E Jane Dickson: Men need to get over their notions of the 'gentler sex'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's not the equality we dreamed of for our daughters. The flintiest feminist heart will scarcely be cheered by this week's news that the number of women arrested for violent crime – traditionally considered the "preserve" of young males – has more than doubled in eight years.

Annual figures released by the Ministry of Justice show that, for the first time, "violence against the person", which encompasses everything from "happy-slapping" to knife attacks and homicide, has overtaken shoplifting as the most common offence committed by women in the UK. In girls between the ages of 10 and 17, violent crime has risen by 25 per cent in just three years.

It's a shocking statistic. Somewhat less shocking is the scandalised reaction of the Right, which to a man – and it is almost always a man – deplores the rise in "ladette" culture' (generally characterised as "sexual equality gone mad") for all the world as if packing a knife along with the lipstick in your Saturday-night handbag were the natural consequence of female suffrage. It matters little that violent crime committed by women remains hugely less significant, both in incidence and severity, than violent crime committed by men; the idea of the "gentler sex" lashing out remains culturally explosive.

We like to think that gender relations have come on a bit since Shakespeare's time, but Katharine's capitulation in The Taming of The Shrew ("Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth?... But that our soft conditions and our hearts/Should well agree with our external parts...") still gets a big "hello" in the 21st-century press. There is, after all, little to hold readers' interest in a double-page spread of young, drunk men making dangerous fools of themselves. Young girls falling out of their tops while they pee in the gutter and smash each other's faces is altogether more interesting.

It is, of course, easier to focus on a small subset of crime figures, to wonder "what's the matter with women these days?" and pass the metaphorical port, than it is to address the nature and causes of violent crime in toto. Crime statistics – and the reporting thereof – are notoriously slippery, with a treacherous gap between the number of offences and the number of "successful" arrests. There is considerable political pressure on police to improve their clean-up rate on violent crime ( with a published quota for 2007-08 of some 1.2 million offences). It may be sexist, but is it wholly implausible to suggest that it is less of a strain on man-power to fill up the cells with plastered girls on a Big Night Out Gone Wrong than it is to wade into the middle of a full pitch gang battle? This is not entirely a criticism. Were I the mother of said plastered girl, I'd be a whole lot happier to see her brought home in a squad car – but it's a consideration.

Because the answer to "what has happened to Britain's women?" seems staringly obvious. Drink has happened to women. Alcohol in unprecedented quantity and availability. Women are drinking more and they're drinking younger. It's not exactly a revelation that women are generally less able to "hold their drink" than men, but a recent comparative study of male/female endocrinology carried out in the US suggests that while an immoderate intake of alcohol effectively lowers the level of testosterone (the hormone associated with aggressive behaviour) in men, an equivalent amount of alcohol doubles testosterone levels in women.

Clearly there are other factors at play (not least the constant assertion of "status" which underpins gang structure for both sexes), but it scarcely seems sufficient for the Conservative think-tank Civitas to add female aggression to the cultural pile-up laid at the door of "family breakdown". And it is at best ill-timed for David Cameron to call for children to be introduced, early, to alcohol in the home (because when he was in his teens, none of his acquaintance suffered from the odd glass of sherry).

Maybe one day Cameron and his ilk will tumble to the fact that their insanely privileged experience is neither useful nor universal. In the meantime a more systemic, less judgemental and frankly less excited approach to the question of why young women are knocking 10 bells out each other is required (and if the link between alcohol and female violence is even half way proved, it seems like a handy place to start).

Aggression, as we never tire of telling our children, is not the answer. It is almost certainly a response.

Comments