On Wednesday, the BBC reported there had been a 16% rise in the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of England in the last year and that since 2010, the number of rough sleepers had more than doubled.
The report went on to outline a range of issues impacting on these more than 4,000 people who are the “most vulnerable” members of society, and to separate the numbers in terms of region, age and nationality.
But what stood out, was that when it came to breaking the numbers down in terms of gender, at no point did the BBC mention that fully 88% of rough sleepers are male – a “rough sleeping gap” that has increased from 85%.
Not only this, but the report in fact went on to highlight the 12% minority who are female.
insideMAN tweeted at the BBC calling on them to explain why they had chosen to erase this glaring male gender disadvantage, while at the same time drawing attention to the minority of women who sleep rough.
The BBC did not reply, but our tweet was retweeted scores of times and triggered a passionate discussion online.
The big question was: how could a broadcaster that is dedicated to highlighting gendered disadvantage when faced by women, seemingly deliberately erase gender disadvantage faced by some of the “most vulnerable” men in society?
Here, insideMAN news editor, Glen Poole, gives his insight into the deep and complicated reasons why, and offers a radical way forward in thinking about gender that includes issues facing both men and women.
Why does the BBC ignore male rough sleepers? Well, first we're going to need to do some gender theory.
The issue of society being blind to homelessness as a gender issue that affects men is a combination of male privilege/burden and female privilege/burden. In simple terms it's "the masculine realm" and "the feminine realm" at play.
The masculine realm is built around the public citizen who was historically male. Men had rights ("privilege") and responsibilities ("burdens") that women didn't – such as the right to a career, the right to vote versus the responsibility to provide for (earn) and protect others (e.g. conscription).
The feminine realm is built around the private world of nurture and care, which was historically female. Women had the privilege of being protected and taken care of (women and children first) but also the duty (or burden) of domesticity/childcare and a lack of rights to participate as public citizens.
This was just the "natural order" of things, we were largely blind to it until feminism (in its broadest sense) began making gender visible and asking awkward questions like why can't women vote, have an education, have careers, be free from the burdens of the motherhood and domesticity?
What we still haven't had is an opposite and equal push from men to say why can't men be stay-at-home-dads, win custody of their kids when they separate, be protected and taken care of, and also be free from the burdens of the protector and provider role?
So, we have two forces at play:
- Traditional and conservative views of gender that remain blind to men's gender issues and either reject women's gender issues as “political correctness gone mad”, or accept them from the traditional viewpoint that women are the weaker sex and should be protected and taken care of.
- Progressive views of gender that seek to make gender visible, but only highlight the "privilege" of the male experience and the "burden" of the female experience. Or as we say in populist terms, the view that "Men ARE problems and Women HAVE problems".
(As an aside, feminist masculinity studies, in particular, explicitly set out to make men visible -- to name and problematise men and masculinity as things that should be the object of study, criticism and public policy, but with the intention of addressing the "problem" of men.)
Anyway, so yes, our failure to see homelessness as a gendered issue that mostly impacts men is shaped by traditional/conservative views (which some call patriarchy) because the failure to see homeless male citizens as gendered individuals is built on top of deep, historic social structures that established the default public citizen as male (which some people see as male privilege and the female burden in action).
But, our failure to see homelessness as a gendered issue that mostly impacts men is not just a problem of patriarchal thinking, it's also shaped by progressive thinking too (or what some would simply call feminism). Because what progressive thinking is blind to is the way it preserves the privilege of victimhood/vulnerability -- particularly the female privilege of being taken care of and protected, which it preserves by fiercely defending the position that "it's a man's world and only women can be gendered victims" (for example, some of those in the women's refuge movement don’t just advocate for female victims but also advocate against male victims).
Then we need to throw into the mix the view that men have agency and women don't, that men are agents of shaping this gendered world we live in and women are objects of it, that men act and women are acted upon and from this universally held view you get the unspoken belief (what some call unconscious bias) that:
Homeless men are failures and homeless women are victims (another version of men ARE problems, women HAVE problems).
Why is this?
First, because of the view that men have agency and are privileged in the public, masculine realm of work and are expected (first and foremost) to protect and provide, homeless men have failed in their duty to fulfil the privileged role of being a male citizen -- they are failures and because they are male they are assumed to be independent and have agency and therefore are seen to be the cause of their own problems.
I read a newspaper leader in Australia last year, in the "progressive" Sydney Morning Herald, that was about men's health and it used this phrase: "Man, an Aussie bloke is his own worst enemy" -- which is a great example of the belief that because men are privileged and have agency (unlike women) that when men have problems they have no-one to blame but themselves. (Like those pesky, suicidal men, for example, if only they'd stop being so macho and talk about their feelings...).
Second, because of the belief that men have agency corresponds with a view that women don't have agency and should be protected and taken care of and provided a "safe space" in the private feminine realm of the home, when women are homeless it's seen more as society's collective failure and leads to calls for specialist, gendered interventions.
Yes, these ways of thinking have deeply structured roots (that Evolutionary Psychologists would argue are grounded in biology and psychology) but they are not just locked in place by conservative/traditionalist thinkers ("women and children first") but also by progressive thinkers ("women and girls first").
Pretty much all charities working in homelessness and prison reform are run by progressive thinkers and they are pretty much blind to the view that men have gendered problems (and so see male prisoners and homeless men as victims of class, poverty and race… but not gender).
Neutrality, attack, or inclusivity?
I wrote about the failure of homeless charities to see homelessness as a gendered issue here in 2015.
So it's not just the Government's fault or the BBC's fault or the homelessness sector's fault -- it's a symptom of the "public story" about gender that's shaped both by traditional ("patriarchal") and progressive ("feminist") thinking.
So our challenge is how do we challenge those deeply structured ways of thinking in a way that he vast majority of people can hear it?
There are basically three ways to response to this:
- Call for GENDER NEUTRALITY: we should help ALL homeless people, ALL prisoners, ALL kids not getting to university, ALL victims of violence, ALL suicidal people etc. etc. etc. etc., regardless of gender – “let us talk no more of women's problems and men's problems, let us just deal with human problems...”
- React against the one-eyed view of gender: attack the BBC, attack Government, attack biased policy makers… attack, attack, attack, declaring "what about the men?” Which is a valid response and certainly one of the ways I respond to a lot of issues... in a way this approach is fighting against gender exclusive ways of thinking, but it can also be hard to differentiate from other voices who react to every gendered initiative as another example of “political correctness gone mad”.
- Take the visionary, moral high ground and be role models in our willingness to champion highly effective GENDER INCLUSIVE approaches to social issues that take into account the fact that men and women may face the same problems (homeless, domestic violence, suicidality) but have different needs (both as a group AND as individuals).
Rather than saying it's bad and wrong that the Government, the BBC, homeless charities etc. are highlighting the gendered issues facing homeless women, I think we should be more enthusiastic about this that anyone else on the planet.
More gendered thinking, please!
Because what we need, is not LESS gendered thinking we need MORE gendered thinking and we need MORE gendered thinking that is MORE THAN just focusing on the problems women have (and the problems men cause).
So let us enthusiastically embrace every single manifestation of gendered thinking we come across and demand MORE of it; let's celebrate gendered thinking about social issues and be at the leading edge of getting people to think MORE deeply about gendered issues.
How does that look, in practical terms?
It starts with an enthusiastic response to every example of gendered thinking we encounter:
"It's FANTASTIC that the BBC is highlighting that homelessness is a gendered issue for some women, what we'd love to see is the BBC also highlighting how homelessness is a gendered issue for the 88% of homeless people who are men."
Take a breath... be visionary.
What this approach has the potential to do is bring BOTH supportive small-c conservatives AND open-minded progressives along with us.
Small-c conservatives are more likely to think "well I don't really like all this gendered nonsense, but if we're going to take a gendered approach to women's issues then it only seems fair and right that we take a gendered approach to men's issues too, and if it pisses off a few feminists in the process, then that's a bonus!"
Progressives are more likely to think:
"I believe in gender equality and that 'patriarchy is bad' -- this is proof that 'patriarchy hurts men too' so yes we should be taking a gendered approach to addressing this issue."
So while a knee-jerk, gut reaction to stories that ignore or down-play glaring male disadvantage, is often (understandably) to think "fuck this, what about the men?" …if we can take a breath and respond from a visionary place, from our higher selves, and remember that whatever our individual views, then we can authentically say that we think:
"It's GREAT that people are taking a gendered approach to tackling women's issues... and what we stand for is a world where we take a gender inclusive approach to social issues that tackles BOTH women's issues AND men's issues, fairly and equitably.”
It's not the BBC or the Government or the homelessness sector that's the issue here, it's us, the men's movement. We haven't yet won the argument that men have gendered issues and that homelessness is a gendered issue that mostly impacts men. We have to win that argument by persuading enough people over enough time that is the most moral, ethical and effective way to think about the problem.
We won't get there (I believe) by correcting and complaining. We will get there by championing gendered thinking and evolving it to the next logical stage of its evolution.