Sexual harassment: a silly man and DJ Sillyboy

A thoughtful PR sent me a release this morning titled Can This Video Game Teach Men to be Less Creepy when Flirting?

Bloody hell.

There’s ‘gameplay’ footage here. It’s both amusing and horrifying in equal measure. I struggle to believe anyone will actually but the game.  I’m not entirely sure it’s not a hoax. But if it’s real anyone who thinks the best way to find a partner is to sit at home playing a computer game about finding a partner will learn the key to success is not to grab a lady’s behind and instead say ‘that’s interesting’ in a droning voice. Certainly the fella behind it who styles himself a ‘controversial pick up artist’ is at best lacking self-awareness (sitting on double bed with two mute ladies who’ve forgotten to put their clothes one while apparently trying to teach men to respect women? Really??) and at worst a very silly man. I’m not inclined to give him or his Super Seducer game any further publicity.

But it set me thinking about something else I heard recently that feeds into the same theme. That sense of entitlement among men. And how it can be challenged.

And it started with Steve Wright.

As so often, when on the horns of a dilemma or struggling with a really big and complex issue Steve Wright sorts it out.

The afternoon host on Radio 2 also known as DJ Sillyboy read out one of his fatuous factoids the other day and things somehow made sense.

The ‘fact’ (usually something made up by a PR and bagging said ‘account executive’ an extra bag of gack for getting it read out on Radio 2) concerned love at first sight. The claim that 40% of men said they’d fallen in love at first sight, the figure for women was 28%.

Wrighty – who we can assume is a massive feminist due to the fact he’s the only presenter on Radio 2 that play Dua Lipa’s number one New Rules, and he plays it like every day – left the factoid hanging at that.

But somehow that silly sum, whether true or not, goes to the heart of the current debate around sexual harassment.

Men are more likely to claim to have fallen in love at first sight. Because it’s easier for men to fall in love at first sight.

Because men have entitlement.

They don’t have to worry about stuff like emotion, empathy, relationship building and such like, they just look at a woman and decide they’d like to have her.

No-one, thankfully, seems to be claiming such behaviour is innate. Or at least anyone that is can be safely dismissed as a big daft.

So when does it begin?

Almost from birth. How do I know this? Because I wrote a book about it.

The Gender Agenda, authored along with my partner, was published last summer. In it we documented every tiny difference we noticed in the way our son and daughter were treated by friends, family, society, and ourselves.

Gram by stereotypical gram it added up to a huge weight pushing children into certain gendered straitjackets.

The girls side marked by pink and passivity. The boys’ behaviour boisterous and confident – entitled, in other words.

But you don’t have to take our word for it.

The excellent pop science show No More Boys and Girls that aired on the BBC over the summer showed boys lack of vocabulary to describe their emotions and the inevitable result that they turn to violence when they can’t express themselves. Girls, routinely but not deliberately passed over when it came to answer questions in class lacked confidence. A lifetime without Lego meant most lacked the spatial awareness skills that appeared to come ‘naturally’ to their male counterparts.

But with regard to the current moves to take on sexism the vital difference is that boys are raised to look down on girls, and girls are expected to live with that.

Whilst girls can ‘trade up’ and take on traditionally male roles with relatively little comment – playing football, embracing engineering, punching their siblings – the same is not true for boys. They are trained to dismiss all that is pink, to have disdain for caring professions.

In the home kids see a clear division of labour between their parents. Research has found in every country in the world women still do much more domestic work then men, and that kids that see their mothers doing more household tasks and their fathers doing less take that as the natural way of things and repeat the pattern in their grown-up lives. When a mother is haring about doing mundane jobs like making packed lunches, ensuring there’s enough clean school uniform and hoovering she’s taking on a full time management job as well as any paid employment. It’s called the mental load, this now famous cartoon explains it perfectly. But the broader lesson is that society/men – so often they are the same thing – looks down on these tasks and, vitally, thinks it’s OK for women to do them most of the time but not men.

And a society that does not value women as much as men will always end in mistreatment, abuse, not taking women seriously when they raise issues, basically where we are now.

In the wake of Weinstein and the wandering hands scandals at Westminster women are now being listened to in a way they haven’t before. Which is obviously a good thing.

But to stop such behaviour, to prevent it happening all over again – because it will as long as the sexes remain unequal – we need to look at the very start of kids lives.

Love at first sight can provide a solution, the emotion a parent feels upon seeing their baby for the first time. And the drive to make the best possible future for them.

Treat children fairly and equally rather then shunting them into gender stereotyped silos and the belief, implicit or explicit, that one gender is better than the other and therefore entitled to more.

And adults need to model the alternative, share the domestic work and the mental load, women’s work – a phrase widely used as an insult despite feminist attempts to reclaim it – needs to become everyone’s work.

There’ll still be power imbalances, people will mistreat each other but we can work to prevent it becoming so binary and gendered.

We need new rules.



How to understand Brexit

I may have mentioned that I’m doing a new podcast series called The Brexit Breakdown. I’m making 26 episodes for The UK in a Changing Europe, a research organisation based out of King’s College London who are expert in all things Brexit.

Each week I’ll have a guest from the world of politics or diplomacy of business on to talk about what Brexit means to them and what ordinary folk need to know about the huge change that’s coming to this country. And we’re joined by a wonk from UK in a Changing Europe as a sort of on-site fact checker and to drill into the issues as required.

One of the features involves asking both the guest and the academic for a recommendation for something that folk can turn to to help understand Brexit.

I’m going to collate the recommendations here and by next summer it’ll be a sort of library of at least 52 different items that’ll explain Brexit. It’ll be more than 52 because for a start I’m going to include a bonus recommendation from a future guest who came up with a good, off beat recommendation in the lift on the way to the studio. But said something else when we got on air! See below

Here’s the list:

Episode 1

Matt Chorley, editor of the Times Red Box: Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance 

Anand Menon, director UK in a Changing Europe: Listen Liberal by Thomas Frank

Episode 2

Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield and former party chairman: watch BBC Parliament

Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe: Brexit and British Politics by Geoff Evans and Anand Menon

Episode 3

Jonathan Isaby, editor of Brexit Central: How to Lose a Referendum by Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith

Simon Usherwood, reader in politics at University of Surrey: follow Richard North and Andrew Duff on Twitter and listen to his own podcast A Diet of Brussels

Episode 4

Gisela Stuart, chair of Vote Leave and Change Britain: Create More podcast, episode 21

Catherine Barnard, professor of European law at Cambridge University: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Episode 5

John Mills, chairman of Labour Leave and chair of JML: Brexit Economics and other pamphlets by John Mills

Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at Rutherford College, University of Kent, and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House : Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley

Episode 6

Steve Bullock, former UK negotiator to the EU: follow David Allen Green, Steve Analyst Ian Dunt, Jo Maugham, Steve Peers, Kenneth Armstrong on Twitter

Helen Drake, Director, Academy of Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough London: educate yourself

Episode 7

Chris Wright, founder of Chrysalis records: the work of Peter Brookes, political cartoonist for The Times

Simon Usherwood, Deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe: follow Brussels correspondents Nick Gutteridge,  Jennifer Rankin and Matt Holehouse

Episode 8

Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham and chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations: BBC Reality Check

Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe: the work of Katy Hayward

Episode 9

Alison McGovern, Labour Campaign for the Single Market and MP for Wirral South: the work of Professor Philip McCann

Simon Usherwood, Deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe: follow spoof Twitter accounts Berlaymonster and Martini Seltzermayr

Episode 10

Nicole Sykes, Head of EU Negotiations at the Confederation of British Industry: Tony Connelly, RTE Europe editor

Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe: David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech

Episode 11

Baroness Angela Smith, shadow leader of the House of Lords: Don’t Leave me This Way by The Communards

Catherine Barnard, professor of European law at Cambridge University: Brexit and Ireland by Tony Connelly

Episode 12

Eloise Todd, CEO of Best for Britain: Monty Python’s black knight sketch

Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe: the work of Raquel Ortega and Philip McCann

Episode 13

Bernard Jenkin, MP and chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committe: study European history

Dr Alan Wager, Researcher at UK in a Changing Europe: ‘Brussels should start listening to voters’ by Danny Finkelstein

Episode 14

Gráinne Maguire, comedian: The Irish Passport podcast

Sir John Curtice, superwonk and election exit poll overlord: read UK in a Changing Europe output and follow the links

Episode 15

Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service: All Out War and Fall Out by Tim Shipman

Simon Usherwood, deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe: We Can Work It Out by The Beatles

Bonus recommendation

Steve Bullock, former UK negotiator at the EU: Just by Radiohead

Brexit Breakdown

Here, at last, is the first episode of my new podcast project. It’s called The Brexit Breakdown.

The UK in a Changing Europe, they don’t like being called a think tank (but they are a think tank), have taken me on to produce these hopefully for the next year. The idea is that they are a longer listen with guests from across the Brexit and political divides and from all sorts of other areas too – we’ve a playwright, a scientist and hopefully a comedian lined up. Episode one’s guest, for reasons, was journalist Matt Chorley from The Times.

Please listen and like, share, comment, review etc. I don’t think it’s on iTunes just yet but when it is, and it’ll be on Acast, Stitcher etc too, then, again, please review and share and all that.

It’s me on the telly again

Here I am doing a Sunday morning newspaper review with the man from the Sun on Sunday, David Wooding.

He said that 70-80% of our laws come from Brussels. I suggested that was nonsense. There was lots of Brexit talk.

And I called out the patriarchy for terrifying women about childbirth.

I was wearing the new suit my mum bought me for my birthday. Do share your thoughts on it in the comments.

Watch here:

I’ve been on Woman’s Hour!

Jane Garvey, presenter of Woman’s Hour, joins the list of heroes I have met who turned out to be just as great in real life as you’d hope – along with the likes of Glen Campbell and Graeme Garden.

When Woman’s Hour called up a few weeks ago to say they were keen to feature me and partner Ros on the programme talking about our book The Gender Agenda I was delighted. I’ve been a fan of Woman’s Hour for years, it’s an amazing example of brilliant radio – that’s why it’s run for so long. And when the producer added that they’d like to dedicate the entire episode of the programme, with it’s listenership knocking five million people, to us and our book I was astounded.

Today was the day. Ros and I headed for Broadcasting House, had our picture taken in front of a yellow screen for some reason (see above), met Jane Garvey and went on air. We gave it a bit of chit chat about the book. Then the great British public phoned in. We’d done our homework the night before, prepared for all sorts of difficult questions and issues that might come our way. We shouldn’t have worried. The Woman’s Hour audience were broadly onside with our agenda (apart from Steven, and Ros gave him what for) and told us about all sorts of examples of the ways children are treated differently according to their gender from a very young age (as if there weren’t already enough examples in the book!) It was inspiring and empowering to hear so many people who are aware of the issues and keen to do something about it.

Listen in here or download the episode –

My beard looking amazing on TV

I’ve been doing some broadcast. Which is interesting if you just like watching me on TV, but also if you should be looking for a pundit or presenter to talk/do politics. If it’s the latter then please get in touch.

First I was on BBC Parliament reviewing the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new parliament. It was a bit bright so I’m squinting slightly but on the plus side I didn’t need many takes to film it.

Here it is. I’m about 10 minutes in –

And then on Sunday night I was back reviewing the papers on the BBC News Channel alongside City AM’s Rachel Cunliffe. She’s one to watch, I suspect she’s got the drive and ability to go far. We made a decent double act with a wide variety of stories to get stuck in to. I still managed to get some feminism in at the end. (For the avoidance of doubt I said I’d be watching the tennis player we talked about because I hoped she’d win). And I’m not a vain man but I couldn’t help notice that my beard did look good during this TV appearance. Entirely through accident rather than any care I put into it.

Here’s the two review slots.


Terrorism and a fun run. There is little obvious connection apart from perhaps security concerns if it was a particularly well-attended fun run.

But a thought I had at the end of my children’s school’s fun run has grown and meandered in the month since, a month that’s been scarred by atrocities, and finally driven me to write something on a subject I’ve been meaning to tackle all year: men.

As I rounded the last bend on the Peckham Rye running course there was two people in front of me on the fun run. My shins had seized up, I’d not set a satisfactory time. And yet I found the strength – mental and physical – to sprint the last 200 yards and get past the pair ahead.

The folk I overtook thought the small crowd were cheering their effort, in fact they were cheering because I’d turned the fun run competitive for a brief moment.

Now this story is remarkably like one that Grayson Perry tells in his excellent book The Descent of Man. He’s a keen cyclist and recounts a strange urge to catch up and defeat a fellow cyclist ahead of him on a hill.

It’s a stupid masculine behaviour.

And it is stupid. Being competitive or aggressive is not particularly helpful in the game of life if you want to reproduce, it’s not some in built behaviour, as Cordelia Fine so elegantly explains in her latest book. And in the same tome she trashes the idea that men are beholden to testosterone in the way they behave.

Part of me was delighted at overtaking two fellow runners on the final stretch. Part of me was delighted that I’d made them feel silly for thinking the crowd was cheering them when it was me, or at least the race scenario I’d engendered they were hollering about. But more of me was appalled at me, a fully paid up feminist for many years now, falling foul of a daft masculine trope.

In the weeks since there’s been a string of terrorist attacks – in Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park. The attackers of course had one thing in common – they were men. And for what feels like the first time people are beginning to take seriously the masculinity element in terrorism. The links between terror attackers and domestic abuse are being exposed.

Competition and control are bits of the male jigsaw that make an ugly picture.

And there was another element that’s fed into my thinking about masculinity.

At new year I made three new year’s resolutions.

One was to be nicer to homeless people, there’s so many of them now compared to the New Labour years when the problem was all but wiped out. I now carry some loose change in my pocket ready to hand out if approached or if I see someone sleeping rough. It’s a start.

I can’t remember what the second resolution was. Probably something to do with golf.

And third I resolved to make a friend. A man friend.

My partner pointed out that I already have friends. And that’s true. But I responded by explaining that I have a healthy heart (I know this because I had my age 40 NHS MOT last year) but that doesn’t stop me trying to keep fit. My mental and physical health may be fine at the moment (and both have fluctuated over the years), but that only means that now is the time to take measures to ensure both stay that way.

And my Man Friend Project is about mental health largely. I want to interrogate what it means to be and have a friend and why men are so bad at making new ones.

One of the best ways to inoculate yourself against poor mental health is to have a support network, inevitably made up of family and friends. The evidence suggests that men with the widest support networks enjoy the best mental health. (Caveats apply of course, having lots of friends does not mean inevitably you won’t get depressed for example).

Again, referring back to Grayson Perry’s book he suggests men accumulate friends in a different way to women. While women pick up friends at school then add more at college and more at each job they have men drop friends at each stage. So when they leave school they will join a new circle at friends at university or work and take only one or two friends along with them through life. That’s certainly been my experience (but yes I know that doesn’t make it science) and when I talk to other people about this that’s backed up by their lives too.

Now, there is one reason why male mental health is a particularly tricky subject. It is something that is used by the so-called Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs – it sounds like a disease, they are one) as a trojan horse to undermine women’s rights and attack women. MRAs are broadly hateful and stupid and they regard human rights as a zero sum game – so the fact women have won more rights in recent decades means men must have lost rights. And when they are called out for the misogynists they are they respond by shouting ‘male suicide’. Because suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. That’s terrible and each one is a tragedy. But part of that statistic is to do with the all-round improvement in healthy lifestyles reducing the death toll from other causes. Male mental health is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully and considerately, not by people using it as a way to shut down debate about their motives for setting up dodgy organisations that peddle lady hate.

And what the MRAs don’t tend to flag up is that more women attempt suicide than men. It’s just men attempt suicide using different, more fatal methods. Even in this grim area there are gender differences and like in every other area they are not the product of biology.

So while MRAs tend to suggest male mental health is affected by feminism not allowing them to be ‘real men’ any more I come at the issue from the other end of the telescope. That it is the straitjacket of masculinity that causes mental health problems. That stops men reaching out to each other to become friends.

I ought to define masculinity here I guess – I suppose I mean competitiveness, aggression, a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence or at least a belief that such behaviours should not be displayed, disrespect for femininity. (And if that sounds like a list of negative characteristics that’s because it is. I’d likely define femininity in negative terms too. Both are ways of artificially simplifying the complexity of the human condition.)

And since we’re on definitions I probably ought to define friendship. But I’m still working on that one. Is a friend someone you can call up and go for a pint with? Is a friend someone you’ve known a long time? Is a friend someone you go for a pint with and know that you could tell them you were having a mental health crisis, you know, if you HAD to? Is a friend someone you’ve met and liked and they like you but you don’t know each other that well?

This is relevant here because by coincidence a few weeks ago I bumped into Julianne Marriott. Is she a friend? Or an acquaintance? We met for professional reasons, our paths have crossed since and we always enjoy each other’s company over a coffee or a drink. Though I did once stand next to her on the tube for an entire journey without recognising her so that suggests acquaintance.

Julianne is involved with the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. Here’s something bringing together two themes: terrorism and mental health – the mental health of people alone not the mental health of Jo’s killer, who was of course a man who was wicked rather than ill.

The Commission, led by Tory MP Seema Kennedy and Labour’s Rachel Reeves, is focussing on different aspects of loneliness. In our increasingly atomised society it’s a growing problem that needs to be addressed. Being alone is fine, being lonely – having no-one you can reach out to – is not.

The commission’s most recent topic has been male loneliness. When I was talking to Julianne about The Man Friend Project she invited me along to an event in a men’s shed. Not just a man’s shed, that would be really weird. The Men’s Shed movement has grown in recent years. The idea is that men, particularly middle-aged and older men get together to do something. Because men do stuff. Invariably it’s woodwork or metalwork or something like that. The theory is that while men won’t discuss their problems to another man’s face, they might do so if standing shoulder to shoulder over a lathe. If a lathe is an actual thing. I know nothing about practical things which is part of the problem with the men’s shed movement. By assuming that all men are handy and like doing stuff it panders to stereotype and seeks to treat the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. But there’s a strong case to be made that you have to deal with the world as you find it so to that end it’s admirable.

And its success speaks for itself.

The men I spoke to at the shed on an estate just north of King’s Cross clearly benefit hugely from it.

A chap called Kevin told me it gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Another bloke said he’s spent most of his life being drunk but the shed had turned his life around. But I was still a bit afraid when he said he was going to batter me for being a Crystal Palace fan because he was a West Ham follower, luckily he followed that with a toothless laugh.

Ray explained that men are hit harder when they are left on their own either by divorce or bereavement and they find it harder to ask family for help. The occasional woman stops by the shed and Ray explained that kept the swearing in check. He said the people there aren’t racist, sexist or ageist which all seemed true. But they weren’t feminist either.

I also spoke to Seema Kennedy and Rachel Reeves about the whole issue. It was noisy in the shed but here’s what they had to say:

But the men there baulked when I tried to discuss friendship and feelings. They told me I was over-thinking things. They may be right.

But there is an issue here. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness have identified men as a group that requires special attention. (Seema Kennedy in the clip says there are only two groups of people, inferring men and women but she’s either being daft or disingenuous or, my preferred option, simply didn’t understand my clumsy question. The other groups I was referring to are older people, teenagers, mothers etc.)

The MRAs have sprung up because toxic masculinity is being challenged like never before, and to me that is all for the good. Others have written more persuasively and cogently than me on this topic – see Grayson Perry, Rebecca Asher was ahead of the curve with her book Man Up and look out for Chris Hemming’s forthcoming Be A Man which might be interesting coming from someone who has turned their back on lad culture.

And analysts and commentators are drawing a very short and straight line between terror and gender.

I don’t really see the need to entertain any idea that it is sex rather than gender that drives these behaviours. Cordelia Fine has driven a coach and horses through the silly ‘pink brain/blue brain’ analysis. My own book The Gender Agenda out next month that grew from the @GenderDiary Twitter account provides a wealth of examples of the way children are directed into certain behaviours from a very young age.

So toxic masculinity is being assaulted from different angles. Mine is friendship – how men make friends, how they can make more friends, how that can help with coping with life because we all need help coping with life.

I don’t know exactly where the project goes next. Get in touch with suggestions.

When I tweeted my new year’s resolution a man tweeted back to say he’d be my friend. Which was nice. But weird. But then a lot of thinking and acting around this subject feels weird, in part precisely because I’m a victim of the masculine straitjacket myself. Should I go on man dates to make friends with strangers? If I did there would be something false about the situation. Should I identify male acquaintances and look to develop them into friends? I can only do that once I understand exactly what friendship is. (It’s the old newspaper editor’s infuriating demand: ‘I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.’)

I met a friend earlier this year for a drink and started the conversation by saying “John, are you my friend?” He spluttered into his pint glass. But he agreed that he was my friend (phew!) and we kicked around the idea that I could do podcasts with friends and non-friends with the starting point of the same question: “Are you my friend?” If you’d like to hear that then encourage me and I’ll do it.

I wonder about joining groups too. My parents generation were in all sorts of clubs like Rotary and Round Table. That certainly meant they had company, but how many of those people were friends? It’s hard to say but when my dad was in hospital recently a string of Rotarians came to visit. Even if they weren’t his friends they were a support network. But nobody has the time to be in such clubs now do they? Women do. The WI is expanding at a rate of knots suggesting younger women recognise the issue of an atomised society and are doing something about it. Why is it so much harder for men to do the same? If the Women’s Institute can regenerate why isn’t the Rotary Club a hip activity for men? And I only put this out there as a question but is it because they let women in? Such clubs were bastions of the old boys network but was it the case that they couldn’t evolve into something more modern and male because masculinity is so brittle?

So there’s the Man Friend Project. Its genesis has been wide ranging. It’s future is likely to be similarly woolly. But thanks for reading. Please get in touch with suggestions, criticisms, and ideas on how to take it forward.