20 July 2024
  • 20 July 2024

Lads: Alan Bissett’s guide to respect and consent

on 3 July 2024 0

Acclaimed Lochwinnoch-based writer Alan Bissett takes us inside the creation and conception of Lads: A Guide to Respect and Consent for Teenage Boys and outlines the “man-to-man conversations” that are soon to hit Renfrewshire’s high schools

In 2022, I was one of the writers who worked on a script for a Police Scotland video called ‘Don’t Be That Guy’, which was part of their campaign to prevent male violence against women. The thinking was that, instead of giving routine advice to women about not walking home late at night on their own, or about watching their drinks when they go out, their message should target men. What kind of culture do men create, the campaign asked, that means women are constantly having to be on their guard around us? 

Most men believe sexual violence is committed by random lunatics prowling the streets, looking for lone females, but ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ invited all of us to look in the mirror and question whether or not we have engaged in behaviour which might make women feel unsafe, such as wolf-whistling, staring at them on the bus, or making bawdy comments to our mates about them. It’s ‘lower-level’ behaviour in comparison to rape or assault, sure, but it’s also where eventual violence starts, blooming like a poisonous flower from ground that toxic masculinity prepares.

The video went viral, with most of the responses coming from women who – in the wake of #MeToo, Wayne Couzens and Harvey Weinstein – were wondering why it had taken men so long to start having this discussion.

Lads

Shortly afterwards, I was approached by the publishers Wren & Rook about turning the video into a book, giving advice to young guys about how to conduct themselves. I was ambivalent about taking this on. While I could see the potential good that it could do, and that there was clearly a need for such a book, I worried that young men wouldn’t be particularly interested in reading it or that I’d be trying to assume a moral authority which I haven’t earned. 

After all, there isn’t a man in the world that hasn’t made some woman somewhere feel uncomfortable, and I certainly look back on things I did and said in the past and absolutely cringe. Even though most of us do our best every day to be decent and loving husbands, boyfriends, sons, brothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, nephews, colleagues and friends, no man is completely immune from the lure of male entitlement, myself included.

However, it is because of these very failings that I felt I could perhaps have something to offer. No guy can relate to ‘Mr Perfect’, partly because they know he’s not that and partly because they might feel they are being lectured smugly from on high. But if I could show that I was trying to learn from my own mistakes, with the benefit of hindsight, and set a good example to my own sons, might that make it possible for young men to go on a similar journey?



Also, there seemed to be an imperative. Dangerous social-media influencers like Andrew Tate – a ripped, tattooed ‘Alpha Male’ currently under investigation for sex-trafficking – have been making misogyny cool again to a whole new generation of boys. Communities of ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates), who hate women for having rejected them, huddle together online to talk about the apparently spoiled, fickle or shallow ‘bitches’ who have broken their collective hearts. 

Pornography, with its message that women are always sexually-available, up for it, and willing to be debased, is more easily accessible than ever to teens – pre-teens, even – with the ubiquity of the smartphone. And so, with some trepidation, I accepted the gig. Lads: A Guide to Consent and Respect was published in August last year, with The Guardian going on to call it ‘the antidote to Andrew Tate’.

In the book, I laid out to my imagined young reader the scale of the problem, urging them to think of themselves as part of the solution, before taking them through some of the difficult terrain they will have to traverse on their journey into manhood: flirting, pornography, misogynist peers and ‘locker-room talk’. 

Lads

Along the way I encourage them to be their best selves, to not ascribe negative values to women, and to challenge bad behaviour where they see it among their friends (difficult as that is). Throughout, I work on the presumption that the reader is probably a decent guy who wants to improve his relationship to women and girls, and so I urge them to listen to women, not to the men who hate or fear them. 

I’m not an infallible guide, and it’s possible some men may have given different advice, but it’s the advice I will be giving my own sons when they are teenagers to make their mum proud of them. It’s a ‘man-to-man’ conversation, hopefully written in a style that is humorous enough to engage while not holding back on the message. By the end I’ve tried to identify what a ‘good man’ is, because without positive role models (and there are plenty of bad ones), what is there for young men to aspire to?


“It’s been quite a learning curve for me, one that makes me dread my own sons becoming teenagers”


So, while the writing of Lads was no easy task – forcing me to learn from my own mistakes and shortcomings, as well as those of the men I have known – the publication of it has been quite another.

As a result of the book, I have been invited into dozens of schools up and down the UK, from Skye to Southampton, to deliver assemblies and workshops based on its themes. Believe me, it’s quite a thing to be faced with two hundred fourteen-year-old boys, all sitting with their arms folded, having been told that you’re there to teach them how to ‘do better’. I like a challenge, but that’s probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in my whole career (and my first book was published twenty-three years ago!). 

Lads

The reason why I’ve been drafted in, however, is because schools are reporting that in the last few years the behaviour of the boys has changed. They are making more sexist comments to the female members of staff than they would’ve done ten years ago, such as repeating to them Andrew Tate’s famous ‘make me a sandwich’ put-down. 

They are apparently pushing at other boundaries too, such as messaging the girls unwanted ‘dick pics’ (one girl even told her teacher, heart-breakingly, ‘that’s how we know they like us’) or sending nude photos of the girls round the school. Thankfully, not every boy is engaging in this kind of behaviour, but clearly enough of them are that the schools have recognised it as an alarming trend and are inviting me to speak to them on that basis.

It’s a fine line for me to walk. If I come in pointing angry fingers the boys will simply circle the wagons and shut me out. If I soft-soap things too much, the message is diluted, and the girls and female members or staff are left disappointed. I have to bring the boys onside, but not so onside that they never feel uncomfortable.

It’s been quite a learning curve for me, one that makes me dread my own sons becoming teenagers but one which has prepared me for that. And it’s not as though there haven’t been pockets of resistance from among the assemblies, handfuls of boys sniggering to each other and rolling their eyes. 

The very ones who have urgent need of the book, who are most likely to be the problem, are obviously the same ones who will be most resistant to listening. I hadn’t been quite prepared either for the bizarre questions that would come from some of them boys : ‘Isn’t it the case that women rape men as well?’; ‘What colour of hair does your wife have?’; ‘Have you ever cheated on a woman?’; and the inevitable question that I have been asked every single time: ‘What football team do you support?’ Men do love a tribe.

But, I’m also pleased to report that almost all of the boys I speak to engage with the book’s themes and show a willingness to learn. The majority of them are obviously fine young men, or certainly want to be, which has been the most heartening lesson I have taken from the strange trip that writing and publishing Lads has been.

In June I’ll be visiting various schools across Renfrewshire: Castlehead High, Johnstone High, Gryffe High, Paisley Grammar and St Andrews Academy. So, if you have a teenage son at one of these schools, who you are afraid might be going down the wrong path, or a teenage daughter who isn’t quite sure where her boundaries should lie, I might see them there. Just let them know I won’t be telling them what team I support!

Lads: A Guide to Respect and Consent for Teenage Boys by Alan Bissett is available in bookshops and online.

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