What’s so sexist about the Indy’s new big report?

The Independent have published a big new special report today, and are slice-and-dicing it across the week. It’s about how more women are going to prison and how terrible that is. Today’s piece is about women in mother-and-baby units in prisons. It’s also expanded on in an opinion piece, which spells out what we’ll be seeing in the Indy over the next week.

The focus of the investigation is mothers going to prison, and being separated from their children. This is a Very Bad Thing, apparently: according to a vaguely-written headline, either the women or their children are the “hidden victims” this system. All three of the pieces linked smack of benevolent sexism, the societal reverence for this special female magic which in fact doesn’t exist and is massively sexist. Benevolent sexism basically needs to die in a suicide pact with its brother, hostile sexism (for a full overview of benevolent and hostile sexism, read this).

The benevolent sexism in their line of agrument is exemplified in the introductory article:

Britain has the highest rate of female imprisonment in the European Union, with 10,181 women put behind bars last year alone. That statistic has raised fears that the criminal justice system is creating a lost generation of children raised without mothers.

Children need mothers. Mother knows best. MOTHER MOTHER MOTHER. It’s like the article was co-written by Freud and Stephen Moffat. Women have special mum-magic, and the consequences will be Very Bad otherwise.

So what does this mum-magic prevent?

Nearly two-thirds of boys with a parent in jail will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves, research shows, and children with a parent behind bars are three times more likely than their peers to engage in anti-social behaviour. Their chances of suffering mental health problems also increase threefold.

Now, look very carefully at the first sentence there. Notice it says “parent” not “mother”. That’s because it’s referring to parents, not mothers. And that’s because it’s closeness to parents, not mothers, that’s important. Not that this deters the nameless author of the opinion piece, who gives us a sneak preview of the latter instalments of the report with this gem:

Over the coming week, we will lay bare the shocking truth about what happens in the majority of cases where mothers and their children are separated. We will consider the impact on the women themselves, both in and out of custody. We will look at the lives of those who are left holding prisoners’ babies, or bringing up their distressed children and disturbed teenagers – a burden which mainly falls on grandmothers and other female relatives. Indeed, it is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers.

Replace “modern fatherhood” with “patriarchy”, and the author has a point. Otherwise, it’s just yet more benevolent sexism. Women are caring, and waft around farting rainbows.

I can see the future articles laid out before me. It will be a return to the earliest incarnations of the work of John Bowlby, who authored a monograph on “maternal deprivation” and how it led to delinquency, decreased intelligence, aggression and affectionless psychopathy in children. However, later Bowlby clarified his work pertained to general upheaval of a close parental attachment and wasn’t specific to mothers. The Indy don’t seem to have read this bit.

What amplifies the benevolent sexism of the Indy’s new report is what isn’t mentioned at all: that the vast majority of people in prison are men. And that the vast majority of people in prison are men precisely because of the underlying set of attitudes driving the Indy’s report: women are too nice and good to commit crimes, and if they’ve reproduced they’re probably fucking saints. It’s dated, and it’s sexist as hell.

I can think of ulterior motives for publishing this piece. The first is a desire for a return to “traditional family values”, an idea which basically needs to fuck off as it places the mother as caregiver, the father as breadwinner, and keeps everyone neatly in their patriarchal places. The second is to attempt a broader critique of how more people are going to prison. Now, this is a very important point indeed. As an anarchist, you might have guessed I’d not be so keen on the concept of prison, and, indeed, I find the whole notion of retributive justice grotesque and the concept of the state locking people up fairly abhorrent (in fact, the concept of crime is somewhat baffling to me). For those of a more liberal persuasion, you can argue against prison on the grounds of how expensive prison is compared to rehabilitation. Prison’s basically bad. If the Indy are trying to push this line, they’re going entirely the wrong way about it, given they just focus on one very small group of prisoners and drag in a lot of sexism.

Ultimately, what we need is two things: a radical rethink of our justice system with a move to not putting people in prison, and a radical rethink of how families are constructed and how we view women in general. That will be the thing that stops fucking up future generations, and demand nothing less.



16 thoughts on “What’s so sexist about the Indy’s new big report?”

  1. Are we really only talking about children (although they only mention boys…) growing up without a mother here, or are we maybe silently extending this to all single parent families? Those bad slutty women who have children outside of loving marriages? And those bad men who want to raise their children themselves depriving them of woman-magic?

    Because I think I might be a lost child 😦 My mum died of cancer when I was three and my dad raised me and brother on his own. I guess I will be partaking in some criminal activity any day now. OH BUT WAIT! I’m a woman, this means I’m so nice that I physically can’t commit crimes! Phew. Oh but wait, I’m a feminist so I’ve denounced my femininity thereby commiting a crime against nature.

  2. I’m not so sure it’s as simple as pure sexism here. Research has shown that children make many attachments when growing up, but particularly in the first 5 years or so there is one primary attachment, which is usually the Mum – so there is a difference between Mum and Dad. And also, research has shown that losing that attachment at a critical age – within that 7 years – also can have a serious impact on the child and its behaviour.

    So, you need to take into account psychological factors and not just assume all parents are equal. It’s the attachment that matters, Mum or Dad.

      1. But it’s not a case of casting….it’s not an arbitrary choice of gender. How many people do you know who in the first 5 years of their life did not have their Mother as the “primary caregiver”?
        . Is it not even considering before making accusations of sexism?

    1. If it is true that the primary attachment is usually to the Mother rather than the Father then is that because of some special maternal magic or due to the fact that the mother is usually in the role of primary caregiver (correlation vs causation)?

      Also, if it is only “usually” the Mother then how would you know that by keeping the child with the Mother you are not breaking the attachment to the Father and thereby transforming the child in to some kind of hoodie wearing desperado?

      1. I think that Bronny was mearly stating that the primary care giver is the mother because in our society it often is. They didn’t say it was good, right or try to justify it with “Maternal Magic”. They also said that parental attachment was what mattered, that the sex of that parent didn’t.

        Truth is by favoring the mother over a non-gendered idea of parenting we are harming our youth. We are re-enforcing the sexist notions of motherhood and fatherhood.

        1. I’m not accusing Bronny of touting maternal magic, I’m just sceptical of references to research without sources cited. Besides, according to scientists, I’m always right.

      2. Yes, I was only stating that it tends to be the Mother who is the Primary Caregiver, not that it should be or must be – it just is. And research carried suggests that it doesn’t matter whether the primary Caregiver (ie the person with whom the child makes the first and strongest attachment, it could be Grannt, or a nanny,or the Postman) is male or female, just that if that primary attachment is broken for a significant period of time then there may be issues.

        Children who have strong attachments to more than one person (ie say Mum and Dad) have been shown to make seperation less distressing (Kotelchuck 1976).

        Goldfarb 1943 (yes not recent but still quoted!) Tests showed that the institutionalised children had on average lower IQ scores that an equivalent group of children who were fostered.

        Bowlby 1951 (one of the first real child psychologists who studied early attachment in infants) ” an infant and young children should experience a warm, intimiate and continuous relationshop with his mother (or permanent mother figure) in which both find satisfaction.

        Loads and loads of studies have been done on real deprivation (of emotional care, not lack of money, food etc) on kids in long term institutions and in day care and everything in between, and what has been shown to be important is the removal of the main caregiver. It can affect emotional stability, IQ, long term future prospects, depression, etc.

        I’d take a punt, because I don’t have the figures to hand, that if women are committing crimes (and they almost always are non-violent,related to money, either to support the family ot to support an addiction) then there is probably a good chance that they are the Primary Caregiver as they isn’t a second, stable caregiver around and any children could really do without having that person locked away. I have also read that women are more likely to go to prison than men for equivalent crimes because they are less likely to defend themselves in court AND that they are sentenced more hashly just because they are women and are acting in a manner considered unseemly for a woman. I think these are the important issues here, not making accusations of sexism aabout who is the best caregiver.

        1. I’m not convinced that a direct comparison can be made between the majority of children who are not separated from their primary care-giver and children whose parent(s) are imprisoned and may well have suffered an unstable home life to begin with (related to deprivation or addiction, as you said). But that’s an area that would require further study.

          Also, as we all keep saying, there is no guarantee that the primary attachment is to the Mother and keeping children with the mother could be doing a disservice to those who should be with their father, grandparent or postman.

          Long and short of it is, I understand the points you make regarding separation, the problem I have is with the approach of twisting woman, mother and care-giver together and saying that “a mother should not be separated from her child”, when we should be saying “a child should not be separated from their primary care-giver” as this is about the welfare of the child first and foremost.

  3. I thought the issue was that most of the women in prison serving time are single parents, therefore they are suppose to be the primary care givers. Same if a father is doing time and is the only parent, the child is effectively being orphaned by the state and 6 year is a long time to not know your only parent and it will cause problems. It’s bigger issue with women prisoners because single parenthood is for women in general.

    Yes, that is an issue with the kyriarchy “Mother knows best attitude” but the issue being discussed I think behind the focus on women prisoners is the place of parenthood and being a prisoner. If the focus was on male prisoners it wouldn’t make as much sense to talk about parenthood as many men choose not to be involved and can make that choice.

    I think the article didn’t discuss what you wanted it to. It’s not sexist to say that a woman is the primary caregiver to her child when that is the case. If its a generalization, fair enough, but I got the impression it was single motherhood that was being discussed.

    1. The entire way the issue is treated is sexist. There is absolutely no addressing of “primary caregivers”, only “mothers”.

      1. Thats what I dont get. They talk of mothers because the articles are dicussing women who are mothers. Ill agree that it does play in to sexist ideals but I thought the bigger problem was the mummy courses the women seem to be put on, no male equivalent, reinforcing gender roles but again the articles arent the issue really. They are reflecting a sexist society, they cant be written by a person so seeped in and unaware of the

        1. *fucking phone* sexism any other way. I dunno, it seemed like your blog post was talking about something other than the articles but using the articles as reference point but I didnt think it worked.

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