Police culture, men and misogyny

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has issued a report which says it has found evidence of “disgraceful” bullying, misogyny, discrimination and sexual harassment in some ranks of the Met.

It has made 15 recommendations following “underlying cultural issues”, including officers joking about rape. The inquiry was launched in March 2018 into nine linked independent investigations concerning serving police officers from the Met.

The inquiry found evidence of messages exchanged between officers that were often highly sexualised, violent and discriminatory, and which were defended as “banter” by police officers

To those of us who have researched male attitudes to women in the workplace (Womens’s Work Men’s Cultures 2011) for quite a few years the findings of the IOPC report today are not in any way surprising.

There is a lot of talk now about police culture and how it needs to change.  Our understanding of culture often leads us to look to the top of an organisation ( e.g. all the current debate about Downing Street culture under the current PM) and yes, leadership sets the tone and has a huge influence on any organisation’s culture. But the makeup of the workforce, indeed the very work they do will also determine it too.

Male dominated organisations very often develop a ‘blokeish’ – for want of a better word –  culture. ‘It was only banter’ is frequently held up as an excuse for sexist language and humour.  Devaluing women is one way in which men bond, and sexual banter can alleviate stress if the work is dangerous, stressful or even boring. It can also act as a boundary, making it known to female colleagues that they are not wanted there. Sexual banter shores up a certain type of masculinity, often fragile and threatened. ( See In the Company of Men: Male dominance and sexual harassment  by James Gruber and Phoebe Morgan (2004)

None of this happens in a vacuum. Workers of all organisations walk into the workplace carrying a set of values picked up from wider society and these continue to influence behaviour. If a society and culture devalues women then it is not a surprise that a great many men (and women) will do so also.  Fortunately many organisations do expect better behaviour at work than may occur outside.   Organisations often want to introduce programmes to change their employee’s values but this is extremely hard to do. Ensuring they are employing those with the values they want  is the best way to create the desired culture.

Banter isn’t confined to a workplace, just walk into a crowded pub after a local football match and the language and humour will be the same.   Some might argue that we no longer have a society that devalues women, perhaps some may say we never had one. If that were true we would have had no need of a feminist movement which fought to get women the vote, equal rights and equal pay.  Whilst huge progress has been made in the levels of women in employment and particularly in managerial and professional positions over the past thirty years, there has been a backlash in other areas of women’s lives.

I would argue that the increasing sexualisation of women and girls is part of this backlash. Seeing women as sexual objects contributes to and maintains their lower status, dehumanising them and  making female authority and leadership hard to establish. There are unacceptably high levels of rape and sexual violence, and domestic abuse towards women in society. We also have a culture saturated with pornography. Pornography does not sit in a box away from the rest of culture, waiting for a few to peer at it when they feel the need and then move away. It is pervasive in its influence on sexual behaviour and attitudes, fashion, film and beauty standards.   It is the world’s biggest industry and thanks to the internet is readily available to anyone including children, who are increasingly getting their sex education from it.  Furthermore, a great deal of this easy to access, mainstream pornography depicts (to varying levels) sexual violence and female degradation. It has been claimed that porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.  In fact, 30 percent of all data transferred across the Internet is porn. So the ubiquity of pornography cannot but contribute to the overall cultural depiction of women.  It cannot be separated from prevailing male attitudes to women.

In February 2020, the Government Equalities Office published a report, a literature review, titled “The relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours”. It aims to inform the Government in taking an evidence-based approach to dealing with the potential harms caused by pornography, following a recommendation from the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) inquiry into the sexual harassment of women and girls in public places.

Four key themes emerged:

  1. Viewing women as sex objects
  2. Shaping men’s sexual expectations of women
  3. Acceptance of sexual aggression towards women
  4. Perpetration of sexual aggression

The review found evidence of an influential relationship between use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women. If perhaps rightly, given their role in protecting us,  we want to hold our police force to higher standards than others, we should spell this out.  The misogyny and sexism found in this report and no doubt to be found  in the ongoing review of culture and standards within the Met Police  currently being carried out by Baroness Louise Casey, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58833349  is not confined to the police force. We need to address the wider problem of misogyny endemic in our society (and this is not solved by making it a hate crime).