Wed 22 September 2021

As part of her Why Masculinity Matters series, Hardeep Matharu speaks to Frances Crook, chief executive of the UK’s oldest prison reform charity, about why masculinity must be discussed by those in power if we are to effectively address crime.

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“The causes of crime and disorder are many and often complex”, wrote the man charged with independently inspecting the effectiveness of policing, last month.

“They include social dysfunctionality, families in crisis, the failings of parents and communities, the disintegration of deference and respect for authority… alcohol, drugs, a misplaced and unjustified desire or determination to exert power over others, envy, greed, materialism and the corrosive effects of readily-available hard-core pornography and the suppression of instincts of revulsion to violence.”

Sir Tom Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, went on to say that “very high proportions” of those in our prisons are “unwell, uneducated, undervalued, and justifiably angry… many have suffered or witnessed domestic violence or abuse. Many more have severe and chronic mental ill-health…  And many have no sense of self-worth, feel hopeless, lost and abused… They believe they have nothing to lose.”

They are also, mainly, men.

Masculinity is seldom part of the discourse on the causes of crime in our society. It is not explicitly referred to by those in positions of power and its discussion is not generally put forward when considering solutions. 

Frances Crook believes that must all, urgently, change.

For the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, masculinity must be discussed alongside the other factors which contribute to criminal behaviour, and the intersectionality between them unpicked. 

That – according to the latest Government statistics – 95% of those in prisons in England and Wales are men is sidestepped is a very curious omission indeed, she believes.

Crook, the irony of whose name can never be sidestepped, says she has consistently raised masculinity as a relevant issue for policy-makers to grapple with over many years – she has been chief executive of the Howard League for 33 – and is “amazed” that there has been little to no uptake.

“Broadly speaking, men and women both suffer poverty, mental health problems, addiction and yet it is the men that are committing the crimes, not the women,” she tells me.

“It’s interesting that everyone talks about ‘people’, when really what they’re talking about is men. Whereas, when there’s women who are [committing crimes], they’re identified as women. If we don’t name it, we can’t understand it.”

Crook, who describes herself as a “1970s feminist”, says she believes there is a “tacit conspiracy” not to mention and dissect masculinity “because men run the world”.

“We’ve just got to start saying it and then we can say ‘what is going wrong here?’ Why are men sexually assaulting women on the Tube? Why are the victims of knife crime in London almost all men, who are likely to be victims of men?

“What is it about masculinity, what it is about families, is it innate? Where are things going so seriously wrong? And then we can start the next stage and say ‘how can we fix it?’ But at the moment there’s a conspiracy about not naming it.”

Contrary to those who believe masculinity is socially constructed and not biologically determined by one’s sex, Crook believes it comes down to “something innate”.

And the issue is made all the worse by the hyper-masculine environments the men who commit crimes end up in.

“Prisons are extraordinarily violent,” says Crook. “It exacerbates their violence. Prison makes men more violent because it’s the only way they think they can express themselves.”

Showing vulnerability and recognising the shame associated with their behaviour is not an option for many in jail. Last year, I spoke to Des McVey, a mental health nurse who has worked in prisons and secure units for 35 years, about the environment of incarceration. “The primary emotion in prison is shame,” he said. “It’s the least spoken about but the most debilitating.”

“Where prisons have a healthy ideology, you can have a healthy environment where prisoners can express their vulnerability,” he told me. But the toxic masculinity prisons foster – the “man up” and “grow a pair” culture – is one of the dynamics that holds many men in them back.

Reforming our jails along the lines required to make them less masculine and damaging environments may be wishful thinking – and downright hopeless at present in light of Boris Johnson’s ‘law and order’ populism – but what about other solutions?

“10,000 years ago we had the division of labour when the men would go out and kill the hairy mammoth and the women would run everything else,” Crook says. “That hunting culture, the violence of men, hasn’t really progressed but we don’t really require them to go out in hordes and kill now. Somehow, we need to harness that in a different way and in a modern society that’s a real challenge.”

She believes that men who join sports teams, such as rugby or boxing, enter a “heightened masculine, macho environment”, which may provide an outlet for their masculinity as well as other benefits, but doesn’t address the problem of how to “deal with the challenges of being a young man”.

“Women have set up women’s centres and they’ve been really successful,” Crook tells me. “I think we need something very similar for men – we need men-only spaces for young men who are struggling to find a place and struggling to understand what it is to be a young man… for them to learn how that operates. And it needs to be outside the family, the school, the workplace – they need somewhere to go where they can go and say ‘how do I handle this aggression, this confusion, relationships with women?’ There isn’t anywhere.”

Can the problems of crime be fixed without a discussion about the role of masculinity?

“They absolutely can’t,” Crooks says with immediacy. “It’s men. That’s the common denominator and we have to address that.”


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