Accountability

On 31st March, a week or so after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown began, I was contacted by the HCPC.

I am writing to inform you that we have received a concern about your fitness to practise” the letter began. “We will now carry out an initial investigation into the potential fitness to practise issues identified in the concern. This may involve gathering relevant information from a number of sources.
  
In order to assist with our enquiries, I would be grateful if you would provide the following information:
  
– Confirmation that you are the owner and/or moderator of the site ClinPsy.org.uk.
– Confirmation of whether you, or any of the other owners/moderator of the site have received any concerns/complaints about the content of the forum, particularly regarding [celebrity psychologists]
– If yes, please provide a copy of the complaint/s and the site’ s response.
– If not provided above, you are welcome to provide a brief response to concerns raised.
– Confirmation of your current employment arrangement.
– If applicable, please provide the name and email address of your line manager and HR director.

I replied the same evening:

I own www.clinpsy.org.uk I can confirm that I have never had any complaints in any form about any comment on [celebrity psychologists] on the forum – in fact I have never even heard of [the complainant], and can find no reference to him on the forum. I’m afraid you will need to let me know what comment is being complained about to enable me to respond to it.
As to my employment, I am self employed and run my own small business, so there is no line manager or HR involved – but I have to ask why you would think that relevant when a person is complaining about an unspecified comment on social media?

I then contacted my professional indemnity insurance provider and spoke to Mike Wang, chair of the ACP (he was my MSc supervisor and then my clinical course director, and we have stayed loosely in touch since then) who were both reassuring that this wasn’t a legitimate complaint. Later I got legal advice through my membership of the FSB, to check I had fully understood my legal obligations as a forum owner. All of us wondered why the HCPC would launch an investigation at all, given that I had never made a comment myself about any of the individuals named in the complaint, and the forum had been very proactive in ensuring no defamatory content was permitted. The forum does have a thread about “celebrity psychologists”, where legitimate concerns are raised about individuals who appear on television or in the newspapers making comment as “psychologists” who are outside of the scope of HCPC registration. But I could see nothing defamatory in it. In fact the moderating team had carefully checked the content and I had even posted a reply to remind people about our defamation policy and how to raise a concern. So I started to draft a full reply to the HCPC.

Just to be sure, I spent many hours obsessionally trawling through content on the forum and my social media and could find no interaction with the individual concerned, or any defamatory content about any celebrity psychologist on my forum. That isn’t to say members of the forum haven’t criticised such individuals, or that I don’t share similar concerns. Quite the opposite, I’ve been raising concerns about the limited scope of regulation for psychologists and therapy professionals for more than a decade and see this as another example of where the legislation fails to protect the public. However, I have never expressed this as a personal attack on an individual, or said anything unprofessional or defamatory.

At this juncture it might be helpful for me to note what defamation is, what a complainant can do about online defamation, and what the legal rights are both of the individual who believes they have been defamed, and the established defences against claims of defamation, as they will set this complaint in context.

Defamation is the action of damaging the good reputation of a person through the oral or written communication of a false statement about them that unjustly harms their reputation. The important part of that definition is that the statement must be false, and it must cause them harm (which must be demonstrable within 12 months of publication). Being rude about someone or insulting towards them would not normally be defamatory, though it might be unprofessional. As a website owner I am technically the publisher of the content shown on the site, and whilst I cannot be held legally accountable for other users being rude or insulting (though we have worked hard to create a professional culture and to have policies that prevent personal attacks or unprofessional behaviour), I would be accountable if something defamatory was published – if I was aware of it and failed to act to remove it when requested to do so by the individual it affected.

The problem here was that the HCPC did not share any details of the complaint with me, and the complaint communicated was entirely vague and did not refer to particular comments or even allege defamation. It was also made by a third party, rather than the individual that the complainant said had been maligned – making it rather extraordinary that the HCPC would give it even a cursory investigation.

But even with the assumption that someone had said something on the forum that an individual had felt was defamatory – which was far from the case – the law requires that individual (not a third party) to inform the publisher and ask them to remove the content, within 12 months from publication. And in this case most of the comments about celebrity psychologists had stood for 7 years, and no complaint had ever been raised with the forum – despite every post having a button to report it to moderators for review, and a prominent defamation policy that was linked by me in the very thread concerned, in a post giving the forum email address to make such a report.

There are also two main complete defences to defamation allegations; truth and honest opinion. If a statement is true it cannot be defamatory. For example, to say that a celebrity psychologist is not a registered practitioner psychologist or does not have a doctorate is not defamatory if these statements are factually correct. The other defence is that someone is expressing an honest opinion or making “fair comment”. This allows discussion of matters of public or professional interest, and means it is not defamatory to express a view that an honest person could have held on the basis of any facts or anything asserted to be a fact by reasonable sources available to them at the time. That is, if I said “Boris Johnson is a liar” this could not be defamatory because numerous sources have asserted this to be the case. Honest opinion can also be a reaction to something else that has been published, and can even defend someone posting something that is incorrect, if it was an honest belief based on the information available at the time (for example, writing “X isn’t registered with the HCPC” wouldn’t be defamatory if a person had their HCPC registration in a different name, or it didn’t show on the website yet, or the name checked was spelt incorrectly because that was the spelling used in the article under discussion).

As far as I could see, all comments that were on the forum about celebrity psychologists, or made or retweeted by me on social media, involved telling the truth or making fair comment about known or published facts.

On the other hand, my investigations showed me that the complainant was someone who frequently threatens properly registered mental health professionals who criticise his favoured celebrity psychologists with referral to the HCPC. I also found that the individual concerned had used anonymous IDs to respond aggressively to critics of his favoured celebrity psychologists, and to place more flattering quotes and reviews about them into the public domain. I also heard from other colleagues who had been harassed for raising similar concerns. One noted:

This is one of the perversities about the register and use of the title psychologist; as [celebrity psychologists] are not registered they are able to freely mislead the public about their status and not be held accountable and yet they can put in complaints to the HCPC about those of us that are properly qualified.  The complaint is vindictively motivated [and yet effective as a deterrent/punishment for critics]

So on 2nd April I sent the HCPC a robust reply:

I have had a better look into this and I am now in a position to reply more fully.

For reference, the forum has run for 13 years and contains 152,000 posts on over 15,000 topics. We have never had a formal complaint about our content, and we have a team of moderators who are all HCPC registered clinical psychologists who help to ensure we maintain a professional tone in all content. Every user has to agree a statement about the rules of the site to sign up (which can be read here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=16012) and we have written guidance for users that spells out our rules (which can be read here:https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=10). The guidance is sent to each user in a welcome message as they sign in for the first time and cautions against personal abuse or defamation. Rules 9 and 11 specifically talk about being respectful of others even when disagreeing, avoiding defamation and ensuring posts do not risk bringing the profession into disrepute. It also explains how any post can be reported to moderators by clicking the small triangle button and stating your concerns. We have a pinned post giving specific guidance about defamation (see here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=9&p=10) that is linked prominently from that guidance, and note it includes the means to contact us to report any content that is potentially defamatory at the bottom of the page: “If you believe a post has been defamatory about you, or an organisation you represent, please email us at clinpsyforum@gmail.com and we will respond as quickly as possible”. 

We have a proper process for responding to a complaint, and a team of qualified CPs who act as moderators that I consult with. However, our complaints process has only been activated once (when an approach to purchase the website turned into correspondence disputing our negative review of a travel agency offering work experience placements to psychology students, but they did not register a formal complaint and we did not find any content that was not factually supported when we investigated) and I can confirm that we have never had any complaint from any of the individuals mentioned in your email. We respond frequently to reports on individual posts, which mainly notify us of spam but can also highlight inappropriate content such as potential breaches of confidentiality. These are dealt with within 3 working days. We have never had a report in relation to defamation or to any content relevant to this complaint.

We do have one thread where [celebrity psychologists] are mentioned – you can read it here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=13708. It was started in 2012 where forum members raised concerns about “celebrity psychologists” who do not have HCPC registration but appear to be giving the public the impression they are regulated professionals. The thread stood for 8 years and the majority of content was posted two or more years before I contributed to it at all. I did review the entire thread at that point and found nothing defamatory. Nonetheless my response includes the following: 

“The issue of psychological therapists who practise outside the scope of professional regulation is one that is important to many of our members who work hard to gain practitioner status with the HCPC, because we believe in the principle being important to protect the public (regardless of the individuals involved).

As with any other thread on the forum, if any of the content of this thread is considered defamatory the the individual involved is welcome to email the site (clinpsyforum@gmail.com) and point this out and we will remove it.” 

The thread was then dormant for nearly six years, before being raised to discuss the way some “celebrity psychologists” were using BPS membership to give the impression of professional qualifications, whilst apparently breaching BPS guidance. I had raised these concerns with the BPS and mentioned doing so on the forum and on twitter. However, as with the content in the thread, the concerns were about the misrepresentation of professional titles and skills, and the role the BPS take in giving credibility to psychologists who are not HCPC registered practitioner psychologists, and their lack of will to intervene or regulatory teeth when concerns are raised about these individuals. Whilst one or two of my posts are critical of specific things that [individual celebrity psychologists have] written or said I cannot see any defamatory content. I have made no direct criticism of [the individuals named in the complaint], and there has never been any mention of [the complainant] on that thread or elsewhere on the forum.

Nobody has raised a complaint about that thread. I have reviewed it today, and whilst there is legitimate concern about misrepresentation of qualifications and the public perception of psychologists, based on things written or said by various unregulated “psychologists” in the media, I cannot see anything defamatory in the content. [Far from being unprofessional, I believe we have gone above and beyond requirements to prevent defamatory or unprofessional content. I posted in that very thread] how to report any concerns about defamation, and have been mindful to allow only appropriate professional concerns about misrepresentation to be raised on the forum, rather than personal attacks or potentially defamatory content.

I do not believe that it can possibly impair my fitness to practice as a clinical psychologist to have hosted or participated in discussion about potential misrepresentation of professional qualifications by “celebrity psychologists”. This has not been defamatory, and I believe it to be legitimate for members of a clinical psychology forum to raise professional regulatory concerns about public figures – especially when these are factually based, shared by many practitioner psychologists and early career stage psychologists, and have been raised appropriately with professional bodies including the BACP and BPS. The posts on the forum that were critical of these individuals were based on the content of their newspaper columns and television appearances, how they are introduced in TV programs, and their stated qualifications and experience on their websites. For example, it is a true fact that Emma Kenny is not a clinical psychologist, despite being introduced in a BBC television series as being one, and this being a breach of the regulations that brought us under the auspices of the HCPC.

I would note that it is entirely lawful for individuals to publish honest opinions on a matter of public interest and based on facts which are true – this is known as “fair comment” or “honest opinion”, and has been tested through the courts by cases such as British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh, which led to the Defamation Act, 2013. This introduced a number of protections against allegations of defamation, including truth, honest opinion, public interest, and a defence for website operators hosting user-generated content, provided they comply with a procedure to enable the complainant to resolve disputes directly with the author of the material concerned or otherwise remove it. This ensures that individuals who own or run websites that allow comment are not liable for the content of other user’s comments on it. It requires that the complainant must contact the site owner or administrator to raise a complaint in which they specify the complainant’s name, the statement concerned, where on the website it was posted and explain why it is defamatory, before taking any other action in relation to alleged defamation. These complaints can only be made by the person who has allegedly been defamed or their legal representative.

We have never received any complaint or notification of potential defamation, or any communication from [celebrity psychologists] or their legal representatives, and as previously stated we have never mentioned, heard of or communicated with [the complainant]. Thus a non-specific complaint to the HCPC made by an individual who has never been mentioned on the site seems quite inappropriate as a means to address concerns. I would therefore hope that the complaint can be quickly dismissed.

Yet the case still wasn’t dismissed, despite the fact I had demonstrated that a) I had not made any defamatory comments about the individuals concerned and b) there was no legal basis to hold me accountable for posts made by others on a forum that I own (even had any been defamatory, when none of them had been).

I was then asked on 6th April to provide proof that no complaints had been made to the website. Aside from the fact that it is not my burden to prove a negative, and almost an impossible task, I spent the next 3 hours responding to this request, searching the email correspondence, administrator and moderator report logs for each name or the word complaint, and submitted screen shots of every search. These were acknowledged on the following day.

Yet the case still wasn’t dismissed.

I then heard nothing for 4 months. So I wrote on 12th August to ask whether the complaint had been dismissed. This email was acknowledged, and I was told I would receive a reply within 5 working days, but received no reply. I therefore emailed again on 20th August, which again had no reply. So on 26th August I raised a complaint.


My complaint was that this “fitness to practise concern” was obviously spurious from the start, and should never have reached the point of even a cursory investigation (given the complaint was from a person I had never interacted with, about comments made by people other than me about people other than him). But even if it did, in error, reach a cursory investigation, surely the information I provided within 3 days was enough to say “sorry, it is now clear this isn’t a legitimate complaint” and not keep me under the stress of a formal fitness to practise investigation? How this can still be hanging over my head five months later is very troubling. Surely there must be a process for checking the prima facie validity of complaints, that should have dismissed this? What if I had been employed, and this had led to me being suspended or fired? How you could do this to a person struggling to sustain their business through a pandemic lockdown over such a trivial and spurious complaint is beyond me.

On 4th September the investigation was officially closed. The HCPC informed me:


I am writing to let you let you know that we have now completed our initial investigation into the concerns we received about your fitness to practise.

During our investigation, we obtained information from the Complainant and yourself. We have now assessed the concern, and all the information we received, against our threshold criteria for fitness to practise investigations.

In doing so, we have considered whether this matter may be a breach of the following HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics:
2. Communicate appropriately and effectively
6. Manage risk

The outcome of our assessment is that the threshold criteria for fitness to practise investigations has not been met in this instance. This means that we do not consider that the concern, or the information we have obtained about it, amounts to an allegation that your fitness to practise may be impaired.

The reasons for our decision are explained in more detail below:

Issue 1 – comments of an offensive, bullying or inappropriate nature on social media

Registrants are not prohibited from expressing their opinions on social media, provided the content or language used is not inappropriate or offensive.

HCPC Guidance on Social Media advises Registrants: ‘ When using social media you should apply the same standards as you would when communicating in other ways. Be polite and respectful, and avoid using language that others might reasonably consider to be inappropriate or offensive. Use your professional judgement in deciding whether to post or share something.’

From the links and screenshots provided, the content of the forum appears to be confined to a discussion of professional concerns and information already in the public domain. Regarding the opinions and concerns expressed in the forum, the HCPC would be out of place to prohibit its Registrants from having a free discussion about their concerns or limit their ability to express their opinions. Of the information provided and the search conducted, I am unable to find any statements which amount to ‘trolling’  or bullying.

As our process is evidence based, we cannot proceed with our investigation without evidence to support the concerns. The Complainant was given multiple opportunities to provide evidence that you contributed to and offensive or inappropriate content, but has failed to provide information which supports the concerns.

Issue 2 – hosting comments by others of an offensive, bullying or inappropriate nature on your site

You have provided evidence that you have put multiple protections in place to ensure the tone, language and content of the forum is not defamatory and does not stray into inappropriate content or language. Where members breach these terms, you have a team of moderators who will respond.

In providing individuals the ability to report specific posts and comments, you have acted in accordance with your professional duty to support and encourage others to report concerns(SCPE 7.2). You have evidenced that you have not received complaints on this thread, and therefore have not been in a position to respond to such concerns.

In the absence of any evidence to suggest you have not complied with the relevant obligations, there is no information to suggest that your fitness to practise may be impaired.

We will therefore not be taking any further action in relation to this matter and have closed our file on this case. However, please continue to be aware of our communication guidance when reviewing your forum/website.

We appreciate that this has been a very stressful time for you and would like to thank you for your co-operation and patience during our investigation.


So, to my relief, they got there in the end and the complaint has been dismissed. However, my question is why the complaint got through the starting gates, and why it took 5 months, 2 emails and a formal complaint to resolve.

But more than this, why do the BPS continue to endorse these “celebrity psychologists” and do nothing to protect or support genuine practitioner psychologists against this kind of attack? Despite numerous complaints about “celebrity psychologist” Jo Hemmings in the context of her article about Meghan Markle being manipulative, the BPS sat her down for a chat and took her at her word that she would be more careful in future. And they’ve not replied to any of my emails in the six months since I suspended my membership, saying I would not continue membership until they responded to the concerns I raised about their endorsements not protecting the public.

And more than this, why does the legislation not distinguish genuinely qualified and accountable professional psychologists within the scope of regulation from anyone who calls themselves a psychologist? In Australia it is an offence with enormous financial penalties to misrepresent someone as a psychologist or claim to be a psychologist if not within the scope of statutory regulation. So the public cannot be misled by the media citing quacks or charlatans who claim qualifications, but actually have to check their registration before using them as experts. Here we haven’t even got that protection for who can be called as an expert witness to inform critical decisions in the courts. The scope of current regulation fails to protect the public, yet nobody – not professional bodies or politicians – seems to care.

The tip of the iceberg

Harvey Weinstein is the tip of the iceberg, and whilst men might be shocked about the numerous allegations and the audio recording of him persistently not taking no for an answer when inviting a woman he had sexually assaulted into his hotel room, most women I know are not. Far from it. We’ve all been there and heard that. We find it familiar. Men are socialised to believe that they need to be persistent and wear women down, rather than backing off when she expresses reluctance. There is also so much social shaming of women’s sexuality that people assume the gender norm is for women to play coy and men to have to overcome their defences.

The Daily Mail coverage* implies that any woman who talked to Weinstein, worked for him, or was pulled in for a photograph is complicit in his abuse. I think they are looking for blame in the wrong place. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, they seem to feel the need to misdirect blame as they are complicit in the objectification of women and the idealisation of powerful men regardless of their exploitative behaviour. What about looking at first and foremost at the man who is assaulting and raping women, then at  the staff who set up and cover up such actions for him, the PR and legal team who defend it, and the board who turn a blind eye to it and then finally at the social norms that allowed him (and so many men with power) to do these appalling things over and over again so for so long?

The Daily Mail coverage, and many other articles (and numerous men in the comments sections), imply it is the responsibility of the female victims to speak up, when they are the very people whose vulnerability and lack of power was exploited, and who then carry shame and traumatic memories that they have to overcome to maintain their ability to work and operate in an environment where Weinstein and men like him have all the power. That’s a really difficult ask. Women who speak up about sexual assault are dirtied by association, accused of being liars, have their sexual history raked over, and are then blamed for not fighting back, not speaking up earlier, giving mixed messages, continuing to interact with the person. There is no winning. And they have to revisit traumatic memories and tell shaming and highly personal stories that expose their vulnerability to their colleagues, friends and the general public. Anyone who speaks up is exceptionally brave. Anyone who chooses to stay silent is still not culpable for the actions of their abuser.

There is also this narrative that concerns should have been reported to the police, and that only a conviction shows an allegation is true and all else could have a multiplicity of motivations from revenge to extortion. The problem is that few examples of harassment or sexual assault have witnesses and clear cut evidence, and this narrative acts as if suspicions and personal experiences without witnesses are enough to build a case and achieve something purposeful for the victim. Sadly, in my experience, without biological/medical evidence they are not. The examples that were reported to HR departments and the police led to no prosecutions and were never compiled. Even Bill Cosby with 50 allegations has only had one reach criminal charges and that reached a hung jury. Savile had allegations and rumours, and some reports to police and the BBC, yet nothing happened until after his death. The Fox CEO and lead newscaster were only dismissed after multiple allegations and have faced no criminal charges (and in fact got a $40 million parachute in the former case and continued to be endorsed by Fox despite multiple allegations in the latter). I hope things are changing for the better, and clustering of multiple independent allegations can be used as evidence in cases like this, but that has not been the case to date.

The saddest figures are the way that sexual crimes do not reach convictions by comparison to other forms of crime. I’ve read estimates that 90% of rapes, sexual assault and child sexual abuse go unreported to authorities, and that 90% of those reported do not reach prosecution, and that less than half of those prosecuted lead to a conviction. That means that 99% of perpetrators don’t get convicted – and there is bias in which ones do, as richer, more powerful and more intelligent perpetrators are much harder to convict than those facing the disadvantages of poverty, mental health problems and learning disability, who are more likely to leave evidence or confess and don’t have the deep pockets for an expert legal team to defend them.

I think the most telling detail of all in this story, is the terms of Harvey’s contract with the weinstein corporation, which cannot fire him for sexual misconduct provided he pays any compensation to victims himself to keep any costs away from the company. I mean imagine having lawyers write that in, and the board accept those terms of business. To me that suggests he knew he was a serial abuser, and so did everyone else in the company. I like this little snippet from the onion: How Could Harvey Weinstein Get Away With This?’ Asks Man Currently Ignoring Sexual Misconduct Of 17 Separate Coworkers, Friends, Acquaintances. I think it speaks to how common harassment and sexual impropriety is, how it has been normalised as something men do if powerful enough to have the opportunity, and how we are socialised to turn a blind eye to it.

I blogged a year or more ago about rape culture and my own experiences of feeling at risk of being raped. What I maybe didn’t say explicitly is that from personal experience, even without the acute trauma of a violent incident or serious assault, it is incredibly hard to speak up, and incredibly hard to get anyone to take you seriously when you do. You feel responsible for being a victim, confused, ambivalent and shamed about what happened – and, importantly, you often don’t recognise it as assault, abuse or harassment unless it is a violent or traumatic event because it has been so normalised.

Writing this I remembered another example that has stuck with me from the same era of my life. I was sixteen and in an A-level physics lesson, watching a demonstration at the front, when, masked from view by the people sitting in front of us, a boy from my class put his hand on my breast. I was shocked (although not frightened or distressed), but I interpreted it as a flirtation rather than an assault, and felt like he’d have just claimed it was accidental and I was making a fuss about nothing if I said anything. There was no implicit threat, but there was no negotiation or opportunity to decline either. I was already the only girl in the class, and I wanted to belong and be “one of the lads”. It felt like it would have been prudish to complain about something so trivial, and overreacting to interrupt the lesson to make him stop. Saying even a whispered “stop it” would have caused everyone in the class turn around and stare at me, and would have made a big scene about something small. So I said nothing. And he took my silence as compliance and did it again the next week. He waited until I was seated and stood behind me. He put his hand into my top that time. It turns out it gets harder to speak up once you haven’t the first time. So he kept doing it in every demonstration he could for the rest of the course. He was in a band with friends of mine, and I never said anything to them about it either. I didn’t tell a teacher or even consider reporting him to the police, because it felt confusing and happened in public and therefore didn’t match up with my internalised template of a sexual assault (which would have involved threat or coercion, and probably a stranger rather than a peer). Plus I’d been socialised to think of that kind of attention as flattering, and his actions as a form of flirting and something I should laugh off if unwanted.

At the end of sixth form he and his friends were presenting silly awards at the leavers prom. They awarded me “a pair of jugs for the biggest and best female contribution to science” on stage in front of all my peers. I understood the innuendo, smiled and took the award with good humour, posing for a photo when prompted to do so, with the two measuring jugs held at chest height. Having breasts and doing science meant I was a legitimate target for sexual humour, and not a single teacher or pupil checked in with me afterwards or spoke up to suggest otherwise. I didn’t even think of it being normalised sexism or publicly acceptable harassment. That wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time. It was as acceptable a source of humour as giving baby bottles full of beer to the “underachievers” bound for Oxbridge. I don’t look back on it as traumatic, but I’d be horrified if the same thing happened to my daughters now, because I’d place it in a different context.

I didn’t speak up about the guy who plied me with alcohol and repeatedly undressed me down at the docks either. I didn’t think he had committed a crime. I think in my teenage mind his behaviour was not that different to my other experiences of persistent sexual approaches, except that I had made myself more vulnerable by being intoxicated and in a private location with him. I was acutely aware that I had kissed him in front of other people, that I hadn’t said no explicitly, and that it would be my word against his. That belief was then socially reinforced – I told several mutual friends what had happened, and the group response was to make us shake hands and pretend to get along. A year or two later he unexpectedly stuck my hand on his erection at a party, and I didn’t bother saying anything to anyone then either. Somehow that didn’t fit the box for sexual assault in my head either.

I suspect that to my friends and family, my lack of action about these events will seem incongruous with my adult personality. I’m quite a confident person, who has strong opinions and would normally speak up about issues. But as a teenager, and in context, I didn’t know that was an option, didn’t see it in the same way, and wasn’t able to. I felt I had to continue to allow young men who had been sexually inappropriate to me to be part of my social circle. If I had been an aspiring actress who was auditioning for a role that might kickstart my career, and when I was sexually assaulted it had been by a powerful industry kingmaker of a man with the capacity and reputation to shame me to the media or sabotage my career I can only begin to imagine how powerful the forces at play would have felt. I grew up in a progressive culture, and have the benefits of many aspects of privilege, intelligence and social support. Yet looking back I am shocked at how vulnerable I was, and how normative that is. Men are given the implicit social message that sexual dominion is the reward for status, and that women will show token resistance that they should overcome. Women, on the other hand, are implicitly trained to expect sexual advances, to see them as flattering and to look for a socially acceptable way out. We are taught not to offend men, to be polite when rejecting advances, not to “lead men on” by allowing them to develop expectations we later decline. We are taught to feel responsible for male sexual behaviour towards us, and guilty when we did not anticipate risks. The power balance is stacked in favour of the perpetrator and against the vulnerable and those lower down the hierarchy – and this is multiplied when women and girls have experienced past abuse or assaults, especially if they have been powerless to resist, or been shamed and/or disbelieved when they disclosed.

Sadly, society is full of powerful men who exploit women, and other people who normalise this, turn a blind eye to it, play along with or facilitate the behaviour, or continue to suck up to them for personal gain regardless of what they do to others. It is a serious social problem, and the fact that a serial sexual assaulter and overt misogynist was elected president of the USA says it all really. I am just glad that people are starting to speak out more against institutional abuse, and that perpetrated by people in power. At least with Weinstein the consequences are substantial: he has been fired, kicked out of BAFTA, his CBE is likely to be withdrawn, his wife has left him, and he has been roundly condemned by industry colleagues and public figures. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have kicked him out stating:

We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society. The board continues to work to establish ethical standards of conduct that all Academy members will be expected to exemplify.

That statement is so much better than talk of Weinstein as a “sad, sick man” entering rehab as if the cause of his bad choices was some kind of irresistible medical condition. There are other appropriate outcomes too: Police in the UK and USA are investigating rape and sexual assault allegations, and this story has allowed other victims to speak up about other actors, directors, managers and powerful men in many industries. The #metoo hashtag has shown how endemic the problems are. There are encouraging signs that victims are being believed, perpetrators are facing justice or social stigma, and cultural norms are being challenged. I hope that this momentum continues enough to make meaningful change.

And whilst I’m on my soapbox, I must mention the Twitter statement after they suspended Rose McGowan in the wake of her calling out Ben Affleck for denying knowledge of Weinstein’s pattern of sexually exploiting/assaulting women. They said

“Twitter is proud to empower and support the voices on our platform, especially those that speak truth to power. We stand with the brave women and men who use Twitter to share their stories, and will work hard every day to improve our processes to protect those voices”.

What utter drivel. Twitter have consistently failed to act on reports of harassment and have been the tool of choice employed to hound and threaten so many women. They empower hate mobs more often than providing a platform for those speaking truth to power.

Regulating and providing consequences for the content on social media according to the laws that apply to other forms of communication is a step that is desperately overdue. Publishers who profit from users on their platforms should be accountable for their response to inappropriate content that is reported. To motivate this I believe that users who are the victims of campaigns of antagonism, threats or unwanted sexual content should be enabled to seek financial redress where the platforms do not respond sufficiently to prevent such harassment.

*this is an indirect link to an image of the DM coverage, so as not to provide traffic for their horrendous clickbait content

A shallow look at fat

In her usual abrasive style, Katie Hopkins’ latest click-bait project is ‘to fat and back’ – she is putting on 3.5 stone in weight and will then lose it again, to show us how easy weight loss is and how there is no excuse for being fat. Some journalists appear to think there is something in it whilst others are a little more sceptical.

To me it seems obesity isn’t a simple matter of will power. You can’t will yourself thin any more than you can will yourself out of depression or addiction. The evidence shows diets don’t work, and once obese it is very hard to revert to lower weights again and sustain it. It is much better to aim for a healthier diet and lifestyle than a smaller body. And despite widespread understanding that fatness is associated with poor health outcomes, it is very hard to change, and often reinforced by stigma and shame. Your ability to change the pattern will depend on how long it has been around, your biology and what caused it to start in the first place, as well as your commitment to change, support network and what else is going on in your life. In Clinical Psychology we look at the biological, psychological and social contributors to particular behaviours or symptoms and make a formulation of how these interplay, so it is frustrating when people with no expertise pronounce easy solutions which ignore these factors.

If a thin person with very negative ideas about obesity puts on weight for three months, they will find it unpleasant, find losing weight rewarding, and have all the previous factors that made them thin before to revert to. If she is being filmed and paid then she has financial and performance pressures to succeed also, her reputation and career to maintain, as well as a wardrobe to return to. She has the metabolism, muscle tone, neurochemistry and lifestyle of a slimmer person. Will three months change that? She has people around her who expect her to be active and slim, and will support her returning to that familiar mould. And when losing weight she has the money for personal trainers, gym memberships and healthy food (if not diet systems and products) and the sense of herself as a thin person who is capable of exercise.

It’s a million miles away from being a chronically obese person and trying to lose the same amount of weight. To pretend this is a serious experiment that will tell us something about how to lose weight is playing at a serious issue. It reminds me of Pulp’s Common People.

A real obese person has a lifetime of thoughts and feelings about their body, and the perceptions others have of them. They carry internalised shame and self-criticism that associates fat with laziness, gluttony, lack of willpower, and lack of self-respect. They probably avoid eating in public, or showing their body shape. They might not feel comfortable going to places where attention is drawn to their size, or they would stand out compared to thinner, fitter people – like gyms, swimming pools, or exercise classes (because statistically the people who you see there most are the fittest people, and not other new starters or people who find it hard, because these attend less and are more likely to drop out over time, whilst health/success is self-sustaining).

And the weight may have many origin stories that are tied in to uncomfortable issues they wish to avoid thinking about or haven’t yet resolved. They may have put on weight after a trauma or loss, during a pregnancy, or to insulate themselves from the world, or because food is the only pleasure in their life. They might comfort eat because feeding is tied in to their experiences of nurture. The origins of the ACEs study show that morbid obesity is associated with severe early trauma, with 55% of patients in a bariatric surgery clinic disclosing childhood sexual abuse (usually incest). It can be a form of slow suicide, or a daily process of numbing out the pain and yet unwittingly reinforcing the body shame that they experience.

Or it can have less extreme causes. The individual might be ignorant about healthy eating, or have other lifestyle constraints that make healthy eating harder, like poverty or chronic sleep deprivation, or a family/peer group that consume huge amounts of calories (whether the 20 pint weekend, the endless cake in the office, massive portions or regular takeaways being delivered). They might have health conditions or disabilities that make exercise or even activity difficult. They may have developed psychological and neurochemical reward pathways for their eating pattern. They may feel shamed by the societal pressures to conform to what is considered attractive in the airbrushed models on glossy magazines and find thinking about losing weight a painful and ever-present topic (see this paper by Ratcliffe and Ellison last year). On the other hand, they may be ambivalent about weight loss. Their partners, parents, friends or kids may be used to their shape and habits, or even like it. They may have had many experiences of previous attempts at weight-loss that have been unsuccessful or were quickly regained. Change in many circumstances is really hard to make, and harder to sustain.

Every obesity story is different. I know people who feel they need to be heavier than a past abuser or dominating partner, so they can’t be pushed around again. I know people who want a layer of protection against a dangerous world. I know people who want fat deeper than a knife blade is long, in case they are attacked again. I know people who want to deter any sexual attention. I know people too anxious to leave their house to shop or exercise, or too poor to afford fruit and veg or to pay for fuel to cook with. I know serotonin junkies where food is their drug of choice. I know exhausted people who fend off tiredness with sugar. I know of people who eat because they are under stress. I know a lot of unhappy people who don’t think they deserve better, or could ever be attractive or physically fit. I know people who are hopeless about ever losing weight (often within a wider sense of hopelessness about their lives). I know people who have spent their whole lives being fat and living a lifestyle constrained by that fat – tired, big, heavy and excluded from physical activities. Mocked at every turn. Excluded from aspects of society. Disempowered. Weight loss is categorically different from that starting point, and it is not just naive but wilfully ignorant to pretend otherwise.

Of course, I also know people who like being fat, have come to accept themselves as they are, or who see their weight as a very low priority in life. There are women who enjoy defying what they see as body fascism or sexist expectations about women’s appearance, or who simply see their curves as sexy. I can see the appeal in filtering away the shallow people who care about how people look more than who they are and what they do. And I’m aware that BMI is a blunt tool for measuring obesity, as it ignores body composition and scores people with high levels of muscle as equivalently “unhealthy” to those with little muscle, despite the positive differences in health that resistance exercise is known to make.

Katie won’t be happy being fat, and maybe it will give her some perspective about how judged and self conscious people feel when they are overweight. Maybe she’ll show some hitherto hidden empathy or concern for others apart from herself, but I doubt it. The promotional spots so far suggest the usual dose of hubris and ignorance, carefully engineered to provide publicity. I see this program as part of our obsession with celebrity and appearance, and the tendency to discuss serious issues (especially those affecting women primarily) with no depth. Hopkins has become the mouthpiece of internalised sexism; the pervasive belief that women need to be decorative rather than functional to be of value, and therefore shouldn’t think about issues beyond their own appearance and judging the appearance of others. She is also a caricature “baddy” that earns her living by being controversial, and by saying things that are not socially acceptable but that reinforce the wider narratives of the organisations that give her air or column space, who like to blame the individual and turn attention away from the real underlying socio-political causes.

Finally, I am reminded of a line that is helpful to think to yourself when experiencing playground bullies: I’d rather have my weight than your attitude. For all the challenges involved in losing weight, it’s still easier than changing personality or gaining empathy after years as a callous, judgemental, self-serving, attention seeking provocateur.