I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
the one who remains silent while I talk,
the one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
the one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
the one who will remain standing when I die.
Juan Ramon Jimenez (translated by Robert Bly)
An old problem which hurts
A recent report on ITV News stated that the Covid-19 lockdowns have seen a surge in the number of people running outdoors to keep fit but also an unhealthy rise in the abuse faced by women who exercise on the streets. A number of elite athletes have highlighted this issue and say it's high time the harassment stopped.
This is a particular manifestation of something much bigger. It’s about many things, almost all of which sit at the door of men and yet it's women who find themselves obliged to change behaviour for their own safety. We need to change the way we think about the issue. By thinking of it as a women’s issue, the focus on accountability and responsibility shifts away from men and on to women, which as Jackson Katz put it on BBC Radio 4’s excellent Positive Thinking last week, “is a subtle form of victim blaming”.
It's primarily a matter of education, not just in the narrow meaning but in a wider community sense, both for men and women.
Young men with fragile and poorly developed egos, without decent role models, without a dignified conscience regulator, without enough constructive pastimes, are left to prove themselves to themselves and to their peers. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to impose themselves on passing women.
The likely results are trauma in their targets and sadly a complete unawareness of this damaging impact, the significance of which the men’s egos entirely ignore or discard. And the effects of trauma are still widely poorly understood – it is not that long ago that while serving in the MoD I made the case for the recognition of the existence of what was termed PTSD. Even today many doctors are poorly trained in the effects of trauma and the fact that most addiction is rooted in early childhood trauma.
Can we call it out?
And who will name and challenge this aggressive power-play behaviour? How can it be nipped in the bud?
In many situations, for another man to call out the repellent behaviour is a risky move. If he's part of the group, he's likely to be ostracised and probably bullied, if he's not then he risks being attacked by the mob. And yet in this male peer culture, silence is consent. What’s called for is self-confidence, self-awareness and courage.
But this does not address the reasons for misogynism in the first place. Let’s look at something that may well have significance.
We’ve lost touch with our roots
In times past, and still in some indigenous cultures, young men became recognised as such through a ceremony of initiation, a kind of right of passage. This process occurred outside the familiar landscape of family and friends as what was known and accustomed was left behind. The initiate entered a strange and unpredictable world while simultaneously being held within the sacred container of the community. It was the elders of the community who recognized the need to end the life of the youth, as they knew it, and ritually escort him across the threshold into a new sense of self. Initiates were often put through a series of intense ordeals such as prolonged fasting, being buried overnight, or dancing for hours until the body collapsed from exhaustion.
Death is ever-present during initiation, signalling to the initiate the gravity of the moment. These ordeals dislodged the current sense of self and radically reshaped it through encounters with vastly larger energies. Only by releasing the old forms would something possibly emerge on the other side. The initiate, in a very real sense, died and was rebirthed at the end of this process into a wider story, identity and sense of responsibility.
In the indigenous context, initiation was not meant for the individual. It had nothing to do with personal growth or self-improvement. It was an act of sacrifice on behalf of the greater community into which the initiate was brought and to which they then held allegiance. They were being made ready to step into their place of maintaining the vitality and well-being of the village, the clan, the ancestors and spirit. It was never about them, but about the continuum of generations to come.
Now we’re adrift but still seeking meaning
There is important work being done today, particularly in Australia reigniting the flame of initiation in young men, and most recently with young women also with encouraging results. However the majority of societies have only faint remnants, if any, of what were valuable contributions to the development of the male line and the culture in which they lived.
And yet many young men remain unconsciously driven to have some such experience under the guidance of an older male role model. In the UK, we see this happening with gang culture on the one hand and on the other, boxing clubs which have had a great positive impact in inner cities but have been woefully underfunded since the introduction of austerity. Others, like me, sought that sense of testing amongst comrades by joining the armed forces. I recall now the Green Beret ceremony at the end of a really arduous and tough journey of training in the Royal Marines with an appreciation of similarities that some of my ancestors may have borne.
So for most young men there are few healthy opportunities to ‘graduate’ to becoming a man. They are blamed for their bad behaviour and yet given no useful alternative whilst the Police are encouraged to get them off the streets. Some parents and schools manage to hold their young men accountable for their behaviour but there is a lack of parental guidance for many of today’s young men and this makes behaviour at school even more difficult to guide. Martin Prechtel, a thinker, writer and teacher in the search for the Indigenous soul in all people has said: “Those who don’t fight death in adolescence, are destined to live in a walking death.” This failure to confront death during initiation, dooms many of us to become agents of death, destroying life wherever we go. Any sideways glance at our culture reveals unsustainable consumption and parasitic energy, feeding off the life force of the planet.
Restoring rituals of initiation is at the heart of any meaningful cultural change.
The damage to men and the results
One of the less positive effects of feminism over the last 40 years has been a perception amongst some young men that they have become superfluous. A primary aim was to establish equal rights and legal protection for women and whilst they have far from succeeded in this yet, some sections of the female population have shown both their (justified) anger and ability to ‘do it all’, having children, succeeding in business and maintaining a home all at the same time. The traditional role of the male has been diluted for many to the extent they find it difficult to identify a valuable and worthwhile role. And a man without a role is potentially a problem for those, particularly women, around him. A man without a role feels shame and that is a corrosive emotion indeed.
According to Francis Weller, a psychotherapist, “In the absence of the village—which was the original holding environment—these times settle like sediment in our beings, taking on a feeling of overwhelm and frequently of shame. It is as if we intuitively know that someone should have responded to our distress, and when they didn’t show up, the thought fell on us like ash that it must be because of our unworthiness. It confirms our lack of welcome and belonging, reinforcing our isolation and exile.”
As described in the Observer editorial last weekend, last November the Femicide Census published a 10-year study entitled “If I’m not in on Friday I might be dead”, the words of Judith Nibbs who was beheaded by her husband of 30 years. Since 2016, and without taking into consideration the effects of the pandemic, recorded domestic abuse-related crimes have increased by 63%. Each week, nearly two women in the UK are killed by a current or former partner and the vast majority of abuse, including violence, psychological and financial control is carried out by men against women.
If we are to address misogynism such as the harassment of female runners, we need to think about all the ways that we socialise boys and men and all the ways that we define manhood. Today, the role of the media, social media including the porn industry, and religion with its orthodox extremism all combine to fill the otherwise empty space in which so many young men find themselves. Men and boys are being educated about relationships, sex and power through these channels and the messages they receive omit most that is good and wholesome.
Which brings us back to education, both at school and at home. Sadly so many young men are left to fend for themselves as opposed to being usefully occupied. And a sense of both personal responsibility and worthiness are the casualties.
There are plenty of solutions being suggested but many are short-sighted, and don’t truly address the root of the problems. The fact that today there are so few figures in the public eye who are sufficiently principled they can be regarded as good role models makes the whole situation more difficult to rebalance; you only have to look at the extreme unwillingness in politics for anyone to take responsibility and to own their errors. Our government presents also a lamentable model of bullying and dysfunctional masculine power. There are precious few worthy role models whilst at the same time, our institutions and corporations are frequently led by men whose 10-year old psyche rules the roost (a phenomenon which is often rooted in a boarding school education).
The Femicide Census counted 394 women who died outside the domestic sphere in the UK out of the total of 1,450. These women victims make up one of the main focuses of the three overarching aims of the Observer’s femicide campaign: Name it, Know it, Stop it.
Let’s be creative, and work together
How can we help to create and sustain a climate within peer cultures where abusive behaviour is seen as completely socially unacceptable? How can we transform male culture from being accepting of sexist and misogynist beliefs, to being completely unaccepting? How can we have honest and authentic conversations that lead towards healing? How can we transform our educational system so that it is primarily grounded in social and personal responsibility with focus on understanding emotions, intimacy and sexuality in relationships, and authentic communication and boundary-setting – all these as opposed to continuing with old and discredited bases which prepare children, boys and girls, for adult life not at all? In recent research, it was found that by the age of 13 or 14, over half of young people had already had some direct experience of domestic abuse or dating violence. We need to start at an early age, also bringing more male influence in at the primary level.
Men need to take up the responsibility to other men and to our sons to provide them with the tools to navigate a complex world better than maybe some of us received from our fathers and forefathers. So what might an initiation in today’s society look like?
We need to address these issues in a way in which men can see themselves and can recognise themselves without them dissolving into defensiveness; most men don't want to be cast as losers, the bad guy or an abuser. As Jackson Katz said: “Men need to get beyond the initial defensive reaction and take in what women have been saying for decades.” It’s going to take both coming together to change our culture in such a way that there really is a new atmosphere of trust, respect and understanding.
There are many wonderful examples of individuals and of organisations which are taking action. You don’t have to look too far on LinkedIn to find great initiatives. Please make this piece a really useful contribution by giving examples in the comments that you feel are making a positive difference in helping young men come through that vulnerable time of their lives more resourced, more responsible and more willing to call out their peers when they see such dreadful behaviour.
The pandemic presents us with an unprecedented chance to design a better future. Let’s do this, together.
(With thanks for their inspiration to Francis Weller, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Robert Bly, Steve Biddulph,Arne Rubinstein, Martin Prechtel, Karen Ingala Smith, Sangita Myska and Jackson Katz)