Illustration by Gregori Saavedra

After revelations of misogyny within the police, how can we tackle toxic masculinity?

Misogyny doesn’t start with sexual violence, but subconscious cultural norms. If we want to root out toxic masculinity, we need to treat the problem at its source
March 3, 2022

Men are having to recalibrate themselves to a changed world. Previously well-established gender roles are being eroded. More women are speaking out publicly about being abused by powerful men. Issues suchas the gender pay gap, maternity leave and childcare costs are firmly on the political agenda. The patriarchy is being challenged.

Yet in other areas it feels as if women have made significantly less progress. A residual fear of male violence still inhibits the freedom of many women, even in progressive liberal democracies such as Britain. The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer has unleashed a series of dreadful revelations about toxic misogyny in the police. On 1st February, the police watchdog discovered that officers based mainly at Charing Cross Police Station in central London had shared messages about rape and hitting women. In its report, which spanned the period between 2016 and 2018, the Independent Office for Police Conduct said it believed the incidents were “not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples.’”

As the evolutionary psychologist David Buss wrote in his recent book Bad Men: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment and Assault, men’s sexual violence towards women is “the most widespread human rights problem in the world.”

Conversations about masculinity on social media are frequently crude and reductive, dominated by mutually opposing camps. The #MeToo movement to call out sexual harassment has tended to focus on claiming high-profile scalps rather than cultural change. And this movement in turn has provoked a belligerent backlash from some men who view gender equality as an existential threat.

The great majority of men are not abusers. Yet it is overwhelmingly men who resort to violence in their dealings with others, and women have long found themselves on the receiving end.  

Those who commit the very worst crimes are often under no illusions about their vile acts. But a much larger proportion of the violence experienced by women comes at the hands of, or goes unchallenged by, ordinary men who have been socialised into misogynistic beliefs. 

These beliefs can be inculcated in childhood. A turbulent home life can set young men on the path to dangerous behaviours. I speak here from personal experience; I grew up without a father. This lack of a stable male figure in my life led me to seek out alternative role models elsewhere. Sometimes this took on a destructive edge: I hung out with older boys and experimented with drugs; I dropped out of school and was very nearly radicalised into what was then the nascent “manosphere”—online communities of men that are frequently accused of harbouring misogyny.

It’s important that as a society we better understand the social forces that amplify dangerous stereotypes which appeal to boys and young men, rather than seeing violence as something that’s simply inevitable—a by-product of “bad men” to be punished after the fact.

Gendered codes of behaviour create a societal framework. In this framework, instances of what is called “toxic masculinity” frequently go unchecked. Most men would never dream of cornering a female co-worker by the photocopier. But how many of us men inadvertently contribute to a cultural ecosystem in which abuse is tolerated, in which four-fifths of young women say they have been sexually harassed in public places? Do we intervene when we see harassment and abuse taking place? Do we speak up at a bar when a male friend isn’t taking no for an answer? 

“Most of us would like to think we would do something when we were faced with challenging situations. But the reality is that, more often than not, we don’t,” Graham Goulden, a retired Scottish police officer, tells me over the phone.

Goulden is the founder of Cultivating Minds, a male-focused programme that trains young men to overcome the inhibitors that let sexist behaviour go unchallenged. Graham runs training in schools, colleges, workplaces, in prisons and with the police, as well as with sports teams. 

“If your mates are saying something derogatory about a new member of staff at work, or a woman in a bar, or their wife or their girlfriend, find the moral courage to say, ‘hey, that’s not right.’ Use your friendship to connect with the individual,” says Graham. The point is to move men from passively standing by to actively intervening when they see others engaging in derogatory or abusive behaviour towards women, however insignificant it might seem. 

Some men might not think that such behaviour is a big deal. Yet the horrific crimes we read about in the newspapers are often preceded by more prosaic manifestations of misogyny and abuse.

“We know that violence often evolves into other forms of violence,” says Goulden. “Look at Wayne Couzens. He just didn’t go one day and commit what he did, there would have been red flags or warning signs.”

Before he carried out the abduction, rape and murder of Everard, Couzens was reported more than once for other sexual offences while serving as a police officer. Yet nothing happened. Magic FM DJ Emma Wilson, who believes Couzens exposed himself to her in 2008, said police “laughed in her face” when she first reported the incident. 

This represents a failure of the justice system that is all too common—and is part of the reason why so many sexual crimes go unreported. Only around 15 per cent of men and women who experience sexual violence report it to the police.

Culture has a lot to answer for, too. It seems clear that sexist behaviour was tolerated among male police officers who worked with Couzens; rather than speaking up about red flags, male colleagues nicknamed him “The Rapist.” Perhaps at the time this was viewed as just “banter” by those who took part. Now a young woman is dead.

“You know, he [Couzens] was the guy that invaded the space of women. That’s culture,” says Goulden. “If we just wait for the physical act, for sexual acts of violence to take place, it’s too late.”

As well as drawing attention to failures within the police, the Everard case sparked a wider debate about masculinity and male conduct. “It felt like there was a shift,” Michael Conroy, founder of Men at Work, tells me. “I think there was a leap in terms of the number of people talking about it.”

Men at Work is an initiative that provides one-day training sessions designed to help boys and young men to talk about masculinity and problematic male behaviour. The project is aimed at creating “awareness of the relentless social conditioning [and] expectations that boys and young men take on for themselves.” 

This “social conditioning,” as Conroy describes it, can create a notion of manhood that is both restrictive and harmful. “You know, be dominant, don’t cry, get laid, be the boss—those kinds of things are constantly being fed back from boys and young men in the work that I’ve been doing.”

Conroy has written a manual that equips teachers and youth workers to have conversations with adolescent boys about evolving concepts of masculinity. For example, what does it mean today to be respected as a man? What does this tell us about the culture we are immersed in? 

“Why do we give status to [certain] men? And why do we desire that?” Conroy asks rhetorically. “It’s about being aware that sometimes communities [or] groups of friends can be reinforcing negative norms.” 

While Conroy believes we have “progressed on lots of fronts,” he sees movement in the other direction when it comes to contemporary culture. 

“The fact that the porn industry is de facto sex education for a large majority of young people is a cause for concern,” says Conroy. “I’ve just been talking to a lot of health workers this morning about their caseloads… And they were all talking about the impact of porn, earlier and earlier, in peer-on-peer abuse.”

Many women suffer at the hands of  “ordinary guys” you might go for a pint with, that you probably work with

There is evidence that young men are absorbing harmful gender stereotypes directly from pornography. A recent study found that almost a quarter of 13- to 14-year-olds agreed that “seeing online pornography had… led me to believe that men should act in certain ways during sex.” And young women are often expected to submit to the desires shaped by porn. A 2014 survey found that three-quarters of young women agreed that “pornography has led to pressure on girls and young women to act a certain way” during sex.

Yet it can be difficult for parents and carers to talk to their children about sex. “There’s a huge number of parents and carers who are not tech savvy. But they also don’t know how to have the conversations with their kids,” Conroy tells me.

Many parents and caregivers still don’t believe they need to. According to a recent survey of parents and their children, three quarters of parents felt that their child would not have encountered pornography online. Yet according to the children questioned in the survey, just over half of 11- to 13-year-olds reported that they had viewed pornography, rising to two-thirds of 14- and 15-year-olds.

Meanwhile, young boys are reaching maturity in an increasingly “pornified” culture (Conroy’s words) that teaches them to view women as sexualised objects. “We remember the magazines on the top shelves. That’s gone. Everything is online. Stuff that would never have even made it into magazines is absolutely ubiquitous,” says Conroy.

When I was a teenager, my parents never talked to me about sex. They found the subject too embarrassing and left it to school. Yet I was fortunate enough to grow up before online pornography became ubiquitous. Today, young men often encounter pornographic images on their smartphones long before they sit through sex education classes. Which is why Conroy tries to get parents, carers and others who work with young men to start having conversations about what they encounter online—and what it is teaching them about women and girls— early.

While stranger attacks and murders make the news, a majority of violence against women is perpetrated by current or former intimate partners. Domestic abuse campaigners anticipated an increase during lockdown. Between April 2020 and February 2021, calls to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 60 per cent. 

Referrals “went through the roof,” says Maria Cripps, national development manager for Cranstoun, a charity that offers support services for those experiencing abuse. “If you’ve been stuck in that house with that person 24/7, you’re not getting that break. So the referral is going to come in much quicker.” 

It remains unclear whether domestic abuse was increasing prior to Covid, because a majority of it still goes unreported. Only 18 per cent of women who experience partner abuse reported it to the police in 2018. 

“[Lockdown] shone a light on [the fact that] we were already in a pandemic. It was called domestic abuse,” Cripps tells me over the phone.

Cranstoun provides a 24-week male perpetrator programme with a focus on heterosexual male-to-female violence. Men are often referred to it by social services following a domestic incident. 

“We use cognitive behavioural therapy and motivational interviewing, but what probably has the biggest impact is psychodrama. We roleplay the incidents that they describe, and we get them to [act out] alternatives. And we talk about how they think and feel about what’s going on.”

Cripps is keen to stress that these sessions are not just about “anger management,” but gender. She says men “have an expectation that because they’re the male in the relationship, the female is responsible for his emotional health work. So if I [as a man] feel like crap, you’re supposed to make me feel better.”

The sessions—done in groups in which perpetrators are encouraged to talk about their behaviour and “show the vulnerabilities,” as Cripps puts it—employ subtle techniques to encourage men to question their attitudes towards gender. “There’s always two facilitators, one female and one male. The female facilitator tends to be more assertive and the male facilitator tends to be more gentle. The idea is to show that she’s in charge, and he’s OK with it. That you don’t need to be an alpha male that beats your chest. You can be a gentle man and still be a man.”

Cranstoun supports victims but also challenges perpetrators to take responsibility for their behaviour. Cripps calls this approach “empathy without collusion.” She is quick to stress that trainers don’t condone bad behaviour. “If we don’t believe in behavioural change, then what we should do is just build lots of big supermax prisons,” she says. 

Couzens may have been a monster, yet many women suffer at the hands of “ordinary guys you might go for a pint with, that you probably work with,” as Cripps puts it.

“There’s this stigma with society that [those who abuse women] are the worst men on the planet,” she tells me. “[But] they’re not these monsters in society. They’re monsters at home at times with their partners, but often others would never know… They weren’t born perpetrators. It’s a variety of influences that puts them into that box,” she tells me.

While a two-parent family may be the ideal—absent fathers are a frequent talking point among conservative commentators, and not entirely without foundation—in my own life, growing up without a father was better than growing up with a bad or abusive one. As Cripps tells me, the young men she is most concerned about often come from backgrounds where violence is part of the furniture at home.

“I mean, people will talk about [the negative influence of] gangster rap and violent games, and I don’t believe any of that. I think kids that grow up in secure homes can play a violent game, realise it’s only a game and actually get bored of it and go on to something else.”

But Cripps firmly believes in the power of change when it comes to offering signposts to men who grew up in less stable environments. “I love getting a young guy through the group. And even if they don’t complete [the training], or they only do half of it, it still plants the seed, it still changes you.”

Men’s rights activists tend to frame debates on masculinity as a “battle of the sexes,” a zero-sum struggle between a patriarchal society and a “gynocentric” one. Yet as many feminists have long argued, men too can benefit from dropping prescriptive gender roles. “These men’s rights groups spend all their days criticising women and feminism, [but they] don’t get off their backsides and do the work that’s needed,” says Goulden. “Because just now, masculinity is being defined by the worst behaviours that we [men] seem to accept.”

Culture is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing toxic male behaviour. Indeed, it would be utopian to assume that those who commit the most horrific crimes—like Couzens—can be reformed through a shift in cultural attitudes. But lower levels of abuse are influenced by prevailing cultural norms, particularly around gender.

“Looking at violence as a continuum… if you have rape and sexual assault at the top of the pyramid, it’s what’s underneath that supports it. That’s culture,” says Goulden.

Culture is something we can change, albeit slowly. By freeing ourselves from the oppressive straitjacket of gender, hopefully, over time, men can do our bit to create a society that is more hospitable to women.