Mahad Olad, a high school student, used to be active in “the local social-justice scene” around Minneapolis, Minnesota, attending meetings and leading demonstrations for feminist, LGBT, and anti-racism groups. Then he became disillusioned.
When he was just 16, the ACLU profiled the teen activist. He came to the U.S. as a child. Later, his immigrant parents took him back to their home country, Kenya, so that their son could experience what it was like to live in that culture as well.
“In Kenya, he saw the harsh realities faced by women trying to access reproductive health-care services and how the gay and lesbian community is forced to live underground,” the ACLU explained. “While Mahad cares about many social-justice and civil-liberties issues, he is especially drawn to reproductive freedom and LGBT rights because of his experience in Kenya. He has been one of his school’s biggest advocates for comprehensive sex education and has helped to organize events at his school to teach students important information about comprehensive safe-sex practices, something that his school does not teach in class.”
Two years later he was sending off a frustrated email to me.
“I genuinely cared about these causes—still do,” he wrote, referencing everything from anti-racism to LGBT rights to reproductive health. “I believed I was doing something noble. At the same time,” he added, “a large part of me was not quite in agreement with some of the views and concepts espoused by social-justice groups. Their pro-censorship tendencies, fixation with intersectionality, and constant uproar over seemingly trivial and innocuous matters like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘microaggressions’ went against my civil-libertarian sensibilities.”
He fit in fine at the ACLU. But interacting with social-justice groups made up of high school and college students, he increasingly found himself having to bite his tongue.
“I never voiced my personal disagreements because having dissenting views is strictly forbidden in the activist circles I was a part of,” he explained. “If you’re white, you will be charged with being a ‘bad ally.’ (There’s also certain gatherings you cannot come to because your mere presence might be threatening.) If you’re a person of color, your disagreements will usually be dismissed as some form of ‘internalized racism,’ ‘internalized sexism,’ or ‘respectability politics,’ among many other activist jargon’s thrown at individuals who do not conform the groups views.”
Eventually, he started to speak up anyway, he said.
“On Twitter,” he wrote, “I discussed how trigger warnings have almost been rendered useless now that they’re used to alert individuals when talking about normal everyday things, like food, cars and animals. And that their use could potentially have adverse effects on academic freedom. I was accused of being outrageously insensitive and apparently made three activist cohorts have traumatic breakdowns.”
“In another tweet,” he added, “I criticized the usual tactic of campus activists to disrupt and heckle controversial speakers and advised them to raise their strong objections during the question and answer session, which lectures usually reserve long hours precisely to debate opponents. This time, the attacks got a little more personal. I was accused of being a ‘respectable negro,’ ‘uncle tom,’ ‘local coon’ and defending university officials to continue to ‘systemically oppress minorities.’”
I asked if he thought his race and ethnicity made it easier or harder to dissent. “A little easier, I guess,” he replied, “But it really doesn’t feel good being a called a ‘house nigger.’”
He says he was ultimately kicked out of student-led social justice groups.
“In no way am I denying or minimizing the appalling fact that, sometimes, racial and ethnic minority students face abhorrent discrimination—even hate crimes— on certain college and university campuses” he wrote. “For that reason, occasionally, there’s very legitimate reasons for these student activists to be worried, aggrieved, and lead emotionally charged protests. I earnestly believe that the best and most beneficial method to simultaneously fight against blatant bigotry and for marginalized groups who are the objects of hate is more speech, not less.”
He wonders how a kid with beliefs like his will fare in higher education.
“When I go off to college next year, I honestly don’t know where I’m going to fit in… The only political/social group accepting of my views are normally libertarians,” he wrote. “For the most part, these campus activism groups have my sympathies. I just wish that they didn’t have such a hostile attitude towards free speech and didn’t dismiss opposing viewpoints based on the person’s identity.”
Events at Yale were particularly upsetting to Olad as he pondered going away to college himself.
“From Mizzou to Ithaca to Amherst, I was initially very supportive of the nationwide protests that sparked across college campuses against racial insensitivity. I believed, and still do, that student activists have every right to hold demonstrations, push for robust changes and confront their respective administrations if they truly suspect that they are being treated unfairly or feel threatened,” he wrote. “However, Yale made me take a different look not just at just at these protests, but some of the core concepts these student activists (and the groups I was involved in) take almost too seriously. I sympathize with the student protesters and wholly understand their frustration is not stemming from a simple email, but the overall atmosphere of Yale for students of color. Nonetheless, I believe Erika and Nicholas Christakis were wronged on many levels.”
If social-justice activists on college campuses were committed to respectfully considering the perspectives of individuals from historically marginalized groups, as almost all claim to be, a black immigrant from a relatively poor country would have no reason to worry about being accepted into their communities to fight racism and advance gender equality, even in spite of the well-trod disagreements that have long divided civil libertarians from parts of the social-justice community.
Unfortunately, I think that Mahad Olad is correct to be concerned, and that too many left-wing student groups treat no one as badly as students of color or women who consider themselves to be classical liberals, libertarians, or conservatives, or who merely disagree with the actions of progressive protesters on campus.
They’re seen as special kinds of traitors.
Last week, while reporting on UC Davis, I noted the allegation that a Hispanic staff member loyal to Chancellor Linda Katehi, the object of ongoing protests, was called “a coconut” by several activists, meaning “brown on the outside, white on the inside.”
Back in college, when I edited student newspapers both at Pomona College, my alma mater, and the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of 5 undergraduate institutions, I was constantly urging people who expressed thoughtful opinions in conversation to contribute to our op-ed pages. On four or five occasions, students of color regretfully declined, saying they didn’t feel able to set forth their opinions publicly without being savaged by a tiny subset of campus activists who, despite their small numbers, managed to chill speech. I always wondered if these students were exaggerating the likely backlash—their ostensibly heretical views were almost always extremely mainstream—until a conservative Asian American woman began writing for The Student Life and I got an education in leftist racist hate mail.
Alton Luke II, a black student at Occidental, told the Los Angeles Times about the backlash that he faced after questioning aspects of last semester’s protests at his institution.
Many right-leaning journalists and college professors have encountered black, Hispanic, and Asian American students who’ve been subjected to hatefulness because they dared to depart from the political line some expect them to toe. If you’re a white liberal, which is to say, a person those students wouldn’t typically choose to confide in about this particular problem, it would be easy to be totally blind to it.
So I’m glad Mahad Olad is sharing his experience. Others like him are hearing the same slurs and being subject to the same prejudices. They should be aware that they’re not alone.
Six years ago, Rebekah Wells Googled her name to see what turned up. The results horrified her: nude photos of herself taken by her ex-boyfriend, along with her name and address, on commercial porn sites such as ImageFlea, ImageEarn and PinkMeth.
She went to the police in her home town of Naples, Florida, and a sheriff’s deputy was assigned to her case. One year later she became romantically involved with the deputy, and after the relationship fizzled, Wells claims the police officer threatened to upload a new batch of her nudes.
She felt nauseated, embarrassed and angry. Wells managed to get her photos removed and filed suit against her ex and the sites, but the lawsuit fizzled. She also launched a site, Women Against Revenge Porn, to help other victims of abuse, though it is closed for now. But the sites that posted her photos weren’t just trying to satisfy her ex’s pathological desire for revenge – they were there to make money.
According to the Pew Research Center, four out of 10 people have been insulted, shamed, stalked, bullied or harassed online. Revenge porn is just one of the ways sites are profiting from internet abuse. And even sites that don’t profit directly may benefit in other ways from the attention online abuse can bring.
Revenge porn sites such as SeenMyGF or MyEx charge $100 a year to access private photos and videos of non-porn stars, almost invariably women, usually posted by spurned ex-lovers. But it doesn’t end there. As with every adult site, there’s an entire ecosystem supporting them – from domain registrars and web hosting services to upstream bandwidth providers and online payment systems. Everybody gets their cut.
Is this even legal? It depends. At present, 27 US states and the District of Columbia have laws barring nonconsensual (ie, revenge) porn, but penalties vary and prosecutions are rare. One problem is that most law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to handle crimes of cyber exploitation, says attorney Bennet Kelley, founder of the Internet Law Center.
“I have had clients tell me the cops confessed to them they don’t do this cyber stuff,” he says. “Another barrier to prosecution is the ‘blame the victim’ mentality, which is still fairly prevalent.”
A handful of victims have also won high-profile civil lawsuits. Last December, a Texas court awarded Bindu Pariyar $7.25m after her ex-husband posted thousands of nude photos and videos of her online. (She also claims that he forced her to work in a strip club and as a prostitute.) But Pariyar told a Nepali news site she doesn’t expect to collect much from her ex, and the damage is probably irreparable: her nude photos have spread to mainstream porn sites.
Kevin Bollaert thought up an even better money-making revenge porn scheme: extortion. First, the 28-year-old from San Diego published more than 10,000 nude photos on his site YouGotPosted and linked them to the women’s social media accounts. When victims demanded their photos be removed, Bollaert directed them toward another site he owned, ChangeMyReputation, where he charged $300 or more to have images expunged.
Last February, Bollaert was convicted on 27 felony counts of identity theft and extortion and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But the business model he helped foster continues in less illegal but no less unsavory forms.
Scores of businesses routinely scrape law enforcement sites for mugshots of recent arrestees, republish them, then charge $400 or more to remove them. A handful of US states now prohibit the release of mugshots to commercial sites or have outlawed the practice of charging to remove a mugshot; in most cases, though, the practice is perfectly legal because mugshots are considered part of the public record.
Then there are advertising-sponsored gossip sites such as TheDirty, as well as tell-all sites such as ShesAHomewrecker, DatingPsychos, DeadbeatDirectory and BadBoyReport, where readers share often defamatory material about others.
These sites are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes them from legal responsibility for material posted by their users. (Reader comments on US sites are also protected under Section 230.) And because scandalous material drives readership, sites are usually loathe to remove anything unless it violates copyrights or involves a minor.
For the vast majority of online harassers, however, the benefit is not monetary but psychological, says Danielle Citron, professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.
“You think of a site like 4chan, where people actually proclaim themselves trolls,” she says. “They derive pleasure from other people’s pain. They’re doing it for the lulz.”
Perversely, while the internet has given a voice to vast numbers of people who might not otherwise be heard, unfettered free speech can have a chilling effect, whether it’s Gamergaters ganging up on female writers or Donald Trump using Twitter to attack his enemies, notes Stephen Balkam, CEO and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute.
“I think the people who profit most from online harassment are those who use it to suppress other people’s thoughts, suggestions, comments, and criticisms,” he says. “We are often so focused on making sure governments don’t chill speech, and here are anonymous stalkers and harassers doing just that.”
QotD: “The brothels outside Las Vegas have had to deal with a lot over the years – and now they have to worry about virtual reality porn taking their business”
Another uncritical piece on the sex industry, but like I’ve said before, I can trust my readers to see something I don’t entirely agree with.
I’m sure we can all come up with some alternative theories to the ones being offered below.
The brothels outside Las Vegas have had to deal with a lot over the years – and now they have to worry about virtual reality porn taking their business.
The porn studio VR Bangers and headset maker AuraVisor are rumored to be rolling out a room service option at various hotels around Las Vegas for $19.99 a night.
At Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel in Pahrump, about an hour outside the city, staff like to keep abreast of tech news and were swift to respond.
“People are going to visit the top sex tourism city so that they can masturbate alone in a room?” said the manger, Dena, adding that VR is a “gimmick”. “I don’t think so.”
Dena says she loves technology in general, it’s just virtual reality she has a problem with. When webcams got big, Dena and her team incorporated a webcam-like experience into one of their on-site fantasy houses. When social media took off, she and the women who rotate in to work on the ranch took to it immediately, Tweeting and Facebooking, all the better to skirt the laws banning advertising of the sex industry.
As the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has grown, their brothel has expanded both in both size and influence, and Dena has become increasingly press savvy, sending out tech-related press releases timed to industry trends. She notes that there’s usually a 70% increase during CES week.
Yet the one trend that worries her more than anything she’s seen before is virtual reality. “It’s a big thing on your head,” Dena said. “The whole thing is just too awkward. I don’t understand it. It seems lonely.”
Long a science fiction fantasy, virtual reality has recently seen a spike in investment, engineering talent and progress, with Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear, HTC’s Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR all lining up to claim their share of a very early market. Porn producers have been some of the first to jump in to make content for it. But Dena thinks the enthusiasm around virtual reality misses what people actually need when they have sex.
“People need human contact – it’s not just something that’s a want, it’s an actual need,” Dena said. “Look at newborn babies, they survive better with human touch. As adults we need that as well.”
“You can’t procreate with a virtual reality headset. Well, I guess you can’t procreate in a brothel either.”
She likens it to another tech trend the porn industry exploited a few years ago: the webcam. She said there was a webcam tool that allowed an entertainer to remotely control a device that the customer wears, allowing for a greater sensation of intimacy between the two.
“I heard about that years ago, and everyone was talking about it, but that didn’t take off real huge either,” Dena said. “People may try out virtual sex, but you’ll go back to what you like, and that’s human touch. If they’re that lonely they should come to a brothel and not sit in a bedroom with a headset.”
The brothel business is doing well, she says, and innovating in its own way. They have a new massage room that involves body-to-body contact while covered in seaweed gel. “The girls like to refer to it as adult slip and slide,” she said.
hate speech: my body belongs to me. there is nothing wrong with me. i don’t owe anything to anyone.
From November 2015:
Tens of thousands of sex crimes against 16- and 17-year-olds are going unreported because teenagers fear going to court or do not recognise their ordeals as serious abuse, according to the Children’s Society.
The charity compared freedom of information (FOI) requests to police forces and an analysis of the crime survey for England and Wales and found a huge disparity between the number of recorded offences and youngsters’ experiences.
Its research, based on FOI requests to 30 police forces, shows that there were around 4,900 reported sex crimes last year in which the victim was aged 16 or 17. The crime survey found that 8.6% of girls in that age group told investigators they were victims – equivalent to 50,000 people. The rate of abuse reported in the survey was higher than for any other age group.
The society’s report calls for an better legal framework to provide additional support for teenagers over the age of 16, who are deemed to be above the age of consent but may nonetheless be inexperienced.
The law does not take age-related vulnerabilities, such as emotional and physiological changes and brain development in adolescents, into account in grooming and sexual exploitation cases, the report says.
“It also does not take into account any other factors that make them vulnerable to abuse, for example previous experiences of neglect and abuse, mental health problems, being in care or living away from their birth families,” it says.
“The ability of 16- and 17-year-olds to consent to sexual activity – without a clear definition of what true informed consent is in cases where an adult targets a vulnerable 16- or 17-year-old for sexual favours – can make professionals reluctant or unsure about the course of action they should undertake.”
Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “Too many children are being left to suffer sexual exploitation in silence. Despite 16- and 17-year-olds being at the highest risk, they often receive the least support.
“Dangerous inconsistencies in the law and services need to be changed. These young people are still children and the government must make sure that the police and other agencies have the means they need in order to keep them safe.”
The crime survey for England and Wales traditionally reports far higher levels of crime than the number of recorded offences, sometimes more than double. The figures for sex crimes, however, particularly among teenagers, shows far greater divergence.
The Children’s Society report says that half of the young people who did not report sex crimes to the police failed to do so either because they did not consider it worth reporting, feared going to court, or did not want the perpetrators to be punished. Its conclusions come from interviews with the children and young people it works with who have been sexually abused or are at risk of sexual exploitation.
Some teenagers fear they will not be believed or that they will be judged. Others are scared of the perpetrators, or uncertain about what constitutes crime, consent and sexual exploitation.
The report, Old Enough to Know Better? Why Sexually Exploited Teenagers are Being Overlooked, also found that of the cases reported to the police, fewer than one in five resulted in a charge or summons.
Children aged 16 and 17 are often blamed for putting themselves in risky situations, even when they have been specifically targeted and groomed through the use of drugs and alcohol, the Children’s Society said.
If someone had told me, one week ago today, that a simple bake sale aiming to educate students about wage disparity in Australia would rile up a university campus to the point of death threats to the organisers, would reach media sources across Australia, the UK and US, and would result in the single most successful bake sale ever to be held on campus, I would have told them not to be silly; no one cares about a bake sale.
I also would have been wrong.
The now infamous Gender Pay Gap Bake Sale was an afterthought, a supplementary event to the panel discussions, workshops and stalls to be held throughout feminist week on the University of Queensland campus. We have hosted bake sales before, we just wanted this one to have an educational catch: why not educate students about wage disparity while feeding them sugar?
The idea was that each baked good would only cost you the proportion of $1 that you earn comparative to men (or, if you identify as a man, all baked goods would cost you $1). For example, for a woman of colour in the legal profession, a baked good at the stall would only cost you 55 cents.
Other university campuses and women’s collectives around the world have done it before – from campuses in the US charging more for white students than black students, to campuses in the UK only giving students the proportion of a cupcake they would earn in real life. This was not a new idea.
This particular bake sale, however, started something we could never in a million years have foreseen: a spiral into the darkest depths of gender inequality, the online world of cyberbullying and firsthand experiences of what women face every time they raise their voices.
Far from simply starting a discussion about wage disparity in Australia, the online backlash over the Gender Pay Gap Bake Sale brought to light hundreds of other issues of gender inequality, from sexual violence and threats against women, to why we still need feminism in the 21st century. This bake sale did its job and more.
We had students who had previously dismissed the idea of feminism approach us at the bake sale, purchase an item and explain that they “didn’t believe feminism was still needed until reading the comments posted online.”
These comments, posted by anonymous keyboard warriors (those who love to sit behind their computer screens and attack people changing the world) threatened violence against attendees and organisers of the bake sale, with posts including:
- “I’m so glad I know this event is on, now I won’t have to sort through all the ugly chicks when I’m out clubbing cos they’ll all be at feminist week instead”
- “Kill all women”
- “I’d punch a chick if she winked at me at the bake sale”
- “Females are fucking scum, they should be put down as babies”
- “I want to rape these feminist cunts with their fucking baked goods”
These comments were posted on the public event page, on subsequent posts about feminist week and sent directly to the email accounts, personal Facebook accounts and, in one case, via voicemail, of the organisers of feminist week, general members of the UQ Union Women’s Collective and to staff members who spoke out in support of the event.
This innocuous bake sale drew a vitriol of negative, derogatory and threatening online comments from people threatened by a discussion about equality and feminism; a discussion that we now, so obviously, need to be having in a public space.
As with all keyboard warriors, however, they never materialise in real life. The actual bake sale event was filled with positivity, support and enthusiasm for starting the conversation about wage disparity, the online behaviours of others, and, most importantly, global gender equality.
But while the keyboard warriors remained behind their screens, the threat to the safety and lives of women, the silencing of women in public spaces, and the wage disparity around the world are still very real issues that impact upon women and other marginalised groups in everyday life. These are the issues that the vitriol of online comments regarding the bake sale brought to light.
The bake sale may be over, but this discussion is just beginning.
And it all started because a couple of male students were upset that they would have to pay $1 for a cupcake.
Madeline Price is described in her bio as “the current Vice President of Gender and Sexuality (Women’s Officer) at the University of Queensland Union. A proud feminist and student at the University of Queensland, Madeline is also the founder and director of the One Woman Project, a gender education organisation.”
What amazes me, is that someone can write about rape and death threats against women, but never use the term ‘misogyny’ or ‘woman-hating’ once, instead it is somehow about ‘gender equality’ as if this violence would go away once women have wage parity with men. I guess this is one of the many consequences of liberal feminism, even when women see the problem, they can’t quite name it.
QotD: “The government has rejected calls for compulsory sex and relationship education, but denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk”
The myth of childhood innocence dies hard. Many parents hope that their kids won’t have to deal with the complex world of sex until they are in their teens, keeping childhood as one of the last places untouched by adult desires. But such hopes seem illusory in the face of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse in this country is much greater than we previously believed, and is increasing due to technology.
A rise in prevalence, as opposed to reporting, is the development that everyone working in the area dreads. Following the exposure of Jimmy Savile, police forces were inundated with reports of historic rapes and sex attacks, almost universally believed to reflect a greater willingness of victims to go to the police. It was widely welcomed, not because a woman revealing that she has been raped is ever good news, but because confidence in the criminal justice system is essential to stopping rapists.
Now, though, one of the country’s most senior police officers is saying something very different about the increase in recorded cases of child abuse. Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, believes that technology has made it easier for predators to search for victims online, driving an increase of more than 30% in recorded cases last year.
According to the NSPCC, a total of 45,456 child sexual offences were recorded in the UK, with some victims aged five or under. Shocking though that is, the figure is low compared to estimates contained in a report last year from the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield. It suggested that there had been between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England alone between 2012 and 2014.
There is always resistance to such estimates, which are based on different types of evidence including surveys of adult survivors, while the apparent mishandling of historical allegations against some well-known individuals has led to claims of a witch-hunt. But the NSPCC’s figures represent recorded cases of child sexual abuse and Bailey says that the police are seeing “exponential increases” year-on-year. He doesn’t believe that there has been a rise in the proportion of the population with a sexual interest in children, but technological advances have vastly expanded opportunities for paedophiles.
No one would argue that it is possible or even desirable to keep children away from the internet. But we are already living in a different universe in terms of child sexual exploitation: in 1990 it was estimated that there were approximately 7,000 indecent images of children in circulation in the UK and predators had to take enormous risks in order to share them. In 1978 a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, was investigated by the police after he left a package of paedophile material on a London bus.
Now it is believed that there may be as many as 100m indecent images of children in circulation. There is so much material, in fact, that the police have been accused of unacceptable delays in getting round to interviewing people who have been flagged up as suspects. In 2014, Essex police were criticised for waiting nine months to question a deputy headteacher from Southend, who was later discovered to possess more than 400 films and still images of children undressing at his school and a local swimming pool.
Children cannot possibly be expected to anticipate this kind of behaviour from someone in a position of trust. That is why they need to be told about warning signs, making sure they know what to look for and who to tell if they are worried by someone’s behaviour. The obvious place for that to happen is in schools but a vociferous lobby exists, dedicated to opposing every attempt to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education on the ground that it would unnecessarily “sexualise” kids.
The truth is the opposite: denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk from paedophiles who may inflict lifelong damage. But the present government flatly refuses to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) mandatory. Last month the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, rejected another call for compulsory PSHE, despite a campaign by MPs, peers and a coalition of 100 concerned organisations.
I regularly sit in meetings with senior police officers who deal with the horrors of child sexual abuse on a daily basis. They can’t say so publicly but they are tearing their hair out over our society’s failure to teach children how to spot predators. I’m afraid that childhood innocence may be something we can no longer afford if we’re serious about protecting kids from dangerous people.
When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.
The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.
According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.
Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.
Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls board, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.
Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it?
The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.
Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?
Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.
Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.
According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.
Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.
I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.
From February 2016:
It is a disturbing fact that nearly a third of female rape victims in England and Wales are aged under 16. One in 10 are nine years old or under. These statistics, released by the Office for National Statistics last week, are damning evidence that something is terribly wrong about the way our society deals with sexual violence. Chillingly, the Crown Prosecution Service tells us that 13% of suspects are also children.
Victims of rape are often some of the most vulnerable members of our society. When these victims are children, their sense of helplessness is even greater. Given that only 7% of reported rapes in London are carried out by strangers, it’s likely that children know their attackers. Indeed, perpetrators of violence against children are frequently the same people who are responsible for looking after them. Children rightly fear that they will be punished for reporting abuse. Coercion is routinely masked as love.
Admitting to being a victim of sexual violence can be incredibly difficult, especially for children raised in devout families or in minority communities. A 2013 study found that more than a quarter of all victims failed to tell anyone about their assault; 57% told friends or relatives but not the police. Given that adult women find it difficult to report their assault to the police, let alone access specialist services, is it any wonder that children might do so as well?
Child victims face other problems. Like adults, they have often assimilated the “rape myths” – the most important one being the idea that the victim is partially responsible for the attack. As a result, they often attempt to present their account of abuse in sanitised ways. Discrepancies in their stories can end up undermining their testimony. Victims feel ashamed of their own violation; young male victims might also be confused and humiliated by the constant refrain that the sexual abuse “of girls and women” is a public priority.
In contrast to repeated assertions that there is a “moral panic” around sexual child abuse, in fact there is also a great deal of complacency about it. In 2013, the office of the children’s commission reported that even people responsible for looking after children might deny the existence of child exploitation in their area while in the next breath admitting that young teens were “prostituting themselves up and down the high street”. Among young people there is widespread ignorance about what constitutes “consent” to sexual intercourse. A double standard in sexual behaviour is rife: a young girl coerced into having sex is a “slut” while the aggressive boy gains “man points”.
In recent decades, a great deal has been done to help young victims. In 1999, for example, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act allowed for certain “special measures” in the case of young complainants, including live links to enable a witness to give evidence outside the court and screens to shield the witness form the defendant.
But these initiatives are not enough if we are to eradicate sexual violence. On 2 February, the CPS published a review of the Rape and Serious Sexual Offences Unit (Rasso). It is damning. They found that the Rasso is not even following its own victim guidelines in a third of cases. Young witnesses are being let down: they are even being interviewed without intermediaries. Of course, Rasso professionals are doing their best, but caseloads have grown dramatically in the past few years and, despite the distressful nature of the job, there are inadequate support mechanisms in place to help them cope with the pressure. The report concluded that the “level of care for victims and witnesses fell well short of what is expected”.
Such public admissions of the failure to deal with sexual violence against children as well as adults comes at a time when Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe announced that detectives might no longer be required to automatically believe people who claim to have been sexually assaulted or raped. He is commissioner for the Metropolitan police, which has one of the highest numbers of rape per head of any force but is ranked 33rd (out of 43) for its rape detection rate.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, contrary to the notion that men are at risk of being falsely accused, it is significantly more common for actual rapists to get away with their actions. Rape is never an easy charge to make – particularly for children. Recent governments have claimed that eradicating sexual violence is a priority. Isn’t it time that policies to make this happen are adequately funded?
The nation was both shocked and relieved on Sunday when The Archers domestic violence storyline reached a dramatic climax. Having attempted to walk out on her husband Rob, Helen cracked, stabbing the man who has been systematically eroding her sense of self for over two years.
The psychological coercion Helen experienced is a particular type of manipulation known as “gaslighting”, after the 1944 film Gaslight. In the film, Charles Boyer’s Gregory Anton sets out to convince Ingrid Bergman’s Paula that she has gone mad. One of his many tactics is to secretly dim the gaslights in their home and tell Bergman she is insane when she comments that the lights are flickering. As a result, gaslighting is now used to describe a particular type of mental abuse that makes the victim doubt her – and it is often a her – own sanity, memory and perception.
Setting up bizarre events and then denying them is one tactic, but so is the kind of behavioural and thought control Rob exerts over Helen, from controlling her money to forcing her to eat a sticky toffee pudding after his wife, who is bulimic, has just thrown up her meal.
Most victims of domestic abuse, narcissistic relationships or abusive childhoods see gaslighting as often as damaging as physical abuse. Gaslighting is so dangerous because it skewers the individual’s capacity to explain and realise what is wrong. It occurs in romantic relationships, like Rob and Helen’s marriage, but also in friendships, families, the military and at work. Gaslighting tends to start gradually, and can often appear ridiculous and everyday at first, for example being accused of overreacting because you are premenstrual.
However, as the lever is pressed more and more firmly, victims start to question themselves, trying to argue their way back to reality. This capacity to doubt – a healthy sign in comparison to the certitude of the sadist – is then pathologised by the perpetrator who often uses psychiatric discourse to tell the individual they are too emotional and disturbed, too irrational.
Attempts to keep a grip on reality are mocked and blocked, as the perpetrator works to cut the victim off from friends and a community that can provide a reality check, as in Helen’s case. The victim may know something is wrong, that reality is slipping away, but the undivided attention becomes more and more addictive, and is often fuelled by problematic experiences of childhood relationships.
As gaslighting makes people feel mad, and as labelling someone as insane is a classic form of abuse, people often turn to their GP. When Helen did this a few weeks ago, she was offered antidepressants and a talking therapy called CBT. Her surface complaints of feeling low, angry and erratic were taken at face value. She was not able to articulate her actual experiences, an excellent representation of the gaslighting experience where victims are coerced into believing that if they could just be less emotional, have more positive thoughts and be less troublesome, all would be well. These dubious goals being force-fed to Helen by Rob coincide with the therapy world’s preoccupations at this moment in history, with often devastating results.
I wish it were possible to have faith that the psychiatric system would have spotted why Helen was so distressed. However, not only are domestic violence charities closing, but also most victims of gaslighting don’t present at specialist services because they have been trained to believe they, not the relationship, are the problem. Like Helen, they present at GP surgeries, or via services where they will most likely receive a telephone assessment. With emphasis on placing people in diagnostic boxes as soon as possible, and huge managerial pressures to move on to the next person, surface complaints are often taken too literally in order to complete an assessment.
What is missing for many is a detailed understanding of how language and the toxic environments we experience can colonise our minds, and drive us into mental illness as Helen’s relationship with Rob did. Many listeners of The Archers would argue that Helen is not ill, but drowning in toxic environmental quicksand. Those of us who are lucky enough to spend our days listening to psychiatric patients’ stories often think similarly. But the time and space needed to allow a real story to emerge – always a brave act of untangling latent from manifest meaning – is increasingly under attack in the NHS.
The failure to understand gaslighting is not just dangerous to victims of adult domestic abuse, but to many psychiatric populations. A classic example is voice-hearing. Voice-hearing can be a way of trying to ward off an oppressor’s voice from completely taking over one’s subjectivity – a way to try to insert a minimal space between addresser and addressee, an attempted solution. But voice-hearing is often ticked off simply as an obvious symptom of schizophrenia. In this case, psychiatry can inadvertently work in the interests of the initial manipulator; this diagnosis would reinforce the classic taunt of “no one will believe you”. Sadly, mental health practitioners do not always see beyond surface communications that may look like someone is ill, to see how violent backgrounds can create mental illness.
While Archers fans are to be lauded for empathising with Helen’s plight, and donating to specialist domestic abuse agencies, deaths – both fictional and real – will continue to occur unless mental health practitioners listen in detail to the backstory behind each and every psychiatric presentation. Radio 4 listeners will attest that this has been a painful process. But it is an essential one if we are to stop psychiatric discourse being used as a gaslighting technique to discredit the lived experiences of those too readily seen as mentally ill.