Our trouble with boys

By Indra Adnan, co-director of the New Integrity consultancy, is writing a book on soft power (THE GUARDIAN, 28/12/06):

The poignant images of five murdered women that dominated the front pages last week presented me with the usual task of explaining the issues arising from such news to my 12-year-old son. It's never easy to do so, but at least the idea that women are simply immoral for taking to the profession is beginning to lose its grip as statistics show that the majority are drug dependent and vulnerable.However, a matching awareness that men caught in this world may also be vulnerable has not arisen, which still presented me with difficulties in explanation. Men who use prostitutes are only ever portrayed as misogynist, criminal and, worst of all, macho. Macho is worst because it suggests that the abuse of women is somehow natural to men, just one end of the spectrum of male behaviour.

I'm not going to address the culpability of those men, but I am going to question the implicit guilt of all men. As my son struggles to process the many mixed messages about men and what they are capable of, I feel compelled to play up his feminine side. But is that the best way to help him engage with his masculinity as he enters puberty?

Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys and Manhood, poses an important question: might prostitution be as demeaning to men as to women? He doesn't try to answer for women, but details the devastating effect of society's expectations of male behaviour on men. And how, in a numerous ways - from robbing them of a voice to causing them to distrust their own parenting skills - it makes abusive behaviour more likely.

Since the 80s we have engaged with feminism privately and publicly. In schools this has translated into a sort of gender neutrality - an emphasis on equality of opportunity rather than on the diversity of needs. Without question this is "fair" and hence "right". But as girls tend to be more mature than boys the same age, in co-educational schools this results in the creation of norms that are more female than male.

What is understood to be deviant behaviour, for example, is almost without exception boys' behaviour. The way that girls can be destructive in more emotionally adroit ways, is not acknowledged by detentions. At a very early age, this can result in boys pathologising their own gender, withdrawing from girls - and school - and gathering in groups of their own kind: a rationale for exclusively male environments later on.

Too often, I find myself torn. On Radio 4 recently, Justice for Women representative Julie Bindel insisted to James Naughtie that if a man has sex with a woman who is too drunk to know, the woman is always a victim and the man - whether equally drunk and out of his mind himself or not - is guilty of rape.

As a woman, I empathise with Julie's anger. But as a mother of a boy, I can also empathise with Naughtie's spluttering objections: doesn't that make them unequal before the law?

It's time for the gender debate to become a dialogue. When men are alienated from the discourse on male behaviour they are more likely to suppress its extremes than own them and the chance for transformation is gone.

Masculinity is still a distinct force in our society: men are both in power, and in prison. As Steve Biddulph says in Manhood: "It still amazes me that we leave the development of masculinity in young boys to chance". Masculinity needs to be better understood in all its complexity, if we are to hope for a safer, happier, richer society for us all.