It’s weird, given how many magazines I used to plough through, that I’ve never forgotten this one piece. Even my recollection of Smith’s particular pose for the photograph was correct. I guess that no matter how hard I tried to persuade myself otherwise, there was still something about it that creeped me out. Embedded in it is what I might now think of as groomer logic. It takes things that you might find exploitative or harmful and presents them as normal or even positive; it takes advantage of the fact that you haven’t yet got the vocabulary or conceptual framework to articulate your discomfort; it alienates you from those who might validate this discomfort (the faux ‘outraged’); it confuses you by insisting rules that might apply elsewhere — don’t rape teenagers — don’t apply in this particular case. Above all it makes you feel like a massive idiot for still having that feeling, deep in your stomach, that things aren’t okay.
There’s something of this I see in the backlash to the backlash to the film Cuties (Mignonnes). Having criticised the marketing and one of the scenes on twitter, I felt I had to watch it “to be fair” (which is annoying, since had I not been offended, I might have overlooked it completely). And, to be even more fair, I thought the vast majority of the film was brilliant. The actresses are superb and it somehow manages to depict the viciousness of female friendships without resorting to crass “girls are just bitches” tropes. I’d have liked to see even more of the friendships. More friendships and fewer close-ups of gyrating bodies.
To be clear, the “bad” clips from the film circulating on social media show most — but not all — of the unpleasant scenes. There’s a point (I was about to say how many minutes from the end, but then thought, no, don’t make looking it up that easy) where you suddenly think “hang on, why are they filming it this way? It was fine up to now!” Yes, there is a point to be made: little girls simulate pornified performances from popular culture without fully understanding what they are doing. But it is surely possible to film this in a way that does not replicate the production values and principles of pornography. The close-ups are excessive and it is frankly jarring in a film that spends so much time conveying the perspective of the main character, Amy, to suddenly find yourself watching from the viewpoint of a dodgy porn consumer. And yes, that may be the intent — see how this girl, who you know is so human, is now just an object! See how you, the viewer, are made complicit in her objectification! But intentional or not, this is harmful.
I am conscious of how much of a twat you sound when you start declaring certain artistic productions “harmful”. Ooh, hark at Mary Whitehouse over there! Get you and your moral panic! This has been the tone of much of the response to the original criticism of Cuties. The Telegraph’s review declares it a “provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality”, insisting that “Netflix’s controversial French import is disturbing and risqué because that’s exactly what it aims to be”. Meaning, if you find it problematic, you’re the problem (because obviously, sexually objectifying children is exactly the same as recognising that children will wish to explore their own sexuality. As opposed to, I don’t know, being the exact opposite).
Then again, the issue might not be that you’re a prude; it might just be that you’re stupid. Alyssa Rosenberg declares that “if conservatives [because all critics must be ‘conservatives’] who have jumped on the debate over #Cuties, want to be taken seriously as cultural arbiters, they have to be able to talk about the *text* of a movie like this in an honest, responsible way”. Ooh! The TEXT! As though having a problem with close-ups of pre-teens humping the floor isn’t enough. As though saying so out loud reveals you to be shallow, lacking in learning, too dumb to grasp the broader message. As though, like some moron who never even noticed that FHM and Loaded sexism was, like, totally ironic sexism, you’re just too thick to differentiate between the thing in itself and a critique of said thing (what with both things looking exactly the same).
I’m not saying the question of “how do you produce a criticism of X without replicating X” is an easy one to answer. I’m put in mind of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Marti Noxon’s To The Bone, both of which fall down by assuming the answer is “it’s criticism because I say so”. Yes, in its extreme misogyny and violence American Psycho “holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces” but really, this is something the reader will have already worked out about a quarter of the way in. Only the book goes on and on, and it kind of has to, because nihilistic repetition is part of the point, innit, and oh look, you’re at one of the ‘women being raped and tortured’ bits again and yes, maybe as a cultural event (ahem) the book would otherwise fail. Part of the genius of American Psycho is that it is so unremitting, yet the misogynistic fantasies aren’t any less misogynistic because of this. The narrative rhythm depends on Patrick Bateman tearing women to pieces and fucking their corpses, then listing men’s toiletries and pondering the work of Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis and the News. It’s clever, yes, but it’s also hate-filled. It’s higher art but if you can get in a tizz about Blurred Lines, you might also want to question the impact of books like this.
Meanwhile the film To The Bone tells the story of an anorexia sufferer, played by Lily Collins, who lost a significant amount of weight for the role. I reviewed the film when it was released and felt that, had I still been suffering from anorexia, I’d have found it dangerous. What struck me was that Collins — herself a former sufferer — wasn’t performing starvation. She was literally starving, just as the girls in Cuties are literally thrusting for the cameras. To me, this is unjustifiable. There are times when the gap between being and critiquing is unclear, but this is not the case with American Psycho, To The Bone or Cuties. There is no gap at all.
Anyhow, that’s enough on the complex tension between artistic intent and the uncontrollable demands of a fluid audience . What really pisses me off about those defending the pornified scenes in Cuties is the intellectual snobbery, the way in which it’s suggested that those who raise concerns about child safeguarding are just incapable of grappling with the complex socio-cultural themes of the oeuvre. I totally agree that Cuties explores some fascinating themes. I’m just guessing that those who fast-forward to particular scenes in order to do particular “things” aren’t particularly arsed about those. I don’t think anyone sits down to “focus on” those scenes then thinks “hang on, there’s a broader message here about the immigrant experience and the way in which patriarchy is transmitted intergenerationally by women themselves and how social media blah blah blah”. The girls who are featured in these scenes have no control over how others respond to them and these scenes are out there, forever.
One of the aspects of Amy’s characterisation that I loved was that she’s the one who pushes things too far without realising what she’s doing, and while remaining the least dominant member of the group. It felt entirely relatable, yet I’ve never seen this dynamic portrayed so well before. This could so easily have been the story. It’s almost as though there’s a point at which Amy’s inner life, so beautifully portrayed, ceases to be considered interesting enough to hold its own. These actresses deserved better, so much so it is very tempting to stay quiet about the film’s bad parts (in much the same way that it is difficult for feminists to criticise any aspect of the sex trade without being told they are undermining sex workers. Industries which sexually objectify create their own human shields).
In recent years Mandy Smith — who divorced Bill Wyman at 20 — has become a born-again Christian and recommended raising the age of consent to 18. Speaking of her past, she has said “You are still a child, even at 16. You can never get that part of your life, your childhood, back. I never could” (so much for “acts much older than her 16 years”). One could argue that she is replacing one patriarchal regime with another (in much the way defenders of Cuties have tried to use the film’s exploration of different forms of patriarchal control to defend its explicit scenes). In any case, it seems clear to me that the ‘outraged’ were onto something all along.
Newspapers today might not salivate over “wild children” as they did in the eighties; they wouldn’t get away with it. Still, I don’t find it hard to imagine a similar phenomenon being repackaged by Teen Vogue as “teen girls exploring their sexuality”. It is very easy to shame people out of expressing misgivings (you’re prudish, you’re immature, you’re stupid, you’re in league with the Christian Right). But things that are done to bodies can’t be undone. Young girl goes for it. There is so much spirit in girls. We shouldn’t be crushing it while claiming to celebrate it.
What should be done with these 400 newly minted paedophiles each month. That is the subject of a documentary to be broadcast on BBC Three, which asks: Can Sex Offenders Change? Presenter Becky Southworth, a victim of sexual abuse by her father, talks to men with convictions for sexual offences involving children who are involved in treatment programmes, and to some of the experts providing the treatment. “I don’t want there to be any more victims,” she says. “I want to believe these programmes are actually working.”
What she doesn’t say is that treatment of sex offenders has a dubious history. Last year, it was ruled that the Ministry of Justice unlawfully continued the use of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme for five years after the evidence showed it was ineffective – or rather, that if it had any effect at all, it was to make participants more likely to offend.
A report into the treatment programme found it was effectively a networking opportunity for paedophiles: “When stories are shared, their behaviour may not be seen as wrong or different; or at worst, contacts and sources associated with sexual offending may be shared.”
The experts Southworth meets are not involved in that discredited programme, and claim good success rates – Belinda Winder, of the Safer Living Foundation, tells Southworth that of 60 high-risk offenders the foundation has worked with, only one has reoffended. The perpetrators give a closer view of what that success might look like, and it isn’t easy to sympathise with.
They fall into two broad camps. On one side, there are men like “Kyle” (all the men’s names have been changed and their identities obscured), whose compulsive use of pornography led them into more and more extreme territory, including imagery of children. They often describe themselves as “addicted” and attribute their crimes to stress.
On the other, there are those like “Andrew” who are sexually attracted to children – the “true paedophile”. It’s “Andrew” who causes Southworth the most concern. “He talks about his attraction to children as a sexuality,” she says, “and for me a sexuality isn’t something you can change, even with therapy.”
One thing the experts emphasise is that ostracising these men is the worst possible thing. The more they’re cut off from society, the less they have to lose from acting on their impulses. It’s one thing to hear that, and another to be confronted with the reality of “Vicky” who has stood by her partner “Chris” after his conviction for accessing child abuse images. Southworth starts by wondering how anyone could stay with a man like that, but at the end of their conversation, the question is more one of what “Vicky” is getting out of this. It might be good for society, but it doesn’t seem great for her.
With “Andrew”, the bar to empathy is even higher. He claims that early trauma has fixed him in a child-like mentality of which his paedophilia is one expression: Becky, who knows more than most people about trauma, gives a look of peerless scepticism to the camera at this point. The problem is that “Andrew” as a concrete person, rather than an abstraction, is pretty disgusting: when he complains that “I’m treated like a predator, but in reality I’ve always been much closer to a victim,” you wonder what room his philosophy contains for the actual victims in the images he used.
Maybe “Andrew” will read me calling him disgusting, though, and spiral into more offending. What is there to hold men like him back from acting on their desires? They know they’re held in public contempt. The only place they get to feel normal is with others who share their transgression – the main way images of child abuse proliferate is by informal distribution through paedophile networks. The men Southworth meets are reprehensible people, or at any rate, people who’ve done reprehensible things. Experts say their rehabilitation depends on them learning to think of themselves as not wholly reprehensible. It’s hard to stomach.
Like Southworth, I started this documentary wanting to believe sex offenders can change. I ended it with profound admiration for the people providing the programmes, because it turns out this is a point where my compassion cannot pass.
I want these men to live in shame of what they’ve done and terror of what would happen to them if anyone found out. I want them to have their second chance in theory, but in practice I can’t think of a single one I think they deserve. I want them to disappear. Instead, there are 400 more of them every month.
Below is an extract from a much longer essay in The Atlantic, by Helen Lewis, I would recommend reading the whole thing.
In her 1991 essay “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” the feminist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon referenced the Till case to explain the malignant stereotype that has grown up around the “white woman” in the United States. “This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother, and not economically exploited,” wrote MacKinnon. “She is Miss Anne of the kitchen, she puts Frederick Douglass to the lash, she cries rape when Emmett Till looks at her sideways, she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very well-manicured little finger.” She might have added, echoing the LA Times: Nothing worse happens to the white woman than a viral-video shaming.
MacKinnon’s point was that sexism existed, and even whiteness did not protect women from suffering it. (A response to MacKinnon by the Yale Collective on Women of Color and the Law contested some of her points, but agreed that feminism had to address the “very real oppression suffered by women, despite any access women may have to social privilege.”) Call the Karen meme sexist, though, and you will stumble into the middle of a Venn diagram, where progressive activists and anti-feminists can agree with each other: When white women say they’ve been raped, we should doubt them, because we know white women lie. And underneath that: What do white women have to complain about, anyway?
Ageism is also a factor. As a name, Karen peaked in the U.S. in the 1960s, and is now rare for newborns, so today’s Karen is likely to be well into middle age. As women shout and rant and protest in out-of-context clips designed to paint them in the most viral-friendly light possible, they are portrayed as witches, harridans, harpies: women who dare to keep existing, speaking, and asking to see the manager, after their reproductive peak.
In her essay, MacKinnon wrote that it was hard for women to organize “as women.” Many of us, she wrote, are more comfortable organizing around identities we share with men, such as gay rights or civil rights. “I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of any group that includes men than in being part of a group that includes that ultimate reduction of the notion of oppression, that instigator of lynch mobs, that ludicrous whiner, that equality coattails rider, the white woman,” she added. “It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed as opposed to inferior.” That is the minefield that anyone who wants to use the Karen meme to “punch up” has to traverse. You will find yourself in unsavory company alongside those who see white women as ludicrous whiners.
In 2011, writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledged the sexism that suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké faced from fellow abolitionists, and their sense of being told again and again that women’s rights were important, sure, but not urgent. Coates does not acquit these white suffragists of racial entitlement, but adds: “When the goal—abolition—was achieved, they hoped for some reciprocity. It did not come.” Without excusing their lack of solidarity, he attempts to understand it. The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the vote, came nearly 50 years after the Fifteenth, which ruled that voting rights could not be restricted “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
This uneasy history explains why the Karen debate has become so furious. It prods at several questions that are too painful for many of us to address. How far does white skin shield a woman from sexism? Do women “cry rape” with enough frequency to concern us, or is that another misogynist myth? How do Black women navigate competing demands for solidarity from their white sisters and their Black brothers? Does it still feel like punching up if you’re joined by anti-feminists such as Watson, and a guy on a bike who shouts “stupid bitch” at women he doesn’t like? And why is it okay to be more angry with the white women questioning the Karen meme than the white men appropriating it?
The Karen debate can, and perhaps will, go on forever, because it is equally defensible to argue that white women are oppressed for their sex, and privileged by their race. (“Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else,” in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase.) If successive generations of schoolchildren can see that, maybe adults can too. After all, the most potent echo of the Till case in literature comes from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, published five years after the 14-year-old’s murder. In the book, “white trash” Mayella Ewell testifies that her family’s Black servant, Tom Robinson, raped her. It is a lie. The book’s hero, the lawyer Atticus Finch, exposes that lie only by also revealing Mayella’s real trauma: She came on to Tom, and was beaten savagely by her father, Bob, as a result. Bob Ewell’s capacity for extreme violence is further demonstrated when he attempts to kill Finch’s children in revenge for being humiliated in court. Mayella Ewell is half victim, half accomplice—a victim of male violence, and an accomplice to white supremacy.
Her story, therefore, is one of both complicity and oppression. It is not simple or easy. No wonder it was so challenging then, and no wonder our feelings toward her daughters, the internet’s hated Karens, are so challenging now.
On the evening of October 9, 2019, FBI agents searched an office building in downtown San Diego. Inside was the headquarters of Girls Do Porn, a porn production company run by a group of men whose main business operation was coercing hundreds of women into having sex on camera.
The next day, the FBI charged the owners of Girls Do Porn with federal counts of sex trafficking. The raid came in the middle of a years-long civil trial, where 22 of Girls Do Porn’s victims sued the company for lying to them about how the videos would be spread online. In January, the women won, and the owners of Girls Do Porn—primarily Michael Pratt, Matthew Wolfe, and Andre Garcia—owe them nearly $13 million.
But details of the extent of the harassment and abuse these women and their legal team endured are still coming to light. In a recently-released document, we can see what the FBI found when it searched the Girls Do Porn office last fall. According to the document, the FBI found evidence suggesting the Girls Do Porn owners planned to flee the country to avoid arrest, attempts to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars, distribute a fake porn video to humiliate the women and their lawyers, and attempts to impersonate journalists in order to harass them.
Girls Do Porn co-conspirator and lead videographer Matthew Wolfe, who was arrested the day before the office search in October, filed a motion to be released and have a bail set, citing health reasons, including mild sleep apnea, as a risk for contracting Covid-19 in detention. The document is the government’s response in opposition to his motion to rescind the detention order and set bail.
The government asserts that, partially based on the findings from the raid, Wolfe poses a flight risk, and “no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure [Wolfe’s] appearance and the safety of the Community.”
“Defendant has no reason to remain in the United States. He is a citizen of New Zealand with no right to live or work in the United States. He could live anywhere. He owes millions of dollars to a subset of his victims. For the reasons previously stated, and in consideration of the new evidence below, the United States urges the Court to deny the motion.”
The details of the items seized that the FBI includes in this letter paint a more complete picture of a group of people working to harass and silence their victims even as testimonies about their criminal operation continue to pile up against them. Agents found a chart “listing countries that do not extradite individuals to the United States,” which indicated “whether each country had on-line banking and whether citizens of New Zealand, like [Wolfe], could obtain a visa.”
They also found a video script entitled “22 Whores + 5 Shady Lawyers VS GirlsDoPorn,” with the subheading, “Share and spread this video as far and wide as possible” and listed the names of the plaintiffs in the civil suit, “along with information intended to embarrass, harass and intimidate them,” according to the FBI, including full names and location.
“Ask yourself how viral these videos will go now if nobody is controlling them . . . . Good Job :)” the script said.
Brian Holm, one of the lead attorneys representing the women in the Girls Do Porn case, told me that the fact that the Girls Do Porn owners were preparing to release a video to dox them is not surprising at all. Since filing the case three years ago, Holm and his co-counsel John O’Brien have endured endless, aggressive harassment.
In November, Pratt and Girls Do Porn producer Kevin Gibson allegedly harassed Holm by photoshopping his face into porn to make it look like he was posing with two male porn actors. The images were spread through social media.
“Since filing this case, my wife and I had our tires slashed,” Holm told me in an email. “Someone created an online profile (website, Twitter account, etc.) for ‘Holm Whore Group.’ Pictures of my wife and one day old daughter were published on pornography blogs under some abhorrent headlines. My phone was spammed and rang every 30 seconds for several months. And I had a private investigator following me around videotaping me…. All the harassment did is tell us we were on the right track.”
The FBI also found a phone list with the victims’ names and phone numbers, and on the back, a handwritten note outlining a script for impersonating a journalist. “Hi My name is [******], I’m a journalist from LA, I’m calling in regards to the girlsdoporn case,” the note said. “I’ve heard your [sic] related to the case & curious to get a comment if you have the spare time.”
Holm confirmed to Motherboard that several of his clients said they had been contacted by someone claiming to be a reporter from either the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times. “It was the same phone number calling them claiming to be from multiple different media outlets,” he said. “I called the number several times but no one answered.”
When Britney Spears lost it in 2007, shaving her head and waving a baseball bat at anyone who approached her, I confess that my initial reaction was “get in! Now THAT’s what I call a protest!” A decade before the eruption of #metoo, there was a woman truly raging, in an industry that tends to reduce female anger to getting a bit feisty about your ex while wearing a push-up bra. The head shaving felt satisfyingly symbolic – see how swiftly the feminine mystique can be dispensed with! I loved her for that. It reminded me of Donita Sparks throwing her sanitary protection into an unappreciative Reading crowd, uttering the immortal line “eat my used tampon, fuckers!” Only that was L7, so you kind of expected it. This, though, was Britney!
After that I fully expected Spears to re-emerge, Alanis Morrisette-like, with a ton of songs dissing everyone in the music industry who’d ever exploited her. Instead, she shrank, with her father Jamie being assigned the role of her conservator, managing her wealth and personal decisions, in 2008. She grew her hair back, re-embraced the art of femininity and got back to business, gyrating and thrusting as before. Like many, I found it strange for her to be working so hard and so publicly if she was too ill to be in control of her own life. This week, after 12 years, Spears filed to have her father permanently removed from his role (though others may assume some control).
What gets me is the optics of the thing – the clipping of wings, the silencing of protest, the return to paternal authority. It’s like something out of Showalter’s The Female Malady, or one of those works of feminist fiction – Wide Sargasso Sea, The Yellow Wallpaper – in which a husband drives his wife insane by defining and treating her as such. It’s reminiscent of twentieth-century stories of fathers seeking to “manage” their socially embarrassing daughters by having them institutionalised or even lobotomised (the most famous example being John F Kennedy’s sister Rosemary). It’s a million stories, as Showalter documents, of psychiatric diagnoses being used as “punishment for intellectual ambition, domestic defiance, and sexual autonomy”. It looks like a woman being punished – and driven to the edge – for stepping out of line.
What I’m suggesting might sound anachronistic. Mental illness diagnoses may once have been weaponised, but there’s a general feeling that this died a death with deinstitutionalisation in the late twentieth century. We are clever now, psychiatry is clever, and when individuals have control of their own lives taken from them, it is only because they are truly ill. The trouble is, I bet that’s what fathers of lobotomised daughters and husbands of neurasthenic wives told themselves, too. How do you check the purity of your own motivations when judging the depths of another’s delusions?
However much outside observers speculate on Spears’ state of mind – she looked a bit weird in that video, her pupils are all funny, was that Instagram message a secret sign? etc. – you don’t have to decide she looks well to suspect there is something wrong in how she is being treated. Sick or healthy, it’s very hard to see how she might ever get out of it. There are few things that are harder to prove than sanity once you’re deemed to have fallen on the wrong side of it (see the Rosenhan experiment, which, for all its possible flaws, still rings true). And then there’s that feedback loop between treating someone as though they are “abnormal” and them behaving “abnormally”.
This process is captured beautifully in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel reimagines the life of the first Mrs Rochester (aka Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). In Rhys’s telling, Rochester is a weak, frightened man, unable to cope with the different culture of his Caribbean wife and easily swayed by rumours about her “insane” family background. Antoinette – Bertha’s name before he takes it from her – finds she cannot please him, resorting to increasingly desperate measures. One night she asks him if he hates her:
‘“I do not hate you, I am most distressed about you, I am distraught,” I said. But this was untrue, I was not distraught, it was the first time I had felt calm or self-possessed for many a long day.’
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, lines like this can hit you full in the gut, because they are so familiar. That moment when you know you’ve been outmanoeuvred by a man’s performance of sadness at your supposed insanity:
“We won’t talk about it now,” I said. “Rest tonight.”
“But we must talk about it.” Her voice was high and shrill.
“Only if you promise to be reasonable.”
You read it, and you want to scream in his face (only you’d end up in the attic, too). Reasonable, my arse.
I first read Wide Sargasso Sea as an A level set text in 1992. It was four years since I’d completed an eight-month stay in what was euphemistically called an adolescent unit. This was ostensibly for anorexia, but anything you did in that place could be construed as mad and usually was. I could write reams about that place – don’t worry, I’ll try not to – but one particularly delightful part of the daily routine was the handover, when night staff handed over to day staff, and vice versa. For reasons I will never grasp, this had to be done with everyone, patients and staff, gathered together in a room so that everyone could hear what was being reported about everyone else.
“Victoria spent a long part of Tuesday evening staring at the TV room curtains … On Wednesday afternoon, Victoria seemed very fixated on Madge in Neighbours … On Thursday morning, Victoria insisted on eating her cereal with a soup spoon despite an availability of dessert spoons … We are increasingly concerned about Victoria’s fixation on Madge and would like to alert staff in case this should extend to Scott and Charlene.”
This is literally how it would go. The curtain thing in particular has stuck in my mind (hey, maybe I am fixated?). I wanted to complain that I wasn’t staring at the curtains, only that would have constituted denial. In order to demonstrate a healthy grasp of reality, you had to accept that anything anyone else said about you was true.
It’s incredibly hard to convey what this does to you, knowing your every move is being over-analysed and noted down in order to be broadcast to everyone around you (a bit like being famous, I guess, which makes Spears’ situation all the more agonising). It makes you desperate to “act normal” but telling yourself to act normal is like telling yourself not to think of an elephant. It makes you do the opposite. It’s like Catch 22 (another cultural artefact I’ve neither seen nor read, but nonetheless have opinions about).
This is why Wide Sargasso Sea affected me so much and remains one of my favourite books. Antoinette made me think of me. And now she makes me think of Britney. And the worst of it is, it never goes away.
As Charlotte Perkins Gillman illustrates so terrifyingly in The Yellow Wallpaper, patriarchy doesn’t just tell women they’re mad, but can make them so. It deprives them of bodily autonomy, intellectual stimulation, community, a basic feeling of safety. I still have a “contract” I had to sign, aged 12, listing the privileges I had to “earn back” as part of my treatment for anorexia. I’m glad I still have it, otherwise I’d think I’d imagined denying girls books – books! – was still a thing in 1987. It becomes impossible to distinguish between symptoms of an illness and responses to its treatment. I am doubtful, for instance, as to whether I would have made meals last four hours had I been granted anything else to do other than stare at walls. Yet timing meals is something that stayed with me for years.
In Why Women Are Blamed For Everything, Dr Jessica Taylor draws parallels between the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and those formerly used for hysteria:
“They are essentially the same diagnosis. They are both targeting women and girls. They are both built around gender role stereotypes. They both oppress traumatised and abused women. Where hysteria (or ‘wandering womb syndrome’) was said to be caused by women’s hormones and biology, BPD is said to be a disordered personality. Both are innate, internal causes which need to be medicated, treated and dealt with.”
I increasingly see the mention of BPD in reports on anorexia and bulimia, with the implication that this makes sufferers less manageable during treatment. It makes me feel little progress has been made in recognising trauma. As Judith Herman writes, trauma survivors “often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility”. They don’t sell themselves well. They starve, binge, shave their heads, wave baseball bats. Meanwhile, self-styled guardians, calm as Rochester, maintain “[their] prerogative to name and define reality”. They get their conservatorships.
By the time I was aged thirty, I had a PhD and a full-time job, had been with my partner for five years and was thinking of starting a family. This didn’t stop a male family member from turning up unannounced at my partner’s place of work to berate him about how unstable I “really” was, even though I was “good at hiding it”. I had tried to persuade him not to, but that had been construed as me not being in touch with reality. This impasse was only resolved months later, at which point it was agreed that I wasn’t particularly ill, but that this meant I’d been making people think I was ill, which was in itself a mad thing to do. I’ve never really challenged this. There reaches a point where you have to go along with other people’s narratives – “yeah, soz for pretending to be mad, don’t know what got into me” – because you can’t be arsed to bring any more accusations your way by protesting. You try to speak and hear every word going through the “madness” filter before it reaches anyone else (“her voice was high and shrill”, as Rochester puts it. Isn’t it always? That’s how people talk when they’re scared).
So what can you do? Say what they want you to say. Grow your hair. Do your dance. The whole thing is profoundly patriarchal, when you think about it. Therefore you try not to think about it too much, otherwise you’d prove them right by genuinely losing your mind.
Becky Southworth was 13 when her dad was arrested for sex offences against children. He spent 10 years in prison for his crimes – and part of his sentence was for crimes against Becky.
“If you’ve ever been affected by anything like sexual abuse, you know you don’t ever fully recover. And you would never want anybody to feel the way that you have.
“It wasn’t until my dad had done 10 years of his sentence that I realised he’d have to be released some day and I might see him again.”
Becky was told her dad completed a sex offenders’ treatment programme while in prison – the same one that was scrapped in 2017 because there were findings that said it actually led to more reoffending.
“When I found that out I had to ask, ‘should this person be released?'” she says.
“It’s terrifying. I don’t know if he’ll do it again.”
Becky’s dad is now out of prison but she doesn’t have a relationship with him. She says she didn’t feel as though she could speak to him but, in her documentary Can Sex Offenders Change?, she speaks to others who have committed similar crimes about why they did it and the treatment they’ve been through.
This comes as reports of child abuse images online have increased by almost 50% during lockdown, according to the Internet Watch Foundation.
In the documentary, Becky, 26, speaks to Andrew*, who is on the Sex Offender Register for 10 years for downloading indecent images of children.
He was convicted with almost 80,000 indecent images of children on his computer.
Like a lot of people who’ve been convicted of looking at sexual images of children he’s not been to prison.
Andrew agreed to meet Becky in a car in an isolated location where he could see who was approaching. He told her about a time recently when he accidentally walked past a children’s paddling pool party where some of the children were naked.
“I make sure that I don’t put myself in difficult situations,” he says. “But sometimes they find you.”
Andrew, who says he experienced some form of sexual abuse as a child, told Becky that pedophilia was “normal” to him.
“I lived every day with it and as such it was my normal life,” he says.
Becky admits it was a “surreal” experience to interview and get to know Andrew while making the documentary.
“I was very aware that the person in front of me had done this horrific thing.
“And the very first time I met Andrew, I just felt sick and wanted to get out of the car. My gut instinct was to hate him. It took so much for me to stay and listen.”
In the documentary, Becky reacts to Andrew’s explanation about his own childhood sexual abuse: “This idea that the abused becomes the abuser, I just can’t comprehend that. I can’t comprehend knowing the pain that I felt, why would you then want someone else to feel that way?
“I just can’t accept that as an excuse.”
It is five years since Andrew was caught with images of children being sexually abused and he’s been having therapy for 18 months.
He attends two sessions of psychotherapy per week with an organisation called StopSO.
His therapist, Michele, offers specialist trauma-based psychotherapy. He treats both perpetrators and victims of abuse.
“There are events in the life of everyone where something can trigger and you find yourself re-enacting what probably has been done to you,” the therapist says. “But through the work that we do, we try to do our best [to make sure] that doesn’t happen.
“Up to now, as far as I know, no clients have reoffended.”
In the documentary, Michele also discusses the link between porn addiction and viewing illegal child sexual abuse images.
“There are people that start with normal porn and then through becoming porn-addicted, because most of the time there is also porn addiction in place, they want to know more, they want to see more and then they find themselves in this situation.
“And so they start to develop other interests.”
Later, Becky met 22-year-old Kyle*. He was 19 when he was arrested for possession of indecent images of children. He was 13 when he started to look at images of children being sexually abused.
“I worked out that because I was so isolated I was feeling very depressed,” he says. “I was using imagery and harmful sexual thoughts to make myself feel good at the time.
“It was a build up. The original stuff I was looking at wasn’t effective any more. So I then moved onto the next step, to something slightly worse and worse until it reached that point because that was what was giving me the adrenaline rush.
“I knew it was wrong but when you’re in that moment you don’t think rationally.”
A man sexually abused as a schoolboy has been awarded more than £1m from his teacher’s employer.
Haringey Council’s insurers argued unsuccessfully the assaults by Andrew Adams had caused no long-term trauma.
Despite pleading guilty to criminal charges, Adams argued in a civil case 13-year-old “James” had groomed him.
Haringey said it had “strongly condemned” Adams’s actions, adding the appeal had been brought by its insurers to determine the level of damages.
In 1980, a man raped James.
Scared and confused, he confided in his teacher at Highgate Wood School, in north London.
Adams told him the rape proved he was gay, everyone would hate him but he would be his friend.
And he proceeded to groom and then sexually abuse James for years.
Speaking exclusively to BBC News, in his first interview since the ruling in February, James, who asked not to use his real name, said: “Adams assaulted me in the school changing rooms, the gym and outside of term time in the school’s VW van.
“He was admired, no-one questioned him.”
After school, Adams would take him to the home he shared with his mother and rape him while she was in the house.
Afterwards, Adams would make himself a sandwich and eat it while James watched him, hungry.
Adams also took James to Hampstead Heath and public lavatories and made him watch men having sex.
“His thing was assaulting you in public places and getting away with it,” James said.
“He sexually assaulted me in Regent’s Park mosque.
“And I’m sure it was just for titillation, to get away with it.”
James believes other staff at the school suspected Adams – but no-one investigated.
The teenager became distant from his friends and family.
And the abuse and sexual activity continued until he was 21.
He felt utterly alone with his secret.
And, even though he was successful in the IT industry, James had two breakdowns.
Meanwhile, Adams thrived, becoming deputy head of Highgate Wood and even having a wing of the school named after him.
Eventually, when talking to a psychiatrist, James disclosed the abuse.
He then went to the police.
And in 2014, Adams pleaded guilty to charges of assault and buggery against James.
He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, later reduced to eight years on appeal.
By this point, James was so mentally damaged by the legacy of what had happened he could no longer work.
He sued Adams and Haringey.
But in court Adams said it was James who had groomed him.
And James had to spend two days in the witness box.
“The idea that I, as a 13-year-old pre-pubescent boy, could somehow instigate or groom a 35-year-old teacher – I was shocked,” he said.
“All I could do was deny it.”
QotD: “What Rich writes about intergenerational tensions and the ways in which women disidentify from both their bodies and other women is remarkable, and tremendously relevant today”
Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born was first published in 1976, when I was one year old. Hence it is not the feminism of my generation, but the feminism which my generation was destined to deride. As a postgrad student I’d have taken one look at that book and asked why, if second wave feminists thought biology was not destiny, were they writing about bodies at all? Weren’t we more than walking wombs? Thus I only picked it up five years ago, by which time I’d reached forty and was pregnant with my third child (both shameful acts of biological essentialism, I know). Reading it felt like a slap in the face. “Ha! You thought this shit would never happen to you, but look, it has!”
What Rich writes about intergenerational tensions and the ways in which women disidentify from both their bodies and other women is remarkable, and tremendously relevant today.
“No wonder,” writes Rich, “that many intellectual and creative women have insisted that they were ‘human beings’ first and women only incidentally, have minimized their physicality and their bonds with other women. The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.”
Biology isn’t real, sex is a construct, if you really hated femininity you wouldn’t be a woman at all – all of these current beliefs seem to me already captured in Rich’s words. She goes on to describe how “patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons”. Of course. We’d rather be “individuals with a cervix” since not all of those are women; some of them are people.
Rich describes herself looking at her own mother and thinking “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently”. Who hasn’t thought that, if not about domestic life, then about the feminism itself? After all, if the previous waves hadn’t messed it up so badly, we’d all be free today:
“For it was too simple, early in the new twentieth-century wave of feminism, for us to analyse our mother’s oppression, to understand ‘rationally’ – and correctly – why our mothers did not teach us to be Amazons, why they bound our feet or simply left us […] Thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of, the one through whom the restrictions and degradations of a female existence were perforce transmitted. Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her. But where a mother is hated to the point of matrophobia there may also be a deep underlying pull toward her, a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.”
You have to believe the women who went before you got it wrong – and that you are fundamentally different – otherwise what’s to stop you ending up in the same place? Where a Karen is hated to the point of Karenphobia there may also be a deep underlying pull towards her, a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.
This is another example where ‘sex work is work’, but at the same time ‘sex work’ needs to be treated completely differently to any other kind of ‘work’.
If undercover filming had revealed breaches to food hygiene and safety regulations in a restaurant, would the chefs try to argue that their human rights had been violated by revealing the breach?
Also, co-opting the term ‘revenge porn’ is pretty low, particularly when, as Not Buying It points out, the lap dancers were regularly filmed on CCTV at ‘work’ anyway.
If Sheffield council had investigated Spearmint Rhino, Not Buying It wouldn’t have had to do so. This is DARVO (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender) by Spearmint Rhino, who, as Not Buying It reveals, but the BBC failed to report, had fired half of the lap dancers they claimed to be acting on behalf of, and has a long history of abusive ‘working’ conditions.
The legal challenge by the club was ‘fronted’ by 9 of its lap dancers (half of whom, it was later revealed, the strip chain had fired) with most prior media coverage not mentioning Rhino’s involvement at all, even though two Spearmint Rhino companies were claimants in the action.
Ostensibly, Spearmint Rhino and its lap dancers had taken Not Buying It and it’s CEO to court because of video evidence the pressure group had had to gather as proof of breaches and exploitation at the chain. It was asserted that it was a breach of privacy for gathering such evidence (even though lap dancers are filmed at their place of work by club CCTV all the time) and that the pressure group would distribute such footage-some even declaring this ‘an act of revenge porn’.
“We made it clear long before they thought of taking us to court that we are about exposing the industry, not the dancers. We also made it clear that we were taking proper steps to protect the women’s privacy. We have never, and will never, identify them and we certainly were never going to distribute any video footage! What Rhino was really trying to quash was the serious breaches and exploitation at their clubs –typical of how the entire strip industry operates” says Dr Rakoff.
Not Buying It believes this is yet more evidence of how the strip industry uses and ‘hides behind’ its lap dancers for its own ends.
“By discontinuing the claim Spearmint Rhino has now basically told us ‘do what you like with the videos’. It clearly shows the real motivation for this case – threatening anyone who dares whistle blow on the strip trade with hugely stressful and potentially ruinous legal proceedings.”
It also shows the huge conflict of interests at play.
“This is a strip chain that has previously gone to court to stop lap dancers from having employment rights. It had fired half the women it then used to take this case against us. It has a documented 20 year history of exploitation (including prostitution, harassment and assault of its lap dancers). Yet we are supposed to now believe that it cares so very much about its lap dancers that it took this legal action, at a cost to itself of £10,000s if not £100,000s,‘on their behalf’? No. There was only ever one interest being served here and that was Spearmint Rhino’s” says Rakoff.