I’m working with Kylie Sturgess on her forthcoming book. Help support it!

000If you’ve followed Freethought Blogs for long enough – since a couple of months before I joined, specifically – you’ll know who Kylie Sturgess is. She’s been hosting the Token Skeptic podcast since 2009 and writes the accompanying blog, now at Patheos; in 2012 she released The Scope of Skepticism, a book of interviews and essays based on podcasting exchanges, and now she’s working on a sequel. Two days ago, to my delight, she asked me if I’d be her editor.

The new book doesn’t have a title yet, but most of it’s already written: it contains previously unpublished essays, unseen interviews with folk in skepticism and extended versions of earlier ones. The manuscript is set to be done this time next week, at which point I come in. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to be working on this and can’t wait to get started – it’s one of several great projects that have come my way since I asked readers of this blog to hire me. [Read more...]

Vyckie Garrison needs our help

If you’ve never read No Longer Quivering it’s time you did. Vyckie Garrison – an escapee of the Quiverfull religious movement whose former beliefs saddled her with an abusive husband, more pregnancies than she could handle and serious health problems inherited by some of her seven children – founded the blog in 2009, and it’s since become a meeting point for women fleeing and recovering from religious abuse.

Ill health exacerbated by her experiences has led Garrison to step back from the blog, which is now administered mainly by other writers, but her work has made a monumental difference to hundreds of people. If you’re a fan of Libby Anne’s blog Love, Joy, Feminism, briefly hosted on this network, the NLQ forums were where she started out, encouraged to write by Garrison. Nor is it just women she’s helped – another member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network is Jonny Scaramanga, whose powerful blog Leaving Fundamentalism I’ve often cited here.

Possibly more than any writer, and while our stories are remarkably different, Garrison has helped me recognise some of the things in my religious past were abusive. The blogosphere would be a bleak place without her efforts; unfortunately, as so often when bigotry and zealotry take over someone’s life, there have been financial knock-on effects, and for reasons related to her divorce from said husband, she’s at risk of losing her house. [Read more...]

Giving the Block Bot a new look

BlockBotIf you’re on Twitter and you read my blog, you’ve probably heard of the Block Bot – perhaps you use it to keep your own feed free of ‘cyberbullies, bigots, MRAs, antifeminists, TERFs and SWERFs’.

Webmaster James Billingham, known here and elsewhere as Oolon, maintains the technical side while a large group of blockers, mainly female or nonbinary, screen out tweets from people deemed unpleasant. He asked me recently to give the Bot’s Twitter page a makeover, which in practice meant replacing the generic clipart being used as its logo. [Read more...]

Thank you so, so much

Five days ago I posted I was in a crisis, asking readers of this blog to support it and to hire my skills. I meant to post an update on Thursday but came down with a cold, and am just regaining blogging faculties. (One thing about being a writer: a broken leg would be no problem whatsoever, but a common cold makes work impossible.)

Long story short, I’m now fine. Actually, I’m better than fine. [Read more...]

I’m in a serious financial crisis. Here’s what you can do to help

Update.

Something I’ve come to love about this network is how it rallies round. Every so often when a FTBlogger has a personal crisis, they ask for colleagues and site readers’ help and get it in spades. I’m hoping the rule holds, because it’s my turn.

I’m in a serious financial crisis. Twice before, I’ve asked for assistance when things were dicey; at present, things are worse than dicey. [Read more...]

Help Catholic abuse survivor Sue Cox win an award

I wrote my most-read post ever last month, much of which referred to religious abuse or trauma. At one point I mentioned Sue Cox, who was raped by Catholic clergy as a child – today as a founder of Survivors Voice Europe, she campaigns internationally against the actions of the Vatican and for victim support. [Read more...]

What if rape at university wasn’t impossible to prove?

Discretion advised if graphic details of this subject upset you.

Somewhere or other, you’ve probably read the last post on this blog by now. Other versions of Maria Marcello‘s article ‘I Was Raped At Oxford University. Police Pressured Me Into Dropping Charges‘ have appeared at the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Tab, the Huffington Post and openDemocracy – the fact it’s the first thing she’s ever written is why you should follow her and why I’m privileged to be her editor. (It’s also why if you’re looking for one, you should hire me. Just saying.)

In the follow-up she published today, Marcello dissects what users at the Mail told her. Among other things, many fixated on her assumed inability to prove she was raped after falling asleep drunk.

I would ask this lady[:] Just what does she know about the event?

If you are so drunk that you have lost your memory or passed out how can you remember if you consented or not?

What evidence can she provide that she said ‘no’ to the main she claimed raped her?

How do you know you were raped if you don’t remember the night? In the period between being put to sleep and waking up with a man next to you, consensual sex could have been initiated, due to the heavy state of intoxication.

If you’re drunk and passed out, then who knows what happened? She could have dreamed the whole thing!

There would little to no evidence to bring a successful prosecution in this case. No DNA, no witnesses, no other evidence apart from a statement from someone who was so drunk they were passed out at the time with only a dim memory as their evidence.

In other words, her assault was just another case of ‘he-said-she-said college rape‘ where nothing could be proved.

As she notes in the sequel, the point of the original post was how much she could prove.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sexual Offences Act, extreme inebriation makes consent impossible. To prove her attacker raped her, Marcello had to establish a) that she was in such a state and b) that he had sex with her. What evidence did she – or rather, since I was with her at the time, we – have?

Well:

  • We had Marcello’s word, mine and up to three other people’s that she was so drunk she had to be helped to bed (i.e. couldn’t walk unassisted).
  • We had photos and several minutes of close-up video footage taken of her on the floor, unable to speak coherently and obviously extremely drunk.
  • We may also have had forensic evidence of how much alcohol she’d consumed had police physicians examined her. (The CPS advises they present this sort of evidence to courts in rape trials.)
  • We had Marcello’s word that she woke up while her attacker was having sex with her.
  • We had the word of guests who believed this was about to occur when they left.
  • We had the rapist’s statement witnessed by half a dozen people over dinner that he’d had sex with her, and possibly other statements to this effect.
  • We had bruises on her upper thighs and her statement she had difficulty walking, which police physicians would have confirmed had they examined her.
  • We had several used condoms which were presented to police.
  • We had clothes and bedsheets covered in forensics which were presented to police.

This was the case a police official informed she didn’t have once they’d got her upset and alone, before making her decide on the spot whether to press charges. The pretext for making others leave the room, gut wrenchingly, was that she not be coerced out of doing so.

Says Marcello of the official:

She said she got called to investigate a number of rape reports each day and her job involved deciding which of them it was worthwhile to pursue and which it wasn’t. In her opinion, as she made clear from the start, mine fell into the latter category.

I have to wonder: if this wasn’t a case worth pursuing, what was? I’m not a lawyer, but my guess has always been that if she’d been allowed to speak to one before making her choice, they’d have told her it was stronger than average. Even without the forensics, it should have been enough for her college to expel the undergrad who raped her – if a student’s shown to have broken the law any other way, they don’t have to lose a court case before there are consequences.

The received wisdom about rape, especially where alcohol’s involved, is that it’s impossible to prove – a matter by definition of one person’s word against another’s. Since that day in Maria Marcello’s kitchen, I’d always assumed her case must be exceptionally good.

When Stephanie Zvan said this, as so often when I read her, my assumptions changed.

We know victims of sexual assault skew young. According to Britain’s Home Office, women aged 16-19 are at the highest risk of sexual victimisation, closely followed by those aged 20-24, and are four and a half times as likely as the next hardest hit age group to experience rape. (Marcello had just turned 20 at the time of her attack.) In other words, university-age women are the most raped demographic.

000We know that, according to a rightly maligned set of government posters, ‘one in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking’. I’d speculate that since only one in five rapes is reported and alcohol commonly used to dismiss complaints, the real-life figure is higher – and that it’s especially high on campuses and among young people where drunkenness is more common in social settings, men and women live in close quarters and a culture of sexual assault has been widely observed.

‘I’ve heard lots of stories similar to mine’, Marcello writes, ‘from people assaulted [at university].’ All factors suggest the reality we’re looking at is a very high number of rapes that share the broad outline of hers: heavy social drinking, a vulnerable or unconscious woman and a man who ‘took advantage’.

She had, I take it you’ll agree from the list above, a large amount of evidence both that she too drunk to consent and that her attacker had sex with her. But how much more was it than the average woman in her situation has?

Hours afterwards and with law enforcement’s tools, it’s not that hard to prove two people had sex – or at least, that someone with a penis had sex with somebody else in one of the ways the law requires for rape. Often seminal fluid can be found, either in used contraceptives or the when victim is examined. Often there are physical signs they were penetrated, including internal injuries. Often there are external marks left on them or forensics at the scene that point to sex. Sometimes the attacker thinks they did nothing wrong and <i>tells people</i> it happened, in person or by other (e.g. online) means. Sometimes they’re interrupted in the act, whether or not the witness views it as assault.

Many women in Marcello’s situation, I’d guess, have at least some such evidence.

Proving the absence of of consent can be more complex, but it doesn’t need to be when someone’s so drunk they can’t walk, talk or consent to sex. The video footage we had always struck me as an exceptional clincher, but then drunk photos and videos often appear on students’ social media accounts. Even when drunk victims aren’t filmed, they may be seen collapsing or needing help by far more people than a handful in their room – by crowds at a college party, for example. They may be assaulted after receiving first aid, being admonished by bouncers or no longer being served by bar stuff – all evidence of drunkenness. They may still be suffering symptoms of severe intoxication the next day, or have signs of it in their system police physicians can record.

Many women in Marcello’s situation, I’d guess, have at least some such evidence.

It’s still true, of course, that proving rape isn’t quite as straightforward as proving a crime where issues like consent aren’t involved. But it’s not true drunken college rapes are simply a case of he-said-she-said: on the contrary, extreme inebriation where demonstrable makes the absence of consent much more clear-cut.

Writes Marcello:

There would be more convictions if the police process didn’t pressure women with viable evidence to drop their reports. In 2012–13, official treatment of victims like me meant only 15 percent of rapes recorded by the police even went to court.

According to a report at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, official treatment of victims like her means evidence of vulnerability that should guarantee conviction – including drunkenness as well as things like disabilities – is routinely used precisely to dismiss reports, stop charges being pressed and get rapists off.

The best way to convict more is to stop telling victims with a strong case that they have no evidence.

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Richard Dawkins: abort Down’s Syndrome foetuses because “it would be immoral to bring it into the world”

In the recent past while he was telling people who were raped how they should think about their rape, I tweeted a guide to Richard Dawkins’ PR habits.

It was retweeted quite a lot at the time, and in the last few hours it’s started getting shared again. Seemingly, I have invented for myself a Richard-Dawkins-saying-something-awful detector. He’s at it again:

Where abortion is judged the moral option for the would-be child, a kind of euthanasia in advance, it’s because birth will result in something worse: incurable, unbearable pain, say. That’s the easiest example ethically, and we can argue about what else might qualify, but the point is that whatever life the child stands to have must be worse than not being born.

Is Down’s Syndrome worse than not being born? Most people with it don’t appear to think so. At least, they don’t appear as a rule to wish they’d never been born. My guess is that Dawkins, who never seems to grasp the idea of subjectivity, is presuming again to speak for other people – in this case those with DS. Perhaps he sees it as a ‘birth defect’, as many of his generation seem to see a wide variety of conditions – but most of the time, as a friend pointed out, people with disabilities tend to think their lives are worth living. You run into eugenics pretty quickly when you decide who’s ‘defective’ and who isn’t without consulting them.

To the original context of his tweet, I do think termination due to foetal disability should be legally available – partly since there are prospective parents without the proper means to raise a disabled child, but mostly since I think abortion should always be available. I support the legality of sex-selective abortion, even as I think it’s horrifying; I support the legality of Down’s Syndrome abortions even as I think they’re often horrible, and certainly if framed as morally obligatory. I support the right of anyone to end their pregnancy who doesn’t want to give birth, even if the rationale is horrific, because I don’t believe in forcing people to against their will. (Urging women or anyone with a uterus to abort because of a Down’s diagnosis is itself, in any case, using disability to tell them what to do with their own bodies. It’s what Dawkins is doing and what doctors did to my mother, who at 42 was urged throughout her pregnancy to abort in case I had DS.)

All this is quite different from saying the existence of people with Down’s Syndrome – for which they are presumably quite grateful – is a terrible moral crime, or that living with it is worse than never being born.

I have, for the record, neither a disability nor a uterus, so am happier than usual to be contradicted anywhere by people who know things I don’t.

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I will not hold my tongue about religion

Sometimes while writing I use Facebook updates to organise my thoughts, and the result is a rough form of what becomes an article. When I did so with the last post on this blog, one commenter asked me to publish the rough version, which is shorter and more shareable. (I’ve edited it lightly for republication here.)

Three years ago Greta Christina wrote a post asking what the goals of the atheist ‘movement’ were. It identifies two competing groups of atheists: one whose goals – combating anti-atheist bigotry, promoting secular governance, helping everyone to ‘get along’ – often entail alliance work with believers, and another who think religion is inherently a flawed, harmful phenomenon… and that we’d be better off without it, and that this is a goal worth pursuing.

The idea of noting these competing goals was, I think, to measure the usefulness of diplomatic versus firebrand-like approaches while talking about religion. (If the first group’s goals were her main or only ones, Greta writes, ‘I might well be advocating that we prioritise diplomacy more than we do, and dial back on the confrontationalism a bit.’) Chris Stedman cited her post to this effect at the Huffington Post, in a piece called ‘The Problem with “Atheist Activism”‘ which argued for the merits of the first group’s goals over the second’s.

Broadly speaking I’ve always shared Greta’s take, and have linked to it when frustrated by atheist civility politics, attacks on writers who aren’t ‘nice’ enough or the charge of being inflammatory, counterproductive and unconstructive. But there’s something I’d like to say in addition.

Some people’s main goal is combating bigotry and ‘building bridges’. Some people’s main goal is eroding the very grip religious faith has on the world in the first place. Especially as someone who unlike either Greta or Chris Stedman had a religious upbringing, I have a third aim to submit. As far as I’m concerned, it overrides both the others.

I hate the insistence I should self-censor to make what say about religion ‘constructive’, ‘productive’ or goal-serving – because whenever I’m speaking my mind about it I’m serving my primary goal. Speaking my mind about religion, including but not limited to my own experience – simply being able to speak freely about it without holding my tongue – is a constructive goal for me.

When other atheists tell me to shut up or be more polite because I’m hindering their cause, I want to tell them: saying what I want how I want is my cause. It matters more to me than any other, theirs included. You could convince me the way I write about religion makes more people convert to it. You could convince me that, as I’ve been told, it entrenches negative views of atheists or makes bridge-building impossible. I still wouldn’t stop.

What’s struck me repeatedly about the calm down brigade is that so often, they have no experience of having to hold their tongues – including about horrible things that happened to them – so religious feelings don’t get hurt. Tongue-holding no longer is the most important thing to me; it’s probably a large part of why I write a blog. And the fact is that if other people’s require me to give it up because to them it doesn’t seem constructive, I don’t care.

From my point of view, mouthing off and being an angry atheist stereotype seems hugely constructive.

Read the full version.

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