I have wanted to write what follows ever since last Spring, when my husband and I went on holiday to Sweden. Please note that my thoughts aren’t yet properly crystallised. I’m thinking aloud. But after the events of last week, when two women protested against changes to the Gender Recognition Act by appearing topless at an all-male swimming event, I think it’s time to start a public discourse around the suspicion with which the British public view men as a demographic. Let me explain…
About a decade ago, Sweden introduced new legislation (which was fairly unpopular at the time), essentially making it compulsory for men to take a minimum of three months’ paternity leave. As often happens following a change in the law, a knock-on impact on social norms gradually occurred. My friend and co-founder of the Men & Boys Coalition, Martin Daubney, wrote an excellent piece for The Times in 2016 exploring how childcare has now become part of the Swedish definition of masculinity. "If you don’t roll your sleeves up and change the nappies over there," he told me, "you’re not considered to be a real man."
A year later, as I wandered the streets of Stockholm, I saw exactly what Martin meant. Scandinavian men tend to be tall, broad and beardy, and a lot of them are heavily tattooed. Aesthetically, they conform to stereotypical notions of "manliness". Yet they also frequently have babies strapped to their chests, are pushing strollers or are accompanying their small children to help them go to the toilet.
My conscious brain, the part where logic and rationality dwells, was saying, "This is AWESOME!" After all, it takes two people (minimum) to make a baby, so it is by any assessment rather strange that in Britain we have a continuing tendency to assume that women will be the primary care providers. Even stranger that, in some quarters, this is used to justify the gender pay gap – the argument being that women "choose" to have babies and to "take a break" from their careers, which explains why they earn less over their lifetimes, as though they make this choice completely independently of men.
'Most men aren't paedophiles'
However, I was also having to stop myself from staring at the Swedish men (and not just because some of them bore a striking resemblance to Alexander Skarsgard). Unconsciously, I was finding the spectacle of so many men actively partaking in childcare if not weird, precisely, then certainly novel.
As I tell the teenagers I work with, we are all products of our culture. What we think of as "normal" is simply a belief system taught to us unconsciously through repetition by our environment, rather than indicative of what "should" be. As much as I like to believe that I am progressive, my culture had still managed to plant a tiny klaxon in my head that was telling me that a man with an infant is a "bit odd", and that, in turn, indicated to me that something is awry with British values.
Ever since then, I’ve challenged myself to notice and question when I find myself or others thinking along these lines. Believing that men who care are an anomaly robs British men of the opportunity to properly bond with their children and, more pertinently in the context of this column, perhaps prevents men from working in early years education.
So, I followed with interest discussions on social media and in real life last week about imminent reform to the Gender Recognition Act that will make it easier for transgender people to self-identify. Two female activists joined a men-only swim dressed in nothing but trunks to "challenge the idea that sex and gender are interchangeable". Their stunt was picked up by almost every news outlet in the land and furious debate followed (meanwhile, a transgender woman called Naomi Hersi was stabbed to death in an apparently unprovoked attack near a hotel in Heathrow last Sunday and hardly anyone noticed).
The main objection to the new laws was that the change would give licence to dangerous, predatory men who would "pretend" to be transgender in order to gain access to female-only spaces, thus representing an increased danger to women. It was argued that the government was placing the rights of transgender people above the safety of people born with female genitals, many of whom have experienced sexual violence.
As a person born with female genitals, a proud feminist and survivor of sexual assault, I can’t begin to tell you how much I disagree with this line of argument. If a pervert or predator is intent on attacking women, I do not believe that a sign on a door will be enough to deter them. I know that many women feel unsafe in their day-to-day lives. I, too, have walked home with my keys poking out between my fingers; I too have been harassed, intimidated, made to feel deeply uncomfortable by behaviour perpetrated by men. Yet, like for 90 per cent of victims, the person who assaulted me was known to me. They were someone I had a pre-existing relationship with and the assault happened in a private space. They weren’t a random person in a ski mask hiding in a bush, and perpetuating the notion that this is how most rapes happen is part of what stops women like me reporting their experiences.
Even more interesting to me was the way children were so often wheeled out to try and evoke emotive opposition to making life easier for transgender people. "I don’t want my seven-year-old daughter changing in front of a person who has male genitals," said a caller to a radio phone-in I listened to. And that’s a peculiar thing to say. I’d understand not wanting your child to be naked in front of a known paedophile, but most people in possession of penises aren’t paedophiles. Also, most child abuse is perpetrated by a family member, meaning children are statistically safer out in the world than they are at home.
I mistrust the rhetoric that tells us that all men must be treated with suspicion because some of them do terrible things. At a conference, a representative from a feminist organisation told me (and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of her statistics because I can’t find them anywhere else) that one in 10 men has been sexually or physically abusive towards a woman. "Now imagine I gave you a handful of sweets and told you one in 10 of them was poisoned. You’d want to eat them less, wouldn’t you?" she asked. Whilst I could see the line of thought, I couldn’t help but wonder what her response would be if, let’s say, a member of Britain First was spuriously claiming that one in 50 Muslims was radicalised, and posed a similar question.
Perhaps, then, we should be asking why we aren’t more generally relaxed about men interacting with women and children, both personally and professionally. We should ask ourselves whether our current rules are actually making women any safer and whether there might be a way to provide support to victims of assault without punishing men and transgender women. In education, we’ve made incredible progress celebrating girls with ambitions to study what have traditionally been perceived as "male" subjects. Now, we should be asking how we can encourage boys into what have been perceived as "female" professions involving care. Maybe then we’ll see more men in early years and primary teaching (and perhaps more respect for the profession generally – but that’s a subject for another column).
Only when we consider these types of questions can we have anything resembling true equality.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here