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“What the hell has happened to masculinity?”

Girls, Gangs and the Unavoidable Question…

"What the hell has happened to masculinity?"

by Aston Stockdale, Political and Advocacy Officer at XLP

Despite researching the issue of Girls and Gangs extensively already, I still couldn’t help but feel shaken up by her answers; “My body and mind was breaking down. From the innocence that I had, my life was self-destructing day by day. He became so controlling, he had control of where I went, who I spoke to. Whatever he said, I did. He started hitting me but when he did, he would say sorry and bought me things to make it up to me. Two years later, I was getting punched so hard that one time I was knocked out.”

Carly (not her real name) spoke at length to me about how, whilst still at school, she had met a 20 year old gang member who “had money, a car and said that he was going to protect me, that no one was going to touch me and that if I needed anything he would give it to me”. From there though, her life spiralled out of control as she became trapped in exploitation and abuse with seemingly no one to turn to. Eventually, through coming into contact with social services after having a baby, she escaped the relationship.

Sadly though, whilst preparing the XLP and Centre for Social Justice report, I realised that it was Carly’s escape that made her story exceptional. The rest of the story is all too familiar for far too many young people. Indications point to thousands of girls being trapped in gangs, suffering physical violence, sexual exploitation and an expectation to commit criminal offences such as carrying drugs and guns and setting up other girls and gang members.

The report succeeded in raising awareness of the issue, appearing on the homepage of the BBC website and receiving coverage through all the major news outlets. Subsequently, it has been encouraging to see policy makers take on board and begin to implement some of our recommendations around identifying, accessing and helping the girls exit their gang associations.

However, since its publication and following its launch event earlier on this year, I couldn’t escape the fact that, despite progress being made, thousands of girls and young women are still suffering horrific transitions to adulthood because of the actions of boys and young men.

But we’re talking about exceptional circumstances here though aren’t we? We’re talking about an underworld of gang culture where violence and criminal activity is much more normal right?

Well yes to an extent, but young people in gangs are never born this way. They of course are responsible for their actions but they are also, at least in part, a product of their environment, their culture. Many drivers contribute to girls and boys becoming involved in gangs - family breakdown, education failure, poverty, a need for belonging etc. But amidst all this, gang members are not immune from the influence of wider culture.

So what are the messages of the wider culture? What does masculinity look like in wider society?

What does masculinity look like in this society where female friends of mine tell me that when they enter a nightclub, they fully expect to be groped by a guy at some point in the evening?

What does masculinity look like in this society where so much of ‘lad’ culture embraces rape jokes and encourages women to be seen as simply a means to sexual gratification?

What does masculinity look like in this society where 31% of the adult female population have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16?

If in the rest of society masculinity looks like this then can we be that surprised that the extreme nature of gang culture has led to this extent of abuse?

I feel very passionate that we need to support vulnerable girls currently involved in gangs. But if we are to do anything to prevent this exploitation in the first place then we must also look outside of gang culture and challenge our culture of masculinity as a whole.

What do I mean by this? Well that is up for discussion but I believe that for starters we should be declaring the following:

That being a man does not mean having an animal-esque incapability of controlling any urge we get.

Truly being a man is displaying mastery, not slavery, over our own bodies.

That strength is not an ability to dominate and control - any coward can do this with the right weapon.

True strength is an ability to take hits to our ego and reputation and yet still remain standing for who or what we care about.

That masculinity is not treating women as property that can be claimed and done with what we wish.

True masculinity is displayed through affirming women’s dignity, respecting them and displaying their worth through our actions.

Let’s reclaim masculinity from the poor cowardly ugly imitation that has invaded our society and turn it into something that is genuinely admirable, genuinely handsome and genuinely positive for men and women everywhere.

If you are interested you can read the full XLP-CSJ Girls and Gangs report here: