Friday, 28 October 2011

A tale of two anti-rape posters.

[trigger warning]

On the bus this morning I saw a poster I'd not seen before - I think it's a new one - from the local police forces. It was an anti-rape poster, and unlike this recently spotted poster from South Wales Police, it was actually a fairly good one.

I cannot find a picture of it anywhere online, and I wasn't able to take one myself, so I'll try to describe it from memory. (If anyone has a picture of this poster, please let me know!)

  • Right quarter of the poster: image, grey scale, of the casually-dressed upper legs and body of a light-skinned man, holding the bars of a cell with both hands.
  • Most of the rest of the poster is text, which I'm not going to get word-for-word - but in paraphrase. Top line: "don't commit rape or this could happen to you". Then, below that, three examples of things which are rape.
  • First example: "If she's too drunk to say 'yes', she's too drunk to say 'no'"
  • Second example: "If she's under 16, even if she consents, it's illegal and you could be arrested."
  • Third example: "No matter how many times she's said 'yes' before, she can still say 'no'. Rape of your wife or partner is still rape."
  • Finally, the phone number for the local police forces, and their logos.

I'm sure experts in the field could suggest areas for improvement, but compared with the usual standard for these posters, I was actually pleased to see it. It keeps its focus on the perpetrators, making very clear that their self-justifications for their actions will not be accepted - while at the same time also giving the same message to the enablers who help perpetuate these myths, and the victims who might end up being told them so much they come to believe them.

It also reminded me, because of its contrast to the South Wales poster, that I had a letter to write - so here it is. I thought about sending it directly to the government departments, but my MP - unsurprisingly - tends to get more useful replies than I do.

Dear [MP],

I was today pleased to see an anti-rape poster, produced by the local police force, that focuses strongly on the perpetrators and sets out examples of situations where they do not have consent despite their beliefs. This reminded me of the large continuing regional variation in the success of the criminal justice system in this area, as revealed most recently by the BBC through Freedom of Information requests at

As Baroness Stern found in her report on rape prosecutions, the existing guidance is followed extremely inconsistently. If every police force had the report to charge rate of Durham (60.8%), and if every CPS region had the ability to avoid dropping cases before trial that Dorset has (only 5.4% dropped), and if every CPS region had the success in securing convictions at trial of regions such as Warwickshire (87.0%), then half of all reported rapes would result in a conviction for the rapist (either of rape or a lesser offence)

This rate is potentially achievable without any new policies or procedures - simply by following existing best practice. Furthermore, the rapidity with which some police forces and CPS regions have achieved improvements in detection and conviction rates recently suggests that - with enough political will - this conviction rate could be achieved within a decade at most.

Would you be able to contact the relevant Ministers at the Home Office and Justice to ask them:

  1. if they will set as a national target that by 2020 the police and CPS will secure convictions in at least 50% of all reported serious sexual offence cases?
  2. what steps they are taking to ensure that best practice is replicated quickly across all police forces and CPS regions?
  3. what additional steps will they take in future to ensure that the situation improves?

Thank you

Yours sincerely


Feel free to adapt this letter to your own MP, of course.

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Friday Links

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

More research on weight

DeeLeigh at Big Fat Blog reports on a Canadian study on weight and health in Manitoba. Full report (PDF).

A few interesting points

Mortality rates

The results - not surprisingly, by now - confirm the previous US, German and Canadian population studies. There is no statistically significant correlation between mortality and BMI - a person with a BMI of 19 and a person with a BMI over 40 have virtually identical chances of dying in any year. (Chapter 6)

There does seem to be some difference in causes of death - respiratory conditions are less common causes of death in "obese" people, and endocrine and metabolic conditions are more common - but as the German study pointed out - that just means we have a better idea of what statistically kills fat people. It doesn't make thin people any less dead.

Health service usage

The study also includes a very interesting look at health service usage by BMI in Chapter 5. Fat people do use more health services than thin people - to a statistically significant degree for some but not all services - but generally not by a very large margin. For instance, for visiting GPs, were the campaigns to get men to visit the doctor to succeed, bringing male GP visit rates up to the same as female GP visit rates, this would increase visits considerably more than if everyone visited the GP as often as a government-approved weight person of their gender.

Comments on the Big Fat Blog piece point out some reasons why correlation may well not be direct causation here - misdiagnosis of fat people necessitating repeat visits and weight gain caused as a side effect of medical treatment - and the German study also notes underdiagnosis in thin people of conditions popularly associated with obesity as another possibility.

The study doesn't cover health care costs directly - but they did do a brief literature review. Emphasis mine.

Studies of health care costs (not analysed in this report) show significant positive associations with BMI level (Andreyeva et al., 2004; Borg et al., 2005; Raebel et al., 2004; Thompson et al., 2001). This is consistent with the higher use of some healthcare services as shown in this report, though the differences appeared to be higher in those studies than results from this study would suggest. Some of this may be due to differences in the context and costs of healthcare, as most of these studies were done in the United States.

Or, paraphrased, if your health system is massively inefficient, expensive to use, and encourages people to only seek treatment in emergencies, you might well have very distorted costs. That doesn't mean that countries with more sensible health provision will have comparable costs.


Unlike many previous studies, this one recognises the arbitrariness of the BMI measures. After describing the World Health Organisation categories:

These categories were created by examining relationships between BMI, mortality, and morbidity. However, the cutoffs remain somewhat arbitrary and have changed over time: a BMI of 27 used to separate the low risk from the high risk categories [...]. Furthermore, these groupings may not be equally useful for older adults [...] or different ethnic groups, including Aboriginal peoples [...]. Therefore, analyses in this study used continuous BMI values whenever possible, with summarized data for the standard groups shown above as well.

I've mentioned the "step change" attitude that public health seems to take - it's good to see a study that explicitly takes the opposite approach, and doesn't take the WHO-set boundaries as definitionally accurate.

They also acknowledge many problems with BMI as a measure of weight categories (including assumptions of white European as default) - but note that they need to use something and

[...] it is the only measure available in existing data sources that covers a large and representative sample of the population (excluding residents of First Nations)

Changes over time

There are a couple of graphs in Chapter 2 noting that weight distributions have been basically static since 2000 in Canada (very similar to the situation in the UK). One of the things they note is that "overweight" is more common in men than women.

I suspect that a partial explanation for this may be due to flaws in the BMI measurement. BMI is based on a ratio of weight and height2. But that's not a ratio found in nature1 - scaling something up generally involves a ratio of weight to height2.5, because of the way circulatory and nervous systems work at small scales.

So the simplification - which makes BMI possible to calculate without a scientific calculator or a log table - means that for people of the same build, BMI will increase with height.

Men tend to be taller than women, so will tend to have higher BMIs for the same build. (Also, there's not actually any reason, given that men and women have statistically different anatomies, that the BMI distributions shouldn't be different)


Studies like this leave governmental "obesity" strategy not as "correlation equals causation" but as "lack of correlation equals causation". There's no evidence that heavier weight harms life expectancy (though it may have some statistical effects on cause of death), and the effect on health care costs is likely to be trivial. It will be interesting to see if the Manitoba government, which commissioned this study, changes policy as a result.

Unfortunately the popular belief that "obesity" is both morally disgusting and voluntary2 means that research into "how obesity is bad" gets far more attention and support than research into "is obesity actually bad for health?"


1 If you can view images, there's an unintentional "uncanny valley" effect in these images, where simple rescaling of the image of a person gives a slightly unusual effect. The relative sizes of body parts aren't supposed to be identical at each size, so it gives a strange effect.

2 Even aside from the studies suggesting that weight and build are to a large part genetic, and that the "diet and exercise" mantra is so oversimplfied it's almost useless, this ignores the concept of constrained choices and so also contains a lot of classism, disablism, and other forms of discrimination.

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Friday, 21 October 2011

Friday Links

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Useful tools: Write to Them

One of the most useful tools for interacting with party politics, on the occasions it becomes necessary, is Write to Them. It always slightly startles me when I see someone encouraging people to write to their MP about an issue and not linking to Write to Them, because it's just so useful. So: a quick summary, to hopefully make it more widely known about.

Enter your postcode (they have advice if your postcode isn't obvious) and you will then be able to contact any of your elected representatives (local councils, devolved administrations, MPs, and European representatives) - advice on which representative deals with what - or any member of the House of Lords.

Essentially it takes all the boring work out of:

  • Finding out who your representatives are
  • Finding out what party your representatives are
  • Finding out how to contact them
  • Finding stamps, fax machines, or whatever devices are needed

...leaving much more time to do the necessary hard work of researching the issue and constructing a persuasive message.

Sadly, it can't guarantee a reply (and certainly not a useful one), but most messages are replied to within 2-3 weeks.

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Friday, 14 October 2011

Friday Links

And finally, for those with video: Cat and Girl Stories we make up about our cats. (For those without video, a series of pictures of cats, with text indicating their occupation and/or lifestyle, set to music)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Season's Greetings

Happy northern temperate autumn!

Autumn grapevine, with the leaves turning slowly to red, and several clusters of small grapes.

Or, actually, any season.
Crocus and berries
Spring-looking crocuses, with winter-looking berries, on a bright summer's day in autumn.

Autumn by the pond
These photos were taken on a recent trip to Kew Gardens. More photos from Kew

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Friday, 7 October 2011

Atheism and the kyriarchy

There have been quite a few high-profile incidents of racism and sexism among some atheist communities recently. These have been followed by the predictable pattern of soul-searching about what can be done to prevent them and get more people who aren't white men involved in atheism, countered by the predictable denial that there's any problem at all by the selectively skeptical.

Now, obviously any community that exists in this society is going to be vulnerable to reproducing this society's ideas of the default person, even if its aims are apparently unrelated to structural discrimination. Privilege is designed to be invisible to its owners, so without a concerted effort to work against it (and even then...), people will inevitably repeat dominant social values even if they don't want to.

But I think these particular atheist communities have more fundamental problems than that.

Firstly, what Tami said in the post linked above:

But there is a difference between seeking to use reason and making skepticism and reason an identity. The latter, I'm beginning to think, results not in injecting more reasonableness into public discourse, but less, as people who are invested in touting their own superior logic are rarely self-aware enough to spot and acknowledge the places where their thinking has been colored by bias. And make no mistake--no one is immune to the biases inherent in our society--not even the guy who calls himself a Skeptic and fancies himself the smartest person in the room.

Secondly, their aims are, by definition incompatible with the ending of kyriarchal systems of privilege.

Their rhetoric makes it very clear that they1 wouldn't be satisfied with a society in which religious belief and lack of religious belief were treated as equal. They want to be above religion, with religious people the subject of disdain for their "irrational" and "obsolete" beliefs.

And there is the problem. They want to be on top of the heap. They dispute the construction of the heap - why are atheists not at the top of it2 - but they don't object to its existence. It's no surprise therefore that debates over "what should the relative position of men and women in the heap be?" are frequent - the alternative answer of destroying the heap entirely is unthinkable.

All forms of oppression are so strongly entangled that it cannot be possible to eliminate one3 without attempting to eliminate all of them. By supporting and encouraging the existence of the heap, they make it impossible to eliminate the other parts of the heap they disagree with.


1 I've had to be fairly non-specific about exactly which atheist communities I'm referring to, because it's not as if there are official denominations of atheist. So the definition is going to have to be somewhat circular: "the sort of atheist I'm talking about is the sort of atheist who fits the description I give". But I hope nevertheless it's obvious enough that there are many atheists and atheist communities that are not like this, and who I'm not talking about here.

2 How far down they are of course varies considerably by country and region, as well as many other factors. Trends suggest that they will get to the top of the heap and be the default eventually, at least in some places, just through weight of numbers.

3 That's not to say that I believe, ad absurdum, that all existing forms of oppression will end simultaneously or not at all. Clearly on some day in the distant future it may be that racism ends but some heterosexism continues, or vice versa. For now, however, all forms are so entangled that trying to end one (or a few) in isolation is doomed to failure.

Given the attempts by some of these atheists to, for instance, redefine religion as mental illness, I think they're more likely to increase the entanglements between oppressions than decrease them.

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