Our relationship with alcohol

Today an article from WHO about reducing the harm caused by alcohol around the world has got people all fired up on social media. The article has slightly clumsy wording about prevention of harm to unborn babies from alcohol, that some people have interpreted as a recommendation to prevent women of child bearing age from being allowed to drink. In response people have jumped in as much to defend/normalise drinking as to stick up for women’s rights (and to rightly criticise the way certain other types of risks from alcohol are only mentioned by reference to other documents, such as the risk of interpersonal violence, or not mentioned at all, such as the risk of perpetrating or becoming a victim of sexual assault). Having tried to reply on twitter but ended up with a mega-thread, I thought it might be preferable to respond fully in a blog post about our relationship to alcohol, including some links to relevant psychological theory.

Before I begin, I should note that I’m not an unbiased observer on this topic. For the last 30 years or so, I have chosen to drink very little alcohol (typically about 5 units per year) as I don’t particularly like the taste of most alcoholic drinks, or the way I feel after the effects have worn off. I also had a very negative experience of being drunk early in my life (see this blog entry, which comes with a trigger warning about sexual assault). That led me to often choose to be the driver or the person who stayed sober on nights out, which also gave me a rather atypical perspective on alcohol – as I was often the person who was looking after the person who had puked up or passed out, or was vulnerable to sexual assault. Speaking of which, I have previously expressed some strong opinions about whether alcohol is an excuse for behaviour (it isn’t; blog also deals with sexual assualt).

So, I am fully on board with the criticism that any global policy about alcohol needs to mention its association with interpersonal violence and sexual assault. We know that drugs and alcohol are often the source of disinhibition for abusers (and can be a step used in overcoming inhibitions for those who feel guilt or social pressure, such as in Finkelhor’s model of factors neceesary for child sexual abuse to occur). We also know that they are often used to create vulnerability in victims (eg with use of drugs in alcoholic drinks by rapists like John Warboys and Reynhard Sinaga) and that the vulnerability of intoxication is frequently exploited as an opportunity for sexual assault. As BPAS say in their response to the document “In the UK alone, more than a third of sexual assaults, more than 39% of all violent crimes, and nearly 1 in 5 incidents of domestic abuse are committed under the influence of alcohol” and this clearly needs to be mentioned in a document about reducing the harm caused by alcohol around the world, more than by passing references to other WHO documents about violence.

However, I’m also someone that believes in preventative and health promotion interventions like schemes to provide healthy food for pregnant women and young children, or the tax on sugary drinks. So it should come as no surprise that I’m broadly in support of measures to reduce problem/excessive drinking and tackle the culture of binge drinking amongst young people. I think a minimum price per unit of alcohol, and more education about alcohol (and drugs) and their risks and benefits would be a good starting point. This should ideally be part of the national curriculum for children, and something that is revisited at developmentally appropriate levels.

So, with my general opinions laid out, let us return to today’s publication. The WHO document is called “Global alcohol action plan 2022-2030 to strengthen implementation of the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol” and is clearly marked as a first draft. The statement that has been perceived as controversial is that they recommend we “raise awareness among decision-makers and the general public about the risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption. Appropriate attention should be given to… prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

To state something I hope would be obvious: Taking a literal interpretation of this sentence to mean that all women of fertile age should be prevented from drinking alcohol would be ridiculous and awful. I strongly agree with the critics that women are more than just breeding vessels, and that it would be massively disproportionate and set back women’s rights to prevent all women of fertile age from drinking on the basis of potential harm to a foetus. There are many complex and interwoven issues here, the way that gender and fertility have been conflated ignores the presence of anyone trans, intersex or with any of numerous medical conditions that can create infertility. It also assumes that all women are sexually active and none are using contraception or taking any control over their ability to conceive. Taken literally this therefore extends guidance that is perfectly logical for sexually active women who are fertile and not using contraception to every person identifying as female under the age of 50. However, I hope is a thoughtless omission in their wording rather than the intended meaning. It also assumes that any consumption of alcohol at any stage of the pregnancy is potentially harmful to a foetus, which does not appear to be entirely supported by science (where to the best of my current knowledge it would appear that low consumptions of alcohol have not been associated with harm and there are particular windows during pregnancy in which harm to the developing foetus is more or less likely to occur). Thus advice to avoid excessive or chronic consumption of alcohol during pregnancy appears to have been extrapolated into advice for all women of fertile age to consume no alcohol at all. And that clearly needs to be clarified as this first draft is developed into the final published document.

However, I genuinely don’t think that is the intended meaning here. The document doesn’t mention the rights of the foetus being more important than those of the mother as some critics have inferred (in fact it doesn’t even use the word foetus). Nor does it call for bans on the sale of alcohol to women (in fact it doesn’t even expand on the topic of female alcohol use at all). It only uses the word “women” four times, twice in that sentence, once in relation to mortality and once when talking about the incidence of alcohol use disorders. It literally just says the one sentence I quoted above.

I can see that the wording of the relevant sentence is slightly clumsy, perhaps because of international authors, but It is my belief having read the full guidance that this document is not advocating an unreasonable curtailment of the freedoms of women. Whilst it mentions “prevention” of women drinking, this is in a section entitled “Advocacy, awareness and commitment”. It is written in the context of preventing harm by reducing the social pressures encouraging excessive drinking and providing information about risks that would lead to informational campaigns discouraging children and pregnant women from drinking. It is not an assault on feminism or suggesting that states increase authoritarianism.

And importantly, this isn’t a personal message to individual female readers. It isn’t some jumped up know-it-all judging you for having glass of wine or two in the evening to unwind. It is a draft policy statement proposing educating people around the world about the risks of drinking whilst pregnant in the hope that more women choose to abstain. If you are past menopause, or not sexually active, or use contraception, or drink little/no alcohol, or for any of a myriad of other reasons aren’t going to end up binge drinking before realising you are pregnant, this message to reduce or cease alcohol consumption is not for you. You can let go the anticipated reproach and stand down.

Whilst the tabloids are trying to make this into a big deal, this fits with their xenophobic British exceptionalism agenda, whereby they are dismissive of international bodies, experts and science and try to frame them as limiting personal freedom and autonomy. So when they use stories like this to fuel the “nanny state curtails our rights, its political correctness gone mad” narrative, remember that each of these little fires is built to distract from the way the government are slowly attacking our rights and the safeguards over their power like the right to call for judicial review of government actions, GDPR and the protection of our data from commercial exploitation. Like the fantasy that conservative voices are being cancelled/silenced by an oversensitive generation of woke snowflakes rather than that market forces mean racists and sexists are increasingly feeling the rightful consequences of their repugnant views, or the way that taking the knee to acknowledge racism exists and needs to be tackled has become some unpatriotic politicising of football, this is just a distraction technique. These stories distract from the unlawful crony contracts that have funnelled public funds to friends of cabinet members, the way politicians no longer resign when they are found to have been dishonest, the failure of Brexit, growing inequality, the mess they have made of the pandemic and all the other ways the Overton window has shifted right and the current pack of corrupt incompetents are making a mess of governing the nation.

I think the best way to look objectively at the issue here is to let go of the wording and look at the overall tone of the message. WHO advisors are trying to reduce rates of death, disability and children harmed by foetal alcohol exposure. Surely that is a good thing? It is directly parallel to trying to prevent cancers/disease and harm to others from smoking (including during pregnancy or around young children) – something that was socially acceptable until surprisingly recently. Smoking is (or at least was) another choice that some people find enjoyable, but scientific studies associated with excess mortality. If we saw a publication warning women about smoking harming an unborn child it would probably not immediately make people want to post “oh just reading this makes me want to smoke a whole box of cigarettes”. So I wonder, objectively, why a twitter post replying to the report saying “I’m not sure where to start with this. Maybe by opening a bottle of wine?” has received so many likes?

For context: Alcohol causes 3 million premature deaths a year – that is more than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and diabetes. This includes 13.5% of all deaths among 20 to 39-year-olds in the world. In Russia and eastern Europe, nearly a third of people’s lives are shortened by alcohol use, though the rate in the UK is about 3.4%. In the USA research shows that alcohol contributes to about 18.5 percent of emergency room visits and 22.1 percent of overdose deaths related to prescription opioids. Around the world about 1.4% of people are considered to have an alcohol use disorder, with the highest prevalence in Russia and neighbouring states, where it is about 5%, and Brazil and Greenland, where it is about 3%. In America the diagnostic rate is higher (at about 5%), but it is unclear whether the prevalence is higher or the thresholds for diagnosis are lower. Globally, alcohol use disorders lead to 185,000 deaths per year, with around 2300 in the UK. This number has increased considerably since the 1990s, but has been fairly steady for the past 15 years. Few of these people receive formal treatment, with only 5-6% getting treatment in the UK. The incidence of alcohol use disorders increases significantly for those with mental health problems, showing that either the same stressors can lead to both outcomes, or that mental health problems can increase the risk of alcoholism or vice versa.

Problematic alcohol use can either take the form of binge drinking – where the drinking is excessive in quantity, but happens intermittently, perhaps once or twice a week, or on particular occasions or where the individual gets together with a particular social group – or chronic and excessive consumption (where the individual drinks every or almost every day over a protracted period of time). Both patterns are surprisingly common.

About 25% of the population meet the criteria for binge drinking on surveys about alcohol consumption, whilst around 7% report heavy drinking (5 or more units per day on 5 or more days during the last month). Even within geographic regions, there is a high level of variation between countries: in Italy, only 6 percent of drinkers had a heavy episode of drinking during the past month in contrast to nearly half in Ireland; 42 percent in Belgium one-third in the UK and France; and 20 percent in Spain. Binge drinking is particularly common amongst students and young adults, with around 50% of those who have ever drunk alcohol reporting in surveys they had drunk to the point of blacking out at least once, and 10% reporting a blackout associated with drinking in the prior two weeks. If some of those young women are becoming pregnant (perhaps due to sexual encounters when intoxicated), that level of drinking could potentially be a significant risk factor for the unborn babies.

Drinking alcohol to excess can also lead to other additional risks for the drinker. Whilst the immediate effects of alcohol are usually perceived as pleasant, and resolve fairly quickly when drinking stops, they can lead to memory lapses, poor judgements and an increased risk of accident and injury (as well an increased risk of sexual assault). Blackouts can involve potentially dangerous behaviour and loss of consciousness. Binge drinking is known to increase the risk of medical crises, and is a significant contributor to the number of people who present at A&E. Studies show that compared with people who did not binge drink, people who drank alcohol at twice the recommended thresholds were 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related A&E visit, and those who drank three times as much as the recommended limit were 93 times more likely to present there.

Alcohol also presents other less acute risks of harm. The effects of alcohol on the body become more severe with larger volumes consumed over extended periods of time – with particular risk to the liver, heart and brain. Changes to the brain can eventually disrupt memory and lead to Korsakoff’s syndrome. Alcohol is also physically addictive, with greater risks associated with sudden withdrawal than most drugs.

There are no hard and fast rules, but chronic excessive use appears to follow a different pattern to binge drinking, which is typically social – perhaps because the cost of alcohol in quantity soon prohibits this being consumed at pubs and clubs, or because of the pattern of drinking, or the impact of the level of intoxication on social functioning. The reality of problem drinking is, like most things in life, a bit more complicated than simply being the upper section of a spectrum of consumption. It seems to have some biological components, marked social components (eg when alcohol is used to cope with social situations or fit with peers) and is often cumulative over time. As with most addictions serious alcohol issues are often rooted in combinations of learnt behaviour and exposure to trauma. Impoverished or abusive relationships in childhood set a harmful template that can lead to dysfunctional coping strategies and relationships later on. These can create patterns that reinforce problem drinking, and masking the drinking can disrupt supportive relationships.

However, it is not just in the context of alcohol misuse disorders that alcohol causes harm and excess mortality. Alcohol also increases mortality via road traffic accidents. In South Africa and Papua New Guinea more than half of all traffic deaths are attributable to alcohol consumption. In the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and many European countries alcohol is responsible for around a third of all traffic deaths. Alcohol is also implicated in more than half of all crimes in the UK – either because the crime involves alcohol (eg drink driving, drunk and disorderly, theft of alcohol) or because the person committing the crime had consumed alcohol (eg in violent crime, assault or criminal damage). This is higher than elsewhere in the world where this has been studied.

Alcohol also causes Foetal Alcohol conditions that can have a lifelong impact on the brain. NICE say the exact incidence is unknown, but it was thought that about 7.7 people per 1,000 worldwide are affected, and 32.4 per 1,000 population in the UK. A study following up a cohort of births looking at possible symptoms suggested the prevalence could be as much as 6 to 17% of the population. The official UK advice is that the safest approach for women who are pregnant is not to drink alcohol to minimise risks to a baby. However, multiple sources suggest that 41% of pregnant women in the UK consume alcohol, and research shows women are not universally given information about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy (with 30% of those who drank before pregnancy reporting getting no information on this topic from maternity services, and only 29% of midwives saying they routinely share this information). The messages about how much alcohol is safe are unclear. There is a consensus from the stakeholders that NICE consulted that education and raising awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol in pregnancy is necessary, and 91% of alcohol bottles sold in the UK now warn against drinking during pregnancy. So it should be no surprise that the WHO also feel that women around the world who are pregnant or who may become pregnant (because they are of fertile age and are having sex without contraception) need to be aware of the risk posed to a baby by excessive alcohol consumption. Reducing alcohol consumption in these groups will reduce harm.

Yet as soon as reduced consumption of alcohol is mentioned, it brings out an almost reflexive response. I think some of that is “anticipated reproach” – the defensive (but often antagonistic) response people have to anyone they feel may judge them negatively, which can sometimes be combined with “do-gooder derogation” the feeling that anyone taking the higher moral ground about an issue personally, or taking action to resolve it, must be pompous and judgemental. Anticipated reproach has been studied by Benoit Monin, who has shown the effect in relation to everything from vegans to racism. We can see that playing out in the response to this WHO report. People want to speak out for their right to consume alcohol, and don’t perceive it as harmful (except in others with obviously excessive drinking).

The pandemic has also conflated unrestricted access to alcohol with the idea of personal freedom and agency. Closing pubs has been seen as more of an imposition on our rights than closing schools – particularly for the vocal anti-mask/anti-vax brigade (I wonder if there is some overlap between views about pub-drinking and a rejection of broader progressive values? It certainly seems to be associated with covid denial, Brexit-voting, and dismissal of expert advice, which I associate with a kind of disenchanted malaise that comes from underachievement and a feeling of being cheated by the changing social contract that makes people vulnerable to alt-right propaganda).

But I think this positive and normalising view of alcohol long predates the more recent changes to the socio-political environment, and the increasing polarisation of society. Alcohol has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years, and it holds an important role in social engagement and special occasions. So for most people it has positive associations. It is also an example of something where many people use the substance, yet comparatively few are harmed by it (the same could be said of illegal drugs like cannabis). So (as with the “just say no” campaigns that portrayed illegal drugs in entirely negative terms) dramatic warnings about potential harms don’t tend to chime with personal experience, which may be another reason for the defensive response.

The annual global average alcohol consumption is equivalent to 6.4 litres of 100% proof alcohol per adult per year. This is equivalent to 53 bottles of wine or 225 pints of beer (a bottle of wine or 4.5 pints of beer per week). In the Middle East and north Africa (which contain many Muslim nations where alcohol is frequently prohibited for religious reasons), consumption is much lower than average and often close to zero. In eastern Europe (and Nigeria) consumption is typically double the global average, and western Europe is not far behind. The UK, Russia and Australia are also well above the global average. However the type of alcohol, age and gender of drinkers, and the patterns of consumption vary from place to place. Broadly beer is quite widely consumed outside of the middle east, wine is most popular in Europe, Australia and southern South American nations, whilst spirits are most popular in Asia and Russia. In the UK the consumption of wine has increased steadily over the past three decades, whilst consumption of beer has reduced. The highest percentage of income is spent on alcohol in Europe and Australia – with Ireland being an outlier where around 7% of income is spent on alcohol. In general wealthier individuals drink more, although there is not a higher incidence of problem drinking.

For most people alcohol is a pleasurable mild intoxicant. And most people consume alcohol in moderation, where the impacts on health are more debatable (and in some cases even suggested to be positive – especially when it comes to wine as a component of a Mediterranean diet). So we do have to set the concerns about harm in context with the fact that many people derive pleasure and little or no harm from their alcohol consumption.

However, even when it comes to foods, consumers are increasingly given a warning of the fat, salt and sugar content, so that they can make informed decisions about their health. This balancing of benefits and risks is also something we are familiar with when it comes to the leaflets enclosed with prescribed medications, and has been in the spotlight in relation to the coronavirus vaccinations – where potential harms, like the tiny proportion of people who have had blot clot related complications, have dominated the discourse, despite the fact that for the vast majority of people it is protective and side effects are relatively trivial. Perhaps it is a good precedent that the benefits and risks of something have to be clearly explained even when there is widespread consumption?

After all, alcohol gets lots of positive messages to the public every day. There are numerous adverts showing beautiful, healthy, happy people engaging in social drinking. But on top of this, alcohol gets advertised from peer to peer. I see lots of social media posts about drinking, and almost all have a positive or light-hearted tone. Research corroborates this – surveys of social media show that posts which picture or talk about alcohol use show happy social occasions, groups of people interacting, romantic settings and chilled nights in. They talk about fun and exciting experiences, celebrating, dancing, dating. Posts rarely show risks or consequences. There are numerous memes like “wine o’clock” or “just a little glass” with a picture of an enormous glass of wine, as well as many references to alcohol as a survival strategy or a means to cope with parenting. Comedians joke about binge drinking and Irish weddings. I’m not sure people think about the impact before sharing posts or memes that feature alcohol, but studies show that exposure to alcohol posts on social media leads to increased alcohol consumption (why else would alcohol companies spend billions on advertising?). This means that seemingly harmless posts can potentially have negative impacts on others. This might particularly be an issue for those who have a problematic relationship with alcohol. Studies have also shown that people who post about alcohol consume more of it.

Yet it seems we each normalise our own consumption. Alcohol consumption and related risk is influenced by how the person perceives they compare to others in the population (if they believe others drink as much/more than they do, they believe their drinking is less risky). This is compounded by overestimating norms. So the more we drink, the more we assume others drink to subconsciously justify our own drinking (the same pattern also appears to be true of drug use, or sexual behaviours). The influence of social norms is a whole field of psychological research.

But I think that this can also happen at the societal as well as the interpersonal level. There has long been a tendency to encourage/normalise drinking in the UK that leads to people not recognising excessive/harmful use. Perception of alcohol use varies by drink, context, time and characteristics of the drinker. Adults typically regard themselves as moderate drinkers and disapprove of excessive drinking by others. We are not very good at judging the threshold at which alcohol use can be harmful, particularly when we are amongst others who consume alcohol in large quantities. I’ve met many who normalise drinking vast amounts (eg >40 units in a day). So maybe, like smoking and sugar consumption, and out lack of physical activity and increasing obesity, we do need to think more about harm minimisation?

Alcohol causes 24,000 deaths and over 1.1m hospital admissions each year in England, at a cost of £3.5bn to the NHS. Yet at the moment, the only labelling of alcohol to indicate risks is voluntary, as is the industry funded Drink Aware campaign (which sprung from the Campaign for Smarter Drinking instigated by my business mentor and NED Richard Evans before he left the drinks industry). Like the similar Gamble Aware campaign, the aim springs from corporate social responsibility and is intended to maintain profits and consumption whilst reducing harm – which could be considered to be competing interests. Experts say that the drinks industry would lose 38% of their income if drinkers kept to recommended guidelines, losing £13 billion per year of sales, which is why they are so reluctant to promote accurate information about the risks involved. So once again, there is a weighing up of corporate profits against public health. A minimum price per unit of alcohol and increased duty to subsidise costs to the NHS and the impact of alcohol-fuelled crime (eg police, services for sexual assault, refuges for survivors escaping domestic violence) might seem to be appropriate steps towards getting that balance right, but the public really don’t seem to like the idea of raising the cost of their simple pleasures….

Pessimism, propaganda and politics

I can’t be on the only one being crushed into learned helplessness and pessimism by the triumphalism of the far right taking over British politics, and the impending Festival of Brexit. Unlike the Brexit referendum result, the election of Trump and the results of past elections in the UK, this time I knew it was coming. But that hasn’t made it easier to accept. So how did we get here? And what should we do now? I figured I’d split some content out from a diversion on a previous blog and then share some thoughts about the leadership of the labour party.

It seems evident we are now in a time of propaganda and fear-mongering, where the truth has been lost amongst distortions and misinformation. Adam Curtis captured this prophetically in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 end of the year show (shown in two tweets from the marvellous Carole Cadwalladr here). Misinformation and bias is now pervasive in the way we receive our news, which is mostly delivered via social media and decided by algorithms based on past viewing choices in a way that reinforces our narrow bubbles. The news we read is skewed by the need to to keep us coming back to see the advertising content that funds it. And that means it is full of carefully curated fear, uncertainty and doubt, in between the filler of social media anecdotes and celebrity gossip. No wonder it feels like there are so many layers of bad news in the world at the moment.

Even when we take the time to read a newspaper cover to cover, we hear about so many hideous individual crimes not just in our locality but nationally and internationally because the world is so connected now – the latter often only identifying their location way down the article, meaning the headlines make us feel these are all risks that affect us personally. It makes it feel like the world is getting more dangerous even though the reverse is actually the case. There seem to be so many horrendous incidents of stabbings and shootings, and the ongoing human cost of the various war/conflicts going on in the world. And we start to feel as powerless as we do about the terrible weather events of different types that are being reported all around the world, from forest fires to floods and loss of ice fields. You’d think we know enough already to stop the global warming that is fueling the volatile weather, address the causes of conflicts and mediate solutions, and have effective police and criminal justice systems around the world. But no. It seems as developed nations, we prefer to make superficial changes to actually implementing real change when it comes to the environment.

Sadly, that is no surprise given the disproportionate influence multinational corporations have over policy. We seem to have increasingly allowed the super-rich and corporations to covertly buy influence through donations and lobbying. This lets them promote the kind of politicians who will increase the wealth gap further still, remove consumer protections and “red tape” and allow creeping privatisation of public services. The same forces let the far right foment prejudice and anger through internet and tabloid propaganda, so the focus of blame is always downwards toward vulnerable groups and not upwards to those with wealth and power. To compound and consolidate this, in the UK we have chosen to immobilise our entire system of government, civil service and public and private sector management for three years whilst deciding how many feet to shoot ourselves in under the banner of Brexit. This has never been more obvious than in the last week, where we are now poised to undermine all the checks and balances, and scupper the next few years of economic growth to entrench this new post-truth hard right populist culture for future generations.

And whilst the Labour party try to elect a new leader with the credibility and passion to challenge this, the left is fragmenting rather than regrouping. I’ve seen so many posts about Corbyn and Corbynism, trying to make out that idealogical purism is still the way forward, that we lost the election but won the argument and should do more of the same. Another Angry Voice posted as if it was irrational fear of renationalising transport and utilities that was the problem, concluding “If you’re afraid of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, I’m afraid you’re pretty much the dictionary definition of a narrow-minded little Englander aren’t you?” I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, I doubt many progressives disliked Corbyn’s policies, especially individually. However, together his policies will have seemed very disruptive and expensive not just to conservatives but to a lot of the middle ground and left-of-centre voters that are so vital in gaining a majority in UK politics – meaning he didn’t have mass appeal. Yet he was undoubtedly a good guy – warm, kind, genuine and thoughtful, and held in high regard by everyone who knows him personally. So was this also an example of a tendency to make snap judgements by first impressions, another consequence of unhelpful stereotypes of what a good leader is like, proof of a corrupt media or some combination of all of these things? I’m not sure.

Even to the diehard lefties (and I’d consider myself left of Blair, and someone who had great hopes for Corbyn in the beginning) Corbyn wasn’t the right fit for the job of heading up the opposition or being elected prime minister. Many of us worried about his leadership ability, his ability to be decisive and persuasive, to convey ideas in simple soundbites, and his failure to crack down on antisemitism within the party – giving the biased millionaire-owned media a stick to beat him with. But most of all, we worried about his choice not to articulate that Brexit was a tax evasion ploy by the super-rich that would harm the most vulnerable most, but also cause child poverty, cuts in public services, the break-up of the union, weaker negotiating positions that allow US pharmaceutical companies to charge more to the NHS and infringement of our right and liberties. Instead he believed/pretended that labour could offer a “good Brexit” of some kind, and lost half his supporters. He then failed to form any kind of progressive alliance, and instead allowed attacks on progressive peers in other parties, which was the nail in the coffin for the election.

So where do we go from here? Is it just about getting a new leader who gives a better first impression? It seems to me that politics has polarised the historic broad and diverse parties on either side of the house into narrow camps at either extreme of the political spectrum, leaving a lot of us disenfranchised by the first past the post voting system and the recurrent gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. We can see it in the hard-right Brexiteers that now dominate the Conservative party, but we can also see it in the way that a dominant and vocal minority supporting Corbyn and accepting no deviation towards incorporating a broader range of voices or considering what policies might be popular or electable has taken over the Labour party. Perpetuating this narrow view of purist socialism in which everyone else is “narrow minded” or a “red tory” is a very significant part of the problem – to win elections you need mass appeal, not to attack and alienate anyone even one degree outside of your bubble. I think Tim Minchin is right that its a massive problem with social media culture that the Overton window for each tribe is now tiny and any deviation leads to people being shamed and out-grouped (“I am afraid to write anything that might upset my own tribe”).

As this twitter thread articulates, I’d much rather have a centre-left prime minister doing many cumulative good things that are slightly less rapid or radical, than for all my beliefs to remain represented by an increasingly narrow, segmented and ineffective opposition. An amazing amount can be done within a party and set of policies that have broad appeal. For all his flaws, the centre-left Blair government made a huge amount of impact in numerous areas:

They lifted 600,000 children and 1 million pensioners out of poverty, provided winter fuel payments, free bus travel for over 60s, free TV licenses for over 75s, and improved a million social homes. It doubled school funding for every pupil, added 36,000 extra teachers and 274,000 teaching assistants, transforming education, leading to record literacy and numeracy. They opened 2,200 Sure Start centres and provided free nursery places, giving a better future for millions. They raised child benefit by 26%, introduced child tax credit and 3 million child trust funds. They invested in the NHS, employing 85,000 more nurses, cutting NHS waiting times by 82% and got in-patient waiting lists down half a million. Heart disease deaths fell by 150,000 and cancer deaths by 50,000. They implemented the smoking ban that has contributed to a 30% decline in the number of smokers in the UK, with massive impact on numerous health morbidity statistics. They created NHS Direct. They also improved employment rates and conditions: they introduced minimum wage, created 1.8 million new jobs, cut long term unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of apprenticeships, and introduced right to 24 days holiday and 2 weeks paternity leave. They employed 14,000 extra police, cut crime by 35% and increased criminal justice (court) spending by 21%. They negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, brought in the Human Rights Act, doubled overseas aid, wrote off debts for the poorest nations and created GiftAid. They Scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships. They banned fox hunting, and gave free entry to museums and art galleries. They also managed to couple this with the longest period of low inflation growth since 1960, and created less debt than the governments before or since them, despite bailing out the banks. I’d say that’s pretty remarkable, and something to aim for achieving again.

However, at the last election, perhaps because of Brexit and this ideological purism – we (on the progressive left) didn’t manage to instill hope for positive change in the people of Great Britain, or to challenge the vacuous headline of “get Brexit done”. The election results were depressing but felt somewhat inevitable. As frustrating as it is that we have a government the majority of the population didn’t vote for, giving us a hard brexit that the majority of people don’t want, whilst we watch the world polarise and allow neo-fascist populists to rise, there are some tiny silver linings: The Tories have to work out how to do Brexit and will be responsible for the consequences and, hopefully, the Brexit party are gone.

I think this time around we need to pick someone who stands for all the right values, but has been able to articulate them in a way that has made real traction and can engage a much wider range of people. As much as I’d like that to be a woman, ideally from the north of England, supported by someone with a differing ethnic or cultural background, from the line-up on offer, I think Keir Starmer is the right person for the job. He’s spent his whole career knowing, following and effectively challenging the rules and processes of the legal system for the benefit of ordinary people, including challenging corporations and government policies and holding them to account. And he has done so without seeking personal glory, or making a reputation as a troublemaker. Whilst I really like Jess Phillips, I think she is too marmite to gain mass support and bring the country back together. Emily Thornberry seems nice, but very much a part of the north London bubble, and I don’t think the other candidates have the public profile or despatch box clout of Starmer,and we will at least get Angela Rayner as deputy leader.

Picking yet another white man from London for a political leadership role feels frustrating, as it plays into all the stereotypes of what a leader looks like. But I’m prepared to make compromise to get greater influence for progressive policies that will make the biggest impact on diversity in the long term. Plus we can only choose the most credible candidate standing. And for me that’s Keir Starmer. Hopefully he can bring the party together, tackle the scourge of antisemitism, and speak out in a way that appeals to a much wider demographic and geographic population than his predecessor.

I sincerely believe that if we all work together to encourage compromise and collaboration hopefully a more effective opposition can rise from the ashes that is more willing to be welcoming to a broad range of voters and more able to articulate how the current government continues to benefit the richest few at the cost of the rest of us, and particularly the most vulnerable in society. We need to show that the choices that Johnson and his remarkably homogeneous new pack of white male cronies are making are directly responsible for harming the welfare of large numbers of Brits. Current Conservative MPs being only 24% women and 6% BME is pathetic, and the greater diversity of candidates on the left should bring us a plurality of ideas and allow us to appeal to a wider demographic and opinion range amongst voters, if we get out of the silo mentality.

But more than that, we need to take on the issues. We need to campaign for environmental action nationally and internationally, strengthening of the legal system, an end to racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia and discrimination, and the important task of electoral reform, so that we don’t end up with scumbags in power or people who lose elections being given cabinet roles via the House of Lords. And we need to grasp the nettle with proper regulation of social media as a publisher. But they will only take action if enough of us insist on it. As I said earlier, the million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, and to find common ground. I’ll end with the wise words of Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. So let’s act like it!

16/2/2020: Lisa Nandy just made a really good speech about anti semitism that has really raised my opinion of her, so maybe there is a woman from the north that can do the job after all!

The rise of the bad guy

Trigger warning: first two paragraphs mention paedophiles, middle section is about racism and sexism, later content is political

The first time I met a paedophile I had no idea. He didn’t wear white towelling socks that showed below his slightly-too-short trousers, he didn’t wear a dirty trench coat, and he wasn’t a socially awkward man with greasy hair, unflattering glasses and a slight squint. Quite the contrary. He was a well-groomed, educated, articulate, middle-class man. He attended appointments to express concern about his grandchildren, and appeared supportive to his children in trying to sort out their problems. He was polite to professionals, and always thanked us for our time and expertise. I later found out that he had sexually and physically abused several members of the family. Looking back, our only clue (beyond the fact the children referred to us were evidently troubled and failing to thrive) was that the receptionist in one clinic said that she didn’t like the way he spoke to his wife in the waiting room, saying “I wouldn’t talk to a dog that way”. But we didn’t know how you could appropriately record that in the notes, given only the children were open to the service. So we didn’t record it.

The next time I met a paedophile he didn’t fit my stereotype of a creep or bad guy either. In fact, he tried to be my friend and find areas of common ground. If I hadn’t met him in my professional capacity and known of his conviction in advance, but instead had met him socially under different circumstances, I suspect we would have found some. Perhaps we would have had a pleasant conversation about politics, video games or running internet forums, and I’d have left thinking he seemed like a nice person. He was young, outgoing and wore a colourful T-shirt referencing a slightly crude meme. He was charismatic, informal and irreverent, and he flirted with the admin staff. However, I might have picked up on something when I found out his partner’s IQ was more than 60 points lower than his, that she had a serious trauma history, and they had met on a dating app for single parents where his profile bragged of how much he loved children. But I doubt his attraction to vulnerable single mothers is something apparent to most people that meet him, at least until they know him well.

The opposite face of this coin, where people assume they can judge a person’s character accurately from superficial appearances, almost certainly contributes to a lot of prejudice and discrimination. So many people from specific population groups are assumed to be aggressive, untrustworthy, or unacceptably different because of their culture or religion – but whether people experience these prejudices or not doesn’t reflect their behaviour or beliefs (or even whether they actually belong to the assumed demographic). Think of the prejudice about gypsies and travellers, or Muslims, or young black men, for example. Likewise the stereotypes about gender, or age. As I mentioned in another blog post, women in the public eye get judged for how well they conform to societal expectations of women – to look decorative at all times, to not be perceived as “aggressive” and to look after others. Any emotional expression is seen as a weakness compared to the perceived standard of cold logic that is perceived as more masculine and therefore preferable. There is a whole lexicon of words used to put women down when they step up to the plate.

Again, most of us are blind to our prejudices and we are also blind to our privilege. We assume an equal playing field when we congratulate ourselves for our achievements, and we don’t see the constant attrition that marks facing prejudice that contextualises individual incidents. This forum conversation (from post by mr0860 near the bottom of page 2 onwards), this twitter thread and this twitter thread show exactly what happens when the recipient flags sexism or racism, but those in the audience who have not experienced it do not pick up the same cues. You end up with a split between those who think it is legitimate behaviour/debate and those who are fed up with it (the recipients of the behaviour). The former group are disproportionately white men who have never been on the receiving end of the issue they cast doubt on. In fact they often haven’t even witnessed the issue first hand, giving them the false impression that it is rare, due to the false belief we all hold to some extent that our own experience is universal. The latter group are then branded as over-sensitive snowflakes stifling debate (though ironically it is those bandying those terms about who cry the loudest if they feel they are being criticised or their voice isn’t being given enough credit, see Stephen Yaxley Lennon or Milo Yiannopoulos).

Meghan Markle has been a particular victim of this pattern, as a mixed race woman that has used her platform to speak up for feminism and against racism and inequality, so it is no surprise that the vested interests of the British tabloid press dislike her and want to put her in her place. Yet there are still those who claim it isn’t racism, or that she brought the problems on herself in some way. In this brilliant clip Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu calls it out perfectly. The emotional labour of explaining or performing inequality is exhausting, and falls disproportionately on those who are subject to the prejudice in the first place, who already have additional burdens to carry.

My point is that we all make assumptions about other people, and often we aren’t as good as we think we are at picking out people’s true character from their appearance or what we get to see of them before we know them well. In fact sometimes we can know people very well and still miss huge facets of them, as is often evident in the terrible guilt and grief post-mortem when someone dies by suicide. The same thing might also contribute to why people enter relationships with partners who later become abusive toward them. Yet we are often blind to what we don’t know – I had someone on twitter recently claim to be certain that nobody in her extended network of over 100 friends and family members has ever experienced mental health problems. Statistically that’s as probable as a lottery win on a day you get struck by lightning, unless her family deviates very far from the rest of the world population in some way.

That isn’t to say there aren’t horrible people who are outwardly and obviously bad. There are. And I’ve met plenty of them, both personally and professionally. But I don’t think we can always pick them out from a line-up. And even when we can, it doesn’t seem to always hold them back. After all, we’ve had some very popular and powerful men come to light after many years of sexually abusing people on a massive scale (eg Weinstein, Epstein, Savile). There are also more than a few repugnant men in prominent political positions at the moment. Somehow being a division-stoking, lying, philanderer who will take whatever political position is expedient to him or his far-right paymasters, or a hate-mongering, tax-dodging, cheating, sex-pest who has asked foreign powers to interfere in his country’s elections hasn’t blocked two rich, overweight, blond men from some of the most powerful offices of power in the world. Far from it. Instead of their moral character being a barrier to office it is a selling point. Rather than denying or attempting to mask their true nature, they have started to double down in the knowledge that it isn’t reducing their popularity. Perhaps their carefully constructed persona of being harmlessly dim keeps them filed under ‘amusing oaf’ rather than ‘dangerous autocrat’. It is clear that their simplistic slogans have appealed to populations fed up of being ignored or talked down to, and made them seem more down to earth, whilst their decisions (no matter how hypocritical or founded on lies) make them seem like men of action.

I can’t be the only person that finds this incredibly frustrating. Surely we need to value truth and honour and block bad people from power? We need to stop it being amusing or acceptable to lie, express prejudice, exploit others, or to foment hatred of vulnerable people, and that means challenging the way that this is reported. Critical in this is the regulation of social media, and the support of journalism that is ethical and independent, rather than being reliant on social media, misleading narratives from biased sources and badly checked hearsay that spreads more rapidly and widely than the corrections that follow. I’m with Carole Cadwalladr that this is key to helping the public understand the truth about key issues and allowing democracy to function. If everyone who wanted progressive values to stand a chance in the world boycotted Facebook and lobbied for better regulation, their advertising revenue would fall and their business model would have to change. The million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, even if this means we have to find alternate ways to journal and share our lives with our networks*. Otherwise the bad people might tighten their hold on power and lead us in increasingly worrying directions.

 

*If that feels too much of a step, then I’d recommend you take three simple areas:
  1. Increase your privacy. On Facebook change your name and set your privacy settings higher so little or no information is public. Be wary of services with poor privacy and data protection.
  2. Be more data savvy. Watch The Big Hack. Be aware of what data you are giving way. Be mindful of what data your mobile phone and/or internet browser is collecting and what “personalisation” of advertising you are allowing, read what you are consenting to in the user agreement for apps and software
  3. Install apps that block advertising and show who is funding the adverts you do see. I use FB Purity and Who Targets Me?

Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

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

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.

Video games and violence

The relationship between playing video games and violent behaviour isn’t as black and white as most people assume. There is neither the causal evidence that would support the tabloid alarmist headlines that blame Mass Effect, Call of Duty or World of Warcraft for mass shootings nor the evidence that video games are entirely benign.

We know from research that trauma has a significant and lasting impact on the brain, a pattern widely accepted across numerous studies. For those who have already been traumatised and/or have maladaptive social skills, that increase in arousal sensitises the brain to further threat. It also makes them more likely to respond with anger or fear to a neutral stimulus, perceiving it as a threat. We also know from research that when the threat sensor in the the brain is activated (the amygdala and limbic system) the prefrontal cortex pretty much goes off-line until the threat is resolved. That significantly reduces the person’s capacity for empathy, complex reasoning, social skills and ability to be aware of the impact of your own behaviour on others. This effect is amplified where there is an absence of healthy real life relationships and/or physical exercise (which produce oxytocin, and help to mediate cortisol and adrenaline). And of course we know that people who have raised arousal levels deliberately seek out experiences that match or use that level of arousal, so they are often much more interested in violence and gore than their peers.

That’s all well established neuroscience. We also know that these brain changes can be perpetuated by exposure to violence or the representations of violence in our daily lives or the media we consume. Exposure to violence is an unseen public health epidemic. We also know that this pattern of being over-sensitised to threat and in a heightened state of physiological arousal gets ‘stuck’ for a proportion of maltreated children, particularly where there is an absence of secure attachment figures, and that ‘acting out’ with violence in this group is much more common. The neurological basis for moral reasoning and antisocial behaviour implicate similar brain regionsSimilar areas are also implicated in violent behaviour when this is related to a lesion, dementia or atrophy.

Having reviewed the evidence, I think it is clear that video games do not in themselves cause violence. But playing violent video games increases physiological arousal levels (readiness for fight or flight) just as we know is the case for exposure to real life conflict such as domestic violence within the family. This can create a lasting effect which shows in MRI scans. But the effect is quite specific. We know that MRI studies show differences in the brain when people play violent video games but not when the video games do not involve aggression. We also know that it is dependent on the social acceptability of the behaviours chosen in the game.

It seems likely that watching films or TV can similarly cause an increase in physiological arousal, but this would only be the case with a high level of violence/action/drama, something which is not normally sustained for hours upon end the way it can be in some video games. Also, video games are more immersive because they are interactive, and I suspect you don’t become as habituated to them because of the fact that there is variation on every presentation of the stimulus, whereas rewatching the same film gets dull and predictable and no longer gives us that visceral response. Thus I think that it is reasonable to consider violent video games as a particularly concentrated form of this stimulus.

It seems from the meta-analysis that a small scale shift towards higher readiness for fight or flight and lower empathy/insight/reasoning is happening all over the place amongst people who play a large volume of violent video games with the result of small but measureable increases in the risk of aggressive behaviour. I’d extrapolate from this to what is currently happening with the threats and harrassments towards women and minorities in the gaming space, to suggest that this combination of lack of nurture and exposure to violent material may be contributing to the lack of empathy and insight into the impact of their behaviour amongst people involved. But I suspect that the impact of video game play on real life aggressive behaviour is only a significant issue at the individual level where this is combined with the presence of trauma and/or the absence of nurture. After all, the move from enacting violence in a video game to doing so over social media is much smaller than the move to take actions outside of home technology where you can see the impact on the recipient.

It is only in the extreme examples, where you combine violent video game use with people with horrendous histories, a lack of secure attachment relationships and/or who have entrenched extreme views (eg about women), nothing else in their lives to constrain them, an echo-chamber of harmful views including incitement to violence, and perhaps mental health problems on top that the mixture becomes truly toxic. Amongst this group a small proportion take the threat-talk that is so prolific online and in video game spaces into horrific real life actions.

I can’t see that being so different to the proposed mechanism for lots of other phenomena. As with the relationship between cannabis use and psychosis, or alcohol consumption and suicide, the former is something most people consume without harm so it cannot be causal in isolation, but for a much smaller number of  people with increased vulnerability (genetic, epigenetic or experiential) it can be a contributory factor towards a more negative outcome.

The battle isn’t won yet: Why feminism still matters and is relevant to everyone

It is easy for me to be complacent about equal opportunities. I’ve never personally been held back by discrimination. I mean, I’ve had people think it is their right to comment about my appearance, and I’ve even had a few individuals who have bordered on stalking because of my internet presence, and my gender has certainly been a factor in that, but I’ve never not been able to do anything because I’m a women. Likewise, although I’m a second generation immigrant and my heritage is from a cultural minority, I’ve grown up as a white British atheist and have never experienced discrimination (even if there have been occasional incorrect assumptions about my religion or politics). I’ve had a broad social network, but I’ve never witnessed my friends or colleagues experience overt discrimination either.

I’ve always seen gender stereotypes as something of a challenge, in fact. I was one of three female students who did A-level physics, compared to about 50 males, and got good marks in maths and hard sciences before I went into psychology. As a student I bought a Haynes Manual and replaced the starter motor of my Vauxhall Astra along with an oil and filter change, because I couldn’t afford the quote from the garage. Likewise I have learnt all about the construction of houses, and was involved in the design and manual labour of various home improvements. I’ve been an early adopter of technology and a fan of video games as an emergent art form. And now I lift big weights at the gym, defying the gender pressure to lose fat through cardio rather than build muscle. I’ve encouraged my daughters to be brave and strong as well as kind, and to want more to the story than for the main character to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

So from my position of relative privilege it is hard not to assume that the battle for equal opportunities has already been won. However, as soon as I look a little more broadly at the world this is clearly not the case. So many different examples illustrate how my experience is the exception rather than the rule.

In the UK women on average earn 21% less than men per hour. This is the case in most of the developed world and the disparity is much worse in less developed nations. Although there has been significant progress over the last 50 years to reducing this disparity, economists admit the gender gap in wages is likely to take at least the next 100 years to close. Even in the most conservative figures, when all the variables that affect wages, such as lower experience due to career breaks and lower levels of qualifications for some population groups are taken into account, women still earn 5-10% less when equivalently skilled and doing equivalent work. In the most senior roles there are far fewer women, and those that are present earn substantially lower salaries. The earnings gap is larger as people get older, and in the higher earning percentiles of the population, suggesting that choosing to care for children does sacrifice status and earnings for the remainder of the woman’s career. These are figures I find appalling.

Thankfully there are movements and books containing advice about how to counter this effect. Cheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In” movement encourages women to take a seat at the table where big decisions are being made in big companies. The excellent “Give and Take” by Adam Grant advises people who are natural givers to advocate for their dependents when making decisions and entering salary negotiations, if they are not assertive/demanding enough when arguing for themselves. And many women and men are advocating helpfully for the value that women bring to senior positions.

In psychology and therapy professions we hit another facet of gender politics, with the dominance of women in the workforce reflecting the idea that empathy and caring are perceived by much of the public as feminine qualities. This message that facts are the male domain and feelings are the female domain is seen to be natural and innate, because of the typical division in gender roles between hunter and home maker in the origins of our species. However, since industrialisation and the invention of effective contraception, these roles seem to be transmitted more as a story based on past experience than in terms of reflecting the current reality (in which we can purchase food by selling other skills, and few of us would be very good at hunting or gathering our own food if this involved strenuous physical activity). After all, women being naturally suited to be the home-maker was ‘true’ in a time that it was also ‘true’ that the earth was flat, bathing frequently would have been seen as a wasteful fad, nobody understood the connection between hygiene/sanitation and disease, and very few people stayed alive beyond their 40s.

I believe that providing attachment relationships is probably the single most important job in society. That quality of caring about another person, and holding them in mind is essential for each of us to be happy. It is a powerful gift, whether in terms of parenting, friendship or a therapy relationship. However, I have seen no evidence that efficacy in this role is determined by gender. It may be true that in general women have slightly better ‘folk psychology’ and men have slightly better ‘folk physics’, as Simon Baron-Cohen’s research has shown, but apart from the head start that pregnancy and breast-feeding give to mothers, there is a paucity of evidence that the gender of parent who takes the primary carer role affects outcomes for children. Certainly, women feel more guilt about returning to work or choosing not to be the primary carer, but does that reflect a genuine concern about attachment security or the projections of a society where a women is supposed to ‘have it all’ in the form of balancing work, parenting and their own identity, having gained expectations of being an equal provider whilst not having handed over equal expectations of looking after home and family.

By devaluing caring and empathy for men, we lose a significant proportion of the potential workforce for psychological therapies. Those that remain often have less traditionally masculine qualities than are typical for males (whilst women who gain places in clinical psychology typically have more of the ‘masculine’ qualities of assertiveness, ambition and intelligence than are typical of their gender). We also make it unacceptable for boys and men to express their feelings openly, or to seek help for emotional problems without shame. And of course there is the wider issue of devaluing homosexuality, and through association any gentler or more feminine traits in men (for example with the playground taunt of “gay” for disliked characteristics or outcomes). This leads to lower uptake of psychological therapies or treatments for mental health problems, along with greater rates of completed suicide in young men.

More recently social media has provided a new means of networking which have been widely taken up, especially by young people. Mobile phones, text, Facebook, Twitter, chatrooms, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, forums, multi-player gaming and video chat have allowed people to find those with similar interests and to communicate in new ways, but have also been media in which new forms of bullying and harassment have emerged, along with pockets of rampant prejudice including misogyny. In these contexts sexism, racism and discrimination has emerged in new forms, and some media are better at moderating this than others. Online video gaming spaces, Facebook and Twitter in particular have proved to be free playgrounds for “trolls” (those who gain enjoyment by harassing others online) due to their lack of willingness to intervene about abusive content.

There have been remarkably sad examples of what happens when such media allows the predatory minority to find vulnerable targets, such as the tragic story of Amanda Todd, the teenage girl who was encouraged to flash over webcam and then blackmailed with these images by an adult man until the point she committed suicide. There was also the disturbing video manifesto of Elliot Rodgers, a college student who killed 6 and injured 13 before committing suicide due to the perceived injustice of him not being as attractive to girls as he felt he deserved to be.

In amongst the array of content on the internet a subculture has developed that is profoundly sexist and has disturbing ideas about how to “play the game” in ways that “put women in their place”. Some of the members identify as Pick-Up Artists (PUAs) or Mens Rights Activists (MRAs), but the idea that women now hold too much power, and that men have seized upon feminist and progressive thinking to impress women, seems to be a common strand. There is great anger from members of these groups against men who speak up for women’s issues or social issues more broadly, who are often disparagingly labelled “White Knights” or “Social Justice Warriors” (terms which are intended as insults, despite sounding pretty awesome). Many women have learned to use gender-neutral names on social media, and not to speak when playing multi-player online video games, rather than to risk the onslaught of comments, which range from “get back in the kitchen” to violent threats of rape and murder of them and their loved ones (especially when defeated by the superior skill of a female player).

The latest iteration of this undercurrent has been the harassment of women who have highlighted the sexist tropes within video games, or otherwise become a figurehead of progressive thinking within that culture. Anita Sarkeesian’s highly accessible video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” has been a focal point. When her Kickstarter attracted death threats, harassments and attempts to discredit and silence her the community spoke out by massively over-funding her project and giving it a much bigger audience. However, she has continued to be subject to a variety of death and rape threats for merely casting a light on the fact that a small percentage of the content of many popular video games is a set of tired old tropes in which women are the decoration, damsel to be rescued, or die as motivation for the hero’s vengeance, rather than the protagonist of the story. Likewise a bitter ex-boyfriend’s rant about female developer Zoe Quinn led her to be a target of harassment (with a thin veneer of concern about ethics in games journalism that was not evidenced by similar hounding of the journalists who were wrongly alleged to have given favourable write-ups of her work due to personal relationships with her) and games writer Brianna Wu, for writing an article saying that the old stereotype of a gamer has been superseded by a much wider demographic (perceived as a “death threat” to “true gamers”). In each example, the profound sexism of the antagonists is evident, and the impact on the target has included them needing to move out of their homes due to the severity of threats to their safety, after their identifying information has been discovered and released into the public domain (a harassment tactic know as doxxing).

So whilst I observe from the safe space of being a successful female professional, who to date has had very limited personal experience of sexism, I am reminded that feminism is far from being a battle that has already been won, and equality is far from ubiquitous in the hearts and minds of the whole population. The internet has always been a great leveller, by forcing us to judge people on their words and not on their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or any other aspect of their physical self, and I think that is an amazing thing and as close to a meritocracy as we will ever experience. So I am saddened by the resurgence of such hate and vitriol into places where these variables shouldn’t even be relevant, and that there are now seemingly topics about which women cannot write without fear of a personal backlash. It shames me that I have a little bit of fear about the repercussions each time I express an opinion online through this blog, or twitter or my forays towards podcasts/videos. We all need to do our little bit to change this, to speak up for equality and against harassment, and to reclaim those spaces in which prejudice is showing – for the benefit of everyone.