Jul 25 2014

The feverishly fundering Friday open thread

Well I don’t know about where you are, but here in Manchester this week it’s been hotter than a gusset in a chorus line. The tar between the cobbles has been bubbling on the streets, the whippets have been refusing to whip and some of us have even removed our flat caps.

I’m told that today London has suddenly gone all thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening, me.

Gallileo. Gallileo. Gallileo Figaro.

I’m jealous.

How’s things in your corner of the world?

And what has been catching your interest?

Jul 24 2014

Sket-list scaremongering and scepticism

I wrote recently about my concerns over the way the media handle the issue of girls, gangs and sexual violence. In a nutshell, it seems to me this coverage is generally needlessly titillating, exploitative and salacious, painfully simplistic about the social dynamics of gang violence and it often actively, if inadvertently, dances to the melodies of racist agendas.

On Sunday the Observer ran a news piece which could have been an object lesson in the above. Within 48 hours it had been picked up and republished, almost word for word, by sleazy tabloids like the Star and right wing rags like the Daily Mail. Among the people sharing and eagerly discussing the original on Sunday were the official Twitter account of the British National Party and countless other racists and fascists.

The article made a series of extravagant claims. It alleged that:

London gangs are drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rape targets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.

The so-called sket lists (sket is street slang for “sluts”) have, according to youth workers, prompted attacks so brazen that girls have been dragged from school buses and sexually assaulted. Police and charities say they have recorded an increase in the use of sexual violence by gangs, including incidents of revenge rape, where the sisters and girlfriends of rival gang members are targeted.

Other claims in the piece included this quote from Det Supt Tim Champion of the Met’s Operation Trident:

“The first thing we had to do is stop people killing each other. The focus now clearly is on women. It’s as prevalent as carrying a knife or a gun – raping a girl in a gang.”

It goes on to add:

Figures from the Safer London Foundation reveal that more than 500 young women were victims of gang-related sexual violence in the past year, a figure Hubberstey describes as just the “tip of the iceberg”.

Scotland Yard’s latest intelligence identifies 3,495 gang members in 224 gangs in London, although just 40 were found to be female.

I’m sure we’ll all agree these are shocking claims. They are also for the most part quantifiable and verifiable claims. Call me cynical if you like, but I thought I would try to verify them.

Let’s begin at the top.

1. “Police and charities say they have recorded an increase in the use of sexual violence by gangs”

I asked the Metropolitan police what increase they have recorded in the use of sexual violence by gangs. They replied:

We have no specific figures relating to the sexual abuse of girls by gangs.”

That’s that then.

So what about the charities?

2. Figures from the Safer London Foundation reveal that more than 500 young women were victims of gang-related sexual violence in the past year, a figure Hubberstey describes as just the “tip of the iceberg”.

I asked the Safer London Foundation what methodology they had used to calculate the figure of more than 500 girls?

The 500 figure is actually the number of young women we’ve supported in the areas we work in London in last year.”

I asked to clarify whether these were specifically victims of sexual violence by gangs?

The young women we support have experienced sexual violence and exploitation (which covers a range of forms of abuse including but not only assault and rape)”

So while this shows SLF is doing good work with vulnerable and exploited young people (something I do not remotely question, incidentally) the figure as presented in the Observer and repeated elsewhere is wrong on several counts. These 500 girls were not necessarily all victims of sexual violence and any crimes committed against them did not necessarily happen in the past year. We are still none the wiser as to the true extent and trends of sexual violence by gangs.

As to the most dramatic claim in the article.

3. London gangsare drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rapetargets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.

These lists would, quite obviously, constitute significant evidence of serious criminal activity, including potentially rape and sexual assault, or at the very least criminal conspirancy. One would expect the gang specialists in the Met’s Operation Trident to act swiftly in response, most notably in warning or offering protection to any women whose names were appearing on, effectively, hit lists for rapists. One would expect any youth or community worker who encounters such a list to act responsibly in passing on such information to the police as a matter of urgency. While Blackberry BBM is notoriously difficult for the police to intercept and monitor in real time, gang members are being arrested for one reason or another on a daily basis and their phones are routinely seized and inspected for evidence.

So bearing all that in mind, how many ‘sket lists’ have the police in London encountered, this year or ever?

“We have received no direct evidence or reports of so-called ‘sket-lists.’”

This does not of course mean that such lists do not exist, however I think it does warrant a sceptical side-eye. The claims in this piece were attributed to unspecified charities not police (I would presume Safer London Foundation were the source).

As it happens I’m pretty sure that sket lists, in one form or another, do exist. I first heard them mentioned three or four years ago in the context of reams of research into early sexualisation and ‘pornification’ (I’ve racked my memory trying to track down the source this week but drawn a blank, apologies.)

In that research, sket-lists were used as an example of teenage misogyny and bullying. They were described basically as a digital version of an old-school toilet wall – lists of local girls who were rumoured to be promiscuous or ‘sluts.’ Teenagers would pass them around and add the name of any girl who they felt deserved it.

This, of course, is horrible, but entirely believable. It’s the kind of things kids have always done, albeit with added technology.

It is also entirely credible that a young woman whose name appears on such a list is more likely to be targeted for sexual assault, abuse or rape. That would fit perfectly with the mindset of the sexually abusive personality. So I can quite believe that young people involved with SLF or other agencies have told youth workers something along the lines of: “Yeah, the gangs target girls whose names have appeared on sket lists.”

I’m speculating, of course, but this strikes me as entirely credible. Saying “gangs target girls who have a reputation for being a bit of a slut” is – while grim and depressing – vastly less sensationalist than suggesting that gangs are handing around lists of names of targets specifically so they can be singled out for rape and assault, which was the clear implication of the Observer’s report.

I have one final doubt about the Observer’s report. It relates to this:

Hubberstey said gang members were taking advantage of low conviction rates for rape, viewing sexual violence as a less-risky means to inflict pain on rivals or spread fear than carrying a weapon

I can offer no hard evidence that can rebut this claim, so feel free to ignore me, but I have to say, from my knowledge of criminology and the dynamics of gangs this really doesn’t ring true to me.

Crimes of violence and abuse rarely have cold calculations of costs and benefits behind them. They happen out of anger, rage, hatred, fear, temper and sadistic cruelty. Gang crimes, in particular, are driven by momentum. It is messy and irrational. Someone is robbed, so someone is stabbed, so someone else is shot, and in the ensuing chaos gangs grow as people seek protection. Within all that people are sexually abused, exploited and raped. All my instincts tell me that what dramatic falls in youth crime generally, falls in anti-social behaviour, drug use and problem drinking, and most importantly precipitous falls in gun and knife crimes, gangs should be getting smaller and less active, and their associated problems and impacts, including sexual crimes, should be similarly in decline.

The Metropolitan Police tell me that despite having (literally) no evidence of the extent and trends in gang-related sexual violence:

We do believe it is an issue which remains significantly under-reported which is why we are mapping the extent of the problem and where it is prevalent, so that we can work effectively with our partners to identify suitable ways of intervening.”

This is to be welcomed on every score. I hope that when the mapping is complete, they are forthcoming not only with the bad news, but with the good. In the meantime, I do wish the media would ease off on unsubstantiated, dangerous and damaging scaremongering.

Jul 23 2014

Making sense of a senseless horror

Local newspaper reports in London this week recounted bare details of a horrific court case relating to the manslaughter of a four-month old baby. The 19-year old mother pleaded guilty to starving the baby to death as well as separate charges of child cruelty to two other children. She was given an 18 month suspended sentence and various restrictions that included a ban on looking after any children for the next two years.

I picked up the story from a tweet linking to the Men’s Rights sub on Reddit. The OP invited comparison to another case where a man was sentenced to eight years in prison for shaking his baby to death in a rage because she was crying while he wanted to play a video game.

On the face of it, the suspended sentence on this woman was remarkable. The posters on Reddit/MensRights claim that this is a typical case of ‘pussy pass’ where women can literally kill and walk away from court with not so much as a slap on the wrist. Several comments were along the lines of “anyone who does this should be strung up by their toes and flayed alive.” Others attributed the verdict to the fact that there are, apparently, ‘many rad fems in the British government.’

Anyone who follows British law and child protection issues would realise that this sentence is far from typical. It’s generally true that mothers tend to receive slightly shorter sentences than fathers in cases like this but the difference is not that profound. This is so far off the scale of normal that I wondered if it might be some bizarre reporting mistake. This was underlined by the strange absence of outrage or even raised eyebrows in national and regional media.

I dug deeper. I have to tread carefully from this point, because I found a court report which I am pretty sure flouts the reporting restrictions in this case (the mother’s name and some other relevant details should have been withheld to protect the identities of her two surviving children, and it was not) I’m not going to link to it or reproduce it for my own legal protection, however the key details are reproduced below.

MILE END, TOWER HAMLETS A teenage mum who was forced to marry an older man in [COUNTRY REDACTED] when she was 13 is facing jail today for killing her four-month-old daughter.  [NAME REDACTED] has admitted the manslaughter and cruelty to two other children [NAMES REDACTED] under the age of 16.


Suddenly the case takes on a very different aspect.

What appears to have happened here is that the victim of forced marriage and child sex abuse, who by the age of 18 had already given birth to three children, perhaps allegedly as a consequence of repeated rape, proving incompetent and incapable of properly feeding and caring for those children. It’s by no means unlikely that she found herself incapable of caring about or loving those children.

With just this smidgen of background information, suddenly this sentence appears less a calumny of justice and more a proportionate and compassionate response to an utterly horrendous and complex case.

The tight-lipped silence of most media might well be explained by the possibility of ongoing criminal charges against anyone involved involved in the forced marriage (including the husband, perhaps.) This is one of those multi-layered cases where reporting the details of one trial and verdict could risk prejudicing the outcome of another (hence my own ultra-cautious approach here).

I don’t blame the Reddit denizens for accepting the initial reports at face value. It took a wee bit of journalistic nous and experience on my part to track down additional details and start to make sense of it.

However this sorry saga does illustrate the dangers of rushing to squeeze every news story into such a shape as to match one’s prejudices. It may also show that when it comes to media reporting of difficult and complex cases, sometimes telling a small part of the story does more damage than telling none of it. Sometimes the only responsible way to tell a story may be not to tell it at all.

Jul 18 2014

It’s time to stop defaming our boys

The most remarkable news report appeared on Salon and a few other outlets this week. Reporting research by the school of public health at Columbia University, published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, the coverage recounted findings that were so shocking as to take the breath away.

Dr David Bell and colleagues had conducted qualitative research interviews into teenage boys aged 14-16 and found that… brace yourself… they’re actually kinda sweet. The sample of 33 boys came from an economically deprived, primarily African-American community, where there were known to be high STI transmission rates (in other words, this was a group of boys who would traditionally be expected to have some of the most problematic attitudes from a public health perspective). Among the findings were that the boys described a high degree of ‘relationally-oriented beliefs and behaviours’ such as a desire for intimacy and trust in relationships, as against pursuing sex as an end in itself or a status symbol. There was little in the way of sexual objectification, homophobia was rare.

Both sexually inexperienced and sexually experienced participants sought meaningful relationships with nice-looking romantic partners with “good personalities,” a sense of humour, and future goals. Respect was an important characteristic. They reported that in their experience it had usually been the girls, not themselves, who had initiated both romantic and sexual engagements. They described their own vulnerability – emotionally and with regard to their sexual inexperience.

Now of course we should be cautious of reading too much into one study. There may have been something about how these interviews were conducted, or how the interviewees were recruited, which produced these results. But I spent many years doing community media work with inner city young people, including some quite troubled and difficult teenagers who had been excluded from school or who were involved in the youth justice system. I also have many friends with teenage boys and know them and their pals, and this research rings a lot more true to me than most of the coverage we see of young people and their relationships.

Case in point. Last week shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper announced plans for a Violence Against Women Act if Labour wins the next election. (Just for the record, other than a few quibbles I don’t disagree with most of her proposals, but that’s for another day.)

In making her announcement, she wrote a long piece for the Independent with the provocative title “We must educate our sons to save our daughters” which set out her views on young people and abusive relationships. Amid several bold claims, Cooper stated that: “According to the Children’s Commissioner there is clear evidence that violence in young relationships is growing.”


I raised every available eyebrow at this. I follow the work of the Children’s Commissioner pretty closely. Over recent years her office has commissioned and published several reports: into young people and sexual consent; on gang-associated sexual exploitation and sexual violence; and into the extent of, and possible harm caused by, the widespread availability of pornography. Not a single one of these reports even attempted to map trends in relationship violence.

I contacted the office of the Children’s Commissioner and a spokesperson confirmed that these reports did not specifically look at whether young people are more violent now than in the past. When I asked if this meant that Cooper was wrong in attributing the claim about relationship violence “growing” to the Commissioner, she replied with a slightly dissembling “As you will have noted from our first statement to you, Yvette Cooper’s comment is a possible conclusion, although we did not feel able to make a similar statement given the other interpretations that would be equally valid.”

I take that to be a very diplomatic version of “Yes.”

Before I proceed let me stress that violence and abuse in young relationships really are a significant and serious problem. Young people are at the greatest risk of all types of violence, including partner abuse. You are more likely to be assaulted by a partner or sexually assaulted between the ages of 16 and 24 than all the rest of your adult life put together. When you shine a light into the darkest corners, into the experiences of vulnerable children in care or in gang-culture, you will reveal horrific instances of abuse and appalling risks of exploitation and harm.

However – and this is the key point – it was ever thus. Is there any actual evidence to tell us whether things are getting worse or better?

Actually yes, there is. It is not perfect or conclusive by any means, but the British Crime Survey (now the Crime Survey for England and Wales) collects detailed data on intimate partner violence, including breakdowns for age groups all the way down to 16-19 year-olds. This doesn’t help us with younger children, of course, nor can we assume that all 16-19 year olds have partners of the same age, but as a rough yardstick measure, it is as good a metric as there is available.

The data, unfortunately, is scattered through the chaotic shambles of the government data archives, and to my knowledge no one has previously assembled this data into one table or graph. You’ll notice some years are missing. I have, however, done my best to include every figure I could find for the three categories of crime most associated with relationship abuse: partner assault (non-sexual); sexual assault; and stalking. The results are here. [click to enlarge]


Notwithstanding gaps in the data, it is very difficult to make the case from here that young people’s relationships are becoming more violent. On a crude point to point comparison, between 2004 and 2011, young women aged 16-19 became about a third less likely to be subject to partner violence; about a third less likely to be subject to sexual assault, and about two thirds less likely to be stalked.

(If you are wondering, the trends are very similar for male victims, and for male and female victims aged 20-24. I don’t want to blind you with data.)

That’s not all. Those familiar with domestic violence trends might be aware that the big fall in prevalence of domestic abuse really happened earlier – beginning around 1995. Data from that time are even harder to track down and methods of defining and classifying have changed significantly, so direct comparisons are impossible. This analysis of the 1996 BCS classifies ‘domestic abuse’ approximately in the way we now classify ‘severe violence’ (hit, kicked, use of weapon or similar.) By current data, this accounts for less than 30% of all domestic abuse. Even using that older, strict definition, in 1996 10.1% of 16-19 year-old girls said they had been victims of partner violence. As a very rough sketch, that would suggest that a young woman’s risk of experiencing severe violence from a partner might have dropped by about 70% since 1996.

None of this should come as a surprise, although I do not doubt it will to many. It is entirely in keeping with a raft of other evidence that shows young people are vastly less violent than they were a few years ago. They commit fewer crimes and get arrested less often. They drink less and take fewer drugs. All of this is well-documented with reliable data for anyone who actually takes the trouble to find out.

Against this evidence, claims by Yvette Cooper, much like Diane Abbott’s characterisation of a porn-crazed, ‘Jack Daniels and Viagra’ generation, is tantamount to blunt defamation of a whole generation of young men. What’s worse, considering most of this is coming from the nominal left, is that the negative stereotyping and unjustified damage to reputations this causes will not be spread evenly through the population. The general assumption will never be that these teenage girl-beaters, abusers and rapists are the public school-educated, middle class sons of politicians and journalists – the fear and suspicion will land disproportionately instead upon the working class boys, the black and minority ethnic boys, precisely those who are already struggling hardest against stigma and stereotyping and who are already falling furthest behind in social, educational and economic attainment. As the research from Columbia suggests, this may well be an almighty calumny.

It is time to stop defaming our boys.

Jul 11 2014

The famously fluffy and friendly Friday open thread

As far as I can work out, there are currently arguments still ongoing on four different threads on this blog, which may be a record.

I’m not sure you all really need somewhere else to argue, but since we haven’t had a new open thread for a couple of weeks I figured we should have a new one. Here you can drift as far off topic as you like, (since topic is there none) or raise any issues or points of interest that you’d  like to share with me or  the rest of the world.

Since there are so many arguments elsewhere, you may wish to keep this fluffy and friendly and post links to pictures of your kittens.  Or you can just call each other fucking idiots as usual.

So what’s on yer minds folks?


Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 11 2014

Man mansplains that men also mansplain to men. Another man mansplains why


There is an entertaining piece on the Economist’s blog site this week, about how gender affects conversational styles. It was neatly summarised by the mag’s own Twitter-feed as “man mansplains that men also mansplain to men.”

The post raises a couple of really interesting points, I think. The first is alluded to but not spelled out by the author, and perhaps should have been. It is that “But men do this thing to other men too!” is a completely bloody pointless defence to any charge or complaint about sexist or patriarchal behaviour.

It’s amazing how often this comes up. Where women complain about harassing and intrusive behaviour on the streets or public transport, you can always bank on some arsehole piping up “But that’s not sexism, men shout random abuse at each other too!” It’s true, they do. So it is not always sexist. Sometimes it is racist or ableist or homophobic or just plain, simple bullying. So can we cut all that out too while we’re at it?

Where women complain about feeling the threat of violence when walking outside at night, Mr Bloke can be banked on to respond “What are you complaining about? Men are much more likely to be randomly assaulted by strangers than women are.” This is also true. So can we please join with those women who are quite keen to see an end to such behaviour? Sooner than later would be good. 

Or in the case in point, men use conversational exchanges not (just) to communicate, bond or exchange views and knowledge, but as a competitive sport, a test of dominance and status. It is quite true that this becomes an opportunity to establish social dominance over women (aka mansplaining) but also over other men. This is not an especially healthy trait. I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings (whether in work, politics, voluntary societies or whatever) which are dominated not by the person with the best ideas or the greatest knowledge, but the one with the most regard for the sound of (usually) his own voice. I’m dreadfully guilty of this myself, and am quite happy to acknowledge it and try to catch myself on.

The second point that occurred to me while reading the Economist blog is a bit of a leap of disciplines. (I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me.In discussing the ideas of psycholinguist Deborah Tannen, the author says:

In Ms Tannen’s schema, men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.

Reading this, a little lightbulb came on. For a few years I have followed with interest the work of Michael W Kraus, both as an applied social psychologist and an engaging blogger (and all-round good guy). Kraus researches the interaction between social status and empathy, so for example, among his more intriguing findings is that if you manipulate someone’s sense of social status upwards (ie making them feel more important) their capacity for empathy diminishes, or vice versa. The suspicion is that empathy is, at least in part, a trait with evolutionary survival advantages for those lower down the (literal and metaphorical) food chain. It kicks in more the more it is needed.

(When I’ve written about this before, a lot of people reply by arguing that it is the lack of empathy and consideration which helps people attain power and status in the first place. While undoubtedly true, it is important to note this is not the point. Increase someone’s status, and their ability to empathise diminishes even when they want to empathise and actively try to empathise.)

What occurred to me today was that when we discuss male and female communication styles, we tend to argue about whether they are innate or socialised. As a broad rule of thumb, feminists tend to argue that boys and girls are taught or trained to be dominant or submissive respectively, while anti-feminists are perhaps more likely to argue that these are natural and immutable differences between the sexes.

What I am now wondering is whether it is possible that this aspect to conversational style is neither learned nor innate but is, at least in part, a consequence of a (self-perceived) social status? If it were true, we would expect to see that as individual women achieved greater power and status in the boardroom, politics or wherever, their capacity for empathy and the urge to co-operate and network would diminish. I can offer no objective evidence, but I have to say that this does pretty much tally with my experience.

The other implication would be that it wouldn’t be enough to teach men to listen and teach women to have confidence, as the Economist suggests. We would actually need to smash the surrounding social context of structural sexism and all vestiges of patriarchal hegemony before men’s and women’s communication styles equalise. That may be slightly beyond the editorial remit of the Economist.

Anyway, I repeat, the above is really just me thinking out loud. I’m not aware if there is any kind of body of research that proves or disproves what I say, so feel free to argue back from a position of considerable knowledge or, like me, enthusiastic ignorance.

Any thoughts?



Jul 09 2014

No excuses: Yewtree, the stars and the victim-blaming


content note: brief details of sexual assaults are relayed later in this piece


Unlike Neil Lyndon, I was too young to experience the legendary decadence of the 1970s. I did, however, party my way through the chemical kaleidoscope of the late 80s and 90s, a time which bore many similarities. Hedonism was at a premium, good judgement and self-restraint were in scarce supply and, as one of Lyndon’s friends recalled of the previous era, at times it almost seemed like everybody was fucking everybody.

Except not quite. I remember once my (three male) housemates and I stumbled out of a club, pie-eyed, in the small hours. As we waited for the all-night bus we got chatting to some similarly mashed girls. They asked us if we had any weed and pretty much invited themselves back to our place. At some point a kind of collective ripple of realisation ran among me and my mates that these really were girls, not women. When someone asked how old they were they just giggled and said something vaguely flirtatious. We let them toke on a couple of spliffs to help them land gently from whatever they’d taken earlier then sent them grumbling back to their mums and dads. I never did find out their ages but a few days later they turned up at our door in their school uniforms at lunchtime. I was out, but my horrified housemate reported that tin the cold light of day they looked about 15 at most.

I recount this very mundane story to make a very mundane point. Not screwing children really isn’t that difficult, if you are any kind of decent human being. Even when they are dolled up in party gear and make-up, you can tell. Even when you’re shitfaced on the finest pharmaceuticals Hulme has to offer, you can still tell. Had any one of us grown men taken one of those girls to our bedrooms – even with her apparent consent – we would have known exactly what we were doing. I simply refuse to believe that teenagers in the 1970s were so very different that one couldn’t tell.

So I have little sympathy if Neil Lyndon or any of his friends from the time are waking up with the cold sweats expecting a knock on the door from Operation Yewtree. Just because they thought they could get away with it at the time, doesn’t mean it was right at the time. Justice delayed is still justice.

However there is another point on which Lyndon’s piece is deeply, grotesquely ill-conceived. I have not seen a single shred of evidence that any of the known victims of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and others were enthusiastic groupies who threw themselves at their heroes in pursuit of an intimate connection. Of course in the 1970s, just like today, there were hormone-crazed teenage girls, either side of the age of consent, who actively pursued sexual contact with adult crushes – whether pop stars, DJs or their teachers. While it is absolutely 100% the responsibility of the adult to ensure they do not abuse children, this is irrelevant in the cases under discussion. These victims were not carefree libertines inspired by Erica Jong’s notion of the zipless fuck. They were vulnerable victims of abuse, assault and rape.

There must be thousands of women, now in their 50s and 60s, who had teenage encounters with pop stars and celebrities through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I do not doubt that many were under the age of legal consent at the time. I have known personally several women who would willingly own up to those kinds of experiences without any apparent regret. I am not excusing the men who took advantage of them when I note that these women are NOT now phoning up the police to report themselves as victims of historic sex crimes.

Neil Lyndon, and all those making similar points, should go back and read again the testimony of the victims in the trials of Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, or the inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile. Read the stomach-turning testimony of the shy young girl who had never had a boyfriend, whom Savile met in hospital. He befriended her family, offered to take her out to buy chips, then raped her in his camper van outside the chip shop.

Lyndon should read again the account of Stuart Hall’s victim, who was only nine years old and in her own bed when the TV presenter crept into her room and molested her.

Lyndon should think on the evidence of the victim of Rolf Harris who was just 13 when she was first molested as she climbed out of the shower while on holiday.

I could continue but I hope the point is made. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of stories like these. Not a single witness in any of the trials has remotely matched the image conjured by Lyndon of lascivious, enthusiastic teenage sexpots entrapping poor, helpless male celebrities.

What we have in Lyndon’s piece is an extended exercise in the most extreme, literal form of victim blaming. By conflating the very real and all too human victims of serial sexual predators with enthusiastic participants in a carnival of orgiastic sex, he is saying that the victims of these criminals were actively complicit in their own abuse. This is a gross slander on the victims themselves, and an appalling misrepresentation of history.

Jul 03 2014

Asking some awkward questions about FGM

Female genital mutilation is always an abhorrent obscenity. In its more invasive forms it carries significant implications for health and, most obviously sexual health. I have no quibble with the Home Affairs Select Committee that the failure to protect girls in the UK from the practice is a national scandal. We have victim testimony and medical case studies to confirm that girls born and raised in the UK, who should have been under the protection of our welfare and justice systems, have been subjected to this gruesome form of violence.

That said, I have longstanding and lingering doubts about some of the evidence that is always produced when we discuss the nature and extent of FGM in the UK. I stress at this point that from hereon in, this blogpost will be asking questions, not providing answers. However the questions I ask are, I believe, much bigger and more important than anyone is currently crediting. I raise them here not to be a contrarian bellend with an eye on a column in Spiked, but because it concerns me that the FGM prevention agenda could have serious unintended consequences that I will return to at the end.

Media coverage of the new MPs report typically repeat the claim that up to 170,000 women in the UK may have been subjected to FGM and 65,000 girls are currently at risk. The former statistic comes from a piece of research by Julie Bindel earlier this year, the latter is a longstanding estimate originating in research done for the charity FORWARD by Efua Dorkenoo in 2006.

And yet despite anecdote and assumption, actual documented incidents of girls from this country being ritually mutilated, either in this country or being taken abroad for the procedure, is scant. The Association of Chief Police Officers told the Select Committee that in the last five years the police had dealt with over 200 FGM-related cases nationally of which 11 had been referred on to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration. Of the 69 referrals made to the Metropolitan Police Service in 2013, only 10 were recorded as an FGM offence, the others included unfounded concerns and cases where the cutting had happened before the victim had moved to the UK. Health professionals also report seeing many mutilated women but, again, in almost all cases the mutilation appears to have predated UK residence.

Is it credible that a problem on the scale reported could throw up so few confirmed cases? Earlier this year a Channel 4 News Factcheck blog explained very clearly how the prevalence statistics were calculated.

“Estimates of prevalence like this are more like educated guesswork than hard science. There are ranges of uncertainty built into every stage of the process.”

To be fair, the Dorkenoo report is very frank about some of the research’s own limitations. This is reflected, to an extent, in the MPs’ report, but the way they acknowledge this is typical:

“Yet, apart from a small number of high-level statistical analyses and anecdotal evidence, we have very little information on the children who are most at risk, and even the extent to which the cutting is occurring in this country or by taking girls abroad. Meanwhile, as many as 170,000 women in the UK may already be living with the life-long consequences of FGM. We welcome efforts by the Government and others to draw a more accurate picture. However, even in the absence of precise data, it is clear that the extent of the problem is very significant”

In the absence of precise data, is it really clear? I’m not so sure. (Of course, in one sense any extent of FGM, even one case, is significant, but I don’t think that’s really what they mean.)

To understand the doubts about the prevalence data we are given, consider first the phrase “65,000 girls are at risk of FGM.” What does that mean? Simplistically , it means they were born into communities where FGM is practiced, but what risk does that carry? Is their risk of being mutilated 1% or 99%? When we are talking about prevalence and incidence, ‘at risk’ is an almost useless phrase. A quick read of the research reveals that the phrase ‘at risk’ is applied to any girl born to a woman born in any country were FGM is practised, including those where the practice is close to universal and those where it is a comparative rarity. Averaging out such risks would be meaningless, so it is impossible to say what magnitude of risk we are talking about here.

Look at the Dorkenoo paper closely, and other issues arise. The research uses census data for women who were born in countries where FGM is practised and is quite explicit that the research did not control for ethnic or cultural variations within that country. The single largest group within their data are Kenyans, who provide almost a third of their estimated total for women who have been mutilated. However, the British-Kenyan community is by no means typical of the population in Kenya. A large proportion are Kenyan-Asians, mostly of Hindu-Indian culture, who were expelled after the Kenyan Immigration Act of 1967. Rates of FGM among that community are (I would presume) pretty much zero. Other people who will have told the census they were born in Kenya include many white stragglers from the colonial era (Richard Dawkins, Cristina Odone and Peter Hain MP were all born in Kenya). Even among ethnic Kenyans in the UK, large numbers are educated middle-class professionals, especially doctors and nurses, and it is reasonable to presume that (while of course not exempt from risk) they are significantly less likely to be practising FGM than representative samples of the generally poor and uneducated Kenyan population, from which the risks to British-Kenyan girls are extrapolated.

One other serious question mark hanging over this research relates to how migrant communities behave. As acknowledged in the select committee’s report, there is evidence that the behaviour of (at least some) immigrant communities to the UK begins to change soon after they arrive in this country. It is by no means self-evident that a family of North African origin are going to stubbornly retain all the cultural habits of their former home when they begin a new life elsewhere.

And this is where the first of my wider concerns comes in. Anyone who regularly reads comments on social media or blogs knows the extent that FGM can be instrumentalised in entirely different debates. Despite a minimal theological connection to Islam, and widespread practice among Christian and other religious communities in parts of Africa, it is regularly used as evidence of the barbarity of Muslims. Those who would impose a fascistic monoculture upon this country use widespread FGM as evidence of the failure of supposed multiculturalism and the evils of cultural relativism and political correctness. A narrative holding that large numbers of savage dark-skinned foreigners are whisking their daughters out of the country to have their vaginas sewn up or their clitoris excised grips with troubling persistence in the public imagination.

There is a lot about the FGM debate which reminds me of the inflated concerns about sex trafficking about a decade ago. Who can forget Denis Macshane standing up in the House of Commons, waving a copy of the Daily Mirror and insisting that there were 25,000 sex slaves on the streets of Britain? The campaigning and false statistics drove two massive nationwide police operations which ultimately resulted in the rescue of a very small number of genuine victims of trafficking, rape and false imprisonment. Yes, such victims did and do exist. However the main victims of Pentameter I and II were entirely consenting, freely operating foreign-national sex workers who were rounded up by the hundred, torn away from their lives and summarily deported

Just as there really are victims of appalling sex trafficking, there are also victims of female genital mutilation. I do not doubt that there will be girls in this country who are either subjected to the cruel practice here in the UK or perhaps over the summer holidays they will be taken out of the country, with or without knowledge of their impending fate. Just one case is one too many, but whether such cases number in the dozens, the hundreds or the thousands must make a huge difference as to the policies we instigate to address the problem. If the problem were much more rare than we are led to believe, then it could cause considerable harm to place communities from Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and other FGM-practising countries under intrusive practices of surveillance and suspicion, while having little or no effect on the problem. If there are indeed thousands of cases each year, then it might be entirely justified to initiate more wide-ranging policies.

What concerns me most about the lack of strong research into the prevalence of FGM is not just that we do not know the extent of the problem. It is that it seems everyone involved knows we are clueless about the extent of the problem and they seem to have little genuine desire to find out the truth.

Jun 28 2014

Everyday sexists or exceptional sickos? Observing hostile public masturbation

Laura Bates this week devoted her Everyday Sexism blog on the Guardian to the issue of men masturbating in public, specifically as a means of harassing women. Based on the contributions submitted to her website and over Twitter, she made a convincing case that this is one of the more common forms of harassment women experience, and her correspondents made a convincing case that it is also one of the most disturbing and frightening.

Beneath the line, an interesting and at times furious debate erupted. Some commentators, mostly men, I suspect, suggested that this should not be considered a form of sexism, it is instead the work of ‘sickos’ or ‘the local lunatic.’ Others, mostly women I suspect, responded that the men they had encountered behaving like this had been wearing suits and ties and showed no other sign of being mentally ill or generally disturbed. Some suggested that the experience is so common that it must be a large proportion of men who are doing this. This opinion, needless to say, was not well received by many men.

It was a debate that raised a lot of really interesting and important issues, and I thought they might be worth unpicking. My initial sense is that public masturbation is not a thing – it is several different things. Examples quoted in Laura’s piece include men masturbating when alone in a train carriage with a woman and leering at her; a woman discovering ejaculate in their hair from someone sitting behind her in a cinema; frotteurs rubbing themselves against a woman in a crushed tube train; people catching someone hiding in the bushes and masturbating while watching them in secret and even a man walking down the road, apparently unperturbed with his penis in his hand.

While these have an obvious superficial similarity, I’d suggest that they are actually all different phenomena and may have very different forensic profiles.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on public masturbation, with the intent or expectation of being seen and eliciting a reaction. This is clinically classified as exhibitionism, which is a very common form of paraphilia. As long ago as 1973, JM McDonald noted in the original textbook that fully one third of sexual crimes reported to police were exhibitionism of some sort. A Swedish survey of the general population found that 4.1% of men and 2.1% of women admitted that they had, at some time in their lives, experienced sexual arousal by exposing their genitals to strangers. This suggests that the behaviour, while only performed by a small minority, is not freakishly unusual. It should be noted that despite those survey results above, the incidents which are reported to police (a rough proxy for incidents which could be considered threatening or traumatic) virtually all offenders are male. Adult male victims are almost unheard of. Child victims are roughly evenly divided between boys and girls.

Paraphilias (as sexual disorders are described in the psych literature and textbooks) are not generally considered to be mental illnesses, although – like personality disorders – they fall under the remit of mental health professionals when they begin to cause harm or distress to either the individual or those around him/her. So an exhibitionist, even a compulsive, repeat offender, is not necessarily ‘mad’ or mentally ill. Paraphilias also appear throughout the population, and there is some (albeit disputed) evidence that they are slightly over-represented among better educated, higher social-class individuals, which would validate the point about offenders wearing business suits.

However this gets complicated when one notes that exhibitionism, like other paraphilias, often appears in a pattern of comorbidity with mental illnesses, personality disorders and neurological disorders – spanning everything from autistic spectrum disorders to temporal lobe seizures.

The final piece in this puzzle is that exhibitionism also commonly appears in a pattern of co-morbidity with other paraphilias and sexual offending behaviours. So a persistent sex offender who commits contact offences – up to and including rape – is reasonably likely to have a history of other offences that include exhibitionism. It is also true that a small number of offenders commit these offences prolifically, so there will be far more women who have encountered such behaviour than there will be men who have committed it.

The sad but inescapable truth is that most people who display hostile paraphilias begin their ‘careers’ in perversion at a young age, usually still in childhood. A large proportion have been victims of childhood abuse of some sort, often but not always sexual. This does not make their behaviour understandable, acceptable or forgiveable.

Without getting lost in philosophical debates about free will and determinism, paraphiliacs have responsibility for their own beliefs, their own behaviour and their own values. The vast majority of victims of child abuse do not go on to abuse others. Most people with atypical sexual desires or who respond to unusual sexual stimuli find safe, non-abusive expressions for those urges and desires, ideally with an enthusiastically consenting partner or at least a rich fantasy life.

One can be mentally ill, one can be a misogynist, and one can be or neither, or both. I don’t think it is any kind of a stretch to include this type of behaviour under the banner ‘everyday sexism.’ It happens commonly enough and undoubtedly has a heavily gendered dynamic in the overwhelming majority of cases. On the other hand, the people committing the offences probably are not ‘everyday sexists’, they are what the textbooks call ‘deviant’ or disordered sexual offenders. There is no contradiction there.

So are these offenders damaged, disturbed, mentally disordered individuals or are they women-haters, sexists and misogynists? I’d hazard an educated guess that most are both. 


Some more reading I found useful today:

Niklas Langstrom (2010) The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Exhibitionism, Voyeurism,and Frotteurism

Sex and Sexuality: Sexual Deviation and Sexual Offenses. Ed Richard D. McAnulty, M. Michele Burnette

Lee et al, 2002 Developmental risk factors for sexual offending   


Jun 27 2014

The Fishin’ Around Friday Open Thread

There have been several of our recurring themes around the news this week.

As a few of you were discussing in the last open thread, Rhiannon Brooker has been sentenced to 3 1/2 years for making false rape allegations against her ex-boyfriend. Most people’s attention was captured by the frankly outrageous comments from Women Against Rape (WAR) who campaign vociferously against any prosecutions for making false allegations of rape. It’s a bizarre position to hold, seems to serve no purpose other than making feminism look entirely unreasonable, and I really don’t understand why the Guardian, in particular, give them so much airspace on this issue.

One thing that struck me about the coverage of the case, though, was the focus on why she had done it, what her motivations might have been. Was she trying to create a cover story because she was  about to fail her Bar exams (as alleged by the prosecution) or was it an inexplicable act committed in the midst of an emotional breakdown and immense stress and pressure,  as her defense counsel maintained, or was there some other more mysterious explanation?

My point is that we very rarely ask these questions about other criminals. If someone commits an assault or a rape we don’t agonise over why (usually) he might have done it. I think our desperate search to find an explanatory framework comes down to our collective difficulty in conceptualising the fact  that sometimes women can do really bloody nasty things out of spite.

Which leads me on to the  next topic on my radar – the study by Elizabeth Bates and Nicola Graham-Kevan which was reported at the Forensic section conference of the British Psychological Society yesterday. I’m not entirely sure what is new in it, all of it seems reasonably familliar to me, but the interesting thing in the light of recent debates on this site is that they found evidence to suggest women are more prone to show aggression to their partners than to non-partners of their own sex, whereas men are less likely (than women) to be aggressive towards their partners but more likely to be aggressive to other people of their own gender.

So they are the main things I haven’t found time to write about this week.

What else have we missed?

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