Saturday, 30 July 2011

Rape prevention: trying hard to avoid giving out useful information

[trigger warning]

So, here's the second reply on rape prevention from the Equalities Office / Home Office.

Thank you for your interest in the Home Office’s work on sexual violence. We are happy to confirm that the Home Office is currently planning a new communications campaign on sexual violence; work on this will begin in November.

I suppose "will begin in November" is more information than I previously had.

The Home Office collaborates with a number of other government departments on the issue of rape and sexual violence. In particular, but not exclusively, we work closely with the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Department for Education, and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Home Office officials have regular contact with the academic community on a variety of issues relating to sexual violence policy. These contacts form a useful part of the policy development process. Officials are always happy to take into consideration any useful research and would actively encourage discourse with anyone who has a research interest which is aligned with the policy area.

I had asked what research they were currently using, of course. Such a vague answer - the second time I've got that sort of vague answer to a fairly specific question - suggests that they may not actually be using any.

I might try using FOI requests instead. (I prefer not to, since they're inconvenient to be on the receiving end of, so I try to make informal requests first)

Anyone else know what this campaign in November is going to be about? Other than somehow about rape and other sexual violence?

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Friday, 29 July 2011

Friday Links

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Statistical dehumanisation

[trigger warning]

Dorset, Leeds, and now Nottinghamshire. Yet again, applying a century-old statistical population measure to individuals gives an utterly meaningless result.

I've already said what I want to say about the science behind this, so I'll just link to that and summarise below. I still have more to say about the attitudes, though.

[Director of Public Health Chris Kenny] said: "Obesity is on the rise in this country and what this weight management programme is designed to do is to raise the issue with parents.

"I wouldn't want this one particular case to undermine the whole programme."

Nor, I suppose, would he want the fact that the "science" he's using is not actually supported by the evidence to undermine his programme.

Or the fact that it's counter-productive and bullying of children who really should be considered too young1 to be given My First Body Issues sets.

The problem isn't really the horribly flawed science. That's bad - and there's a serious group-think problem within the "obesity research" field that stops this getting much time.

The problem is the attitude to people that current "public health" schemes seem to regularly get sucked into.

"Public health" is not an easy job. Done well, it can save lives, improve health, and free up valuable funds that are no longer needed to deal with preventable diseases. However, it's something that only really works at a population level.

The infamous bacon cancer study found that the risk of a particular group of cancers increased from 5% to 6% through increased consumption of processed meats. Now, as was pointed out at the time, this means that for 99% of people, whether or not they eat bacon will make basically no difference to their risk of cancer. For many of those people, bacon is a tasty food, and giving it up or cutting back will make them unhappy.

From an individual perspective it's highly unlikely to be a good deal - permanently give up bacon now, to marginally decrease your chances of getting cancer thirty years later? Most of the people who would take that deal probably didn't like bacon that much in the first place, and so probably didn't eat enough for cutting it out to make a difference.

From a public health perspective the calcuation is completely different. If everyone stopped eating bacon, rates of this group of cancers would drop about 20%, saving millions of pounds a year, and saving thousands of lives. Who wouldn't want that?2

The conflict comes between the individual view and the population-statistics view of public health policy. It's very easy to forget that those statistics are made of individuals, all of which - even if they're identical on the measured statistics - have their own very different lives.

Population statistics is the "easy" way to do "public health". It's also - because it reduces people to a few broad numbers - inherently dehumanising. With that, it becomes easy to see why they won't be dissuaded from this course: they're saving [abstract] lives, so if a few [real] lives are harmed as a result, it's still worth it.

Because the underlying attitude is itself dehumanising, some bad science that reduces health to a couple of convenient numbers is very attractive. Rather than looking at individual health, fixing the numbers becomes the goal - and if your numbers are "wrong", that makes you a problem. For people who are already dehumanised regularly on an individual level, the effects combine very strongly

The "hard" way to do public health does also happen, and there are professionals working very hard towards it - providing green spaces, looking at food availability, considering safety issues, and so on - rather than blaming individuals for making the "wrong" choices. An approach that humanises rather than dehumanises is not only more compassionate, it's also more effective.

Not surprisingly, those public health professionals don't make the news for things like this.

Also not surprisingly, the government is quite happy to, for instance, cut funding to local councils and so force them to close leisure centres (something that is certainly bad for public health), but continues paying for schemes like this to shame people with non-approved bodies.


1 No, there isn't an appropriate age. The product failed safety tests.

2 Given the current high unemployment, anyone whose job depends on people eating bacon, for a start.

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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Rape prevention: response from Education

[trigger warning]

Here's the reply from the Department of Education, which I received yesterday, on rape prevention (with minor edits for readability on the web, that do not affect meaning, and contact details removed)

Thank you for your email dated 4 July 2011 asking for information about the department's role in safeguarding teenagers from abuse. I have been asked to reply.

The Department for Education is committed to making a strong contribution to the cross government Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls which is led by the Home Office. This reflects our responsibility for safeguarding young people and our strategic leadership of the education system.

The Department`s actions include:

  • Taking forward recommendations from the independent Reg Bailey report on sexualisation and commercialisation of young people.
  • Considering the teaching of sexual consent within the Personal Social and Health Education Review. The issue of consent is already covered within the Department's guidance on sex and relationships education (SRE) which can be viewed from our website.
  • Anti bullying and behaviour - every school must have measures to encourage good behaviour, respect, and to prevent all forms of bullying amongst pupils. These measures must be part of the school's behaviour policy. Following consultation a final version of guidance for school leaders and governors will be published at the end of July 2011.

They also suggested I contacted the Ministry of Justice, which I'd already done.

The guidance is fairly sparse on consent, as it happens. There's a couple of bullet points on helping people 'avoid being abused' (which is not great wording), half a bullet point on "avoiding [...] exploiting others".

The concept that school children might be committing rape is entirely ignored, though the document does contain a fair amount of information on the possibility of them being victims.

The guidance (2000) predates the repeal of the heterosexist "Section 28" (2000 in Scotland, 2003 elsewhere), so contains the bizarre phrase "There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation." which I'm fairly sure is universally interpreted as "only directly promote monogamous heterosexuality".

There's also a note about what the National Curriculum contains on the subject, which is mainly about the biology of sexual reproduction, and the enforced requirement to learn some oversimplified rubbish about "sex determination" in humans that very harmfully erases the existence of trans and intersex people (and so makes it harder for people to accept their existence later on). I understand why topics need to be simplified for school, but there's "simplified" and there's "outright wrong".

It'll certainly be better than whatever it replaced - I went through SRE well before this guidance was introduced, and I don't recall consent being mentioned at all. (In fact, they tried very hard to avoid mentioning that sex might involve people1) - but it definitely needs some significant updating.

Here's the review they mentioned - they opened a consultation on it on the 21 July. I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in improving teaching about consent replies to the review (which will be open until the end of November 2011) to make their points. If you have relevant evidence and research papers, especially recent ones, make sure that you include them in your response (and share them here, too, if you like, so that other people can use them too).

Many of the questions in the consultation are asking about case studies from schools, but they explicitly say you don't need to answer every question - many of them are more general and can be answered by people other than PSHE teachers.

I'll post my own response to the consultation once I've written it.


1 Not in a pro-masturbation way (that wasn't mentioned at all), in a "this is an abstract rather than physical activity" way.

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Thursday, 21 July 2011

The overtallness epidemic

[trigger warning: body issues]

Researchers have announced that (BBC) being overtall gives an increased risk of cancer.

I haven't looked at the study itself, so I can't comment on whether it was well-conducted or not. I'm just interested in how the reporting has gone, so I'll assume it was well designed.

Essentially the study has found that an increase in height in women from around 150cm to around 170cm was associated with an increase in the cancer rate from 0.75% a year to 1% a year. Not a large effect for individuals, but certainly a noticeable one at the population level.

They also carried out a meta-study that suggested that a similar effect existed in men, though the BBC article goes into less detail about this.

There's a suggestion that this effect is in part behind the rise in cancer prevalence, since average height has risen by about 1cm every decade in Europe.

Cue panic and press articles about how the so-called "overtallness" epidemic is ruining our health, and we're all going to die if we don't wear heavy shoulder pads to shrink ourselves back down to 19th Century levels, all illustrated with photos of headless tall people.

No? My mistake.

The BBC article is actually calm and measured on this topic. It points out that there's no known mechanism by which overtallness could affect cancer prevalence, though a couple of theories are suggested. It doesn't blame tall people for bringing it upon themselves or suggest that they need to do more to reduce their height1. Nor does it ignore the structural issues that make it hard for people to avoid being tall, pointing to better childhood nutrition and fewer diseases as reasons for overtallness.

One of the theories even suggests that overtallness doesn't cause cancer at all, but is merely a marker for underlying conditions that cause both overtallness and cancer. Correlation is not causation, after all.

If every medical research sub-discipline was so cautious about claiming causative relationships between health conditions and physical attributes, and similarly restrained about suggesting drastic individual measures to change the physical attributes, then we might have considerably better public health policy.


1 As I've said before (almost), there is no known safe way to permanently reduce height, though there are several methods which will appear to give noticeable effects if the follow-up period of the study is - no pun intended - too short, There are also some surgical methods that appear somewhat more effective but have extremely dubious safety records and large side effects.

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Monday, 18 July 2011

The Invisible Hand II: This time we'll leave it in the rain

No photos this time, because my camera battery is flat, but It appears that the market-driven incentives to be a really useless delivery company have gone, for Yodel, from mere incompetence to signature fraud and possibly other illegalities.

Well, hey, that's capitalism for you - it's not illegal if it's profitable.

Another new safe place

Description: Another new safe place - behind a plant pot, in the rain, next to all the dirt and some very small slugs.

This time, the package was left outside behind a buddleia. The instructions on the shipping note say that it can only be signed for by people 16 or over.

The delivery instructions

Description: A soaked cardboard package. The shipping label reads "Delivery Instruction: Only leave with person aged 16 or older"

The buddleia, for reference, is slightly over 1 year old, and has real trouble holding a pen.

Checking the tracking information on Yodel's website gives the line:

Delivered18/07/1113:16[recipient's surname]STOCKTON ON TEES SERVICE CENTRE

Now, either there's an amazing coincidence and the delivery driver has the same surname as the package addressee - and Yodel has the bizarre policy of allowing delivery drivers to sign for receipt - or more likely they forged the signature.

Unsurprisingly, after being left out in the rain for several hours, the cardboard case was very damp. It would actually have been safer in the compost bin. There was also no delivery note left, so if it had been stolen, there would have been no trace of it, and the package contained over-the-counter medicines, so that "16 or over" requirement wasn't just for laughs.

But, I'm not their customer, so I expect they'll ignore my complaint about this one too.

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Saturday, 16 July 2011

Rape prevention: next stop, Ofcom

[trigger warning]

So, following up on the advice from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to contact Ofcom, I've sent them the following message:

I am writing to ask for more information about two aspects of the Broadcasting Code.

Section 2.4 reads "Programmes must not include material (whether in individual programmes or in programmes taken together) which, taking into account the context, condones or glamorises violent, dangerous or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour."

In Section 2.3 a distinction is drawn between "violence" and "sexual violence". Does Section 2.4 also forbid material which condones or glamorises sexually violent behaviour? If it does, would you consider making this explicit in the text the next time that the Code is revised, for the avoidance of doubt. If it does not, could you give me more information on the reasoning behind making this distinction in Section 2.4.

Section 3.1 reads "Material likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime or to lead to disorder must not be included in television or radio services."

Could you please give me more information about how Ofcom applies this section of the Code concerning crimes of sexual violence (rape, sexual assault, etc.) and what research on the psychology of sexual offenders and potential sexual offenders is used to inform Ofcom's policy in this area.

Thank you for your time

I'm going to try to suggest that section 3.1 should include rape-culture-promoting materials to a greater extent than it currently does, because of the encouragement and enabling environment they provide for rapists.

If you have any papers, studies, books, research, etc. that they should be taking into consideration on this, let me know and I'll add them to my next message to them. So far (and many thanks to commenter Glauke at Shakesville for pointing me at these) I have a few of papers and reports by the long-standing researcher of serial rapists, David Lisak, and a lot of references to look up:

If you have suggestions for other papers I should read or that Ofcom should be using in its judgements, especially in the area of the effect of rape-culture-supporting material on the behaviour and prevalence of serial rapists, that would be very useful - please leave ideas in comments.

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Friday Links

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Assange's extradition, and what English law actually says about rape

[trigger warning]

So, Assange's appeal against his extradition started today. As with last time, his lawyers are going for a "it wasn't illegal"/"it's only illegal in Sweden because they're weird" approach.

These are expensive lawyers... have they actually read English sexual offences laws?

The Guardian's coverage of the case contains a few very odd statements from the lawyers.

11.27am: In one case Assange is accused of having sex with a woman without a condom – but Emmerson [Assange's lawyer] says deceiving someone on this issue is not illegal under English law.

Yes, it is. Quite seriously illegal. Section 76 of the English1 Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that it is to be "conclusively presumed" that the "complainant did not consent" if:

(a)the defendant intentionally deceived the complainant as to the nature or purpose of the relevant act;

A "conclusive presumption" is really strong - it basically says that the condition by definition implies the outcome. So if deception were proved in an English court, it would mean that "but she consented" was legally virtually impossible as a defence.

Slightly later:

11.35am: The so-called "minor rape" allegation – when Assange was alleged to have had sex with one of the alleged victims, known as SW, when she was asleep or half asleep – was an "entirely consensual sexual encounter", Emmerson says.

Again, not under English law. Section 75 of the Act states that there is an "evidential presumption" about a lack of consent if:

(d)the complainant was asleep or otherwise unconscious at the time of the relevant act;

and the defendant was aware of this.

An "evidential presumption" isn't as strong as the section 76 "conclusive presumption", but it's still fairly strong - it says that it will be assumed that there was no consent unless evidence can be provided to suggest that there specifically was - a "defence must prove you didn't" rather than the default "prosecution must prove you did" question.

The 11.35 quote also doesn't fit well with some of the other things Emmerson says - for instance

10.50am: The Assange team is promising not to attack his accusers and not to doubt their discomfort about his sexual conduct.

So... it was "entirely consensual sexual conduct" that was "[felt to be] disrespectful, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing at the boundaries of what [the victims] felt comfortable with." (Liss has more on this at Shakesville)

Or later on

12.22pm [...] this is not intended to challenge "the genuineness of their feelings of regret about having had consensual sex with Mr Assange or trivialise their experiences". [...]

[...] But the sexual activities that occurred had taken place with consent, he argued, and, unlike in Sweden, could not be criminalised in the English jurisdiction. [...]

Except that they're saying it wasn't consensual, or there wouldn't be a case to answer here.

And the judge in the original extradition hearing ruled - quite correctly - that under English law the accusations amounted to 3 accusations of rape and 1 of sexual assault.

A brief comparison of Swedish and English sexual offences laws

  • English law defines a broader range of assaults as rape. The Swedes are trying to extradite Assange on 1 count of rape and 3 of "sexual molestation". In English law, 3 would be rape, and only one the lesser offence of sexual assault.
  • English law also defines, though this is not relevant directly to this case, several types of assaults as "sexual assault" that are not criminalised at all under Swedish law, as far as I can tell.
  • English law has far stronger penalties for rape. The average custodial sentence on conviction is 8 years - the maximum a life sentence. The maximum sentence that Assange could serve in Sweden if convicted is only 4 years.
  • English law has explicit definitions of consent to say that someone who is asleep did not consent, and someone who was deceived as to the nature of sexual activity did not consent - strong enough that the question of consent should not need to be proved in court if there is no argument about the circumstances. Swedish law, as far as I can tell, does not.

But it's the Swedes who apparently have this ridiculously tough law that criminalises normal sexual behaviour. The fact that English law is in fact tougher - and rightly so - in just about every area doesn't stop people believing this - or Assange's lawyer claiming it in court:

11.31am Emmerson argued that Assange was a victim of a "philosophical and judicial mismatch" between English and Swedish law over what constituted sex crimes.

Such mismatch as there is actually works in his client's favour, at the moment, since the extradition would move him to a jurisdiction with less strict laws and less strong punishments.


1 Wales uses the same Sexual Offences Act. The laws in Scotland and Northern Ireland are different, but I'm not completely sure how. Unless Assange flees to Glasgow, and Scotland then declares independence, it won't become particularly relevant to this case.

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Friday, 8 July 2011

New guidance for prosecutors regarding retracted allegations of rape

[trigger warning]

The new Crown Prosecution Service Guidance on charges related to perverting the course of justice in rape and domestic violence cases is now up.

I didn't think they'd go with my suggestion to stop doing so entirely, but the guidance is improved on the original draft in several areas. Fortunately they did take the recommendation I and others made on DPP oversight:

All cases involving an allegation of rape or domestic violence in which consideration is given to prosecuting the complainant for perverting the course of justice or for an alternative offence such as wasting police time must be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

That, hopefully, will cut down on some of the worst abuses of this charge, and make the DPP very clearly accountable for any future mistakes.

Friday Links

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Rape prevention: Culture, media and sport

[trigger warning]

So, the first department to reply to my messages about rape prevention policy is the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, who sent me a reply on Thursday.

(This was actually quite a surprise - I was expecting them to be overwhelmed with all the messages they were getting recently about News International and so take longer to reply)

As I'm now coming to find is usual for government departments, it doesn't quite answer the question I asked.

Thank you for your recent email about media regulation.

I appreciate your concerns on this matter, but must emphasise that under current broadcasting arrangements, responsibility for what is broadcast on television and radio rests with the broadcasters and the organisations that regulate broadcasting - the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the BBC Trust and the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority (S4C) - within the overall framework set by the Communications Act 2003 and the BBC Charter and Agreement.

It is a long-standing principle that the Government does not interfere in programme matters, either on arrangements for scheduling or on content. It is important to maintain the principle of freedom of expression which political interference could undermine.

Ofcom, the BBC Trust and S4C are independent of the Government and responsible for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting. They set out the rules and guidance with which broadcasters must comply. Within this framework, it is the broadcasters' job to make judgments about what individual programmes should contain and the time at which they are broadcast.

You may like to raise your concerns by writing to Ofcom at Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 9HA.

For printed media, the Government is likewise committed to the effective self-regulation of the press, and believes that maintaining the principle of freedom of expression is fundamental to our democracy. Therefore the Government does not - and cannot - interfere in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish. With this freedom, however, comes great responsibility. Newspapers must, of course, abide by the law, but they also sign up to a Code of Practice, overseen by the independent Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The Editor's Code of Practice sets a benchmark for the standards the press is expected to maintain. More information on the PCC and the Editors' Code of Practice, including details of how to make a complaint about a particular article, can be found on their website at:

Whilst at present we do not believe that there is a convincing case for further Government intervention in media regulation, we recognise that for the public to have confidence in a system of self-regulation it must be effective and robust. We therefore continue to monitor the behaviour of the press and their compliance with the Code.

Let's leave aside the difference from the normal definitions of "effective" and "robust" required to apply them to the PCC's "regulation" of the press.

Anyway, my reply:

Thank you for your reply to my earlier message.

I agree that the responsibility for what is broadcast or reported in the press rests with the broadcasters and the media, and that the government is rightly cautious about taking actions which could limit freedom of expression. I will contact Ofcom as you suggest regarding these matters.

However, there seem to be some areas in which the DCMS could take action without interfering with commercial and individual freedom of expression.

  1. The government - along with other public bodies such as police forces and local government - are major advertisers and producers of media content in their own right. Are there any relevant guidelines for this content and advertising to ensure that it fits in with government rape prevention strategies?
  2. In its role as a funder (directly or indirectly) of individuals or organisations media and arts projects, the government could encourage the recipients of this funding to avoid inaccurate portrayals of rape and sexual assault, that condone or glamourise the crimes. This would not be a restriction on freedom of expression - people wishing to condone or glamourise rape would have many non-governmental funding sources still willing to fund them - but would ensure that public money is spent in the public interest, rather than counter to it. Are there any policies of this nature within the department, or in its agreements with the bodies the department commissions to indirectly fund cultural activities?

Again, thank you for your time, and for your prompt response to my initial query at what must be a busy time for your department.

I'll write the letter to Ofcom soon. Here's the Broadcasting Code, which is the guidance that would apply.

A few relevant pieces seem to be:

  • Section 2 - I am concerned that "violence" and "sexual violence" are listed as separate categories in paragraph 2.3, but only the condoning and glamourising of "violent [...] behaviour" is restricted under paragraph 2.4.
  • Section 3 bans material "likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime". Can they be convinced that material supporting rape culture counts? - there's plenty of research to suggest it should.

The rest of it seems less relevant at an initial glance - are there any bits I've missed?

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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Assessments of credibility in rape culture

[trigger warning]

One of the things about rape culture is that because the default assumption is that men are always not rapists and women are always lying it becomes very hard to get a fair trial because usual conclusions about witness credibility are completely discarded.

The Strauss-Khan case is - as was predictable from the start in outline if not in details - an example of this.

The news over the last few days has been full of "revelations" that the victim in this rape case is not in fact herself perfect in the eyes of the privileged. As a result of these statements of the obvious, Strauss-Khan has been given bail (because he's considered less of a flight risk if he thinks he can win the case? I don't know...)

I'm making this post on the assumption that the news reporting is accurate. There are plenty of reasons - "unnamed source" "close to the defence" - to believe that at least some of it is rubbish, but I'm going to discuss the scenario in which it's all true.

There's been the usual rape apologism about how clearly if she lied about one thing ever she can't be trusted as a witness and is probably lying about this too. Now, if we're going to exclude anyone who has ever lied about anything from being a witness in a trial, we're going to find both prosecution and defence incredibly short on witnesses ... but it's okay if it's a rape case, because it confirms the belief that women lie about rape. (DSK's own initial lie that he hadn't been there, until the forensic report came back, gets ignored)

There's been quite a bit of effort put in by various writers to point out that this is largely irrelevant, and none of the leaked evidence remotely challenges the statements about what happened in that hotel room. That's true, but I think it goes further than that - these facts about the victim, if true, actually make it more likely that she is telling the truth, by making the alternatives less plausible.

Before these leaks, the scenarios were these:

  1. DSK, a man with a reputation for sexual predation, raped a woman in his hotel room, and then attempted to leave the country.
  2. DSK was in his hotel room, where he had consensual sex with a woman who had originally turned up to clean his room, who then went to her manager to claim she had been raped by a customer for no explicable reason.

It wasn't looking particularly good already, but if the leaked evidence is true the scenarios are instead these:

  1. DSK, a man with a reputation for sexual predation, raped a woman in his hotel room, and then attempted to leave the country.
  2. DSK was in his hotel room, where he had consensual sex with a woman, who after finishing her shift went to her manager to claim she had been raped by a customer, despite having numerous reasons to want to avoid drawing police attention to herself.

It hasn't changed the details or plausibility of the scenario where DSK is guilty at all - as has been repeatedly said, this evidence is irrelevant to the key question of "what happened in that hotel room?".

It has quite significantly decreased the - already very low - plausibility of the other scenario. It's not completely impossible, but his defence should have to work very hard to get back to "reasonable doubt". Instead, because of the massively skewed assessments that rape culture provides1, the case might not even make it to trial now.

Of course, for the various apologists who think "A [vaguely left-wing] man? Commit rape? Impossible!" and have been sticking to that from the start, the calculation is quite different - since one of the scenarios is to them completely impossible, the other can be utterly implausible and still be true.


1 Outside of rape trials, in other areas of the law, this sort of assessment is obvious enough. A man walks into a police station, and reports that the previous night he was assaulted and his coat was stolen.

The police ask for descriptions of the attackers, which he gives, and open a case. It's quite likely at this stage that the attack occurred, but people do occasionally lie in crime reports. Maybe he was at a boxing club, left his coat behind, and doesn't want to tell his friends that's where he was because he'd promised to meet them in the pub that night.

The police then ask if there was anything in the pockets, and he says they contained all the drugs he was going to sell. Not only can drug dealers be mugged just like anyone else (so the fact he's a dealer should be irrelevant in the coming mugging trial), but it makes any theory that suggests he made the report up almost impossible (it was a pretty unlikely theory to start with, of course).

But, of course, rape culture discards all this assessment in favour of "well, obviously she was lying."

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Monday, 4 July 2011

Someone in government must be trying to prevent rape, right?

[trigger warning]

As I mentioned earlier, the letter from the Equalities Office regarding the government's rape prevention strategy had several areas I was going to follow up.

I've now sent messages to the various departments I'd earlier identified as potentially relevant, and I'll post again as and when I get replies.

The full text of the letters is below, for reference (long!)

I've gone for writing the letters with the assumption that there is a cross-departmental rape prevention strategy which covers a wide range of areas, informed by the substantial volume of published research on rapists, and treated as a high priority by ministers.1

If you think I've missed an area of rape prevention that a department should be responsible for - or an entire department - then please let me know and I'll ask them. If you've asked any government departments about rape prevention yourself, could you let me know which ones, and how useful their answer was?

Home Office / Equalities Office

This is a follow-up to their earlier reply.

Thank you for your recent response to my questions. There are a few questions arising from that for which I would like more information.

  • You said that "The Home Office is planning a new campaign which will raise awareness of elements of the Sexual Offences Act". Are more details about this planned campaign currently available?
  • You said that the Home Office is the lead department regarding rape prevention. Could you tell me which other departments are currently involved in the government's rape prevention strategy?
  • With regard to research into the prevalence and taxonomy of perpetrators of rape, you said that the Home Office currently has no plans to commission research in this area. Could you tell me what pieces of existing research in this area the Home Office is using to inform its rape prevention strategies?


I am following up a conversation with a representative of the Home Office on the topic of the prevention of rape. While the Home Office has lead responsibility for this, there seem to be several areas within your department that would be covered by a governmental rape prevention strategy, and I would like to know more about the specific actions being taken by the Department of Education on this issue.

As you will be aware, numerous surveys have found that teenagers are at high risk of sexual assault and rape perpetrated by other teenagers. Could you please tell me what actions the department has taken to ensure that:

  1. All children receive appropriate teaching in consent and related issues (not necessarily solely as relates to sexual activity), to reduce the likelihood that they will commit rape or other sexual offences either as a teenager or as an adult, and to reduce the prevalence of common myths about rape among children and young adults.
  2. Teenage perpetrators of sexual offences are dealt with as befits the seriousness of the offence, and the urgent need to prevent reoffending.

In addition, could you tell me what research the department uses to inform its policy regarding the prevention of rape and effective education on consent issues, and if applicable what additional research the department has commissioned or intends to commission.

Culture, Media and Sport

I am following up a conversation with a representative of the Home Office on the topic of the prevention of rape. While the Home Office has lead responsibility for this, there seem to be several areas within your department that would be covered by a governmental rape prevention strategy, and I would like to know more about the specific actions being taken by the Department on this issue.

As Lord McNally stated (Hansard HL Deb, 24 May 2011, c1682)

"I agree with the noble Baroness that it is time to publicise the seriousness of rape, and I think that that could be started in the schools and by looking at some of the worrying things in advertising, in pop music and in some of the newspapers [...] Some of those should look at where they put the position of women in society and whether they encourage young men to give women the respect that they should have."

As the department responsible for many of the areas mentioned in Lord McNally's speech, could you please tell me what steps the department is taking in the following areas:

  1. Encouraging private media and creative industries to refrain from producing or distributing creative works which condone, normalise or minimise rape and sexual assault, promote myths about rape, or otherwise work against the government's strategy of rape prevention.
  2. Ensuring that publicly-funded media, advertising, and creative works do not condone, normalise or minimise rape and sexual assault, promote myths about rape, or otherwise work against the government's strategy of rape prevention.
  3. Encouraging accurate and myth-free reporting of both specific rape and sexual assault trials and the general prevalence of rape and sexual assault, and discouraging the sensationalising of this reporting.


I am following up a conversation with a representative of the Home Office on the topic of the prevention of rape. While the Home Office has lead responsibility for this, there seem to be several areas within your department that would be covered by a governmental rape prevention strategy, and I would like to know more about the specific actions being taken by the Ministry of Defence on this issue.

Could you please tell me what steps the Ministry is taking in the following areas:

  1. Given the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, what is being done to protect civilian populations in areas in which UK forces are involved?
  2. Studies such as McWhorter 2009 [1] show that a significant proportion of military personnel have themselves committed rape. What steps does the MoD take to detect these people to reject them during recruitment and to protect fellow soldiers and civilians from them if they remain undetected at the recruitment stage?

Additionally, could you tell me if the MoD has any plans to commission research similar to McWhorter's, and what existing research in this area it already uses.

[1] Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel by Stephanie K. McWhorter, et al., published in Violence and Victims, Vol, 24, No. 2, 2009. The study found that around 13% of male new recruits to the US Navy had attempted or committed rape, many on multiple occasions.


I am following up a conversation with a representative of the Home Office on the topic of the prevention of rape. While the Home Office has lead responsibility for this, there seem to be several areas within your department that would be covered by a governmental rape prevention strategy, and I would like to know more about the specific actions being taken by the Ministry of Justice on this issue.

While, obviously, the Ministry has a major role to play in the conviction, imprisonment and possible rehabilitation of rapists and other sex offenders, to reduce the number of future offences that they commit, I am also interested in what steps the Ministry is taking in the following areas:

  1. Ensuring that prisoner education and rehabilitation includes programs intended to reduce sexual offending, including those prisoners who were not arrested for a sexual offence.
  2. 2) Preventing rape and sexual assault within the prison environment.
  3. 3) Working to rehabilitate those sexual offenders whose detected offences do not merit a custodial sentence so that they do not commit more serious sexual offences later in life.

I would also be interested to know what research on the behaviour and taxonomy of rapists and other serious sexual offenders the Ministry uses to inform its policies in these areas.


1 Also, a pony.

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Friday, 1 July 2011

I'd happily never hear this again

There are of course many hate speech phrases and words I'd rather not have to hear again, but this one is a little more seemingly-innocuous: "Elections have consequences".

I'm seeing this phrase a lot at the moment - both in a UK context as the coalition government brings out terrible policy after terrible policy, and in the USA as State and House Republicans bring in ever-worse laws to eliminate anyone not like them.

Specifically I'm seeing the phrase used a lot by centre-lefties whose centre-left party was defeated in an election (for being generally not very effective) as a way to say "We told you so. Hopefully you'll make a better choice next time.".

It of course very nicely fits the centre-left (and general right) narrative of "personal responsibility" and seeking individual solutions to structural problems.

Firstly, it assumes the existence of a meaningful choice. For people whose interests do not align with the interests of the default people, while a left-wing party might be a little better on average, this is only on average. On many issues the choice is between "bad" and "terrible" on policy. On some, the choice is between "terrible" and "terrible, and they enjoy it".

Furthermore, the electoral system in both the UK and the USA severly restricts voters' choice of candidate. Electoral boundaries can render votes entirely irrelevant (and with the partisan boundary decisions that much of the USA has, this is even more likely) short of a tremendous swing in opinion. First-past-the-post voting makes it very difficult to have more than two locally-viable parties in any seat: three-way marginals are incredibly rare in the UK, and barring the occasional charismatic independent candidate, completely absent in the USA.

It's hard to vote for a decent candidate if there are literally none standing in your constituency. It's not always the best idea for minimisation of harm even if one is, if they're unlikely to actually win.

Throw in electoral fraud and it's quite possible that the voters collectively were fully aware of the consequences of electing a particular candidate, and if the votes had been counted properly that would have been clear. Similarly, polling station inaccessibility, or malfunctioning voting machines, or errors in the electoral roll, can prevent someone casting a vote that they should have been able to.

Elections might have consequences, but that's not the same thing as voters being able to do anything about them. Blaming the voters for the fact that the system often entirely disregards their votes is absurd.

Secondly, there's a serious information problem. In the 2010 general election I had great difficulty deciding who to vote for. I had a lot of advantages - many of them privilege-related - in getting information about the candidates - time to read manifestos thoroughly, time to look up previous voting records of their parties on issues that matter to me, enough knowledge of recent political history to be aware of what they weren't saying, and so on.

Even with that information I still wasn't entirely sure at the time whether I was voting the right way1. The average voter is not going to have all that information - may not even be aware that the information exists, in some cases - and is often not going to have the free time to find it out. In theory, the press should help fill this information gap... in practice, of course, they're often more interested in extending it.

Where some of the most unpleasant policies of a government weren't even mentioned in their pre-election speeches and publicity, it's even less fair to blame the voters for not seeing it coming.

There are a lot of things that could be done - nationally, structurally - to reduce the voter information gap. Individual voters have very few options for doing the same.

Thirdly, it's such a smug statement that betrays the speaker's attitudes towards voters. "Well, you see, elections have consequences. Did you not realise that? Did you think that it was just an exercise in who could sort and count bits of paper faster?". Yes, quite obviously elections have consequences. That's why we have them. Voters2, believe it or not, are actually quite aware of this. Mostly, it does not fill them with hope.

It's not as if smug political explainers are particularly good at predicting the real consequences of elections either (see also: "progressive majority").

Voters who have seen the speaker's party also fail to deliver while in power or usefully oppose while out of it will of course treat the statement with the contempt it deserves.


1 It's a testament to Miliband's recent direction as leader of the Labour party that I'm still not sure.

2 In which I include people who could vote but choose not to. (For instance, on the grounds that they're aware that all possible consequences are really bad, and can't bring themselves to add legitimacy to any of them) Abstention is a legitimate decision.

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