Unwanted approaches: An example of everyday sexism in my social network

I was having a conversation with a man on social media the other day, when he said to me that women “don’t really experience unwanted approaches on the street”, and that if they do they are “mainly lighthearted and easily deterred”. He didn’t believe me when I said that for almost every woman, unwanted approaches are a common experience, not just in social settings like pubs and clubs, or even in the evening, but when going about our normal business in the daytime, like walking to the shop, catching a bus or train, in our workplace or educational establishment. I said I thought most women would be able to recall a recent unwanted approach, and an example in which the man became antagonistic when he was ignored or rebuffed. He was incredulous and felt this was an exceptionally rare event.

So I asked my network on twitter whether any women aged between 18 and 40 would answer a few quick questions on the topic. I phrased the questions as neutrally as possible:

  • Can you think of a time that a male stranger whistled at you, commented on your appearance or made another form of unsolicited approach to you in public?

  • If so, how long ago was this?
  • How did you respond?
  • What was the man’s reaction to your response?
  • How often have you experienced a negative response to rejecting or ignoring unwanted approaches or comments from strangers?

  • If you want to make any more comments, or state your age, or tells us any more about the situation feel free to do so here.

It wasn’t a research study, and I had been explicit about the topic when asking the question amongst my network, but none-the-less I felt that it might bring up some negative memories for people, so I tried to signpost people what to do with that at the end.

  • If this survey has brought up any bad feelings or memories, please seek appropriate support from your friends, family, GP or a listening and advice service such as supportline (who can be contacted by phone on 01708 765200 or by email at info@supportline.org.uk)

Before you read the results, if you want to add your responses to my survey, feel free: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/VWLKQS5

So, what were the responses?

To date I have received 97 responses from women aged 22 to 37, and the results were depressing if not surprising.

Fewer than 4% of respondents said they couldn’t immediately recall an example of an unwanted approach in public from a male stranger. 79% of the women said that they have experienced “numerous” examples of unwanted approaches, most of them overtly sexual.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 22.27.21More than 42% can recall examples within the last month, and 72% within the last year.screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-01-11-3580% ignored the approach, 19% gave some kind of negative response. screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-01-11-49But here is the key part – whilst 59% of the time the guy then backed off and 10% of the time he was friendly or accepted the person was not interested, more than 31% of the time he was “negative, unpleasant or threatening”. screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-01-11-57Only 13% of women surveyed couldn’t remember a getting a negative response from a man after being ignored or told they were not interested. More than 50% had experienced negative, aggressive or unpleasant responses on several occasions with 9.5% of women saying this happened to them “often”.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 22.31.53

Thirty six women gave examples of unpleasant responses they could remember from the past year. These included:

“When you ignore them, they’ll usually say something about the fact you’re ignoring them e.g. call you stuck up”
“Shouted something along the lines of me being miserable because I didn’t respond”.
Typical responses are along the lines of “fuck off then”, “stuck up bitch”, “you think you’re too nice” or “you’re not that nice anyway”
“When I ignored him he grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him.”
“Called me a whore”
“It was along time ago but I remember being called a stuck up bitch but then nothing else”
“In groups, men will continue to shout and on occasion follow me down the street.”
“Started swearing at me, said I was ugly anyway”
[in relation to men offering money for sex from their car] “when i ignored them they shouted that i was a stuck up rich bitch”.
“I was followed home by a man who started walking beside me. I stated he was making me uncomfortable and that he should leave me alone. He wouldn’t leave stating that he just “wanted a hug”. When i refused he became quite hostile and his body language was aggressive but he eventually left.”
[when I told him to go away] “he got very up close to my face and then finally left”

“Continually returned to talk to me, vaguely threatening, called me a lesbian”.

“Laughed in response to my negative reaction, saying that what he had done (touched my bottom) was what men do in his country (Ireland)”

“He scowled and they walked off without further comment”.

“Verbally abused and insulted. Groped.”

[Told me] “You’ve got a black heart” comments that I’m a “snob” or “stuck up”

“He kept trying to talk to me and come into my personal space (within arms length), even after I explicitly told him several times that I didn’t want to talk to him and that I just wanted to go home so please leave me alone, and physically backed away from him several times.”

“Yesterday walking home from work, when I ignored his first calls and whistles, he continued and followed behind a safe distance [I kept walking past my home] until he got bored of no response”.

“Yelled who do you think you are etc, then made negative comments about my physical appearance”

[I ignore them now] “In the past when I’ve said something back [the response has been negative] examples have included laughing at me”.

“He swore at me and said something aggressive”

“Derogatory comments”

“More comments about being rude or stuck up. Its just a joke. Even more comments”

“Male strangers often act offended or aggrieved if you do not react the way they would like you to. You are told that you are uptight/rude etc”

“Usually it’s mocking behaviour. Worse if they have been drinking alcohol”

“swearing, name calling- normally whenever I don’t just choose to ignore the behaviour”

“sometimes they might make themselves as big as possible (as if reminding you they can physically over power you), some might follow for a bit”

“Being touched anyway (occasionally), verbal abuse (occasionally), more generally just a refusal to go away meaning that I have to continue to deal with them.”

“when I said I had a boyfriend, he aggressively said I shouldn’t have wasted his time”

“when asking men to let go of my arm/ stop pulling me towards them in a night club or bar, the most common response is for them to laugh. Very often (about) 1-2 times a month): men instruct me to “smile” or “cheer up” when seeing me in the street. If I meet this instruction with a negative reaction, almost always the man tells me to lighten up or not be so serious (or something to that effect) as he was just being friendly (as though attempting to make me feel guilty about my response)”

“People being rude swearing, trying to touch you or calling you arrogant.”

“Being told I was a bitch, ugly, or worse (if I ignored them); being told to shut up or receiving more sexualised comments (if I confronted them).”

“start laughing at me”

“He carried on as before with the harassment”

“Called me something along the lines of an uptight bitch.”

“They have commented negatively or have laughed when I have ignored them or told them to leave me alone.”

“Insisting, pushing, coming in my personal space. Not often, but particularly when the man was drunk.”

“You’re ugly anyway, are you a lesbian, why are all women so up themselves I could go on…”

“It was along time ago but I remember being called a stuck up bitch but then nothing else”

“They’ve insulted me if I’ve ignored them or asked them to go away, usually the insult is about my appearance”

“I’ve been called a ‘fat slut’ when rejecting an advance, as well as ‘stuck up bitch’.”

“You must be f**king up yourself to turn this down!”

Sometimes misogynistic comments were coupled with racist ones:

A guy once asked for my number, when I said “sorry, I have a boyfriend” he proceeded to call me a nigger…which was particularly interesting considering he had JUST asked for my number but as I declined he quickly decided that actually my black self isn’t worthy… I still think about this often and as you can imagine it infuriated me and still does.

Remember, the majority of these incidents took place in the street or on public transport during the day, rather than during nights out socialising in pubs and clubs.

Other respondents recalled annoying but not as aggressive things like:

“A guy continuing to ask/plead to come into my home after I’d repeatedly, politely said no”
“Grinning and doing it again”
“He kept going with the analysis of my facial expressions until I left, and suggested that I get some more rest as I looked tired.”
“There was some kinda of “aw why not, love” type response”
Recoil/shocked [that I’d respond negatively]
“All right love I’m only joking, whatever.”
“Generally they look pissed off and then walk away”
“He moved on to another woman on the bus”
“It was a group in a car, they laughed and drive off”
Often males getting defensive or annoyed that I do not appreciate their approach.

Some gave specific examples or reflections:

I would estimate that I experience negative responses after ignoring unwanted approaches around 20% of the time. This can range from a particularly intense stare, the person making a clearly audible comment about me (but not directly to me), or being told directly that I’m ‘stuck up’, a ‘bitch’ or them retracting their ‘compliment’ to then tell me I am in fact ‘ugly’.
[I remember a] Group of teenagers (mostly male) blocking my path in park on way home. Several leered, one asked if he could “lick my pussy”. I blamed myself for walking that way at night and never repeated the journey.
I remember I was in a packed pub at age 22 said excuse me and went to make my way past a group of men. One rubbed his erect penis against me (through jeans) as I squeezed past.
I was wolf whistled at by a van driver last week then shouted abuse because I didn’t respond. My mother told me I should be flattered by the wolf whistling.
I remember a bad experience for me once when I was at college. I walked up the stairs at the train station and there was a group of lads from the college who were training to be footballers running down the stairs and one of them slapped my bum really hard on the way down. That was humiliating.
I’m 29, I feel that this kind of experience and way of approaching and interacting with women, viewing them as objects has been the norm and socially acceptable. It was only when I met my bf (now hubby) at 24 that I understood what acceptable behaviour (inc sexual) was and realised I’d been sexually assaulted by my previous 2 partners.
I was sitting on a train station bench, drinking from a straw, and three male passers-by asked me to give them a blow job. At first I ignored them, but they kept hassling me, and one said, “We’ll pay.” They were very persistent and only stopped to get on their train.
I get unwanted attention from men almost every day – it’s animalistic.
I am 24 and have experienced the above for several years. I can recall it happening since my early teens.

So that’s the reality of what women experience, and is probably familiar to most women reading this. Worse still it is normalised by the most powerful man in the world, who has attempted to brush off and justify repeated examples of sexual assault, walking in on women whilst they are changing, sexually harassing employees and those he deals with in business, and criticising the appearance of fellow politicians. He has even attempted to excuse “locker room talk” about women, such as discussing teenage girls and his own daughters in sexual terms and normalising sexual assault on women by saying that he can “grab them by the pussy”. We are in dark times indeed. A Polish MEP felt emboldened enough to say in a debate about the gender pay gap today that women deserve to earn less because they are smaller, weaker and less intelligent than men.

Most of the men I know are feminists and would be appalled to read the results of this survey, let alone by what the neanderthal MEP said. In the general population however, there is probably more diversity. I think some men are aware of the issue, but others are probably not. So feel free to share the evidence of what is happening, in 2017, to ordinary women going about their business in the daytime.

Of course many other groups experience harassment, and in some cases this is much worse than that women experience. For example, I am sure that the recent spike in xenophobia means that many people of colour, or whose religion is apparent from their dress or appearance are on the receiving end of much more aggressive and intrusive unwanted approaches, as the videos from public transport that have been shared on youtube over the last few months demonstrate. I am sure that gay people receive both harassment and unwanted sexual approaches, and I know that trans people are disproportionately targeted for harassment and sexual assault (in fact, I recently read figures that suggest that half to two thirds of transgender individuals have experienced a sexual assault). I am not saying that there are not some examples of men being targeted for unwanted sexual approaches by women. There are multiple factors which intersect, and multiple reasons for individuals being vulnerable to be targeted in this way. However, I simply surveyed the example with which I am most familiar and the example that was the topic of my conversation.

The incidence of sex crimes and is an embarrassment that we need to address, and too often blamed on the victim. We all need to be responsible for our own behaviour, and for gaining consent before we touch anybody else or engage anyone in any sexual activity – that is so basic that I shouldn’t even need to spell it out, and it should be taught to every primary school child as part of PSHE. No harassment is acceptable, and unsolicited sexual approaches to strangers in public outside of the context of a social setting should really be a thing of the past, no matter who they target.

Note: Minor edits to quotations have been made for clarity and anonymity, but never to change the nature or severity of the incident.

My opinions about representing Clinical Psychology and the future of the British Psychological Society

I’ve probably been a member of the BPS for 20 years now, and with it the Division of Clinical Psychology and the Faculty for Children, Young People and their Families, and within that the network for Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children (CPLAAC). I’ve been to the annual Faculty conference every year since I qualified, except for the one early in my maternity leave. I read some of the publications and I follow some of the social media. Over the last decade, I’ve done a long stint on the Faculty committee, and I’ve spent 5 years as chair of the CPLAAC network. I’ve responded to policy documents, represented them on committees, written papers and edited a periodical. So you’d think with all the energy and time I have put in that I am a great fan of the organisation.

Unfortunately, whilst I am hugely admiring of many of the individuals involved with the DCP and Faculty, and some of the recent Presidents of the Society, I’m pretty ambivalent about it as a whole. I think their website and social media suck. I spent ages looking at how to help them with that through the faculty, only to find out the scope for change was minimal and was within their user-unfriendly structure. Most of it was hard to navigate, and key documents were hard to find, the documents and information on the site were often out of date and much of the content was hidden behind walls for members and separated into silos by the Society structure that were impenetrable by topic. I was censored and then locked out of the BPS twitter account whilst live tweeting talks from a conference on behalf of the faculty because I quoted a speaker who was critical of the BPS’s communication with the media and public.

My experience of running clinpsy.org.uk is that we make everything accessible, searchable and google indexed (apart from the qualified peer consultation forum that is a closed group, and the archive of livechats and other member content that can only be seen when logged in). We are also able to respond to things immediately, and often talk about current affairs. So it is quite a contrast. The view of the BPS on the forum is fairly negative, despite myself and several other qualified members trying to put the advantages of having a professional body.

One theme comes up across both spaces – that lots of people like to moan, but very few are prepared to take the actions that help to change things for the better. So, when a document is put out to consultation, or members are canvassed for views by BPS Divisions or Faculties it may be that no clinical psychologists respond at all, or perhaps just one or two nominated by the committee, someone with a vested interest, or the same old voices who feel a greater sense of responsibility for the group. I’m sure the same would be true on the forum, as lots of people like to read the content, some like to ask questions but few actually write up content for the wiki, or help with the maintenance tasks like checking and updating links. However, people pay quite a lot for their BPS memberships, whilst the forum is entirely free and run by volunteers, so it is perhaps fair to have different expectations of service. The difficulty being that the BPS expect the few members who do contribute to do so for free, in their own time, over and over again. I worked out that one eighth of my working time as a self-employed person was being spent on unpaid committee and policy work, and I don’t think that this was unusual. Certainly the chairs of networks and faculties give up a large amount of their own time, and although higher up the tree some days are paid, these are not paid sufficiently to reflect the amount of time that is spent on the job.

So when the DCP sent me a link to a survey recently, I had to reflect my views and tell them that I don’t think that the BPS works for clinical psychologists in the UK, and this is predominantly because of the nature of the larger organisation.

I have witnessed time and time again that clinical psychologists, including those on faculty committees and in the DCP committees, are inhibited rather than facilitated in responding to topical issues, speaking to the media, expressing opinions or taking action by the slow, conservative and censorial wider organisation of the BPS. Even sending representatives to sit on government fora, guidance or policy making organisations involves an overly bureaucratic process of formal invitations and nominations that often means the window has closed to have our voice heard. Likewise the process for agreeing documents for publication is onerous and slow and means months of delay. The Royal Colleges and bodies for other health professions make responses to news items in a timely way, but we don’t. We are constantly told not to be political by expressing any opinion, when, as I understand them, the charity rules are not to be party political rather than not to express opinions that affect political policy at all. I would argue that our role as powerful professionals, effective clinicians, supporters for our clients and compassionate human beings requires that we are political in the wider sense, because we should be advocating for the psychological wellbeing of the population and putting the case for provision of adequate mental health services. I would consider that this includes an obligation to argue against policies that cause hardship and emotional distress, and to put forward a psychological understanding of events and individuals in the news.

Whilst there are great people involved in the committees and a lot of good will and energy, the BPS itself makes contributors impotent. It inhibits rather than amplifies the messages we should be sending outwards and it fails also to represent us as a professional group. It is not effective at representing our interests in government policy, national or regional workforce issues, professional negotiations, disputes about funding or other professional matters.

The structure of the BPS also drowns out the fact that the majority of practitioner members are clinical psychologists by giving equal weight to tiny factions and much too much weight to academics and students – the focus on the latter two groups means that the BPS failed to address issues of regulation properly and has left us with a legacy of problems with the remit and standards of the HCPC (including who is included and excluded in the scope of regulation and the criteria for equivalence of international psychologists, which I will no doubt blog about another time). In these areas it has not only failed to promote the profession, but also to protect the public.

Unlike other professional bodies, the BPS does not offer much by way of professional advice and representation for its members (eg about workforce and pay issues, disputes with employers). It doesn’t act like a union to defend individual members or the interests of the profession, or provide us with insurance or collective bargaining. It doesn’t show our value to the public or those in power through media statements, responses to news and current events and policies, representation on government and policy bodies. It is ineffective in building the status and public awareness of the profession. I believe our professional body should constantly articulate the need for proper mental health services and highlight the useful role the profession can play in meeting those needs. Likewise it should constantly express opinions about government policy and other issues that may be harmful to the psychological health of the population, and highlight what we think would help and the role we as a profession can play in systemic changes and in planning strategies at the population level that prevent or reduce distress.

So I think radical change is needed. If that isn’t possible as a program of reform from within, and Jamie Hacker Hughes’ Presidency suggests it wasn’t, then we need to split the DCP away from the BPS and/or build something new that is fit for purpose.

If you also have an opinion about the BPS and/or DCP, whether or not you are a member, please answer their survey here. Feel free to cut and paste any part of this blog into your response if you wish to do so. Likewise feel free to share a link to this page, and if you are an aspiring or practising clinical psychologist you are welcome to join in the discussion about the BPS on the clinpsy forum.

Exploiting the ignorant: From quack cures to the rise of Trump

I was reading today about a man called Braco (pronounced Bratzoh) who is the centre of a personality cult that believes his “gaze” (looking out into a crowd and not speaking for 5-7 minutes) can heal health problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones. He does free online gaze sessions, and cheap or free local events all around the world in order to market books, DVDs and items of jewellery containing his golden “sun symbol” (many for $500+ each). I see nothing more than a man who learnt how profitable it was to be a fake healer from a mentor in a similar line of work, and took on his audience and methodologies (but without the stress of having to give any advice, or the risks of making any claims about himself that could be proven false).

Yet, nonetheless he has a plentiful audience of believers. People claim remarkably diverse experiences and attribute all kinds of random positive events in their lives to his gaze. One contributor believes that Braco cured the hearing loss of a newborn whose parent and grandparents went and gazed (and bought the $500+ trinket). Unknown to them, 13% of children identified with newborn hearing loss spontaneously recover, without any superstitious interventions. It reminds me of Tim Minchin’s fantastic song Thank You God [link contains swearing] that describes alternative explanations for a “miracle” in which a lady’s cataracts are “cured by prayer”. These include spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, a record-keeping glitch, a lie or misunderstanding. He mentions the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and simplistic ideas of causality based on temporal correlation (as was the case with autism and MMR). On the internet there is also the significant possibility that the review is fabricated.

The same story repeats all over the world. People are paying something for nothing more than woo in numerous seances, palm readings, psychics, mediums, crystal therapies, quack nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki, all energy therapies, coffee enemas, homeopathy, reflexology, magical weight loss products, Bach flower remedies, most vitamin supplements, magnetic items making health claims and anything that promises to “detox”. In fact, any one of us could invent our own snake-oil or novel form of quackery. And then we could invent some titles and qualifications and go on TV as an “expert” to promote them. The trade is worth in excess of £500 million per year in the UK alone. Quackwatch is a good reference point – I check doubtful health claims there, just as I check doubtful internet stories on Snopes.

We are 250 years past the enlightenment in which the ideas of reason and science supposedly gained supremacy over superstition and liberty progress and tolerance gained traction over dogma. Yet here we are in so many ways believing in magic and witch hunts. The public doesn’t understand science, is wedded to superstition, or simply has overwhelming credulity and a lack of critical thinking. This is the same culture that created plausibility for Andrew Wakefield’s weird “measles immunisation” recipe that contained his own blood and goat colostrum and that pushed an appropriately skeptical professor of complimentary and alternative medicine into early retirement because he wouldn’t endorse homeopathy and reflexology on the NHS.

No wonder in the Brexit campaign and in Trump’s electoral campaign there has been such wide deviation from the facts. The public have been told to disregard experts and go with their gut feelings, or with the guy who they could imagine meeting in the pub. That is a very poor way to judge the evidence base, and (as we have discovered with Brexit) a very easy way to be sold a pup. I can’t understand why it is not a crime, or even a disgrace, to lie to the public. Why were there not enquiries and reprimands for people who knowingly lied about the £350 million pounds a week extra that was supposed to go to the NHS if we left Europe? The answer is because we have better protections against a drink being sold with false weight loss claims than we do over vote-changing political claims.

It is interesting to explore why people don’t trust experts, and here it seems that there are a few dimensions that are important. Knowledge is only trusted if it is coupled with a perception of benevolence, and presented in words that people understand and don’t feel patronised by. It is all too easy for people with expertise to use jargon or technical terminology that makes sense in their field, for readers of the journals they publish in or in conversation with their peers, but that makes the content inaccessible to lay people, who then think of the expert as being part of an intellectual elite who are sneering down at them from a position of superiority.

And some people seem to deliberately manipulate any show of expertise to make it seem that particular commentators are not connected with the experience of ‘the man on the street’. Michael Gove (linked above) was probably the pinnacle of this, but Trump also directly appeals to this distrust of experts, and seems to bank on his audience not caring about his content being proved to be factually incorrect later down the line. Tim Minchin captured my feelings and frustrations about this rising anti-intellectualism (and Brexit and even Donald Trump in passing) here [contains swearing, I’d recommend watching from 24 to 35 mins in].

But it is becoming more and more common. I was listening to the radio earlier this week and flicked over from Radio 4 to Radio 2 to hear the host Vanessa Feltz tell a labour party spokesman that the word “narrative” when used in context, with four repetitions of the word “story”, was jargon that was beyond her and her listeners and proudly proclaimed that it was similar to the teaching that went over her head at university (listen at 15:00 for just over a minute). She seemed to want him to pitch his vocabulary lower, whilst showing her own insecurity about wanting to be clever by using the word “elucidate” herself in her instruction to him to do so! It was particularly notable in contrast to Radio 4, where the words that she criticised, such as “managerial”, “technocratic” and “narrative” would not stand out in the discussion or require definition. Maybe it is just a mark of my age and changing listening preferences, but I would always prefer to have conversation pitched at the level that I learn from, than patronisingly dumbed down.

It is also a reminder that, despite a natural tendency to consider ourselves pretty much average at everything, very often we fail to recognise our own levels of skew within the population. My politics are left of average, my income and intellect above average, just as my physical fitness is below average. But this deviation from the norm does not stand out to me as I have sought out a peer group of other professional, intellectual lefties. In my peer group, the remain preference was so strong that the vote to leave the EU was quite a shock!

Similarly, despite having written a book to try to make the scientific knowledge around attachment and developmental trauma accessible to care givers and professionals from other fields, and working hard to make psychological knowledge available through this blog and various forum posts, not everyone finds my writing accessible. For every ten positive views of the book there is one person who feels I pitched it too high. I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person of knowing the meaning I intend to convey, and therefore not always recognising when I have not communicated this effectively. So please do point it out to me!

 

 

Hope out of chaos

I’ve written a lot about how distressing I’ve found the vote to leave the EU, the increase in overt racism, and the move to the right politically. In fact I’ve been quoted more widely than expected on this topic, with my letter published by the Psychologist website, a quote in a fantastic column in New Scientist and even this blog being quoted on Buzzfeed because I used to work with one of the Conservative Leadership contenders. Theresa May has just become Prime Minister, and my feeling is that she was the best of a bad lot. However, what saddens me at the moment is all the in-fighting in the labour party.

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I consider myself to be political, but not party political. I’m significantly left of centre when it comes to the political spectrum, and believe in progressive policies. I’d like to reduce the wealth gap, strengthen public services and reduce inequality through improved education and opportunities (including properly funded legal aid). I want to remove donations and corporate lobbying from our political system, and replace them with a fixed fee for membership and proportionate central funding. I believe in taxation on inheritance and property, bonuses and the top 1% of wages, but also the Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. I don’t believe in taxing sanitary products, heating, e-books, or any services provided to support free-at-the-point-of-access health or social care.

In terms of current political parties, I have a lot of admiration for the Green Party and the SNP, but I’ve never been in a location where there is an option to vote for either of them. In fact, I have always lived in safe Conservative seats. Until the death of John Smith I would probably have considered the Labour Party as my closest match politically. After that I felt homeless. I voted for the Lib Dems once, but felt betrayed by them entering the coalition with the Conservatives and supporting tuition fees.

Authenticity, empathy/mentalisation and reflective capacity are skills that I look for in the parenting assessments I do for the family courts. I consider them to be essential attributes when it comes to forming human relationships, so whether or not I see them in a politician really is make or break for me. And they are much rarer than you would hope.

John Smith was the last place I saw authenticity in the Labour leadership. I never could trust Blair, because his smile never reached his eyes, and his body language never seemed congruent with his verbal content. It was as if he had been so carefully schooled not to give away his true feelings that there was a hint of the uncanny valley. Likewise, Brown looked as forced when he smiled as May and Leadsom’s recent grimacing contest, like early models for Blade Runner style replicants. Milliband was so socially awkward that he was hard to feel any connection with (though in the pre-election interview with Russell Brand he seemed to relax a little and I saw a glimpse of something likeable and real that I’d not seen before).

The millionaire cabinets filled with chums from Eton and Oxbridge that have formed the last two governments have all looked to me like posh teenage boys that had teleported into adult bodies and, like the plot of a formulaic film, were trying to pretend to be grown ups doing responsible jobs and hoping they got to have sex before the switch was discovered. Bumbling Johnson and Trump have both learned to mask the threat they present by modifying their body language to appear ridiculous enough not to be taken seriously.

In short, politics has become a world full of phonies. The exception to this has been Barack Obama. His election gave me hope for the world, and I think he has been pretty authentic throughout his two terms (though any real power to create change, such as gun reform, has been leached away by the broader politics around him). I have particularly enjoyed him as he has become less guarded and shown his sense of humour more as he reaches the end of his term in office. His books are high up on my list of reading material next time I go on holiday, or if I ever have more time available.

And now there is Jeremy Corbyn. Since the death of Tony Benn, I see him as the one authentic option amongst a sea of vested interests and spin.

If I’m allowed to metaphorically liken the political changes around Brexit to a flood, then it has felt like we are wading through knee deep brown water contaminated with the sewage of repulsive opinions that is pooling in the homes and buildings all around us. Much of the established political road network has been flooded or washed away. My every instinct is telling me to get as far away from the mess as possible. However, the only person not being swept along with that tide has been Jeremy. He’s just been quietly organising teams that are going around door to door checking if people are okay, and trying to plan what needs to be done to clean up and repair the damage. He doesn’t have the uniform or back-up of the emergency services, but nobody has really seen them doing anything beyond trying to divert the water around the corporate skyscrapers, so he’s become something of a local hero. The news is blaming excessive rainfall up river, and congratulating the emergency services for keeping the businesses dry, whilst criticising “have a go heroes” for interfering, and saying it will take many years before flood protections or repairs can be organised.

Some people say Corbyn is too far left, and unelectable. To that I’d say you don’t need to be electable to be an effective opposition, and to change policy and the scope of discussion. UKIP have demonstrated that brilliantly over the last five years! Opposition has changed policy in a number of key ways over the last few years (making a series of government u-turns over cuts to benefits). If we had a coherent labour party giving a unified voice to this opposition we could achieve even more, whether or not we achieve a Labour government. It seems that the goal of gaining power has become of higher priority to some PLP members than the goal of making a difference for the constituents they represent.

I think Corbyn is one of the few people that understands that British politics is broken at the moment. Too much influence is purchased with party donations and sponsorship, and too many rich people are right at the top and making decisions with self-interest at the core. We need to reform that, and get genuine representation of the people. We need to reengage the people who are not voting more than we need to fight over the middle ground. We need to help people identify as working class and fight for their rights, despite the tide of propaganda getting them to blame immigrants, the EU and the vulnerable. Again, Corbyn is as close to that as I’ve seen in my adult life. He has no affiliations or financial interests outside of his job as a politician, and he has refused to kowtow to wealthy donors.

I fully accept that he hasn’t given his opinions in snappy soundbites. But I can’t see that as a bad thing. Issues like leaving the EU are complex, not black or white, and they merit reflection and discussion not just a yes/no answer. So I think that whilst people say he is losing the game, he is actually trying to play a different game, and one I think is a damn sight better.

I think Corbyn is a breath of fresh air in British politics. So I am very sad to see the way he has been treated by the PLP. Whilst complaining that he cannot lead, they have refused to follow him, despite his inclusiveness when it came to selecting the shadow cabinet.

To stretch another metaphor, I see it like an artist agreeing to make a mural with 200 aspiring young artists from local schools, and then finding out that 140 of the names on the list are of kids who are not engaged in mainstream education and have no interest in art. The way I see it, the artist’s only option is to try and make everyone feel included, select widely for those who are to take each role in making the mural, and then when kids don’t turn up, to fill the gaps with those who are keen to get on with the project. Sure, the artist can try to go out and meet with each kid who doesn’t turn up and try to engage them in the joys and challenges of the project, but that will mean they give a whole lot of energy to fruitless battles and will sap away the time for actually creating the art. The artist can’t fix the system that was stacked against them within the time given, so it makes sense to just get on with the art itself, in collaboration with the kids who want to work with them.

The only difference is that all labour MPs should want to create this piece of art, because in the terms of my metaphor they are art students and it is the course they signed up for, even if the style of the artist isn’t the familiar commercially driven billboards they were expecting. The result might still be surprisingly beautiful.

I believe the Leave campaign had massive appeal because it became a way to express dissatisfaction with the status quo, when the neoliberal hegemony meant that people could hardly see the difference between the mainstream political parties. Voting leave became a way for people who were feeling disenfranchised to thumb their nose at authority, to try to disrupt the established political systems. If that conclusion is correct, then I believe that this desire for change could as easily swing left as right, if the media and prominent voices from that side offered targets to blame (eg bankers and millionaires who buy politics) and promised easy solutions (tax bonuses and top 1% salaries, robin hood tax, fixed funding and no donations to political parties). The Labour Party need to unite to harness this desire for change, and to show that they can deliver it.

But not only have they not connected with the people or the media, they have allowed Theresa May to seize their territory by making a speech claiming that the Conservative Party can serve the working class (despite almost every claim directly contradicting with her voting record), whilst the only Labour news is about how the PLP don’t have faith in their leader, and have shown this in less and less dignified ways. The in-fighting has become increasingly ugly. Watching charismaless Eagle squirm whilst Leadsom’s resignation stole the press from her launch may have been the most cringe-inducing moment so far this year. But it is clear from the lack of policy or answers to any questions that she stands for nothing apart from not being Corbyn. I also suspect she has been goaded into being a stalking horse to allow other members of the party with leadership ambitions to come forward with less risk.

Meanwhile 130,000 new members have joined (or returned to) the Labour Party because they like Corbyn’s approach to reforming politics, and share the hope for change. And instead of being welcomed with open arms, they are having the door slammed in their face by the PLP, who assume (wrongly) that they represent militant left-wingers rather than members who lapsed during the New Labour years but have now returned because of seeing a return to principles, young people who have engaged with politics for the first time, or the disenfranchised members of the general public that they should want to connect with. Nearly 600,000 members could be an amazing force for changing politics in the UK – that’s just over 1% of the voting population, nearly four times the Conservative membership, more than ten times the membership of UKIP and the largest membership of a political party in modern times. In my opinion, making exclusionary rules as to who can vote for the party leader and chasing the centre ground is exactly the wrong move to make, and will end in anger, legal challenges and a split in the party. But it seems that touch paper was lit before the referendum, and emotions are only getting higher, so I doubt the insight to avert it will arrive now.

If there is any hope we can make politics more authentic, and/or bring it back to the basics of representing the electorate, then that could give some meaning to all of this chaos for me. The one advantage of chaos and disruption to established systems is that change is possible. And the one person who has been consistently showing the qualities I’d want to lead that change is Corbyn.

So here’s hoping that we can make something positive out of the ashes of the current firestorm. I would welcome positive change right now, in whatever form it takes!

 

Is empathy finite? Part One: Richard Huckle

There have been two challenging stories in the news this week. In the UK Richard Huckle was given 22 life sentences for sexually abusing around 200 Malaysian children, and in the USA Brock Turner was given 6 months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a frat party. Each of them has been hard to read and aspects of each case have brought me to tears. The stories have made me feel grief for the victims and anger at the perpetrators, frustration about the cultural norms that gave them opportunity and in their mind justification for their actions, and vexed at the justice systems that somehow seemed inadequate in the face of each situation. And in each case, it has been really hard to hold on to any empathy for the perpetrator, despite my strongly held belief that people are the product of their experiences and influenced by the context, rather than ‘born evil’.

Because I have read and thought so much about these two cases, and discussed them online, I thought I would write a blog post about each. This is the first of those two blogs, and is about Richard Huckle.

Make no mistake, what he has done is unthinkably awful. Genuinely evil, to the point it is hard to even comprehend. He deliberately targeted vulnerable children and babies in deprived communities for his own gratification, and shared his activities with others for financial gain through the dark web. He even wrote a manual advising other paedophiles how to sexually abuse children in less developed countries. He was clearly without conscience or empathy, or able to override any remaining scraps of either in favour of sexual gratification. The psychiatric assessments were reported to say that he justified his actions and showed no remorse. His ledger and writings on the dark web boasted about his activities. So I can understand why he got such a hefty sentence, and why many people feel he should have been tried in Malaysia where he could have got a death sentence. He has harmed hundreds of children and families, and changed the course of their lives for the worse. No sentence can ever compensate for that.

I found myself thinking that if he committed suicide or was killed by other inmates very few people would be sorry to hear the news. In fact many would argue that the cost of 25+ years in prison is money that will be wasted on an individual that is beyond rehabilitation. Comments on the internet below the breaking news stories said things like:

“Hope he rots in hell he doesn’t deserve to breath air”

“It’s time to bring in capital punishment for paedophiles. Why should we pay for his upkeep? Death is the only appropriate punishment for this creep”.

“How tragic for his father and mother, who were obviously conscientious and committed parents. It just goes to show, you can give your children a good upbringing but you simply can’t control how they turn out. This guy is a slave to his perverted sexuality and his condition is incurable. He really should be locked up for the rest of his life because he will always be a danger to children. What a terrible affliction for any human being to be born with”.

And a woman in the public gallery shouted “a thousand deaths is too good for you” as he was led away from court.

Despite all of my psychology and experience with child protection issues and knowledge that most people who harm children have been harmed themselves, I found myself hating him and feeling no empathy whatsoever. It was as if he had stepped outside of the range that my empathy could stretch. I wanted him to suffer because he had made others suffer. If I’m honest, I’m still very conflicted about it.

However, like the awesome film Arlington Road illustrates, there is rarely a lone gunman. As much as it is an attractive narrative that distances us from responsibility, I don’t think that one person in a million is randomly born evil and will inevitably do things like this. I believe there are things we can do to make such events less likely to recur over time, and it is that belief that stops me feeling hopeless and helpless when the news constantly bombards me with all the evil in the world.

When I took a step back from the emotions raised by the awfulness of what this man did and thought about what I have learned from both research and practice, I found that there are in fact lots of pieces of knowledge that can help us to make sense of what happened and what we can do to reduce the chances of it happening again. In other words, I started to think like a psychologist again, and I wanted a formulation that would help me to reach some understanding of how he got to the position of doing such evil things. Such an understanding would let me sidestep my helplessness, anger and desire for retribution, and instead focus on something constructive; doing something positive to prevent similar cases from occurring again in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that people like Huckle are a product of their experiences as well as their innate character, and their offending happens within a context. Of course I still believe in free will, and that people are culpable for the outcomes of the choices they made, and clearly Huckle made very very bad choices again and again and deserves to face the consequences of that. But we don’t make those choices in isolation. Although he was particularly prolific in his offending, Huckle was far from the only person to perpetrate child sexual abuse in the UK. In fact, there are over 100,000 people in the UK who have committed a sexual offence against a child and around 5000 new convictions are made each year. About a fifth of the population have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact before they reach adulthood. Police recorded 36,429 sexual offences against children in the UK in 2013-14, and estimates suggest that only one in eight offences are reported. So this is a massive problem. (To put it into context, 1600 children per year are diagnosed with cancer, so sexual abuse is more than 20-180 times as prevalent). I believe that when it comes to any form of antisocial behaviour, violent or sexual crime, particularly on this scale, such actions are also an indication something is wrong in our society. It doesn’t surprise me that numbers on the child protection register are rising during this decade of ideological austerity that is widening the wealth gap in the UK. Just as suicide rates, substance use, homelessness and the incidence of mental health problems are increasing as a result of political decisions, so domestic violence and child maltreatment is rising as people fail to cope with the additional stressors imposed by benefit cuts, sanctions and reductions in public services.

There are several likely risk factors that relate to the abuser. First we know that whilst experiencing sexual abuse is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a perpetrator, the chance of sexually abusing children is increased threefold if he was sexually abused in his own childhood, and that experiencing sadistic emotional or physical abuse can also increase risk. We know little about Huckle’s family, but attachment disorganisation and the absence of any secure attachment figures seems much more prevalent amongst abusers. It is known that many sex offenders have sexual dysfunction. Isolation, low mood, loneliness and lack of social skill seems to also contribute, as do neuropsychological impairments – and Huckle was described as a loner who spent most of his time on the computer, as well as “uncharismatic” and on the periphery of things. Finally, the majority of people who sexually abuse children are religious (studies show 93% of abusers to report a strong religious identity, and around 5% of priests have been named in disclosures of sexual abuse). In between trips to Malaysia to abuse children Huckle was actively involved in the church and described himself as a devout Christian. Was that just an act, designed to gain the language and credibility to access children, or was there another motivation? Was he perhaps conflicted about his actions and trying to compensate or seek forgiveness? Or did he believe he was already going to hell, so he might as well do what he wanted in the meanwhile? Or did he have outwardly strong morals as compensation for lacking an internalised moral code? I suspect we will never know.

The part of this picture that is less often a focus of attention is the contribution of online communities to the normalising and even encouragement of abusive activities. However, we know that using the internet gives people an (often false) sense of anonymity and privacy, that brings out certain traits in their behaviour that might otherwise be inhibited because of the social consequences. On top of that certain communities have developed that collect and exaggerate certain types of behaviour. For example, the notorious bulletin board 4chan has boards within which particular patterns of behaviour from trolling to internet vigilantism (such as the hacker group Anonymous) have become the norm. Likewise certain boards have allowed the gathering of gamergaters, men’s rights activists, furries (people who like to role play anthropomorphised animals), bronies (adult male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony), otaku (Japanese nerds), toonphiles (people who want to have sex with cartoon characters), adult babies, truthers (people who believe in elaborate government conspiracies, such as that 9/11 didn’t happen), those trying to give up masturbating to pornography, and many other quirky groups that would not be able to express themselves within a mainstream community. There are groups that advocate in favour of all kinds of risky behaviour from anorexia to suicide, drink-driving to barebacking (unprotected sex between men, which includes “bug-chasing” – having unprotected sex with men who are HIV positive with the intention of gaining HIV positive status). Online people can present with whatever persona they want to create. Instead of being lonely and powerless they can be charming and popular. In that context, it is not surprising that there are websites that normalise and encourage child pornography, and create demand for more content (including a financial incentive, which Huckle had used to seek crowd-funding for pornographic material he had made related to his abuse of a 3-year-old girl).

However, there is much that is unknown about the relationship between use of the internet, viewing child pornography and sexual abuse of children. Does the availability of “edgy” content pull users of legal pornography towards more extreme material that they would not otherwise access? Does the market create an increase in abuse to provide the materials that can be sold? Does viewing child pornography online become a stepping stone to contact abuse? Or does it allow potential contact abusers to meet their needs without harming additional children? Is it related to the grooming of children online? One in eight people convicted of viewing child pornography on the internet had a known history of offending against children in person but it is still unclear which is chicken and which is egg when it comes to a sexual interest in children and viewing of child pornography. But it is clear that law enforcement resources are totally outnumbered by the prevalence of child pornography online.

Finally, there are factors which make some children more vulnerable to become victims of child sexual abuse than others. These include the lack of a secure attachment figure, shame, isolation, neglect, disability, the presence of other forms of child abuse, socioeconomic deprivation, stressors placed on the family (eg unemployment, bereavement, divorce), cultures in which secrecy is encouraged or permitted, prior sexual abuse in the family (particularly if this was not reported and discussed), alcohol or substance misuse, domestic violence, and settings in which there is sexual language, pornography or exposure to adult sexual activities. These same factors make it harder for children to disclose what has happened to them, and for such a disclosure to lead to suitable protective action. Only one in eight children who experiences abuse receives any professional input to assess or intervene with it.

So there are things that we can do to mitigate the risk of future harm. We can protect future children by addressing inequality, providing more support for parenting and attachment, providing more prosocial opportunities for engagement for disenfranchised young people, being more proactive about responding to child abuse, having more investment in policing the internet so that access to child pornography reduces or is perceived as more risky. We can help victims of abuse to speak up early, to the right people, and to be believed. We can encourage the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences against children, and ensure that conviction rates and sentences are sufficient to act as a deterrent. We can specifically develop international policing solutions to address sex tourism. And most importantly of all, we can also help victims to recover from the abuse they have experienced, to feel safe and protected and develop healthy norms about relationships.

Huckle has done evil and unforgivable things. I still can’t find much empathy for the person he is now. However, if I think back to him being born, and the experiences that must have taken place to take him to the point at which he could abuse children, I am able to feel sad for that baby and angry at those who harmed him and failed to protect him or to intervene much earlier to divert him from his path and recognise their contribution to his development and the harm that he then perpetrated. And if behaviour is learnt, then no matter how unlikely, there may be a future point at which it can change. So maybe in 25 years from now it is worth reconsidering whether he still presents a risk, or whether he has gained insight and empathy that he is currently lacking. Perhaps new treatments will have emerged by then to make it possible. It seems hard to imagine that being the case. I’m usually an optimist, but for Huckle, I can’t foresee a happy ending – and I’m not sure I want to.

But there is a note of optimism in the bigger picture. Despite all the evils of austerity, and the massive burden that is creating on the wellbeing of the world population, and a few horrific cases that have been well-publicised in the media there is some progress. Sexual abuse is being talked about more, and more resources are being targeted at prevention and intervention. And there is fairly solid evidence that although there has been a dramatic spike of reports of abuse in the UK over the last two years, the overall prevalence of sexual abuse in the western world appears to be decreasing over time. Hopefully, that decrease will continue to accelerate over time, until sexual abuse really is the one in a million exception, rather than an all too present reality for a significant proportion of children.

 

Where have all the flowers gone?

This week Liam Fee’s name was added to the list of toddlers killed by their caregivers, alongside Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer. And the newspapers have turned their gaze to their favourite post-mortem task of placing the blame. The conclusion, as ever, will be the ‘born evil’ women who killed him, and social workers who ‘failed to prevent’ the death. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Firstly, how can social workers prevent child deaths when their services have been cut back so much that thresholds for intervention have risen ever higher?  Social workers are over stretched and morale is at an all time low. When they intervene too much they are demonised by the press as baby-snatchers. When they don’t intervene enough they are demonised as failures who didn’t protect children. Since legal aid was slashed, court proceedings expect them to be both case worker and to cover the role of expert to the court. The social workers I know are amazing people, dedicated to helping make a difference with families, but tell me that some workplace cultures focus on form-filling and don’t allow as much time out in the field intervening with families as they would want.

Personally, I think prevention takes more than reactive services like the current remit of social work. We need proactive screening services to spot where there is need much earlier, when interventions for families are cheaper and more effective. In my opinion we need universal health visiting back, for every birth registered to be followed by mandatory visits twice a year until the kid starts school and for that to include weighing and measuring the child and seeing them in just their pants. It will also see the home environment and the relationship between parent and child. Old fashioned, maybe, but it would hopefully catch malnutrition and serious injuries earlier, and save lives in cases like these.

Secondly, what kind of lives must those two women have had that they were so un-empathic that they could witness and ignore such suffering, let alone create it? There must have been great trauma to end up like that, and a total absence of nurture. Of course no experiences are an excuse for the sadistic things they did to the children in their care. But they can help us to understand what happened, and in doing so to help prevent a future recurrence of similar issues. If we just blame it on innate characteristics of the individual perpetrators there is little we can learn to prevent the same thing happening again (except perhaps chase the fallacy of a genetic marker for evil, which I’m almost surprised is not already being done, given the overly biological focus of research topics that are clearly more influenced by experience).

I’m not convinced that anybody is ‘born evil’. I think people are born with the capacity to be a wide range of things, and their experiences (particularly their early experiences with their caregivers) determine the direction of travel, the types of skills they develop and the behaviours that are in their repertoire. Given exposure to enough trauma, a total lack of safe attachment figures, few skills and loads of dysfunctional strategies, people can end up doing awful things, particularly with a hair-trigger tendency to fight or flight under stress.

This is an evidence based position, not just my opinion as a clinician. We have known for at least a decade that childhood experience is the leading predictor of the health and social well-being, and that this applies on the individual level as well as for the nation. But as well as the self-evident human cost, there is also a huge economic cost to society. Studies show that the financial impact of child maltreatment on the economy amounts to billions of pounds per year, and the impact on lifetime health and employment is equivalent to a diagnosis of diabetes. However, the costs are hard to measure, and occur throughout the person’s lifetime so they are not as obvious.

Violence in society is neither universal nor inevitable (in fact it is almost absent amongst central Thai or Lapp society). Violence is a behaviour that is caused and can be prevented. When it comes to predicting violence, it is clear that the propensity is hugely influenced by experiences in the home before the age of 3. We also know that various interventions to improve care and the quality of the attachment relationship, or the more drastic intervention of removing the child and placing them in a household with better care are highly effective. However, there are also sociopolitical factors at play. Once the use of violence is established in a society, the levels are influenced by many factors, including:

  • Economic inequality
  • Unemployment
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Violence in the media
  • Poor housing
  • Availability of weapons

And yet, over the last decade economic inequality has increased, social housing has been sold off, and more violence has been shown in the media. More hopelessness has been created by the cuts to benefits for people with disabilities, or living in homes with an extra room. Services for people using drugs and alcohol have been cut by austerity measures whilst the need for them has increased. So the government has increased the risk of violence, whilst (as with immigration, single parents or benefit fraud) blame is being directed onto vulnerable individuals and public services.

Liam Fee, Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer are the tip of the iceberg. There are many child deaths from maltreatment that never make the news. Best estimates based on serious case reviews suggest 40-80 deaths of preschool children are caused by their caregivers per year. And of course, many more children are injured physically or emotionally every day. For every child experiencing abuse who is known to services, eight more are going unseen. But this is not down to individuals who are born evil, and it is not down to negligent social workers. It is a socioeconomic and political problem. And whilst the media propagates the narrative of individual blame and politicians turn a blind eye, children will continue to die.

Where have all these children gone, long time passing?
Where have all these children gone, long time ago?
Where have all these children gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?

Happily ever after: Some thoughts on trauma in the movies

I watched a romantic drama this evening in which a man and a woman who has a child from her past relationship fall in love. The ex-boyfriend is controlling, threatening and manipulative and tries to sabotage the relationship. He is shown getting drunk and grabbing the woman’s arm tightly to stop her leaving twice, and at another point he threatens the man with a weapon. Towards the end of the film the ex-boyfriend is drunk and upset. He threatens to take the child, who runs away and falls into a river. The ex-boyfriend rescues the child at the cost of his own life, and the mother and child witness him meeting a sudden grizzly death. Then the couple get together, become a family with the child and the film ends, leaving them to live happily ever after.

Having watched a set of characters for an hour and a half that were portrayed sympathetically and realistically enough to feel invested in, this seemed like a weird ending. I was left with this really disconcerting feeling that the writers, producers and large numbers of reviewers of this film (who gave it respectable scores on Amazon and IMDB) thought that this climactic scene tied up the ends neatly and left us with the uplifting moral righteousness of the baddie getting his just deserts, the couple unimpeded in their romance and a perfect nuclear family.

But how could a child who just witnessed his father’s death (and probably felt responsible for it) not have any emotional reaction to that? Would it not be yet another loss of a close male relationship for this young child, who had already lost others as part of the back-story? How could the mother not have complex feelings about the death of a guy who has been emotionally and potentially physically abusing her for five years? Would her relief perhaps be tinged with guilt that her new romance triggered these events, or at being relieved to see the back of him? Would a mother not feel sadness in empathy for her child’s experience of trauma and loss? Would she not feel echoes of the loss of her own father in childhood, or her brother the previous year? Perhaps their different ways of dealing with grief and loss would challenge the romantic relationship? How about our leading man, who was mourning lost friends and showing signs of PTSD at the beginning of the film. Would it not re-awaken all the unresolved grief he is repressing? And what of the ex-boyfriend’s parents and their stoical thanks to those that tried to rescue him? Does nobody cry for this man, who gave his life up to save his child? Was his inept handling of the relationship that resulted from an unplanned pregnancy in his teens so bad that he deserved to die?

Why couldn’t the film have been one that illustrated the reality and complexity of modern family relationships? Surely the alternative was for the father to have shown his priority was the wellbeing of the child, during the rescue scene, but to have survived and been part of a renegotiated family configuration in which the child was able to have both a positive experience of contact with him and to live in the new family unit with Mum and step-Dad? As I often tell children who feel that any affection to foster or adoptive carers is disloyal to their birth family, love is not like a cake where you have a finite amount to share out between all your relationships, love is like candles where using your fire to light others just creates more brightness for everyone. But if the father had to die, then they needed to show the emotional fallout of that. They can’t have one without the other, any more than they could show a person standing in sunshine without showing their shadow.

As it stood, the film profoundly failed to acknowledge the impact of trauma on the different characters. And this film was far from alone in that. So many traumas occur in films and TV shows that it seems they are very much part of the expectation nowadays. In every vampire franchise I’ve seen the head counts of characters close to the main protagonists who die are extraordinary, and yet they briefly mourn and then move on. In Vampire Diaries, an average of 19 characters shown on screen die per episode, and the main character, Elena, has lost almost every living relative and most of her friends, as well as dying herself, twice! Many other shows track medical emergencies, murderers, serious crimes, drug dealing and power battles, yet they are dealt with in an entirely sanitised, emotion-free way. Sure, a pathologist would be well-used to the physical nature of human corpses, but even in the most hardened professionals some cases creep through the cracks into your psyche. The person that looks a little like someone you know, or reminds you of something in your past. The tragic story that becomes apparent from the cause of death, or the untimely demise of a child. We are not robots analysing data, surely we recognise that people are like us and the people we care about?

The latest Star Wars film showed planet-scale genocide without that even being acknowledged by the cast. It’s a really good film otherwise, and I really enjoyed it, but the scriptwriters chose to show genocide as shorthand to make the baddies bad. It could equally have done so through less wide-scale slaughter, or by showing the snatching of children to indoctrinate as stormtroopers or many other plot devices. Including the slaughter of millions of people was a plot choice, and given that the film is part of a historical franchise that is pitched to the whole family and used to market toys to children, that is a pretty weird choice of plot. To then skim over making light of it makes that more disturbing, rather than less, once you think about it. I’m not saying the main characters should have processed the emotional impact there and then; I’m sure if you are busy fighting for your life or have 20 minutes to save the world and see some planets blow up, that isn’t the moment you down tools, lie down and cry. But even an extra second of footage showing sad faces, one person humanising the loss by mention of having lost individuals there, or an additional comment about how awful that loss was, would have given some hint of the emotional connections of all the people whose lives were extinguished in an instant. In the original trilogy when Alderaan was destroyed they used the change in the force to acknowledge how monstrous it was. I still remember the scale and momentousness given by the line “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” And this is what was missing in The Force Awakens.

But I think this lack of acknowledgement of millions of deaths was also illustrating something very poignant about human processing of events; we identify much more emotionally with death or distress at the individual scale than we do at a population level. Think of how the discovery of the body of young Aylan Kurdi humanised the treatment of Syrian refugees in the news narratives, for example. Prior to that point, they were treated like an invading army of ants, but in the weeks immediately afterwards some individual stories were told and people felt more sympathetic and we were shown footage of refugees being welcomed into various European countries. I think that change in response according to the scale of deaths is part of human nature, as is our ability to shut off from suffering and get on with life, if that is necessary to our survival. At the extreme end, people living through wars or in areas of high risk or conflict are probably coping by living in “survival mode” and using more primitive parts of the brain in favour of the prefrontal cortex, which has reduced activity under threat. It makes sense, logically, as we do have to compartmentalise awful stuff to just keep on going sometimes. I think back to all the life events that happened whilst I was pregnant (including a car accident, my granddad dying, a close colleague dying unexpectedly, my job being placed at risk, my babies being born very prematurely) and think I only coped with everything I couldn’t avoid by going into a psychological bubble and putting all that bad news aside to deal with later.

Maybe these fictional narratives of unacknowledged loss that have become so prevalent in TV and film are using this tendency – our ability to put emotional distance between ourselves and tragedy through various forms of displacement. If something awful happens far away, or it happened in the past, or in a different cultural context, or in fiction, then we are able to distance ourselves from it and deal with it at a purely cognitive level. We think about it but don’t feel it. The shame is that this seems to be how many politicians and decision makers deal with the problems affecting people in our day to day lives. Although it is ‘psychologically expensive’ to allow emotions in, it is only with empathy that we can really make informed decisions. So in real life as well as in fiction, I think a bit more feeling would be a good thing.