The problem with crime is a problem with men

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The Independent Online
IF YOU come to my front door after dark, you will be stunned by my new security lights. They may be tough on unsuspecting dinner guests, but I feel better nevertheless. A plain old burglar alarm did not seem enough - not after three break-ins in as many years, two thefts from my car and a street robbery at knife-point.

The experts cannot agree on what causes crime. Is it 'soft' penal policies? A demoralised police force? Is it inner- city socialism? Or the capitalist greed of the shires? Isn't it time we mentioned the unmentionable? The problem we have with crime is a problem with men.

Who burgled my house, who smashed my car windows, who mugged me? Who are the joyriders, the drug dealers? Who carry the guns and wield the knives? Whom do I fear in the dark street, or when my small daughter slips out of sight in the supermarket? Not women.

In 1990, 48,100 men were found guilty of 'violence against the person' in one year, compared with 4,400 women. For sexual offences, there were 6,600 men and 100 women. For burglary, 42,100 men and 1,400 women. Women tend to specialise in theft and handling stolen goods, and in fraud and forgery - but even here men outnumber them almost four to one.

We hear people trying to explain why men commit crimes. It is because they have lost their jobs, or their hopes, or their moral fibre; because they have lost their fathers, or their fear of retribution. But these explanations skirt the big question: what is it about men as opposed to women that makes them behave like this?

When it comes to the victims of crime, police, politicians and criminologists (most of them) are becoming dab hands at gender politics. They readily consider the condition of women as objects and sufferers. Yet they seem unable to switch their focus to men, as subjects and perpetrators. Men are not in the habit of studying masculinity. They find it hard to make the intellectual leap, because they are used to thinking of themselves as people, with women as a sub-category. They imagine masculinity is a general condition, while femininity is specific.

What might they discover if they looked specifically at men? The American social theorist Charles Murray has argued that men are naturally barbaric and must be civilised through marriage and becoming breadwinners. Otherwise they will just get into trouble. The decline of the stable, two-parent family is, in his view, a major cause of rising crime.

But he misses the point. For many men, crime is a form of breadwinning. In times gone by, when the traditional nuclear family was a lot more common than today, men were still responsible for most crime.

Let us assume that it is not nature but nurture that links men with crime: the way boys are brought up to perceive themselves and others, to form relationships and ideas. Victor Seidler, one of the few British sociologists who has studied this, points out that boys are encouraged, much more than girls, to be independent and self-sufficient. 'There is nothing in boys' education that teaches them to care. You learn not to care or show that you care. It's a sign of weakness.' Thus toughened, Seidler suggests, young men may be less inclined to respect the objects of other people's care.

John McVicar, a former prisoner and a writer about crime, points to the qualities that are most encouraged in men: strength and physical courage. In almost every culture, these are the factors on which young men build their self-esteem, which are tested in rites of passage and highly prized in war. The same qualities sustain criminal communities, whose internal order is regulated, ultimately, by violence.

These theories are disconnected and untested. But they suggest a promising line of inquiry. The culture of masculinity is part and parcel of the culture of crime. Understanding it will not solve the crime problem. It will, however, shed useful light upon it.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths' College, London University.