How much empathy do we have for a Lonely Boy?

Steve Jones (2016). Lonely Boy: tales from a Sex Pistol. London: William Heinemann.

Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols is renowned for three things: being a Sex Pistol, being a prolific thief, and sleeping with a sizable proportion of the women he met. So when I saw in the media that Steve Jones was publishing an autobiography, I was surprised that the headline focused on him being a victim of child sex abuse.

The first section of the book focuses on his early life, including two incidents when he was sexually abused. The middle section deals with the rise and fall of the Pistols, and the final section deals with life after the Pistols, including his current life as host of the Los Angeles radio show Jonesy’s Jukebox.

In the first part Jones describes his early childhood in working class Hammersmith (London) with his mum and his grandparents. His later childhood was spent with his mum and stepdad in a nearby flat. He suffered sexual abuse from his stepdad at about age 10, and from “the local nonce” at about age 11.

As a result of sexual abuse, he lost trust in people, got a distorted view of what normality is, felt burdened by the secrets he carried, lost motivation for school, felt guilty and angry, and acted out in antisocial ways. He describes how he used thieving and promiscuity to “distract me from myself” (p.47) and get away from his feelings. More than once in the book he can’t recall a specific event or period of time, which he says is probably because it was so painful he’s blanked it out.

It’s known that that victims of child sexual abuse are more likely to have a conduct disorder (i.e. engage in antisocial behavior), especially if they are male (Spataro et al, 2004), and Jones’ story fits into this pattern. In the latter part of the book he describes the various ways in which as an adult he has been dealing the fallout of his abuse: the 12 step programme which helps him with substance abuse, therapy for his sexual issues, hypnosis to stop smoking, transcendental meditation to relax, and a men’s group which taught him “old-school” values he never learned in childhood.

Apart from being a good read, one thing strikes me about this book: despite all of the struggles he’s had, it’s not a straightforward job to see Jones as just a victim. After reading about the escapades of this legendary womanising rock icon kleptomaniac (e.g. dangerous high-speed driving in the streets of London in stolen cars while high on drugs), my first reaction is ‘he needs to wise up or he’ll kill somebody’, not ‘he needs therapy or he’ll get himself killed’. I can’t help thinking that if the same book was written by a woman with the same life experiences (child sexual abuse, then stealing compulsively, failing at school, becoming promiscuous, taking drugs, being a danger to self and others, ending up alone and in therapy), I think it would be difficult not to automatically feel more sorry for her and more readily attribute her erratic behavior to the child sex abuse.

I feel that my reaction should be more sympathetic to Jones, but research shows that people tend to automatically show less favour towards men than to women (Rudman & Goodwin, 2004). The roots of this ‘empathy gap’ probably run deep, in part because “men are expected from time immemorial to give protection, not receive it” (Seager, Farrell & Barry, 2016). This empathy gap is probably especially wide when men are ‘behaving badly’ – acting out emotional problems through antisocial behavior  – rather than doing what women do more readily, which is dealing with their emotional problems through crying and talking with friends or a therapist.

Lonely Boy is in some ways a tragic story, and shows just how long it can take to even begin to undo the damage done by child sexual abuse. Jones’ says he wants his story “to let anyone who’s been in a similar situation know they’re not alone” (Jones 2016, p.29). I think the book also shows that being a victim of child sexual abuse doesn’t mean you can’t go on to be a legend, albeit one with a lot of therapy ahead of them.


Jones, S. (2016). Lonely Boy: tales from a Sex Pistol. London: William Heinemann. ISBN-10: 1785150677

Rudman, L. A., & Goodwin, S. A. (2004). Gender differences in automatic in-group bias: Why do women like women more than men like men? Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(4), 494. Available online

Seager, M., Farrell, W., Barry, J.A. (2016). The male gender empathy gap: time for psychology to take action. New Male Studies, 5, 2, 6-16. Available online

Spataro, J., Mullen, P. E., Burgess, P. M., Wells, D. L., & Moss, S. A. (2004). Impact of child sexual abuse on mental health. The British Journal of Psychiatry184(5), 416-421. Available online

Dr John Barry is a psychologist researching Male Psychology

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