I waded into his bedroom to see what was going on and discovered that one of the boys had somehow accessed some very disturbing footage on his phone of women in various states of distress.
I didn’t want to look too closely, but it was clearly violent pornography. This was a bunch of 10 and 11-year-old boys, all from decent families.
When you have a son, you need a strong stomach to withstand the slings and arrows of daily life. This, however, was new and deeply disturbing. I quickly identified the culprit, marched him out of the room, phoned his parents and told them to come and pick him up.
I know from first-hand that if we have any hope of tackling violence against women and girls, we have to tackle the toxic masculinity that is taking root before children even leave primary school.
It’s definitely time to call out pornography; parents should never excuse a prurient interest as ‘just a phase’. One thing leads to another and social media has brought a whole new dimension to the situation.
Don’t get me started about how young girls, like my 15-year-old daughter, Lizzie, feel objectified and judged. I can’t repeat some of the things I’ve seen and heard about how teenage boys wreak ‘revenge’ on those who snub their advances or end a relationship.
A difficult conversation perhaps. However, talking to our sons about respect is surely far easier and less painful than watching them grow into young adult men who see nothing wrong in intimidating women and girls.
Not all young men take verbal abuse to the violent level, but that is not the point. The intent to frighten, harass and subjugate is planted, and so much modern male-oriented culture heaps fuel on the fire.
As well as freely available pornography, there are a hundred reasons why so many of our young men fall victim to the dangerous stereotype; results-driven schooling which shuts them out of debate and hearing alternative viewpoints, growing up with the wrong kind of ‘strong’ male role model in the family, certain kinds of music and ‘street’ style, featuring women only as disposable adornments, and fear for their own future in a world where they can’t find a place.
We can’t shut our sons off from any of this, but we can teach them to recognise that there are boundaries. It is all about respect, in short. And this is the key.
It’s bandied about as the watch-word of our time, but when it comes to men dealing with women, respect is in dwindling supply. If only the ‘respect’ which is at the heart of the demand for inclusivity and fair representation of ethnic minorities could be extended to women and girls.
And if only this could somehow be melded with the old-fashioned kind of respect which many men still do hold dear; my husband, for instance, still insists on walking road-side of the pavement, to protect me from what, I ask – passing stage-coaches?
I find it touching, but I also find it heartening that he has taught my son, Jack, to always cross the road should he find himself walking behind a female on a darkened street, to avoid alarming her.
I am a realist; we live in a world of men and women and we can’t avoid interaction. To attempt to police that would be to attempt to control human nature itself.
Dare I say this? When I was younger – much younger – any cat-calling I received was of course, mortifying, but without the nasty, humiliating undertow we see and hear now.
If a girl refuses to “smile love” today, she’s likely to receive a barrage of four-letter abuse which might make her think twice about ever leaving the house again. I don’t want my daughter to have to face this as a young woman out on her own.
I hate to say this, but we witness a horrible feeling that as women and girls, we are increasingly, barely tolerated by a certain kind of man. If Lizzie and I are out together we almost always notice it; in the rudeness of (some) male drivers, their eye-rolling at traffic lights, their impatience in the queue at the supermarket or petrol station. It festers like a raging anger just waiting to explode, meted out to any female who dares to cross their path.
And sadly, we know where that leads. Jess Phillips, Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, has torn into the Government’s plans to install patrols in West End bars and nightclubs to identify predatory and suspicious men.
She is right to do so. Not only because it’s both a knee-jerk and pitifully limited response – not least in geographical terms – but also because it is missing the point by miles. As a country, we should focus our efforts on prevention as well as protection. And that must surely begin at home.
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