The Philpott case and the media: sensationalism, denial, obfuscation, irresponsibility.

Letter to The Guardian, 07 04 2013.

keywords: girls as victims, hetero-masculinity, male violence, women as sexual slaves, the media.

The death of 6 children in a house fire was a tragic accident. The Right (politicians and media), is desperate to encourage us to blame the welfare state (and, by implication, the Labour Party), although even some Lib Dems have recoiled at smirking Osborne’s “calculating, callous cruelty” (Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, cited Nicholas Watt, 06 04 2013), who rightly concludes, “If he can’t see it is wrong to play politics with the death of 6 children, he is not fit to be chancellor”.

The Tory ploy is laced with moralistic (Christian?) knee-jerks, for example regarding Philpott’s “bed hopping” (Jeremy Pqxman, Newsnight) and his fecunditity / virility / lack of sexual discipline, as a father of 17 children, exploiting the welfare system. These commentators pay scant attention to his other victims, the girls and young women he took on as sexual and domestic slaves.

The front page headline, ‘Evil, stupid and shameful’ (Vikram Dodd & Sandra Leville, 03 04 2013) masks the centrality of gender, hetero-masculinity and male violence for any understanding of these crimes. What was not a one-off shocking accident was his behaviour as a man since, @ 21, he made a very good attempt (‘stabbing her a dozen times’) to murder a former partner because she left him. Start as you mean to go on.

This is a man ‘with a history of violence and controlling younger women’ (like Saville, he preferred girls, 14, 17). He was a “violent patriarch”, “whose domestic abuse went unchecked for more than three decades’” (Sandra Leville [03 04 2013] ‘Violent patriarch whose plan for revenge spiralled out of control’’. ‘Women to Philpott were slaves and sexual chattels, to be used for sex and to prove his virility by having his children’. None of this was a ‘product’ of the welfare state. But it does warrant closer scrutiny.

On the basis of his extensive research on boys, men, masculinity and violence, Professor Michael Kimmel turns the table on those who would simply label and demonise boys and men who commit  “vengeful violence” as ‘problems, as ‘deviants’. “In a sense”, he says, “they weren’t deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn’t just get mad, they got even” (20 12 2012).

400 young men interviewed by Kimmel in the USA, led him to observe: “They learn that if they are crossed, they have the obligation to fight back. They learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement”. Philpott, as a predatory and violent man, is not a one-off, a rarity.

And Philpott’s girls and young women, described as “troubled” when he first took up with them, were similarly conforming and untouched by the benefits of feminism throughout these years (like the victims of Saville and other public figures who abused and exploited girls and boys during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and later). These children lived in a bubble of gender trouble: confined, controlled, abused and exploited.

The Philpott case is not just shocking and gruesome because of the deaths of 6 of his children, but because of the long-term, gendered, authoritarian brutality and intimidation experienced on a daily basis by the girls and young women he drew into his orbit.

The issues this case raises are precisely those that feminists have been trying to get on to the political agenda for 40+ years, for example through campaigns for VAWG strategies. This is a chance for those on the Left to distinguish themselves from the rest, by refusing the latest dog whistle from the Right. We must begin to design and share a route out of this ConDem horror; to project a moral, economic and political vision that inspires and activates, and which is not SPIN or calculated second-guessing.

val walsh / 07 04 2013

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