Is what happened in Haiti a scandal because prostitution is illegal in Haiti, or because it is always wrong to use massive economic and social inequality to coerce someone into sex?
The details of the Oxfam ‘sex scandal’ have been reported in great detail already, so I won’t reiterate any of that here. There is a debate to be had about global development in its current form (is this the best way to do it? does it work long term at all?), but that is beyond the remit of this blog post; in the short-term, in the face of disasters like the Haiti earthquake, organisations like Oxfam and their activities (minus the sexual coercion) seem to be better than no action at all from the global north.
I hope this scandal, as I hope for the ‘me too’/’time’s up’ movement in the entertainment industry, results in genuine change; I hope Oxfam, and other big charities like it, use this as an opportunity to get their houses in order and regain the public trust. I hope it is not used as an excuse for the UK government to scrap foreign aid altogether.
I am genuinely, personally, upset by this, Oxfam is a brand I trusted (they partnered with the Moomins for goodness sake), and I want to be able to trust them again.
Oxfam has never promoted entry into the sex industry as a ‘solution’ to the poverty of women and girls. Every campaign to end poverty for women and girls emphasises getting women into sustainable employment and their daughters into education, which, tacitly, is about keeping them out of prostitution.
The reactions to the Oxfam scandal are very different to the reactions to Amnesty International’s decision to support the decriminalisation of the sex industry back in 2015 (see all blog posts here).
The AI decision certainly did make headlines in the mainstream press, but not like this; there was no universal rush to condemn AI for its support of abusive institutions, there were no think-pieces questioning whether human rights organisations could survive such a scandal, because it was never reported in the mainstream press as a scandal at all.
The question here is simple: is what happened in Haiti a scandal because prostitution is illegal in Haiti, and the Oxfam aid workers were breaking local laws, or is it a scandal because using massive economic and social inequality to coerce someone into sex is always, objectively, wrong?
If it is always, objectively, wrong, how can it be acceptable for a ‘human rights’ charity to campaign and lobby for the decriminalisation of the people who perpetrate, facilitate, and profit from, such exploitation and abuse?
AI had as a member Douglas Fox, a known pimp at the time, who claims credit for AI’s ‘sex work’ policy. Mexico’s Maria Alejandra Gil Cuervo was vice president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which received money from the Open Society Foundation, and advised UNAIDS; when, in 2015, she was found guilty of sex trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in jail, the story was ‘broken’ in the English speaking world by Kat Banyard, on the Faber and Faber website (a publisher not a newspaper), and again there was no ‘scandal’.
There are some obvious differences, AI is not an aid agency, and it receives no government funding, but there is still the issue of public trust – I, personally, do not trust AI at all, if they could behave so dishonestly over this, what else are they not doing correctly?
Janice Turner in the Times (a publication I now trust more than the Guardian to report on trans and prostitution issues, misogyny transcends notions of left and right wing), reported on AI’s disgustingly cynical and hypocritical response to the Oxfam scandal:
Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International, was “shocked” by the Oxfam scandal, she told Woman’s Hour. She demanded an inquiry; for “lessons to be learnt”. I’d hoped Jenni Murray would follow through with a question: so what is Amnesty’s view on aid workers in poor countries paying women for sex? But she didn’t ask it, so I did.
Why is the question important? Because in 2015 Amnesty, a global organisation with seven million members, changed its policy on prostitution to support decriminalisation. Feminists were aghast: 3,000, including Gloria Steinem, signed a petition in horror that Amnesty was not only legitimising trade in women’s bodies, but the pimps and brothel keepers who exploit them.
No matter. Amnesty had been taken over by supporters of libertarian identity politics who regard prostitution not as a system of sexual abuse driven by economic need and inequality but a personal choice or a sexual identity, like being gay. Even, it seems, in disaster zones like Haiti.
“Decisions to sell sex,” states its policy document, “can be influenced by situations of poverty . . . Such situations do not necessarily . . . negate a person’s consent.” The only exceptions are “particular circumstances that amount to coercion where an individual faces threats of violence or abuse of authority”. But Amnesty’s overall stance is that it “neither supports nor condemns commercial sex”.
So how then would it view Roland van Hauwermeiren and his Oxfam compadres rolling into Port-au-Prince in safari jackets and mirrored shades, their 4x4s full of antibiotics and baby milk? Does it constitute an “abuse of authority” to round up a few hookers in town, take them to your villa and have a little fun in exchange for a few dollars and an Oxfam T-shirt? Or must we respect that these young women in a devastated land, with sick parents or hungry babies, have, in Amnesty’s words, “the agency and capacity of adults engaged in consensual sex work”?
Where does exploitation end and consent begin? I rang Amnesty for clarification. Kate Allen’s statement is a masterpiece of obfuscation. “The appalling situation of aid workers paying for sex in a context where they’re working with and providing services to extremely vulnerable people in crisis situations is separate from the issue of the legal status of sex work.”
But is it? In Haiti, 316,000 were dead, millions homeless, the entire infrastructure destroyed. Oxfam was “providing services to” a whole nation. Does Amnesty think it was wrong for van Hauwermeiren to prostitute a woman he met at, say, an aid distribution centre but it was fine for him to select equally impoverished women from the local brothel?
Given its neutral stance on commercial sex, is it cool with its staff using prostitutes? “Amnesty’s employment contracts clearly stipulate that employees must not behave in a way that brings the organisation into disrepute,” it said, “and in light of the Oxfam case, we’ve instigated a full review of all relevant policies.” Which reads less like a principled stand than a scrambled PR operation: ie we’ve smelt the public mood and don’t want lost donations. Only when I pressed further did it say: “Any staff members found to be using sex workers in the course of their work would face an immediate investigation and potential disciplinary action.” Which directly contradicts its own policy! What about neutrality, women having “agency” and punters not being penalised?
Turner also describes how the Labour Party has failed in its response to the Oxfam scandal:
Amnesty is not alone in being tied up in liberal knots. The Labour Party has been notably silent on the Oxfam prostitution scandal. The shadow international development secretary Kate Osamor defined it as a “safeguarding” breakdown, which reduces it to a failure to protect underage girls or prevent coercion, swerving the tougher question. But then in 2016 Jeremy Corbyn declared “I am in favour of decriminalising the sex industry”. Does he then approve of Roland’s poolside fun?
In Corbyn’s view, decriminalisation is a “more civilised” approach. Indeed, no feminist who signed the petition against Amnesty wants to punish desperate women. Rather, most favour the Nordic model, now law in France, Sweden, Ireland and other countries, which legalises selling sex but criminalises its purchase. Total decriminalisation always causes the sex trade to expand. And while Amnesty distinguishes between trafficking (coerced: bad) and sex work (consensual: fine), when male demand soars, more “product” is required and locked vans of Albanian girls arrive at the mega-brothels of Amsterdam or Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.
Finally, something on which we can agree: charity officials ought not to buy sex. No one, so far, seems prominently to have argued, of the Oxfam employees’ misconduct in Haiti and Liberia, that, providing their female purchases were adult, and not coerced, then their prostitution should rightly be called sex work, that is: a perfectly dignified transaction, from which both sides – say, impoverished survivors of a disaster and benevolent male humanitarians – stood to benefit.
We have yet, admittedly, to hear from Amnesty International, the human rights NGO, which now doubles as the world’s leading advocate of legalised prostitution. In 2015, a year that will forever be celebrated by its allies in the pimping and trafficking community, Amnesty committed to the decriminalisation of all aspects of “sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse”.
So, hint for Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who is currently to be found in Ostend, explaining how incredibly easy it is for a vivacious Oxfam official to be mistaken for a sex-buyer: Amnesty is there for you. Equally, critics of Oxfam’s conduct, including Theresa May and Penny Mordaunt, can expect a reminder from Amnesty that it’s people “who live on the outskirts of society that are forced into sex work. It may be their only way to earn a living.” Once you see it that way, Oxfam workers who live, courtesy of charitable donations, in villas suited to large pool parties, can be seen as doing prostitute attendees a tremendous kindness. Inalienable human rights, meet trickle-down effect.
The Oxfam-related outrage must be baffling, also, to many British parliamentarians, for whom the option of reducing prostitution via the Nordic Model (also adopted in Northern Ireland, Canada and France; now backed by the SNP) is so much less appealing than the formal commodification of – overwhelmingly – women’s bodies.
Jeremy Corbyn, for example, supports decriminalisation because he wants to “do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way”. Around a pool, perhaps? At any rate, all that was missing from this progressive analysis, given the exploitation reported in the decriminalised German and Dutch industries, was an alternative scheme whereby sex trade “things” could be separated from violence, poverty, murder, pimping, drug abuse, stigma, illness, trafficking, misogyny and coercion – and the inevitable implication that all women, prostituted or not, have their price.
In a rare show of political harmony, Corbyn’s enthusiasm for a free market in women’s bodies, or, as it would be defined in Sweden, unfettered violence against women and girls, is shared by the Lib Dems, the Greens and by the Commons home affairs select committee. The latter, reconstituted under new leadership, has yet to withdraw a 2016 report on prostitution that urged immediate decriminalisation (without any measures to protect women from exploitation). Only after publication did it emerge that its chair, Keith Vaz, one of eight men on an 11-person committee, was himself a sex buyer. Mercifully for Vaz’s future in public service, the relevant purchases had occurred in Edgware, not Port-au-Prince.
In fairness to Bennett, her piece only came out a day after Turner’s, so she couldn’t have seen the replies from AI. But, it seems, she is not a thorough Guardian reader, otherwise she would have seen the report last week calling the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Haiti ‘underage sex work’. (And in fairness to The Observer, it and the Guardian are editorially independent, the Observer has, in the past, been better at not calling raped children ‘sex workers’.)
BUST magazine reported recently (I am linking to an archived page so they don’t get more links/clicks) on a picture book (from the ‘Feminist Press'(!)) called How Mamas Love Their Babies. Within, the sex industry is sold to children as ‘wearing a uniform with special shoes’ and ‘mamas dancing all night in special shoes’. Start them young, right?
The article has been changed since I saw it early this afternoon, but I screen grabbed it. You can clearly see from the address that it is the same article, and that in the earlier version, the journalists use the term ‘underage sex workers’.
It is as ridiculous as it is unethical, how can a raped child be a worker, how can rape be work, how can a rapist be an employer? Do words mean anything?
The people being quoted in the article talk about a paedophile ring, how is it appropriate to label any of that ‘sex work’?
I have contacted the Guardian on this subject before, several times, and received no reply, but I am going to keep on trying:
I am writing to you, again, to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in relation to commercially raped children.
In today’s article ‘Oxfam warned it could lose European funding over scandal’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/12/haiti-demands-oxfam-identify-workers-who-used-prostitutes), in its 12:21 iteration ‘Haiti demands Oxfam identify staff who paid sex workers’, the term ‘underage sex workers’ was used.
I have written to you before, on several occasions over the past four years, about this subject, and have yet to receive any reply. What I would like, is for a Guardian editor to justify to me this dishonest and unethical use of language, in a publication that portrays itself as a quality newspaper.
How can a raped child be a worker, how can rape be work, how can a rapist be an employer?
As I said the last time, I will not give a penny to the Guardian while it continues to report on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in this way.
QotD: “35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partnered sexual violence at some point in their lives.”
More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 programme that investigates the use of statistics in everyday media; today’s broadcast looks at an advert by the UK branch of UN Women about rates of sexual violence against women and girls, called ‘Draw a Line’.
The first thing is that they confirm the statistic that two women a week in the UK are murdered by a current or ex-partner.
Next, they look at the claim that, for 1 in 3 girls, their first sexual experience is coerced, which is more complicated. The claim comes from a 2005 WHO report, which studied ten different countries, all of which have very different rates of sexual violence.
14-30% of women in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and Tanzania, reported being forced to have sex, while fewer than 1% of women in cities in Serbia, Montenegro and Japan described their first sexual experience as forced. The big difference is due to age, in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and Tanzania the women were reporting rape from within child marriages (when they were girls under the age of fifteen).
The presenter interviewed Claudia Garcia-Moreno, the woman who co-authored the report, who doesn’t think we have the data yet to support the 1 in 3 claim globally; she and her team are still working on violence against women and girls, and have collated studies on physical and sexual violence against women and girls from around 75 countries, and have come to the conclusion that:
“35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partnered sexual violence at some point in their lives.”
The figure of a third is one that keeps recurring in different studies from around the world (but there are many countries with no data collection at all). The Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that around a third of women report experiencing domestic abuse at some point in their lives.
The Guardian, yet again, is calling a commercially raped child a ‘sex worker’.
In this article on Cyntoia Brown, who was first trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation at the age of sixteen, the first paragraph says this:
Celebrities including Rihanna, Cara Delevingne and Kim Kardashian West are calling for freedom from prison for a woman who was 16 years old when she killed a man who hired her as a sex worker.
At this point I can’t believe this is an accident; this is very deliberate, partisan language, “hired her as a sex worker”, not even “hired her for sex”, as if the situation was just a bug in the otherwise benign system of ‘sex work’.
I have written to the Guardian many times on this subject, and not ever received a reply (the Observer does better). Please feel free to use or adapt the below template:
I am writing to you, yet again, to complain about your use of the term ‘sex work’ in relation to a commercially sexually exploited child (in the article ‘Cyntoia Brown: celebrities call for victim of sex trafficking to be freed’ published online today).
Brown was sixteen years old when she was commercially raped (and had been sexually abused from a younger age), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises anyone under the age of eighteen as a child, regardless of local age of consent laws. In New Zealand, where the sex industry has been decriminalised, only people over the age of eighteen can legally consent to ‘sex work’, so there is no justification to refer to Brown as a ‘sex worker’.
This use of language is harmful, it invisibilises the abusive system in which Brown was exploited, and invisibilises the role sex buyers play in this system. By calling Brown a ‘sex worker’ you sanitise the man who paid to rape her as someone merely engaging in a commercial transaction, rather than a predator who targeted the most vulnerable children.
The Guardian keeps asking for subscribers, I will not give you a penny while you continue to sanitise the harm done to vulnerable children, young people, and adults by uncritically using the term ‘sex work’ to describe commercial sexual exploitation.
Men with a history of sexual violence and domestic abuse joined Islamic State because of the organisation’s systemic use of rape and slavery as a form of terrorism, according to new analysis.
The promotion and sanctioning of sexual violence by the extremist group was a pivotal means of “attracting, retaining, mobilising and rewarding fighters” as well as punishing kaffir, or disbelievers, says a report to be released by the Henry Jackson Society.
Enshrining a theology of rape, the sexual exploitation of women alongside trafficking helped fund the caliphate and was used to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating prohibited.
In addition, forced inseminations and forced pregnancies – along with forced conversions – were officially endorsed to help secure the next generation of jihadis, a tactic also replicated by Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram.
Analysis of ISIS members from Europe and the US found that a cohort had a history of domestic and sexual violence, suggesting a “relationship between committing terrorist attacks and having a history of physical and/or sexual violence”.
One Briton, Ondogo Ahmed, from north London, was given an eight-year custodial sentence for raping a 16-year-old girl in the UK but fled to Syria while out of prison on licence in 2013.
Another was Siddhartha Dhar, a father of four from London, who has been described as a central player in Isis’s brutal persecution of the Yazidis, a religious minority whose followers the group permitted its members to rape.
Testimony from one victim, Nihad Barakat, 18, revealed how Dhar, a former bouncy castle salesman from Walthamstow, east London, routinely participated in the group’s systemic trafficking and abuse of Yazidi teenage girls and enslaved some himself. “These cases indicate an existence of a type of terrorism that is sexually motivated, in which individuals with prior records of sexual violence are attracted by the sexual brutality carried out by members of Islamic State,” said Nikita Malik, the report’s author.
Although Malik said more work was required to establish a definitive link between an individual’s history of domestic violence and subsequent involvement in terrorism, evidence existed to indicate a potential correlation. One of the men involved in July’s London Bridge attack, Rachid Redouane, 30, was reportedly abusive and controlling, and his girlfriend eventually fled to a unit for victims of domestic violence. The Westminster attacker Khalid Masood, 52, is another who has been described as violent and controlling, this time towards his second wife.
ISIS has repeatedly promoted and attempted to legitimise a theology of rape, occasionally through its Dabiq magazine and Al Hayat media channel. One edition of Dabiq justified the rape of Yazidi women in Iraq by dismissing them as “pagans”. The extremist group also set up a department dedicated to “war spoils” and issued guidelines to codify slavery.
Markets selling sex slaves were relatively common in territory controlled by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the calpihate’s height, while the group’s franchise in Libya has also played a role in human trafficking. One account contained in the report describes how Isis members would touch the chests of girls to see whether they had grown breasts. If they had done so they could be raped, according to the report – which will be released in parliament – and if not they would be examined three months later. Among a number of harrowing case studies are accounts of how a 10-year-old Libyan child was raped by traffickers linked to ISIS.
Apart from subjugation and spreading terror, another key reason for Isis exploiting sex trafficking is financial gain. Ransom payments directly linked to the threat or use of sexual violence and paid out by governments and individuals earned, according to the report, between £7.7m and £23m last year, at a time of lowering revenues for the group.
It’s unsurprising to note that the report (or the article on it at least), makes the link to “deeply conservative Muslim societies”, but not to our own, western, misogyny. Hardcore pornography was easily available to any ISIS fighter who grew up in the west, plus bootleg pornography is available throughout the global south.
And as Namia Akhtar reported, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were porn users:
Nonetheless, Sexlamists in their private lives are obsessed with pornography (in a February 17, 2015 article, New York Post reported that Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden found a fairly extensive stash of modern pornography in his possession), they communicate through it (media sources reported that terrorist cells embedded secret coded messages into shared pornography and onto pedophile websites) and justify their own salacious carnal practices on religious grounds. Al-Qaeda leaders, such as Osama Bin Laden and Anwar Al-waki, had also indulged in notorious promiscuity. Adultery and fornication are strictly prohibited in Islam, but in terror groups abhorrent sexual practices reign supreme. Daesh, for instance, has issued fatwas justifying rapes of Yazidi women to make them Muslims. Rape is the mechanism of Daesh to achieve their strategic objectives, since it humiliates and shames respective communities.
In episode 2 of the documentary we see that the children are doing the Tangram puzzles every day, some of the girls are still struggling.
Abdelmoneim talks to Professor Gina Rippon again, who emphasises the plasticity of the human brain, and the different ways boys and girls are treated. Abdelmoneim then looks at toys and clothes aimed at girls and boys, and finds “an overwhelming avalanche” of pink for girls and blue for boys; it’s not just the colour, the pink domestic appliances are obviously ‘meant’ for girls, while the blue construction kits are ‘meant’ for boys.
Abdelmoneim goes to the house of one of the girls in the experimental glass, where an eight-year-old girl’s birthday party is taking place, in a big pink marque tent in the back garden, “an avalanche of pink, sparkles, and feather boas.” The mother of the girl says she loves being ‘pampered’, which means having her nails done – the focus is on looks and appearance.
Abdelmoneim then visits the home of one of the boys, whose toys are all Lego and guns; he also says boys are better than girls because they get better Nerf guns than girls.
Abdelmoneim talks to the boy’s mother, who says she used to believe in nurture over nature until she had a son; she says that she had “a bit of an anti-gun rule, until he stated school, but then he made them out of Lego and sticks and everything and one day he said ‘look mum, I’ve got a handgun [holding her hand up shaped like a gun], you can’t take this one off me’ and I knew about that point I’d probably lost the weaponry argument.”
It’s not clear, from what the mother is saying, if the gun obsession was there before or after the boy started school. Few parents get to raise their children in total isolation from the dominant culture, and children pick up gendered rules from a very young age; also small children have a very black-and-white understanding of the world, and want to fit in.
Abdelmoneim says that children are constantly receiving messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl, so it’s not surprising that they believe it is ‘natural’.
Abdelmoneim then looks at children’s clothing, and is disturbed by the slogans, like ‘forever beautiful’ for girls, and ‘here comes trouble’ for boys, and he wonders about how much the parents think about these slogans. Abdelmoneim then designs t-shirts of his own, and asks some parents to look at them (it takes a while to find some parents who have time to stop after school).
For the girls’ t-shirts, he starts with the bought t-shirt saying ‘forever beautiful’ then moves on to his own slogans: ‘looks are everything’, then ‘boys are better’, then ‘made to be underpaid’.
For the boys’ t-shirts, he starts with ‘here comes trouble’, then ‘boys don’t cry’, then ‘tough guys don’t talk’, then ‘bottled up and ready to burst’.
The parents don’t have a problem with the commercially available t-shirts, but they can then see the progression. It’s interesting to note that one of the boys watching with his father sticks his thumb up at ‘boys don’t cry’, while his father describes it as ‘wrong’ – like I already said, no parent gets to raise their children in isolation. One of the other fathers talks about being raised to be ‘tough’.
There is a clip of one of the girls saying you never see girls doing ‘big’ things like being an astronaut, we then see that a picture has been put up on the wall of the classroom, of a female astronaut, alongside one of a man bottle feeding a baby.
Abdelmoneim says he has to be a bit more direct and get the parents involved, so he creates ‘homework’ for the parents, looking at gendered words and household chore, and plastic sacks to use to remove gendered items from their homes. Abdelmoneim asks the parents to link up what’s positive in the classroom experiments with what they do at home.
One of the parents says children don’t pay any attention at that age, it goes in one ear and out the other, but in reality, the opposite is true, children are learning from what goes on around them all the time.
Abdelmoneim then sets up a unisex toilet experiment (I would challenge his claim here that workplace toilets are increasingly unisex; unisex single-stall facilities may be increasingly common, but multi-stall unisex facilities are not, and the toilets at the school are multi-stall.)
All the children react with horror at first, but then the boys seem more enthusiastic; it is originally a girls’ toilet, so there is a ‘taboo busting’ element for the boys. One boy says he thinks it is a good thing because then the boys will “know what the girls look like”. Since he is only seven I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, he may believe that girls use an equivalent of urinals, and it is normal for children to be curious. One of the boys and two of the girls say they don’t like it and call it ‘weird’ (we are a society were privacy is the norm).
Abdelmoneim visits one of the parents to see how they are getting on with the homework, she reports that her daughter put all the words (including the word ‘war’) into the ‘both’ column in the word association test (and had a rationale for what she was doing). They bag up all the ‘girls’ toys, including a whole wardrobe of princess dresses – but she does have an R2D2 toy as well.
Abdelmoneim says that even though children choose many of their own toys, it’s not much of a choice if only gendered toys are on offer.
The next experiment involves handing out toys to the children in anonymous brown paper bags (ie no packaging to tell them whether it’s a ‘girls toy’ or a ‘boys toy’); the toys are a marble run, a teddy bear sewing kit, an arts and crafts set, and a robot bug to construct. All the children seem to like their toys, even the ones not normally ‘meant’ for them. (The boy who threw the tantrum over the strength test in episode 1 liked his sewing kit bear).
We return to the unisex toilets experiment, with the girls saying the boys are annoying and dirty, and one girl saying she tries to hold it in all day, and a boy saying he wanted it to go back to normal. Abdelmoneim says he has managed to make the children ‘equally unhappy’ with this experiment (according to this Daily Mail article “the head put the toilets back to normal when the film cameras left”.) I would put this down to the fact that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are two different things, despite the fact that the two terms are used interchangeably (sometimes simply because everyday language usage is vague and people think ‘sex’ is a rude word, other times to deliberately obfuscate that this difference exists), and Abdelmoneim moved from gender differences to sex differences with this particular experiment – it’s telling that the children were enthusiastic about everything else (in spite of their highly gendered upbringing), but not this.
Abdelmoneim then goes back to the parents’ ‘homework’, and finds that in spite of the fact that some of the dads are doing a share of the housework, their children still have a gendered view of household chores (in other words they are picking up ideas from more than just their parents).
The class is then taken on a day trip to the beach. There are two tasks for the children, build a fire pit and make a picnic; the children split themselves fairly evenly between the two tasks, and girls ‘take charge’ of both tasks. But the boys get bored of the picnic preparation quickly, one of them yelling “I’m not a girl!”
Next, they set up a football game. The boys dominate in the playground at school, with some girls wanting to play but feeling that they can’t because it gets too rough. They have to practice in mixed sex teams. When Abdelmoneim asks if they want to play a match in their practice teams, or play boys verses girls, one of the boys (the same one who threw the tantrum in episode 1), suggests mixed teams would be fairer, because the boys have had more practice; Abdelmoneim sees this as improved empathy, working out that it would result in a better match for both girls and boys.
On the last day of term, the children (including the control class) retake the tests they took at the start of the experiment six weeks ago. The results show that in the experimental class the 8% self-esteem difference between girls and boys has dropped to 0.2% (girls being interviewed say they believe they can do anything now), and no girls describe themselves as ‘ugly’ anymore. Boys’ pro-social behaviour is up 10%, and their ability to identify emotions has improved; girls’ self-motivation is up 12%, and they are 40% more accurate when asked to predict their scored before a test (before, they had been seriously underestimating their own abilities); boys observed bad behaviour is down 57%. After two weeks of Tangram puzzles, the top ten pupils are five boys and five girls.
Mr Andre says all the children are more confident now, and challenge the things adults tell them; he jokes that they have been turned into ‘monsters’ and the girls were never like this before (this is done good-naturedly).
In the end of term assembly, the class puts on a performance for the rest of the school and the parents, to show what they have learnt about equality between boys and girls. One of the mothers was moved to tears by how confident her daughter is now.
The head teacher says she is really impressed by the changes, and Mr Andre will be teaching what he has learned to the other teachers. Abdelmoneim says that all of his changes were small, and not ‘rocket science’ and that it would be really easy to roll them out in all schools.
We learn at the end of the documentary that 6 weeks later, Mr Andre has presented these new teaching methods to the Institute of Education.
The children taking part in the experiment are seven (Year 3), and already have very stereotyped ideas about what men and women are like, with boys being ‘better’ and ‘stronger’ and ‘more important’, and girls being ‘pretty’.
The school, on the Isle of Wight, has two Year 3 classes, both classes are measured, but only one experiences interventions, while the other is used as a control group.
As a side note, the school seems a really lovely place; I have very few good memories of primary school, bullying was rife, the level of physical violence from the boys was epidemic, and the teachers mostly did nothing. In one assembly, there is a girl wearing an ‘anti-bullying ambassador’ tabard.
One of the first thing the presenter, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, notices in Mr Andre’s class, is that he calls all the girls ‘love’, or ‘sweat pea’, and all the boys ‘mate’ or ‘fella’ – already marking them out as different.
Abdelmoneim goes to visit Dr Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging, who tells us that structurally, there are very very few differences between the brains of girls and boys, that the brain is very very plastic, and that brain development is entangled with society and a person’s experiences.
Abdelmoneim quotes research from Stanford University, saying that seven is a key stage in a child’s development, because it is at this age their ideas about the roles of men and women become fixed.
The children take a psychometric test to measure what they think about men and women, their own levels of self-esteem, their perceived intelligence (how clever they think they are), and things like empathy, assertiveness, and impulse control.
The results show that the girls have low self-esteem, significantly underestimate their own intelligence, and only describe themselves with words relating to their appearance (‘pretty’, ‘ugly’, ‘lipstick’), while the boys over-estimate their abilities, and the only emotion they can express is anger. 50% of the boys describe themselves as ‘the best’, but only 10% of the girls.
Abdelmoneim changes the classroom, adding signs saying that ‘boys are strong’ and ‘girls are strong’, the same with ‘sensitive’, ‘clever’, and ‘caring’. He also adds a lottery to make sure that children are picked randomly to answer questions (Mr Andre had been observed calling on boys more often than girls to answer questions).
Abdelmoneim then tackles Mr Andre’s use of gendered endearments. He asks a number of the boys how they would feel if Mr Andre called them ‘sweet pea’ and they react with horror and outrage (the documentary does not make this point here – it is very much, and rightly so, about challenging gendered norms in order to benefit both boys and girls – but it is clear that the boys already know that being ‘treated like a girl’ is the worst thing ever, the girls don’t mind occasionally being called ‘mate’). As Abdelmoneim points out “this kind of language has power,” and “constant reminders of difference sink in.”
The classroom is given a ‘score board’ for the children to add sad-face stickers to every time Mr Andre uses an endearment. Also, the two coat cupboards, which were segregated by sex, are desegregated and the children paint them orange together (they are both originally pink, and some TV reviews said that they were pink and blue, which I find amusing; we are so used to such splits that our brains fill them in automatically).
The children all have very gendered ideas of what jobs men and women can do, so they are introduced to a male dancer and make-up artist, and a female magician and car mechanic. All the children have a great time, the girls find a car engine really interesting, the boys enjoy learning dance moves and having fake black-eyes painted on (the make-up artist had worked on Star Wars and Avengers, which would obviously be impressive to the boys, but it is still showing that there is more to make-up than ‘lipstick’). Abdelmoneim points out how easy it would be for every school to do something like this.
Abdelmoneim visits professor Rippon again, who shows that girls who played Tetris intensively for three months had improves spatial skills (related to mathematical ability), and showed structural changes to the brain. Tangram puzzles are introduced to the class, the boys do better, but the boys have been playing with Lego for a long time, so have had more practice.
Next, there is a recreation of the ‘Baby X’ experiment that was conducted in the 70’s, there is a clip of this available here, and very little has changed in over 40 years, adults treat a baby very differently, depending on whether they believe this baby is male or female, in ways that reinforce sex stereotypes.
Abdelmoneim points out how sex stereotypes affect men and women differently, and both negatively, with men more likely to behave violently while women turn their distress inwards.
Mr Andre removes any books with sex stereotypes, all the books with superheroes (competition and aggression) aimed at boys, and passive princesses aimed at girls. One of the girls being interviewed says that girls are better than boys at ‘being pretty’ and ‘wearing dresses’. The class read books with princesses being brave and confident; one of the girls in the class says she does not like reading, but she liked the book with the active princess.
All the children think boys are stronger than girls, but Abdelmoneim points out that, before puberty, boys and girls have no difference in muscle mass. ‘Strong’ has an emotional component; at seven years old, the boys already know that they are not allowed to cry, they express their anger by breaking things instead.
A fairground with a ‘test your strength’ machine is set up in the playground, the boys all say they are the strongest, and all the girls under-estimate their abilities; one girl who scores 10 after predicting she would only get 5 is so overwhelmed she starts crying. One very confident boy who predicted he would get a 10, scores zero because he does not have the co-ordination to hit the button with the mallet; he reacts by throwing himself on the ground, screaming and crying, then starts kicking things – an illustration of boys’ inability to cope with negative emotions.
Interviews with the children throughout the documentary show that they do change their opinions and ideas about boys and girls for the better.
Episode 2 coming soon!
Although many of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to incite prostitution for gain, there is no suggestion that any of the victims were sex workers.
It’s disgusting. It implies that there is a separate class of underage girls and vulnerable women who are unexploitable, because they are ‘sex workers’. It implies that some women and girls can be complicit in their own exploitation, that if any of those women and girls laid claim to a certain ‘identity’ (or had that ‘identity’ applied to them, as happened in Rochdale), then they wouldn’t have been victims of exploitation.
It is also implying that there is a separate realm of ‘sex work’ which has no connection to paedophilia, grooming, exploitation and forced prostitution.
I will be emailing the editor (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the journalist (email@example.com), not that it ever does any good. Frances Perraudin is also on twitter (@fperraudin) if any reader of this blog would like to let her know that she is throwing vulnerable women and girls under the bus.
There has been a brief (semi) hiatus on this blog, there are comments (and emails) to be answered, and that is not going to change for a while longer.
I have created a tumblr blog, most of what I re-blog here is from tumblr, and the sheer volumn of material has become overwhelming.
I will continue to run this blog, but will reblog from tumblr on tumblr.
Let’s see how it goes!