ‘real manhood’ via a variety of methods and these include a boy’s peer group, schools, culture and the media. The media does not indoctrinate boys into believing that male-on-male violence is acceptable and normal, rather it reinforces and mirrors what our patriarchal society believes is masculinity.

One wherein boys are expected not to accept being disrespected or insulted by an inferior being who is female, since males according to our patriarchal society are the only real humans. Boys learn that certain behaviours, beliefs and ideas are ‘masculine’ whereas others are ‘feminine’ and therefore inferior. Most importantly, boys learn they must on no account show or adopt any behaviour which is considered ‘feminine’. Boys are supposedly tough, independent, adventurous and always ready to physically fight another boy or girl who disrespects or insults their ‘innate manliness’.

The media is replete with images of violent adult men who commit acts of sexual violence against women and girls and who also engage in brutal male-on-male violence. Although these images are often presented as fantasy, they do reinforce what patriarchy believes to be ‘real masculinity’. Adult males are expected to be strong, tough, independent and powerful. Real males are those who are not homosexual or demonstrate any trait or behaviour which is considered to be ‘effeminate’ or feminine. Real men dominate and control less powerful men and all women and girls. Real men are always ready and willing to engage in male-on-male violence in order to prove to other men they are not ‘girls’ and are worthy of being called a ‘man’. This is what boys routinely see depicted within the media in all its forms – a very narrow and hegemonic ideology of masculinity, rather than multiple depictions of masculinity which include depictions of boys and men seeing, treating women, girls, boys and men as diverse individuals with differing traits, characteristics and sexual identities.

Imagine then, what would happen if we suddenly had an outbreak of girl-on-girl violence – the media would have no hesitation in claiming girls were out of control, society must do something to stop all this female violence being committed against other females. Feminism is to blame for this outbreak. So why no mention of the gender of both perpetrators and victims of knife crime? Could it be that gender is now defined as referring to females and not males?

The gendered identity of knife crime victims and perpetrators has been carefully obscured

Claiming mothers alone are responsible for their sons’ violent actions is an adroit way of simplifying what are in fact complex issues as to why so many boys are committing these crimes. Unfortunately women and girls are never accorded this privilege of having their gender-identity hidden. Instead we are constantly confronted with claims that young women who engage in binge drinking are supposedly responsible for men raping and sexually assaulting them. Yet again, twisted logic is being used to not only deflect male accountability, but also demonise women and girls’ behaviour, because it supposedly deviates from normal, male-defined feminine-appropriate behaviour.

Enver Solomon, deputy director of The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, has spoken out about knife crime and he does not hold mothers responsible for their sons’ violent crimes. Solomon, in an interview with The Guardian, says “the majority of children are carrying pen-knives not machetes”. Solomon goes on to say that society needs to focus on social conditions such as social exclusion, deprivation and lack of opportunities for young people. “The focus should not be on enforcement, but rather on opportunities for kids, through youth support services, peer mentoring schemes and employment opportunities for school-leavers.”

Solomon is half correct, but he too has elected to ignore the issue of hyper-masculinity and how this plays a crucial role in perpetuating male on male violence. Not until the final paragraph of this article do we learn Solomon was in fact discussing boys not girls. So once again the gendered identity of knife crime victims and perpetrators has been carefully obscured.

Unless we examine how boys and men are socialised into what is often termed hegemonic or hyper masculinity, we cannot possibly begin to understand the knife crime, which is increasingly being portrayed by popular culture as ‘real manhood’ and behaviour all boys should aspire to imitate. Our culture is increasingly a violent one, wherein male-on-female violence is not only the norm, but is so normal it escapes media attention. Only when there is a particularly horrific and sensational case of male-on-female violence does it attract media attention. Even when such cases are reported, they are treated as isolated individual acts of male deviancy rather than a continuum of how boys continue to be socialised into narrow hegemonic masculine roles. On no account must we make the link between the dominant notions and promotion of masculinity, wherein misogyny and macho behaviour supposedly denotes a ‘real man’.

We should care more about how boys are socialised into what it means to be an adult male, rather than focusing on ‘manhood’ which supposedly defines males. Women too are socialised into ideologies of appropriate ‘femininity’, but ‘womanhood’ is never used to define adult females.

Just as girls and women are increasingly being portrayed and represented as men’s sexualised commodities, not individual diverse human beings, so boys and men are being portrayed as violent hyper masculine males

So why then are we supposedly experiencing an epidemic of teenage boys knifing other teenage boys? One answer is how popular culture constantly bombards both boys and girls with images of hyper-masculine males who are supposedly ‘real men’ because they dominate, exert power and control over other males who are perceived to be less masculine. These images of hyper-masculine males express their contempt for women and girls by dominating, controlling and restricting women and girls’ behaviour. “Millions of boys take cues from television programmes and films about what is masculine and feminine and how ‘cool’ members of their generation are supposed to act,” said Jackson Katz in The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women And How All Men Can Help.

Irrespective of whether or not a father is present within a boy’s home life, the most important messages boys learns about what supposedly constitutes being a ‘real man’ are from his male peer groups. Both boys and men too constantly seek affirmation of their manhood from their male peers. They watch for cues in respect of where within the male hierarchy they fit in, how they should dress, carry themselves and interact with other, what they should say or not say in various social situations and of course not forgetting how ‘real men’ treat women, Katz said.

Hyper masculinity is the belief that, in order for a boy to be a ‘real man’, he has to be tough, heterosexual (no homosexual leanings here) and have achieved his male peers ‘respect’. Any ‘disrespect’ from his male peers must never go unchallenged, but instead the boy has to demonstrate his masculine prowess by fighting the boy.

This is not to make the claim that films, music videos, computer games which portray physical and sexualised violence cause teen boys to commit violence against other boys. Violence has a very, very long history, but routine depictions of male-on-male violence and male-on-female sexualised and physical violence does reinforce the acceptance of male aggression and violence both against other boys as well as girls as normal male behaviour.

Given that male violence is routinely glamourised, misogyny is rampant and male sexual violence against women is the norm in our culture, it should not be surprising that increasing numbers of boys are enacting this hyper masculine misogynistic model.

Neither should it surprise us that some boys are resorting to violent acts in order to settle male-on-male disputes, allegations of disrespect and of course, enact racist views. Just as girls and women are increasingly being portrayed and represented as men’s sexualised commodities, not individual diverse human beings, so boys and men are being portrayed as violent hyper masculine males.

Within male hierarchy, boys and men must always demonstrate and prove their supposed innate ‘masculinity’ by dominating, controlling and ridiculing other boys and men who are deemed not to be ‘real men’

What we need to recognise and understand is that media depictions of male violence reinforce cultural myths concerning what is perceived to be normal and innate masculine behaviours. All boys are supposedly innately sexually aggressive and prone to acts of violence. Any boy who refuses to fight other boys or does not condone violence is perceived to be a ‘fag’ or worse ‘a girl’. Since masculinity is the opposite of femininity, any boy who does not conform to hyper masculinity must by default be a ‘feminine boy’.

Instead of scapegoating parents, and in particular mothers, our society needs to take a long, hard look at how both boys and girls are being socialised into narrow ideologies of what it means to be a man.

For too long ‘manhood’ in itself has been proclaimed as the ideal goal for all boys. But we need to change the dominant definition and ideology of masculinity, because hyper masculinity plays a major role in male-on-male violence.

We must stop wringing our hands and saying ‘what is wrong with kids today’ – instead we need to ask tough questions such as ‘what is wrong with so many boys that they believe it is their right to use force, violence and ultimately commit murder in order to settle disputes, disagreements or perceived lack of respect from one boy to another boy’.

Yet it is widely believed and accepted as normal for males to punish females if they deviate from appropriate feminine behaviour, or if they disrespect the superior male. It is considered normal for men to subject women to misogynistic insults, to rape and sexually abuse them because they are women and therefore exist for the purpose of male sexual desires and needs. Within male hierarchy, boys and men must always demonstrate and prove their supposed innate ‘masculinity’ by dominating, controlling and ridiculing other boys and men who are deemed not to be ‘real men’.

It is far easier to hold individuals responsible rather than seeing the issue is one of social conditioning and media-led ideas of what supposedly comprises a ‘real man’

I recently watched a television programme about the history of police dramas. Dennis Waterman appeared on this programme and said The Sweeney was immensely popular because it portrayed male police officers as ‘real men’. Yet The Sweeney glamourised and eroticised fictional, violent, male, police officers sexually harassing women, ridiculing women and, of course, violently attacking and physically assaulting male villains.

Is this one-dimensional view of men really true, or is it a social construction of what supposedly comprises ‘real’ manhood? It should not surprise anyone that teen boys are emulating what is widely believed to be appropriate masculine behaviour.

Much research has already been undertaken on how hegemonic or hyper masculine culture does influence boys and men, but to date such research continues to be marginalised because it is perceived as ‘feminist’ and therefore biased. Instead our society continues to believe that male physical and sexual aggression is natural and normal male behaviour which is biological and/or due to the supposedly male hormone testosterone. (In fact testosterone is not male because it is present in both women and men.)

Instead, opposition leader David Cameron has called for anyone carrying a knife to be “locked up”. Yet again politicians are refusing to accept that imprisoning boys and young men simply because they happen to be carrying a knife will have no effect whatsoever on masculine behaviour and masculine beliefs. Such draconian methods hark back to the 19th century, when poor people were blamed for their own poverty, on the basis that they were supposedly ‘degenerate’. We are adopting the same tactics and strategies as the 19th century male politicians and male institutions adopted. They believed poor women and men were responsible for their appalling living conditions, so too in the 21st century we are blaming individual boys and their mothers for male-on-male violence. It is far easier to hold individuals responsible rather than seeing the issue is one of social conditioning and media-led ideas of what supposedly comprises a ‘real man’.

Male sexual and physical aggression is never innate. We need in-depth research on how popular culture influences and reinforces rigid notions of supposedly appropriate masculine behaviour

Within the last few days,, the government has announced yet more innane measures designed to supposedly prevent boys engaging in male on male violence. But of course these measures are not designed to challenge society’s belief that hegemonic masculinity is innate and unchanging. It also explains why the media wrongly claimed that four people (males) were victims of knife crime within a 24 hour period. In fact two of these crimes were committed by adult males on other adult males. Such occurences are in fact common and bear no relation to the media frenzy surrounding boys knifing other boys.

Male sexual and physical aggression is never innate and as such is subject to change. We need in-depth research on how popular culture influences and reinforces rigid notions of supposedly appropriate masculine behaviour. How popular culture impacts on both girls and boys to such an extent that misogyny, male sexual violence against women, racism and homophobia are all presumed to be ‘natural masculinity’.

Finally, not until we begin to challenge and seek ways of changingdefinitions of what supposedly passes for masculinity will we effectively begin to address the issue of both male-on-male violence and equally the common everyday male-on-female violence which is so routine it is constantly ignored. We must also challenge gender neutral language and instead categorically state the gender of perpetrators. Invisibilising male accountability ensures that male-on-male violence continues to be perceived as an individual issue and one wherein it is predominantly women and especially single mothers who are being scapegoated and blamed for our male-dominant societal ills.

Photo by meriska, shared using a Creative Commons license