Dismiss it at your peril: obesity is a serious problem, especially for women

Tackling the subject is difficult enough without the media’s absurd claims that belittle the seriousness of the health risk

Independent on Sunday, 13 December 2015

Obesity is as dangerous as terrorism: it’s an extraordinary claim, as a number of news reports rushed to point out. Did the country’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, really say it? The answer is that she didn’t, not in so many words, but anyone who skimmed last week’s headlines would be left with the impression that the Government’s leading health adviser had said something really quite preposterous.

Despite the use of quotation marks, the comparison was actually an inference, drawn from a 162-page analysis of risks to women’s health. In her introduction, Davies suggested that obesity should be added to a register of national risks that includes severe weather, coastal flooding, flu pandemics and various kinds of terrorist attacks. So the headlines could have said that obesity poses as much risk to human health as floods or animal diseases, which are also on the list. But that would be nowhere as attention-grabbing – or as easy to ridicule.

This is how the anti-science lobby works. It dismisses any attempt to help people understand their bodies and reduce damage to their health – by giving up smoking, say – as interference by the “nanny state”. It’s tragically effective, as evidenced by the very long time it took to persuade people to give up a habit that was killing half of them (too late for my parents, who started smoking as teenagers and both died of lung cancer).

Any day now I expect to read a blog arguing that being obese is the “new normal” and we shouldn’t worry about it. And I wasn’t surprised to see Davies’s “extraordinary claim” about obesity and terrorism, which she didn’t actually make as far as I can see, denounced as hyperbole. One hostile writer even went off into a fantasy in which Davies’s defenders “might argue that obesity has killed more people than Islamic State”, adding helpfully that “beheadings and bombings exist in a different moral universe to high blood pressure and diabetes”.

I was reminded of a headline that appeared in Newsweek a few years ago, predicting that a 40-year-old single woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. Twenty years later (yes, it took that long), the magazine published a retraction, acknowledging that the terrorist line didn’t appear in the academic study that prompted the headline. I’m not sure what lies behind this impulse to drag belittling references to terrorism into stories about women’s lives but it certainly doesn’t encourage serious discussion. Perhaps there’s now an unwritten rule that every story has to mention the Paris attacks in some way, but the inaccurate Newsweek headline went on being repeated in the media for years. I fear that the obesity-terrorism link will do something similar.

Anyway, while much of the reaction to Davies’s report was predictable, that doesn’t excuse it. The same people who complain about political correctness and its even more evil cousin, “political correctness gone mad”, react with outrage whenever someone points out the obvious fact that obesity is destroying individual health, shortening lives and putting a huge strain on the NHS. In particular, it is having specific effects on women of child-bearing age and future generations.

These are not marginal concerns at a time when just over half of women in the 25 to 34 age group are overweight or obese. The statistics for men are even worse but two factors, pregnancy and longevity (women live longer and thus spend more time suffering from the debilitating effects of being overweight), explain why this latest reports focuses on the impact on the female half of the population.

Women’s weight is a western obsession and a huge industry is based on it, offering any number of slimming products and wonder diets. It’s remarkable ineffective, judging by the statistics, producing a great deal more in the way of anxiety than weight loss. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that women are encouraged to obsess about looking slim rather than the health benefits of losing weight. That’s the shift Davies is trying to make and she knows perfectly well that her report is going into territory that’s troublesome for many women. “This is a difficult message to convey,” she says, “as it risks burdening women with guilt and onerous responsibility.”

What women need to know is that obesity makes it harder to get pregnant and raises the risk of miscarriage, while early embryos of obese mothers show an increased incidence of developmental abnormalities. Obesity even affects the eggs of the foetus, so that a woman’s health during pregnancy has an impact on her children and grandchildren. How many young women are aware of that?

One day last week I got on to a Tube train at the same time as a group of women in their twenties. One of them was wearing a security pass, which is how I know she is a care assistant. She talked about her job enthusiastically to her friends but the most striking thing about her was her weight; this young woman, who had chosen a difficult and poorly paid occupation looking after vulnerable people, was massively obese. I couldn’t imagine how she managed to cope with the physical demands of her job without getting out of breath and putting a strain on her heart.

It’s little short of tragic to see even quite young women struggling to live with the effects of obesity. The United Nations has called the UK the “fat man of Europe” but it’s high time the Government looked closely at the health of the other 51 per cent of the population.

 

When ageism meets sexism: a toxic combination

You don’t have to live on the Moon for ageing to be miserable, but women are treated with a lack of respect verging on cruelty 

Independent on Sunday, 6 December 2015

I’ve never actually seen this headline but I can easily imagine it on a magazine cover: “Getting old: is it a poor lifestyle choice?”. The fact that ageing is inevitable– the alternative being even less appealing, of course – is barely acknowledged in our youth-obsessed culture. People are living a lot longer, getting to ages beyond the reach of all but the most favoured individuals for most of recorded history. But it hasn’t been accompanied by a revolution in how we think about the elderly.

This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, made in association with Age UK, features a lonely old man living on the Moon. A German supermarket chain has come up with something a great deal starker; it’s the story of an elderly man, sick of being on his own at Christmas, who fakes his own death to trick his adult children into visiting. Too many elderly people are on their own at Christmas but I’m not sure whether such adverts have useful practical effects or confirm fears about getting older.

I was reminded of all this last week when I read about a court case involving a middle-aged woman who insisted on the right to refuse life-saving treatment. The woman, referred to only as C, died last weekend at the age of 50 after refusing to undergo kidney dialysis because she didn’t want to become “poor, ugly or old”. C was absolutely clear that she didn’t want treatment, prompting the NHS trust which was looking after her to seek a court ruling last month.

Her doctors argued that she had a “dysfunction of the mind” which rendered her unable to make decisions about treatment, but a judge ruled in her favour. He acknowledged that many people would be horrified by C’s decision but said she was “sovereign” in respect of her own body and mind. More controversially, he offered a character sketch of C as someone who had “led a life characterised by impulsive and self-centred decision-making without guilt or regret”.

The judge said she had had four husbands and a number of affairs, had spent money recklessly and been “an entirely reluctant and at times completely indifferent mother” to her three daughters. Then came the most eye-catching part of this unflattering portrait: “It is clear that during her life C has placed a significant premium on youth and beauty and on living a life that, in C’s words, ‘sparkles’.” Naturally this phrase made headlines while one of the most significant facts – that C had damaged her kidneys in a failed suicide attempt after being diagnosed with breast cancer – was relegated almost to an aside.

I’m still not sure whether this distressing case is about someone who didn’t want to get old or an extreme reaction to the prospect of having to undergo treatment for cancer. And it took me a while to work out why the judge’s remarks, which came down on the side of C’s right to make her own decision, are so troubling. It’s partly because they characterise C as a narcissist without any reference to the culture that encourages such behaviour, but it isn’t just that. Some of the things we fear about living into our 70s and 80s – being short of money and on the receiving end of poor medical care – have some basis in reality. Two of my elderly female relatives have been misdiagnosed after falls; in one case doctors missed a broken wrist and in the other, astonishingly, a broken neck.

The best-selling feminist author Erica Jong has just published a rather messy novel, Fear of Dying, which is as much about fear of getting older as it is about death. Her heroine, who has dying parents and a sick husband, is frank about her yearning for youth: “I hate, hate, hate getting older.” The novel unintentionally exposes the fantasies of a generation of wealthy, successful women who have no means of dealing with something they never expected to happen to them: “We thought we would get better and better forever.”

You might object, at his point, that fear of getting older isn’t specific to women. Men have anxieties about loneliness and ill health as well, but I think there are two circumstances which bear particularly heavily on the female half of the human race. While men are living longer, homes for the elderly are overwhelmingly populated by women who are now in their 80s and 90s; they grew up at a time when men were still valued more than women, a fact that has a powerful if unconscious impact on how we view older people. The other is that ageing women – a phrase often used as an insult – are treated with a lack of respect that verges on cruelty, as the following comparison illustrates.

Hillary Clinton is 68. She’s a hugely experienced political operator, a former Secretary of State in Barack Obama’s government, and is making her second bid to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. It’s prompted a slew of articles asking whether she’s too old for the job; someone has even posted a montage of photographs online, inviting viewers to “watch Hillary Clinton age 50 years in just over a minute”.

Jeremy Corbyn is only two years younger than Clinton. He will be 71 at the time of the next general election, but his age isn’t an issue. Here’s The Daily Telegraph, no fan of the Labour leader, making the point: “It is Jeremy Corbyn’s age that makes him seem fresh.” When will I ever read a sentence like that about an older woman?

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour must get rid of this talentless cheerleader for outmoded 1970s thinking

He should be replaced before he does any more damage to the party

Independent on Sunday, 29 November 2015

Imagine a pub band that’s been slogging round the country since the 1970s, playing the same old songs in back rooms. No one expects them to make the big time, not even members of the band, but then something extraordinary happens. By some fluke – mainly because everyone has got fed up with manufactured boy bands – they have a hit single. That’s when the trouble starts.

This is roughly where the Labour Party stands under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Nostalgia can only take you so far and his back catalogue has already moved from unfamiliar and charming, if a bit rough round the edges, to bizarre and alarming. What those of us with a long-standing interest in Labour politics knew before he was elected – that Corbyn is a man with positions, not policies – becomes more obvious by the day.

I remember the damage a previous generation of hard-left politicians inflicted on the Labour Party, creating divisions that took years to heal. Corbyn’s lack of support among Labour MPs is regarded by his supporters as a badge of honour but it’s more plausibly a product of two things: one is a horrified awareness of how ineptly he handles disagreements, forcing him into a series of ‘clarifications’ which suggest he has no media strategy; the other is the fact that he hasn’t changed his mind on anything important since the 1970s.

None of that affects his core support, which is grounded in hostility to professional politicians (although that, ironically, is what Corbyn is) and unaffected by rational argument. Some of his supporters are sentimental and self-righteous by turns, demanding all kinds of things – free speech and the right to attack opponents – they don’t want to share with anyone else. If you disagree with “Jeremy” you must be a Blairite or a Tory, insults designed to marginalise the soft left who are his most dangerous opponents.

As so often, I can’t help wondering what Robin Cook would make of all this. Cook was neither a pacifist nor a “war-monger”, constantly interrogating his own politics in the light of events. Like many of us on the left, he took the idea of universal human rights as his starting-point, supporting British intervention in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone but not the invasion of Iraq.

Cook was thoughtful and consistent in a good way, which isn’t something you can say about Corbyn. He is critical of Saudi Arabia, a view many of us share, but he doesn’t employ the same strictures towards Iran. That country is governed by a nasty theocracy which tortures opponents and uses the death penalty even more enthusiastically than the Saudis; according to some estimates, it’s on course to execute 1,000 people this year alone.

Corbyn visited Iran last year, arguing afterwards in the Morning Star that sanctions have been ineffective, but it’s his remarks on human rights abuses that deserve close attention: “When we raised this subject, both with Iranian all-party parliamentary groups and government ministers, they were concerned about double standards on human rights and pointed out, quite correctly, [that] the US torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and atrocities in Iraq were also human rights violations which must be condemned.” I don’t think you have to be an intellectual colossus to point out that none of this excuses hanging gay men from cranes or sentencing women to death by stoning.

A leader of the opposition needs to think quickly, but Corbyn doesn’t do that either. After the terrorist attacks on Paris, a savvy politician would have foreseen a question about Labour views on shoot-to-kill. Corbyn evidently didn’t, having to rummage around in his filing cabinet again: “Hang on, I’m sure I had a position on that. Ah yes, here it is, filed next to Bloody Sunday.” And so he responded in the context of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when he was actually being asked what he would do if Islamist suicide bombers opened fire in a coffee bar in Manchester. Try explaining that on the doorstep in the Oldham West by-election.

No wonder so many Labour MPs are incredulous and angry. Corbyn is conducting politics as though he’s addressing his mates in the upstairs room of a pub, with no tough questions allowed and no need to link his statements to policy. The people around him are no better, reviving outdated ideas about the commercial sex industry that appal feminists in the party; the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and indeed Corbyn himself, have opposed attempts by female colleagues to criminalise men who pay to use women’s bodies. Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister who last year proposed an amendment on these lines to the Modern Slavery Bill, was one of the first MPs to say publicly that Corbyn’s leadership is unsustainable.

All of this has come to a head over Syria, which is not at all surprising, given Corbyn’s close involvement with the Stop the War Coalition. That’s “stop the war” in a generic sense, which hardly suggests he has an open mind about situations in which the use of military force might be necessary. It fatally weakened Corbyn’s authority last week when he asked the Prime Minister whether an air campaign could be successful without ground troops, Does anyone seriously imagine that Corbyn would support putting British soldiers into Syria?

It takes a special kind of political incompetence to turn a debate about something as serious as extending British military action in the Middle East into a melodrama about the Labour Party. Personally, I can’t wait for this talentless 1970s tribute band to return to the obscurity it so richly deserves.

 

Child sex abuse in Britain is worse than we ever thought. What now?

Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2015

Child abuse has seldom been out of the headlines in the last few years. Even so, the latest official estimate of the extent of the problem is alarming, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of cases are going unreported. Only one in eight comes to the notice of the authorities, according to a new report, and the true number could be 400,000 in the last couple of years alone.

The report is from Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, and is based on research showing that a huge amount of abuse takes place in the home, behind closed doors. The idea that relatives and family friends pose more of a danger than strangers may be hard for many people to accept, especially in view of the publicity attracted by cases such as the abduction of Madeleine McCann. But such events are the exception, as experts in the field have pointed out for years.

Some people feel an instinctive revulsion to the suggestion that so many children are at risk from people who are known to them. Any politician who dares to suggest that education about healthy relationships should begin in primary school will get a furious reaction: ‘Sex lessons for five-year-olds’ is a headline guaranteed to produce scorn and outrage. But denial about the extent of the problem is no more use than the kind of over-reaction that sees abusers everywhere.

Such information may be difficult for us to process as we read the papers over our morning coffee – something that’s true of the news generally at present – but the important thing is to come up with practical rather than emotional responses.If we accept the figure of around 200,000 children being abused each year, it’s something that needs to be analysed to come up with practical changes that can help children at risk. One of the lessons of this report (and others have come to similar conclusions) is that it isn’t good enough to wait for children to tell an adult what is happening.

We know that abusers work hard to win the trust of their victims precisely so they won’t tell a parent or teacher that they’re being abused. Even if a child senses that something is wrong, he or she might feel guilty about confiding in someone else; some children are so young when the abuse starts that they don’t even know the words to describe what’s happening to them. “A system that waits for children to tell them about something cannot be effective,” Longfield says.

It’s not surprising that children aren’t always able to make the distinction between healthy relationships and exploitation, especially when they’ve been ‘groomed’ by a manipulative adult. What’s more shocking is the failure of some adults to recognise abuse on occasions when victims have tried to disclose it. A common factor in the Rotherham and Rochdale scandals, in which vulnerable girls were multiply raped and passed around groups of men, was a failure by professionals to act even when victims reported what was going on.

Anyone who doubts the figures in the latest study should look again at the report of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham by Professor Alexis Jay. She believed that at least 1,400 children had been exploited there between 1997 and 2013, with some of the victims as young as 11. Other English towns have had similar scandals, not on the same scale so far, but it reflects a persistent failure to recognise the systematic nature of child sexual exploitation.

This is just the latest in a series of shocks to the criminal justice system. The staggering extent of Jimmy Savile’s predation on adults and children has changed the way police and prosecutors think about sex crimes, as well as persuading many more victims to come forward. The extent of rape, domestic violence and child abuse has been hidden for years, kept under the radar by a number of factors: shame, fear of not being believed, manipulation by abusers.

All of that’s changed in an incredibly short space of time. It may be hard to listen to survivors’ descriptions of horrendous abuse when they were children but their stories should guide public policy. This is especially important at a time when the police say that easy access to violent pornography on the internet is warping the behaviour of teenage boys, putting children as young as four at risk of sexual abuse.

Panic is never a helpful reaction to emotive subjects. But the realisation that child sexual exploitation is more widespread than most people ever imagined demands a sensible and pragmatic response. This has to start in schools: the argument for warning children about sexual predators from an early age has never been more compelling.

LGBT people in Commonwealth states are still treated as second-class citizens

Gay men are the most frequent targets but the stigma also affects lesbians

Independent on Sunday, 22 November 2015

Astonishingly, some form of “right to matrimonial rape” is still in force in most Commonwealth countries. It exists alongside other archaic laws, many aimed at gay people, which have a draconian effect on intimate relationships. Gay men are the most frequent targets but the stigma affects lesbians as well, even in jurisdictions where sexual relations between women are not specifically prohibited. David Cameron has promised to raise the issue at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Malta next weekend, armed with a report from the Human Dignity Trust on the effects of discriminatory laws on LGBT people.

In the past couple of years, the situation has got worse. India decriminalised same-sex relationships between consenting adults in 2009, but this was reversed by the Supreme Court in 2013. New laws in countries such as Uganda, which last year increased sentences for people found guilty of same-sex relationships, are sometimes used to suggest that prejudice is rooted in local culture. But it’s also a legacy of colonialism, and a legal framework based on traditional English law that treats gay people and women as second-class citizens.

This is rarely acknowledged when right-wing historians talk wistfully about the British empire. Most Commonwealth states retain laws that reflect punitive Victorian (and earlier) attitudes: gay sex is illegal in 40 out of 53 countries, while almost half fail to recognise that men can be raped too.

Think about this country, before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, when gay people had to conceal relationships and live in fear of blackmail; that’s the situation in one Commonwealth country after another. Except that it’s worse: effective HIV education is next to impossible where homosexuality is stigmatised; Commonwealth states account for 30 per cent of the world’s population but have more than 60 per cent of HIV cases.

But change is always possible. In 1988, Tory MPs voted for Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”. Just over 20 years later, Cameron apologised for it, and his government legalised same-sex marriage in 2013. I’m sure the Prime Minister doesn’t want to lecture leaders of Commonwealth countries. But if even the British Tory party has managed to embrace equality, so should they.

 

Paris attacks: terror groups glamorise their brutal violence and give alienated young men a sense of importance

We must set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence

Independent on Sunday, 15 November 2015

The latest massacre in Paris demands a reaction. For most human beings, it is not possible to watch footage of police and passers-by trying to help the wounded without feeling a maelstrom of emotions. Shock, horror and anger are natural responses but after a year of such atrocities, they come with a sickening sense of helplessness.

None of that helps us to think clearly, which is one of the aims of the perpetrators. The spectacle of young men walking into a concert hall with guns, ready to kill as many of the audience as possible, is intended to resonate far beyond those particular walls. It’s happened at least once before, when Chechen terrorists seized a theatre in Moscow in 2002, resulting in the deaths of 130 hostages during a controversial rescue mission. Terrorists don’t even need to come up with original ideas to have the desired effect.

They want us to feel paralysed by fear, but it’s important to bear in mind that we are not the only spectators they have in mind. If claims that Friday’s massacre was planned by Isis turn out to be correct, it looks like a show of defiance after recent setbacks. The struggle between Isis and rival groups affiliated to al-Qaeda is a factor, but there is another audience as well: young men who might follow in the footsteps of Mohammed Emwazi, whose reported death in Raqqa, Syria, from an American drone strike dominated the headlines before the Paris attacks.

It doesn’t seem likely that the two events are connected, given that terrorists need time to train, assemble suicide vests and acquire weapons. But the mindset of the Paris killers and Emwazi appears strikingly similar, requiring the kind of cool analysis that was strikingly absent from much of the discussion of his demise.

There was a cartoonish air to reports that he had been “eviscerated” or “evaporated”, as if he had simply disappeared in a flash of flame. Reports from a Raqqa opposition group suggest that what is going on there is unspeakably horrible, with Isis carrying out public murders (let’s not call them “executions”) close to the spot where Emwazi was targeted. Activists described a grisly scene following the drone strike, with body parts strewn across the street. Do we really want our response to these individuals to be as bloody and horrible as the crimes they have committed?

I’m hugely disturbed by the way in which Emwazi’s grandiose self-mythologising was taken at face value from the moment he began appearing in murder videos in August last year. The flippant nickname “Jihadi John” went on being widely used even after his real identity was revealed in February, despite the fact that it’s painfully at odds with his evident enjoyment of torturing and butchering helpless captives. It was still being used after reports of his death last week, along with vile pictures of him brandishing a bloody knife.

There’s a parallel here with serial killers, who are routinely mythologised (Jack the Ripper, Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer) in British and American popular culture. I remember when football crowds taunted West Yorkshire police with chants of “There’s only one Yorkshire Ripper”, exposing an ambivalent response to men who kill for pleasure.

Ever since the Enlightenment, philosophers, politicians and latterly feminists have struggled with the question of how to deal with extreme violence. The Holocaust provided evidence of the cruelty human beings are capable of in certain circumstances, chief among them being an ideology which removes the restraints that curb sadistic impulses. That is exactly what terrorist organisations such as Isis are doing, using social media to glamorise breathtaking acts of violence. This newspaper took a stand last year against publishing stills from Emwazi’s vile propaganda videos; events have shown it was right to do so.

Islamist terror organisations deliberately encourage young men – some, though not all, with pre-existing psychopathic tendencies – to defy cultural prohibitions on torture, rape and murder. Astonishingly, this process has been almost completely ignored in discussions of previous terrorist attacks, including the one by Cherif and Said Kouachi at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January. Some commentators even appeared to blame the murdered journalists for bringing about their own deaths, failing to recognise the power imbalance between people with pens and people with guns.

Power is at the heart of this phenomenon. For the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are not being committed by young men, and a handful of women, who have grown up under the Middle East’s brutal dictatorships. The perpetrators are often individuals like the Kouachi brothers, who were born in France and appear to have gone off the rails when their mother killed herself. These young men are offered an identity and a sense of importance by extreme Islamist organisations: who would have heard of Emwazi if he hadn’t become Isis’s most ruthless killer?

The Enlightenment taught us that reason, tolerance and critical thinking are the best guides for human behaviour. It is no accident that France, which was the cradle of these ideas, has been attacked twice in one year. So has Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began five years ago. Once we get past anger, reason dictates that we set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence.

The truth about men who watch violent porn – and how dangerous they are to women

Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2015

Another man has joined the growing list of convicted murderers ‘obsessed’ with violent porn. Nathan Matthews, 28, was found guilty yesterday of the brutal murder of his 16-year-old step-sister Becky Watts, whom he suffocated and stabbed after going to her home equipped with stun guns and handcuffs. It’s now emerged that he watched a film entitled ‘virgin teen gets raped in own house’ before attacking her.

Last month, a serious case review into the murder of Georgia Williams, a policeman’s daughter from Telford, highlighted failings by police and social services. Her killer, Jamie Reynolds, 23, had previously tried to strangle a girl in 2008 and went on to kill Georgia in 2013.

Reynolds had been obsessed with hanging, strangulation and necrophilia from the age of 15. His collection included 16,800 pornographic images and 72 videos of sexual violence; he also doctored photos of girls he knew to make them look as though they had been hanged. His step-father told the Justice Liaison Service he had had discovered Reynolds viewing images of women being strangled; he was advised to go to the police but the force failed to act on his report.

Other cases involving violent porn include the murder of Joanna Yeates by Vincent Tabak, who strangled the landscape architect in 2010 while they we living in adjoining flats in a house in Bristol. The murder attracted huge attention and it later emerged that Tabak had violent images on his laptop, including videos of blonde women being strangled. Earlier this year, Tabak admitted four charges of possessing indecent images of children on his computer.

Two other men, Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell, are serving long prison sentences after carrying out lethal attacks on children. Bridger killed five-year-old April Jones in Wales, while Hazell murdered his step-grand-daughter Tia Sharp, aged 12, in south London. Bridger spent a great deal of his time viewing violent porn, including 65 images that met the standard for criminal prosecution. Hazell had a history of viewing paedophile material online and possessed memory cards showing indecent pictures of children and images of bestiality. He also secretly filmed Tia before the murder.

These cases reflect a hugely disturbing trend, which is the apparent ‘normalisation’ of watching extremely violent porn among some groups of men. Thirty years ago, ‘hardcore’ porn consisted of unpleasant magazines and videos that had to be obtained from specialist suppliers, with some risk to both sides. Now it has not only moved online, where teenage boys and adult men are able to access it, but it has become even more graphic and violent

People who associate the word ‘porn’ with Playboy magazine would be shocked to the core if they knew how brutal this stuff is, or how much of it explicitly involves sexual violence. Masses of material is available in categories such as ‘rape porn’, while individuals who want it can find videos showing women being strangled. It is suspected that some of this material is non-consensual, created by traffickers who make porn videos as a side-line to their main business of forced prostitution.

This explosion in violent porn poses challenges for the criminal justice system. Possession of some material, such as pornography involving children, is a criminal offence and the police try to catch consumers through their use of websites and credit cards. Obviously those men should be charged and taken to court, where the publicity may have a deterrent effect, while female friends and partners are at least made aware of a potential risk.

In the past, researchers have been wary of making assumptions about the impact of porn even on frequent users, pointing out the big conundrum: do men become violent after watching porn or are violent men drawn to watching it? In a sense, the change in the type of pornographic material available makes that question redundant, because the link between pornography and violence is now so much more explicit.

Most disturbingly, in all the cases mentioned, there is an undeniable similarity between the videos viewed by the offenders and their crimes. They seem to have progressed from viewing unpleasant material that fed their fantasies to treating it as a kind of rehearsal for the murders they went on to commit.

The notion that watching women being tied up, raped, stabbed and strangled on a regular basis has no impact defies common sense. Men who do this recreationally are not likely to emerge with an enhanced respect for women; aside from the possibility of copycat attacks in real life, the desensitising effect is worrying enough.

That’s why the subject should be addressed in schools, with teenage boys and girls being told that this is not healthy or acceptable behaviour. At the same time, when someone comes to the attention of the police, the regular viewing of violent porn should in itself be regarded as a risk factor.

However liberal we might want to be, it’s hard to deny that an individual who collects stabbing videos might pose a danger to women and girls in his social circle. Porn has changed, and our assumptions need to change with it.

 

Death & the Orgasm

Literary Review, November 2015

Fear of Dying, Erica Jong

The characters in Erica Jong’s new novel are not like the rest of us. They live in spacious apartments in Manhattan and own ski places in Aspen. They go to glitzy parties and sociable AA meetings, and they have cosmetic surgeons on hand to smooth out lines and wrinkles. They share some of the existential anxieties of ordinary people but such a gilded existence makes empathy a bit of a stretch.

In that sense, Erica Jong can’t be accused of going after the sympathy vote. Her protagonist, an actress in her early 60s called Vanessa Wonderman (more of this name later), lives with her fabulously wealthy husband in New York. She has a poodle called Belinda Barkawitz and her best friend is Isadora Wing, heroine of Jong’s best-selling novel Fear of Flying. Vanessa and Isadora resemble their creator to such an extent that multiple Jongs seem to flit through the pages of the book.

These are women whose attitudes to sex were formed in the 1960s and they seem never to have reconsidered them, a circumstance evidenced by Vanessa’s admiration for the Marquis de Sade. When her much older husband starts to have erectile problems, she advertises for sexual partners on a website and treats it as a joke when one of them sends her abusive texts. In a cringe-making passage, she talks blithely about ‘female circumcision’ rather than female genital mutilation: ‘You think female circumcision is bad?’ she demands of an imaginary reader. Vanessa allows that it’s ‘health-destroying and horrible’ but ‘at least women have other things to think about than their pussies’.

It’s hard to imagine an unknown author getting away with such distasteful nonsense, while Vanessa’s throwaway remarks about sex hardly suggest that she will turn out to be a repository of original insights into death. The latter is her real subject, prompted by the demise of her parents and her husband’s near-fatal heart attack during the course of the novel. Even her dog dies, following an illness as protracted as that of her parents.

The problem – and I write as someone who has recently experienced similar losses – is that neither Vanessa nor her creator does anything beyond rail against the human condition. I think Jong is trying to be clear-sighted, describing the physical decline of Vanessa’s parents and her conflicting emotions in harrowing detail, but the tone lurches all over the place. Vanessa’s musings on the afterlife, prompted by witnessing her mother’s final breaths, consist of a series of questions: ‘Can an infinite higher power keep all these individual minds whirring at once? How about the minds of all the people who have ever lived? Is it possible that they are somehow here in the ether, taking up no space, but influencing us?’ No, no and no.

Her artless admissions say a great deal about the unrealistic expectations created by affluence: ‘What was wrong with my generation of women? We thought we would get better and better forever. We thought war and disease would afflict only people on the other side of the world.’ This is not something to be proud of, and such ramblings exist alongside positively excruciating passages about sex. The myth of the G-spot was debunked years ago but Vanessa is a fervent believer, describing her husband’s search for it in rather more detail than seems necessary. (No more ‘wet pussy’, please.)

Her response to all these confrontations with mortality is to have more sex, a solution not universally open to people in their 60s and 70s, but lucky old Vanessa experiences ecstasy after flying to India with her miraculously-recovered spouse. There she visits a deep cave and encounters a huge lingam, ‘the tireless penis of Krishna, with which he had fecundated the world and all its beings’. She isn’t called Wonderman for nothing.

Jong is widely read and she has always tried to be a radical thinker, but this is a truly awful novel. Its lapses into the phallocentric language of the 1960s are unintentionally comic but they sit uncomfortably alongside the reality of modern-day India, where rape culture is a national scandal. In the end, her protagonist has nothing to offer but solipsistic fantasy: ‘How little I knew myself until I descended into the earth in search of my ancestors.’ Even the Indian tourist board would be embarrassed.

Canongate £16.99

 

Let’s stop using ‘humble’ in place of ‘poor’ or ‘working class’

People who know my background have sometimes made the mistake of talking about my humble origins, but they’ve rarely done it twice

Independent on Sunday, 8 November 2015

Some people are born humble, it seems. Not as many as there used to be, I like to think, despite last summer’s revelations about Labour cabinet ministers grovelling (“your most humble and obedient servant”) when they signed letters to the Prince of Wales. This rare instance of self-imposed humility – no one had any idea at the time that the correspondence would one day be made public – is a wondrous thing, especially when it turns up in a political party with a commitment to equality.

Others have humility thrust upon them. The latest recipient of this dubious honour is Labour’s candidate in the Oldham West and Royton by-election, Jim McMahon. I don’t know much about McMahon but he has an impressive CV, including the fact that he leads the Labour group at the Local Government Association. He had only just been chosen to fight the late Michael Meacher’s parliamentary seat last week when a left-leaning newspaper produced this priceless sentence: “Despite his wide experience in local government, he comes from humble beginnings.”

What on earth does this mean? That most people with experience in local government have titles? That they’re usually Old Etonians? I think someone has got confused with the Cabinet, where it is now the norm to be posh, if not to have a title or two lurking among the rellies. The Prime Minister, who is the son-in-law of a baronet, recently fortified his OE credentials by inviting his old school chum Boris Johnson to attend cabinet meetings. But I’ve met literally hundreds of councillors and most of them come from perfectly ordinary (though rarely humble) backgrounds.

In this context, “humble beginnings” and its close relative “humble origins” may be little more than a cliché, written in haste, but the phrase is surprisingly resilient. Westminster has its own humble-origins club, the most prominent members at present being the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, and Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. “Humble roots and a City high-flyer” is how the FT summed up the former when he was appointed Culture Secretary last year. I’ve met Javid and I have to say that the paper was wise to attach the adjective to his background, rather than the man himself; I’ve seldom met anyone I warmed to less, shall we say. In this instance, it’s just a lazy way of reminding people that his father (like Khan’s, as it happens) was a bus driver.

Who actually is humble these days? More to the point, who would want to be? The root of the word is humus, the Latin word for earth or soil, and its synonyms include lowly, meek, deferential, self-effacing – I could go on, but you get the picture. A humble person doesn’t have ideas above his or her station, which is one of the reasons it’s so patronising when used about someone from a working-class background. If a writer means “poor” they should say so, but poverty is neither something to be ashamed of nor a reason for low self-esteem.

My family background is poor on both sides, including a lot of ancestors who did dangerous, back-breaking jobs for shockingly low wages. Before the Second World War, the biggest employers on South Tyneside were the Merchant Navy and the coal industry, which is where most of my male relatives worked. Two of my great-grandfathers were donkey-men, working in the furnace-like heat of a ship’s engine room, and one of them lost his life in an attack by a German U-boat. My mother’s father did the same job, narrowly escaping death when defective hatches allowed sea water to swamp the cargo hold during a gale in the North Sea. Why would I be anything other than proud of these men and their wives, who brought up large numbers of children while their husbands were away at sea?

People who know my background have sometimes made the mistake of talking about my humble origins, but they’ve rarely done it twice. A quarter of a century after John Major talked about a “classless society”, the fact that anyone in public life is still being described in these terms is genuinely shocking. So is the way it’s only ever applied to poor people: how many humble CEOs or viscounts have you encountered? I’ve met quite a few middle-class people with no obvious talents and wondered where they would be in the world if their parents hadn’t paid for them to go to the “right” school. But they’re not humble and no one would expect them to be.

The most striking use of the word in recent years was by the press baron Rupert Murdoch, when he appeared before a House of Commons committee at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. He interrupted proceedings before MPs could start questioning him, declaring that his appearance before the committee was “the most humble day of my life”. Some observers took it as a species of apology but I smelled a rat, wondering why Murdoch was attributing this status to a date in the calendar rather than himself. Humiliating, possibly, but humble? I didn’t believe he had ever felt a moment’s humility and subsequent events, such as his reappointment of Rebekah Brooks, this time as CEO of News UK, have proved me right.

There are moments in public life when a bit of humility would not come amiss. But I’m proposing a ban on the word “humble” in any circumstances where it just means poor or working-class. Labour’s candidate in Oldham West may be the son of a lorry driver but he isn’t Uriah Heep, for god’s sake.

Merseyside Police’s Twitter ‘banter’ shows why women still fear reporting rape

Traumatised women are still learning to trust the police

Daily Telegraph, 2 Nov 2015

Confidence in the criminal justice system is a fragile thing. For decades, women who’d been raped were reluctant to go to the police, fearing they would not be believed. Those who did often had dreadful stories to tell about casual sexism, shoddy investigations and failure to collect evidence. Since then, senior officers have worked hard to win the trust of victims in a campaign which seems to be working, judging by the rise in the number of victims going to the police.

Imagine, then, the anger and frustration of everyone involved when someone working for Merseyside police joked about rape on Twitter at the weekend. The exchanges (there were two of them) between football fans and Merseyside police were crass, suggesting that losing a football match is somehow comparable to rape. ‘I’d like to report an incident of rape that occurred at Goodison Park’, a fan tweeted following Everton’s 6-2 defeat of Sunderland on Sunday.

The initial response of whoever was in charge of the police Twitter account – to check that it wasn’t a serious report – was understandable. But the next sentence was jaw-dropping: ‘Sunderland certainly got caught with their pants down’. In the 21st century no one should use this kind of language about rape; it’s old-fashioned victim-blaming of the worst sort. Like jokes about male-on-male rape in prisons, it trivialises the experience of individuals who have endured humiliating and life-changing assaults.

But the PR disaster for Merseyside police wasn’t finished. When another fan came on Twitter and talked about Chelsea getting ‘raped every match’, the official police account chirped back that ‘it’s not a criminal offence to lose week in week out’. Merseyside police quickly deleted the tweets and issued an apology, insisting that their officers make ‘strenuous efforts’ to investigate sexual crimes and protect victims. But the public expression of such casual attitudes to rape on an official account suggests both that the Merseyside force has a problem and that it hasn’t done anything like enough to address it.

However much its senior officers protest that they take sexual crimes seriously, the message clearly hasn’t got through to all levels of the force. While victims can be sure of receiving a sympathetic response from rape crisis centres, it’s vital that they also feel able to talk to the police – it’s the entry point into the criminal justice system. And it’s not difficult to imagine the effect of this ‘banter’ on a woman who’s trying to summon up the courage to walk into a police station, speak to total strangers and tell them about a brutal assault.

All of this is supposed to have changed in the last four or five years, not least because of revelations about Jimmy Savile and other rapists who were protected for decades by their celebrity. Senior officers on Operation Yewtree were genuinely shocked by the extent of Savile’s predation and the ease with which he avoided investigation, prompting a sea change in their approach to victims. Another notorious case, that the of the serial rapist John Worboys, has led to significant shifts in the way the country’s biggest force, the Metropolitan Police, deals with rape allegations.

These changes are very recent, and traumatised women are still learning to trust the police. We know that most rapes go unreported, and that’s why anything that dents that emerging trust is so damaging for the entire criminal justice system. I’m not in favour of naming and shaming in this instance, because the problem goes beyond a single individual. But Merseyside police were right to announce an investigation, and they urgently need to look at how staff are trained in relation to serious sexual assaults.

Everyone who works for the police – not just frontline staff who deal directly with sex crimes – needs to understand how fragile this process is. Stopping violent rapists, who are usually serial offenders, depends on winning and maintaining the confidence of victims.