In Part II of this three-parter on the mental health of young people, the focus was on that part of the lives of children and adolescents in which adults are not present, a realm where there is the possibility of developing self-reliance and confidence in peer groups. It was concluded there is a strong case for saying their independent culture has been disastrously undermined.
It would be simplistic to suppose, though, that the present crisis of mental health begins and ends with this dimension of concern. As well as culture there is gender, for instance. In our present era of relative equality of the sexes compared to the patriarchal past that dominates the historical record, and the gender fluidity that is becoming increasingly fashionable, we tend to downplay innate psychological differences between the sexes to an extent that appears to be exacting a severe mental health toll.
One of the key lessons I took from the Institute of Ideas (IOI) forum discussed in Part I is that boys’ needs and problems remain very different to those of girls. Evidence consistent with this view is to be seen in the epidemiological data, which show that far more boys need mental health treatment than girls in the pre-teen years but the pattern is reversed in adolescence and early adulthood, with females suffering from a rapidly rising epidemic of anxiety, depression and self-harm that has not been experienced by males. Anxiety and depression in teenage boys have actually fallen in the last decade.
Let’s start with pre-teen children. Their basic needs, in addition to being part of a loving and secure family, are for the most part relatively straightforward and apply to both sexes. The Mental Health Foundation lists them, including
- being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise
- having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors
I single out these two bullet-pointed factors because they both include elements – vigorous exercise and outdoor play, especially free-range exploration – that we have reason to believe boys need to an even greater extent than girls. Boys in general (though “tomboys” are a fairly common exception), tend to be a lot more energetic and adventurous. It is no accident that in the cooped up conditions now prevailing, it is boys, far more than girls, who are diagnosed with ADHD.
Boys may also be suffering more pre-teen mental problems than girls because the things they are good at – fighting, making a lot of noise, disappearing for hours on end and coming home with grazed knees, muddy clothes and a dead frog in their pocket (or worse, a live one!) – tend to be systematically not just forbidden but far more disapproved of than used to be the case. Parents have always punished boys for their wilder transgressions but usually in an indulgent, admiring way: boys will be boys, they would say. Now, though, in a world with less use for muscle-power and manliness, and with fathers encouraged to discover their “feminine side”, the pre-teen boy has no clear masculine role model to follow. Cross-gender boys might feel liberated, but most will not.
This diminished use for muscle-power, and lower levels of physical activity, are reflected in an actual loss of muscle-power among children. A survey published in the child health journal Acta Paediatrica on 10-year-olds in England showed they are weaker now. The number of sit-ups they can do declined by 27.1% between 1998 and 2008, arm strength fell by 26% and grip strength by 7% and twice as many children (one in 10) could not hold their own weight when hanging from wall bars. That is a staggering difference over a relatively short period and one likely to have a differentially greater psychological impact on boys, who have traditionally been more invested than girls in seeing their growing physical strength as a source of pride.
Even more striking is the literal disappearance of boys’ “manhood” as they put of weight through lack of exercise. Parents have increasingly been turning up with their prepubescent male children at doctors’ surgeries anxious about the boy’s penis size and asking for a physical examination. Writing in the New York Times recently, family doctor Perri Klass said what he and his colleagues have found is that increasing levels of obesity have meant boys are losing their dicks – or losing sight of them at least – as they disappear beneath layers of fat. It’s not that the todgers are tinier now, just that the boys are bigger. It’s a worry that will often resolve itself once they hit puberty and the penis grows rapidly, but only if they can get their weight under control, and that is often not the case.
But, hey, never mind, fat boys and indeed pretty well all adolescent males have a great source of consolation these days, especially if they can get online: pornography. A recent report for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner by Miranda Horvath et al. was titled Basically… porn is everywhere, which says it all. Overwhelmingly, these days, boys have seen pornography by the time they reach adolescence and often well before, although the official euphemism that they have been “exposed” to porn disguises the fact that most adolescent boys need no encouragement to go looking for it.
As the report coyly puts it, “Boys and young men generally view pornography more positively”, while “girls and young women generally report that it is unwelcome and socially distasteful”.
Disapprovingly, the report continues, “pornography has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex; maladaptive attitudes about relationships; more sexually permissive attitudes; greater acceptance of casual sex; beliefs that women are sex objects; …and less progressive gender role attitudes (e.g. male dominance and female submission).”
In these remarks we find an important clue as to why boys tend to feel better about their adolescence and early adulthood than girls these days, and why girls are experiencing much greater mental health problems. In traditional cultures where the virginity of young women is tightly guarded, boys in their bachelor youth have to put up with a lot of sexual frustration, albeit ameliorated through homosexual encounters with their peers or with men. Today, all underage sexual relationships have become dangerous, with negative implications for healthy sexual development within actual, fully human, person-to-person relationships.
The world of person-to-object pornography thrives, though, with boys and young men loving it. For an underage boy real girls are usually hard to get, but virtual ones are everywhere and a source of easy and immediate satisfaction. As for young men, they can find sex if they are presentable, and can even successfully demand that girlfriends do all sorts of “advanced” stuff they have seen in the porn movies, such as shaving their genitals and submitting to anal sex – or even acts where misogyny seems a likely factor, such as being urinated or spat upon. If women refuse to put up with it, no problem: males may opt to take the porn in preference: Generation Masturbation rules, OK! Not only that: young women are also under pressure to have a perfect figure and complexion, just like the porn stars, in an era when so many women fail to shape up on account of poor diet, leading to obesity. It should hardly be surprising they feel bad about themselves and self-harm more.
We know the standard feminist response to all this. Most feminists hate porn. Fat feminists even celebrate their own corpulence and insist it is the men who must shape up, not by getting thinner but by not “raping” women – an insistence which tends to mean making the rules of consensual sex ever tighter, so that everything except sex between fat man-hating lesbians is ruled off limits.
Rosamund Urwin, of the Evening Standard, had a telling anecdote along these lines when she was speaking at the IOI forum. She had heard from one poor young guy who was trying to keep up with these ever more impossible standards. He thought he had better be verbally explicit on a date, asking the woman outright if she would consent to sexual activity, so there would be no misunderstanding. Instead of being pleased by his gentlemanly determination to go through the officially correct procedure, the question “weirded her out” and she asked him to leave!
Camile Paglia, speaking in the same session, was robust against such nonsense and against the kind of so-called feminism that encourages women to see themselves as weak and vulnerable: women who cower in “safe spaces” and refuse to takes responsibility for their own behaviour (getting drunk, for instance, and then blaming men for “raping” them) do nothing for the equality of the sexes. As for porn, she is all in favour, not least because its wildness forces us to confront our repressed sexuality and the price we pay for denying it. “Toughen up!” is her message to the delicate ladies, or even “Man up!” Hearing her, in effect, urge women to be more like men as a solution to their mental health crisis came as a refreshing change to the more familiar feminist idea that men should be more like women.
Not that it strikes me as a great solution. Absolutely we need toughness in some respects, in defence of free speech, for instance, against the Snowflakes who can’t stand to be offended by unwelcome opinions. But we also need empathy, and social relationships that are not merely exploitative and objectifying – as in the worst kind of porn, which one suspects is a projection of the violent domestic abuser’s mindset – or overly competitive and individualistic.
The environmentalist George Monbiot has captured the personal appearance question from a slightly different angle:
Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves. Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress?
Touching replaced by retouching. This is very telling. Monbiot is talking not about sex here but about human connection, our vital need to keep literally in touch with each other. Last time, in a comment responding to Part II, Christian briefly alluded to the work of Tiffany Field, which is well worth elaborating on here, because her research gives strong support to a link made by psychologists between high levels of crime and societies where touching is frowned upon. It is thought, in particular, that parents who starve their children of physical affection are damaging them physically and emotionally.
Physically touching children is especially frowned upon in the US but is much more acceptable in France. So Dr Field and her team had the bright idea of comparing physical interaction between parents and children sitting in restaurants in France and America. The French, who have a strong culture of openly displaying physical affection, were found to touch their children 110 times in only half an hour. Whereas in America, which has a higher rate of abuse and adult violence, the parents only made contact with their children twice in 30 minutes. The researchers also watched children and parents together in playgrounds and found that youngsters who were not touched very often were far more violent and aggressive towards other children. Field said that people who are starved of cuddling when they are young are also more likely to grow up with depression and anxiety because they feel unloved.
I doubt anyone here will be surprised by these findings. They are not the whole story, of course. This blog series has looked at a range of factors contributing to the mental well being of the young and commentators here have identified others. I have focused mainly (in Part II) on the significance of children’s own independent culture and self reliance and (in Part III) on gender as a complicating factor. These musings barely scratch the surface but I hope nevertheless they will be found thought–provoking.
WHAT A LOAD OF FOOTBALLS
I’m not sure darts champion Eric Bristow was entirely on target when he tweeted “Might be a looney but if some football coach was touching me when i was a kid as i got older i would have went back and sorted that poof out”; but, like the little missiles he chucks for a living, he did have a point.
The lachrymose old leather bashers who nearly set the studio furniture afloat on a sea of tears in the course of Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime TV show may well have had something genuine to cry about and it is right that they are heard out.
But Bristow will be speaking for many in also tweeting that these guys are “wimps” and not “proper men”. It’s not so much that being openly emotional is necessarily a bad thing in a man, or that paedos deserve a kicking – a view one of the alleged victims rightly dismissed as evidence of a “stone age mentality”.
It’s more a feeling that whatever “abuse” (if any) these guys suffered could have been done and dusted long ago without the never-ending soap opera of trauma and tragedy now being played out as part of the travelling circus of historic abuse narratives that began with the Catholic Church and his since moved from one institutional setting to another.
It’s a feeling that this whole show is being kept on the road by vested interests in the therapy industry, the media and politics, and that what these particular victims are victims of is not, fundamentally, sexual abuse, but their career disappointments. They were hugely ambitious guys in a fiercely competitive business. They were not quite good enough, which is no disgrace; but now it seems they want to blame their bitter disappointment on someone else, and that is another matter entirely..
I see that Barry Bennell, the coach accused on the Victoria Derbyshire show and elsewhere in the media, has already served a long time in prison, apparently tried to take his own life recently and now faces further charges. I make no comment whatever on the legal merit or otherwise of these latest charges. I do not know who is making the complaint(s) or on what basis and it would be wrong to say anything that could prejudice the case either way – not that this blog is likely to have any influence.
What I will say, though, is that Bennell is the one I feel sorry for: a brilliant, inspirational coach, as all concerned admit, whose life has been destroyed far beyond any suffering of the supposed “abuse” victims, or so it seems to me. There were those among them who appeared content to be “raped”, in at least one case for years on end, as long as they stood a chance of getting to the top in football.
No, sorry, Bennell’s is the real tragedy.
Or one of them. In all the fuss over the snowballing football coach saga the loss of photographer David Hamilton, found dead in a suspected suicide by asphyxiation at his Paris home at the age of 83, has gone almost unnoticed in the UK.
Known for his work in fashion magazines as well as, more controversially, his top-selling books featuring nude photographs of underage girls, his death follows historic allegations of rape and sexual assault against a number of schoolgirls in France. French radio presenter Flavie Flament, 42, in particular, claimed she was raped by Hamilton when she just 13 in 1987. She and three other women were attempting to launch a prosecution against him. He denied all the allegations.
Unlike Bennell, at least Hamilton made it to a grand old age before coming unstuck, an element of relative good fortune we may be seeing less in France and elsewhere in future as the mania of the Anglophone countries spreads.