The internet has drawn back the curtains on the human soul

In the news so far this week: In Australia, a man is convicted of attempting to commission the sexual abuse of a computer-generated virtual avatar called ‘Sweetie’ that was pretending to be a 10-year-old Filipino girl. In Westminster, the justice secretary declares that internet trolls are “poisoning our national life” and announces proposals that will quadruple maximum prison sentences for online abuse to two years. The National Crime Agency announces that many child sex offenders will escape punishment as the authorities flounder against the tide of 50,000 individuals regularly accessing child abuse images online in the UK alone. Meanwhile in Middlesbrough, a man is convicted of possessing illegal images of children – his collection of Japanese Manga-style hentai cartoons.

Just two decades after Sir Tim Berners-Lee unleashed his gift to the world, the web has brought us many wonders. It has also drawn back the curtains on the human soul in ways that might make even the most hardened cynic blanch. Oscar Wilde famously wrote that if you give a man a mask he shall tell you the truth. The internet has taught us that if you give a man (or indeed a woman) a mask, he or she may well threaten to rape and kill you.

Grayling’s proposals smack of kneejerk populism. It seems highly unlikely that someone prepared to risk a six month prison sentence for the sake of an abusive tweet would be deterred by the longer maximum term. Within that, the vagueness of the ministers attack on trolls should be considered deeply worrying. Threats of violence, harassment and stalking are criminal offences irrespective of the medium, and rightly so, but the law on malicious communications goes far wider.

A measure of the media hysteria around internet trolls can be taken in the tragic case of the so-called McCann troll. Brenda Leyland took her own life a few days after being “outed” by Sky News as a Twitter troll, an allegation that was repeated unthinkingly by virtually every journalist and commentator in the aftermath. And yet the archive of Leyland’s tweets revealed that she had never sent abuse directly to the McCann family, had never harassed anyone, had never threatened anyone. She was branded a troll for holding and expressing strong opinions about a prominent news story. It should worry us deeply that our government are hurling around unspecified threats to jail more trolls when the working definition of a troll includes people sharing unpopular opinions.

It used to be considered a cornerstone of justice that you can punish people for doing bad things, but not for being bad people. The internet is changing that. Throughout human history, our hate-filled or hateful thoughts, our strange and dangerous opinions, our sexual peccadilloes and perversions would remain safely locked in, shared perhaps with only a handful of close friends or intimate partners, if at all. Even professional writers and creative artists would have their output filtered through editors, publishers and agents.

Now our wildest fantasies can be projected to the world at the click of a button. Our erotic flights of fancy involving our favourite pop stars can find millions of readers (and lucrative book deals.) The most sick and sadistic urges, from incest to cannibalism, can find solace, justification, occasionally even realisation in like minds and accomplices.

Our political and legislative framework is playing a desperate game of catch-up, and losing. Two of this week’s stories may offer a guide to where the limits of criminality should lie. The paedophiles ensnared in the ‘Sweetie’ sting appear to have been trying to solicit the sexual abuse of real children. Had they not been caught, it is reasonable to presume they might have victimised real children instead. That makes them dangerous offenders and they deserve no pity or mercy.

In contrast, the man convicted in Middlesbrough appears to have had tastes and interests that were entirely restricted to line-drawn cartoons. While this should not necessarily be a defence, it is important to note also that the type of hentai anime he collected is freely available on virtually every mainstream pornography website and widely and openly shared on social networks like Tumblr. Whether or not we share the judge’s view that such images are “repulsive” it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which anyone, anywhere could be harmed by this man’s behaviour.

Of all this week’s news, perhaps the most disturbing is the revelation that the authorities are so overwhelmed by the extent of online offences involving the exploitation and abuse of children that they will not be able to prosecute all offenders. Perhaps one small first step might be to avoid wasting time and resources on protecting imaginary victims.

Chris Grayling can ignore prison rape. Hundreds of victims have no such luxury

 

Today the Howard League published their long-awaited briefing on coercive sex in prisons, despite the best efforts of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to block their work.

It’s an important document which covers well the difficulties of research in this area, noting the difficulties in gathering reliable data at the best of times, but especially under a political regime which is brutally uncooperative. It does not shy away from the difficulties in categorising and defining coercive and abusive sexual activities, noting that as well as violent assaults, prisons are rife with subtle coercion, including prisoners choosing or being obliged to perform sexual acts to pay off debts, for protection or in exchange for tobacco.

Another important (and sadly very topical) point noted is that MoJ statistics do not record any data on sexual assaults or abusive acts committed against prisoners by staff, despite evidence from the US to suggest that this can be relatively commonplace and despite gutwrenching testimony of appalling sexual abuse by staff at young offenders institutions in particular.  [Read more...]

The flesh is weak: On the Erection Equals Consent rape myth

Rape myths take many forms, and male victims have their own myths to bust.

CONTENT NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS BRIEF BUT GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Whenever an article appears about the sexual abuse of men and boys – especially abuse perpetrated by women – you can almost guarantee that a comment will appear saying something like: ‘well he couldn’t have been that unwilling if he got a boner.’

It is an incredibly damaging and harmful myth, for at least five reasons which I shall detail later in this post, but first let me do my best to convince doubters that it really is a myth. [Read more...]

Quick update on CDC sexual victimisation stats

Regular readers will be well aware of the sexual victimisation statistics – the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. This is (to the best of my knowledge) the world’s second largest sexual victimisation survey after the sexual violence modules in the Crime Survey of England and Wales. However it has the advantage of asking some specific questions that CSEW does not. [Read more...]

Those sharing stolen photos are not acting like Edward Snowden – they are behaving like the NSA

In the 36 hours or so since the stolen intimate photos of movie and music stars began to be published online, I have read some outstandingly stupid justifications and excuses for their distribution.

Most of them are depressingly familiar from other discussions of sexual violation. Typical arguments include that these (mostly) female stars have previously traded on their sexuality, so have forfeited their right to say “no” to any other appropriation of their sexuality; that by allowing private photos to be taken in the first place they were ‘asking for it’ and so have no right to complain if someone takes advantage; or that it is all some deliberate publicity ploy and that they were probably complicit in the leaks – or in other words, they wanted it really.

Amongst all this predictably disingenuous balderdash is one claim that I’ve seen repeatedly on various Reddit threads and by several commentators on this Guardian thread. This argument equates the release of the stars’ private photos to the leaking of the NSA files by Edward Snowden, and suggesting that if one approves of the latter, it is hypocritical to object to the former.

There are many things I could say in response to this, but the most polite and restrained is that it is completely upside down and back to front. [Read more...]

Throwing domestic violence victims to the wolves

 

The Guardian’s front page story yesterday made depressing reading on every score. The impacts of the coalition government’s austerity package have tended to fall disproportionately and viciously upon the most vulnerable, those least able to fend for themselves and kick up a fuss. Few acts look more callous and heartless than turning one’s back on victims of domestic abuse in order to square the annual balance sheet.

Within the sorry litany of bad news, perhaps the most depressing spectacle was witnessing advocates for one group of abuse victims throw another group of abuse victims to the wolves. I refer of course to the journalist Sandra Laville and interviewees from women’s organisations attributing their dire situation to the need to provide services to male victims too.

[Read more...]

Is banning Community Resolution for domestic violence the right move?

The ‘i’ paper today has a dramatic and troubling front page. “Police letting off domestic abusers with a slap on the wrist” it proclaims.

Glossing quickly over the unfortunate irony to the metaphor, the full story is carried in the commuter tabloid’s grown up sibling, the Independent, with a rather more honest title. “Violent partners let off with ‘slap on the wrist’ orders, says Labour.” 

The story heralds a speech today by Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, which will flesh out more details on Labour’s proposed new  legislation that will, among other changes, ban the use of Community Resolution Orders (CROs) in cases of domestic violence. The story is fleshed out with statistics and quotes from Women’s Aid to illustrate and explain that domestic violence is not a trivial crime, it rarely occurs as a one-off, and should therefore be inappropriate for these community settlements. CROs are primarily designed to deal with very minor offences and anti-social behaviour offences by minors.

What is the scale of use of these orders? Well we are told that their use has more than doubled in the past five years [Read more...]

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.

[Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]