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The Cases of Lee Rigby and the Oxford Abuse Ring Were Not Caused by the Innate 'Murderous Vanity of Man'

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In the Sunday Times this week, the savage murder of an innocent British soldier was used by Dominic Lawson as a platform to express his beliefs about the 'innate' brain differences between men and women.

In a dangerously misleading article entitled 'The Murderous Vanity of Man Punctured by Three Quiet Women' he regurgitates false and flawed 'research' on the differences between male and female brains. I wonder why we're so squeamish about using research in neuroscience to reinforce racial stereotypes and yet commentators fall over themselves to try to 'prove' that gender stereotypes are 'innate'. In this article, Dominic Lawson states that it has not been easy to 'find an obvious stereotype of the wannabe al-Quaeda terrorist' and yet employs a simple - and discredited - stereotype of 'men' who see the world in 'mechanistic terms' which enables them to 'see humans, too, as simply cogs in a machine'.

Had the three people who rushed to the aid of Lee Rigby been men, I doubt that their actions would have been described, as Dominic Lawson does in this article, in terms of their 'empathy, practicality and tenderness'. I suspect they may have been labelled 'brave', 'courageous' and 'selfless'. As they were women, however, apparently lacking in these qualities, it must have been down to the 'disinterested compassion of the allegedly weaker sex'.

Dominic Lawson is not the first to pronounce on the differences between the sexes under the guise of flattery. Two hundred years ago English clergyman Thomas Gisborne clearly set out the differences: 'Pursuits and occupations assigned chiefly or entirely to men demand the efforts of a mind endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning' whereas apparently 'the superiority of the female mind is unrivalled', with 'powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise'. In other words, entirely suited to look after the men who are busy running the world: a very convenient 'innate empathy'.

In reality, women's 'superiority' in this area can be demonstrably proved only when the participants in the study are first 'primed' with gender references. As we believe that women are more empathic, simply making gender salient will be enough to influence results. Hey presto, the men are not very good at this 'female' quality and the women are. In 1983 psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Randy Lennon found that female empathic advantage becomes increasingly smaller and vanishes altogether as studies are made less obvious that the quality being tested is 'empathy'. It is only studies which rely on self-perception that reliably throw up stereotypical results, as psychologists Mark Davis and Linda Kraus found when they analysed all the relevant studies in 1997.

Dominic Lawson, in a statement which would have made Thomas Gisborne proud, tells us that what we witnessed in that scene on the road was 'the most powerful force for good in the world', flattering women into thinking we have some kind of superpower. Except not. He goes on to relate these 'female' qualities to 'the curse of the female: a lack of self-esteem' and in a wild illogical jump (perhaps more associated with the innate female brain) states that 'this weakness is what enables men to perpetrate a systematic abuse of young women', relating this, in a breath-taking cop-out for men, to the recent horrific case of the grooming and sexual abuse of young girls in Oxford.

So rather than examine society's unwillingness to protect young vulnerable girls, we are asked to believe that their capacity to be abused is just an unfortunate innate weakness in themselves.

The figure for children at high risk of sexual exploitation across England stands at 16,500. For these most vulnerable members of our society, local authorities are not obliged to fund specialist support, and the care of these children depends on voluntary support. That was in the Sunday Times too this week. Society does not yet take the sexual exploitation of girls and women seriously, as we have seen in all cases exposed recently, from the Seventies to the present day.

We are also not asked to question the stereotypical 'sex object' messages our culture sends to young girls publicly every day, images which reinforce the idea that the highest value society places on their gender is their sexual desirability and availability, and whether this fact may not further increase girls' vulnerability to sexual abuse.

The neuroscientist Cordelia Fine points out in her book 'Delusions of Gender' (2010) that 'When gender is salient in the environment... gender stereotypes are automatically primed'. Psychologists refer to this as 'stereotype threat', sometimes referred to as 'social identity threat.'

There is now a substantial literature about the danger of stereotype threat, based on numerous studies. A stereotype made salient affects both male and female brains in the same way: the brain brings out its cultural 'gender identity' to the fore. People operating under negative stereotype threat lose cognitive ability as they try to control anxious emotions, leading to a cautious failure-avoidance mindset in place of a gung-ho all-out-for-success mindset. Or, as Dominic Lawson might call it, 'a lack of self-esteem'.

Jesse J. Prinze, in his 2012 book 'Beyond Human Nature' states: 'If you make a negative stereotype salient to people, they will inadvertently conform to it'. He's talking about adults; what chance do vulnerable young girls stand when they are faced with sexualised images of young women even when they visit a supermarket or newsagent, let alone their regular haunts of kebab shops and takeaways where the Sun, the Sport and the Star are more likely to be the newspapers of choice.

If a part of 'grooming' is defined as 'making a behaviour seem normal', then our society puts a grooming tool into the hands of every potential abuser, in the form of mainstream tabloid newspapers displaying images of young women as sexually willing objects.

As well as practical steps in ensuring adequate funding for homes like Barnardos, the training of police and social services and making court procedures less traumatic for those who testify, there is a wealth of current research available which would help us as a society to protect our vulnerable young girls if we are serious about tackling sexual exploitation. There is no excuse any longer for ignorance about the role of culture in socialising both genders into harmful stereotypes.

Dominic Lawson's ill-judged comments about the 'innate' qualities which 'make' men murder and abuse and 'make' women victims represent a dangerous and irresponsible step backwards.