Knife crime and masculinity

Forget single mums and absent fathers - the current spate of knife crime can be traced back to the so-called 'real man', argues Jennifer Drew

, 18 July 2008

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


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


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?


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


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 changing

definitions 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

Have Your say

Comments are closed on this post


  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds