Monday, 24 December 2012

Happy Christmas

Read the rest of this article

Friday, 21 December 2012

New research publication looks at HIV and sex work

This is a guest post by Laura Agustín

Dr Laura Agustín has edited the 13th edition of R4SW (Research for Sex Work), published by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.  The focus this time is on how HIV affects sex workers and the role played by official moves to regulate, restrict or further stigmatise prostitution.

Not so long ago a journal issue called HIV and Sex Work would almost certainly have focused on epidemiological studies of female prostitutes. More sensitive authors might have said sex workers and acknowledged that men and transgender people also sell sex. They might have stopped calling sex workers vectors of disease and begun calling them a high-risk group, and when that term was recognised to be stigmatising they might have switched to talking about at-risk populations.

In discussing efforts to diminish the spread of HIV, researchers might have talked about harm reduction, and they might even have invoked the need to ‘involve’ sex workers in health promotion. But sex workers would rarely have been the protagonists in research, the writers of published critiques or the strategists of campaigns. HIV and AIDS as topics were the terrain of institutions.

The new issue of Research for Sex Work reflects a small shift. Here HIV and Sex Work doesn’t mean an array of epidemiologically-oriented studies but the frame for critiques of and questions about policy, laws and programmes. Articles not written by sex workers themselves base their conclusions on what sex workers say. Here no one tells sex workers how to run their lives.

Research from the China Sex Worker Organisation Network Forum shows how policing is a central issue for HIV-prevention. In her speech at the International AIDS Conference Cheryl Overs highlights how technological fixes threaten to push aside sex workers’ rights. Brendan Conner exposes how the Global Commission on HIV and the Law erases problems of male sex workers by using epidemiological- style ‘populations’. Empower Foundation tell how they were ousted from the Global Fund’s HIV programme for sex workers in Thailand when they criticised priorities. Matthew Greenall and Abel Shinana propose research that foregrounds local sex workers’ needs. And Tiphaine Besnard shows how stigma against women who sell sex has been behind discriminatory policy since the 19th century.

Audacia Ray and Sarah Elspeth Patterson describe how activists have brought such critiques into the world of political lobbying through a campaign against the use of condoms as evidence against prostitutes in New York State. The concept of outreach takes on new meaning in Ecuador, as sex workers from Asociación ‘22 de junio’ and Colectivo Flor de Azalea educate men about sexual health.

Not all the news is good. Nicoletta Policek’s study reveals how HIV-positive women not involved in selling sex refuse to accept sex workers as equals. But even in the more repressive settings described by Kehinde Okanlawon/Ade Iretunde and Winnie Koster/Marije Groot Bruinderink, sex workers resist stigma and subvert discrimination. Diputo Lety tells Elsa Oliveira the story of how one sex worker empowered herself after testing positive for HIV. And although the fragility of African sex-worker networks is noted, this Research for Sex Work has no fewer than four contributions from Africa.

The new issue, together with previous editions of R4SW can be downloaded free from this site. Laura Agustín's own blog, The Naked Anthropologist, focuses on issues surrounding migration, trafficking and the so-called rescue industry, while her groundbreaking book, Sex at the Margins, is now available on Kindle.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Not the Mayan Calendar

Here's a picture of an Aztec calendar. 

To be more specific, it's the Stone of the Sun, which once stood in the heart of Tenochtitlan, the splendid Aztec capital that later became Mexico City. So precious was it that the Aztecs buried it during the siege of the city in 1521 to preserve it from the Spanish invaders.  By the time it was dug up again, during repairs to Mexico City's cathedral in 1790, the Christian rulers were sufficiently enlightened to see it for the important cultural artefact that it was.   To call it a calendar is perhaps misleading, though it does have calendrical markings.  It has been variously interpreted as a representation of the five ages through which Aztec mythology held that the world had passed, as a mappa mundi, as a political statement declaring and legitimising Aztec rule over the four corners of the world, and as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for use during human sacrifices.  Perhaps it was all of those things.

You probably recognise the picture, because it has been endlessly reproduced these past weeks to illustrate stories about the "Mayan apocalypse".  As you will have heard by now, Friday probably marks a significant date in the Mayan calendar, the ending of the 13th Baktun, or cycle, of that calendar's Long Count.  A much-publicised New Age theory holds that the date will be marked by world-changing or apocalyptic events, though no-one seems quite sure what they will be.  As has also been widely publicised recently (so I don't need to go into it all again) the Maya, whose civilisation was based around the Yucatán peninsula and was at its height roughly during the period of the European Dark Ages, did not in fact have a prophecy of doom connected with this date.  Or any future date, so far as can be established.  The "Mayan apocalypse" is a modern myth.

Not, of course, that the world would be any more likely to end on Friday if the ancient Maya had predicted it.

Most recent reports, at least those to be found in the mainstream media, have accurately noted the non-existence of the alleged Mayan prophecy of doom.  Unfortunately, they have usually reproduced the Aztec Sun Stone as an illustration.  If you type "Mayan calendar" into Google Images, almost all the images that come up are of the Aztec stone.  Whether this is the cause of the confusion or its effect is unclear.  Both, probably.  But the result is now that this is what most people imagine a Mayan calendar to look like, even though it is neither Mayan nor, quite possibly, even a calendar.

This is what a Mayan calendar actually looks like, or at least one version of it.

You'll see the difference straight away. Most obviously, instead of the scary-looking head with the lolling tongue - so evocative of some nameless apocalypse - there's a human figure weighed down with a burden (in fact, a Mayan glyph), more suggestive of the endless, grinding repetition of days which represents the reality of time.

The Mayans and the Aztecs could not have been more different.  They were as different as the ancient Greeks and the Vikings: different in language, in culture, in mythology, in architecture, in attitude, in agricultural techniques, in politics, in artistic expression, in geographical location.  For a start, the Mayans were much older.  Early Mayan settlements cluster around what is now Soconusco in South-West Mexico, on the central American isthmus and date from as long ago as 1800 BC.  Classic Mayan civilisation, associated with spectacular ruined cities in the Yucatán, collapsed around 1000AD although the Maya themselves lived on and are still around today (as are the Nahuatl-speaking descendants of the Aztecs).  The Aztecs, meanwhile, started out as barbarian invaders from the North, who arrived in central Mexico in about the 12th century.  It wasn't until the 15th that they became the dominant power in the region: their empire was still expanding when Cortes arrived in 1519. 

Like many other barbarian invaders (including the Vikings in Northern France, aka the Normans) the Aztecs adopted some of the civilisation of the more settled cultures they came to rule over.  But in their case, it was mainly that of the Toltecs, previously the dominant people in central America, as well as the artistically-inclined Mixtecs in the South West.  There was some contact between the Aztecs and the surviving Maya, but the Maya were never Aztec subjects and by the time of the Aztec empire the days of Mayan greatness were a distant memory, or legend. 

As for the calendar, it's true that some basic principles, such as a 52-year cycles of years, were shared by most Meso-American systems; but each civilisation had its own, which differed in details, nomenclature and underlying myths.  The Mayan version was especially elaborate, involving multiple interlocking cycles including the famous Long Count whose starting date was placed at August 11, 3114 BC - a time centuries before Mayan civilisation got going.  The present "baktun" ends this Friday (or perhaps Sunday), but the Long Count itself carries on.  A far more significant date, experts say, will come on October 13, 4772, when a full cycle of twenty baktuns will be completed, though even that wasn't associated with any known apocalyptic event.  The Mayans didn't really think like that.  They seem to have enjoyed calculating dates far in the future or the past purely for the mathematical pleasure it afforded.

The Aztecs, on the other hand, did have a belief in world ages punctuated by apocalyptic events. According to Aztec myth there had been four previous ages, or "Suns", the ending of each of which was attended by great destruction and renewal.  The present age was destined similarly to end.   But this cataclysm wasn't tied to any particular date - and, in any case, the Aztecs' calendar lacked the mathematical complexity of the Mayan one.  Rather, it was seen as perennially threatening, to be warded off with daily offerings of human hearts to the gods.  Like the Romans, the Aztecs paid great attention to regularly recurring dates of good and bad omen throughout the year and the 52 year cycle.  The year One Reed was especially to be dreaded: by coincidence, it was in such a year that Cortes turned up.  But even that wasn't, exactly, a prophecy - though it is often popularly identifies as such.

Put it this way.  The Norse myths told of the day of Ragnarok, when the gods of Asgard would go into battle with the giants and Valhalla would be consumed.  The Christian calendar takes as its hinge point the supposed date for the birth of Christ.  Putting the two together and making five, a confused Mayan observer might have deduced that Ragnarok was bound to take place on 31st December 1999.  Especially if it represented a publishing opportunity.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Queen in Cabinet

There's a good reason why the Queen has never attended a Cabinet meeting - or, indeed, that none of her predecessors has attended the Cabinet either, probably since a still-sane George III popped along in 1781.  (A Downing Street press release yesterday, regurgitated by all news outlets, implied that Queen Victoria had done so, but there's no evidence that she ever did; in The Monarchy and the Constitution, Vernon Bogdanor states definitively that "since 1837 [the year of Victoria's accession] the sovereign has not attended cabinet at all".)  The Cabinet, originally a committee of the wider Privy Council, is officially at least the primary political and policy-making organ of government.  It is at the heart of the business of politics which a constitutional monarch is supposed to float above.  Any monarch today who insisted on watching her or his ministers in action, as they discussed what to do about the issues of the day, would rightly be accused of interfering in politics and trying to subvert the constitution.

Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the Cabinet Office today, where she sat in on around half and hour of ministerial deliberations, was of course a purely formal occasion: she was there to receive the congratulations of her Privy Councillors on this summer's Diamond jubilee, along with a set of 60 placemats, and to hear an announcement that henceforth a stretch of Antarctic wilderness was to be named in her honour (which as a Christmas present, is rather less useful than an iPhone).  Nevertheless, it was a proper cabinet meeting, with discussions that included the important topics of Afghanistan and the economy.  It's unlikely that the discussions proceeded quite as they would have done had the monarch not been present.  While she was there only as "an observer", she sat in the prime minister's chair, thus underlining the constitutional anomaly under which government in this country operates.

It is the Queen's government, not the people's.  Too many government functions are still carried out by Royal Prerogative, with inadequate Parliamentary scrutiny.  In the main, however, talk of "the Queen's ministers" is a polite fiction, and understood to be such.  By inviting the queen along to a Cabinet meeting, David Cameron runs the risk of upsetting the balance.  It is constitutionally improper for the Queen to be associated with a party-political instrument of government in this way, even if (perhaps especially if) she is understood by all to be no more than a cipher.  This sets a bad precedent, even if the occasion itself is fairly anodyne.  At best, it looks like an attempt to provide a helpful photo-opportunity for a bunch of politicians in desperate need of some good headlines, by associating them in the public mind with a monarch who's much more popular than they are.  It may not be a monarch interfering in politics, but politicians interfering in the monarchy is the next worst thing.  To preserve balance, the Queen should also be present at a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet - but that would, surely, be preposterous.

Now that this constitutional Rubicon (to use Cameron's own metaphor) has been crossed, it is more likely to happen again at some time.  Perhaps next time it will be King Charles invited along on some celebratory pretext: could he be relied upon to sit politely and listen while others talk of great affairs?  As it is, today's event has brought out the perennial forelock-tugging instincts of the British press.  Timothy Stanley, for example:

How I would have dearly loved her to reach across the table, point at David Cameron and say, “You're fired!” But, alas, things have moved on since the days of Charles I, when the monarchy was the last line of defence against democracy.

There is, though, another interpretation.  The Cabinet is not what it once was. Its meetings are largely formal affairs these days: the real decision-making happens elsewhere, in small sub-committees and informal one-to-one meetings between the prime minister and other members of the Cabinet. It's increasingly for show, too big to be really effective - its ranks swelled, indeed, by inviting along more junior ministers (such as Baroness Warsi) for no better reason than to flatter their fragile egos.  The government is more collegiate than it was under Tony Blair, but if the Cabinet were genuinely effective it's unlikely that Cameron could have got through things like minimum unit pricing of alcohol, a policy which appears to be a personal obsession unpopular with most of his colleagues.  It's been said that inviting the Queen to attend a Cabinet meeting is a compliment to her unimpeachable impartiality: she is so far above the political fray that it's "safe" to have her along to Downing Street without any fear of contaminating the quasi-republican process of democratic government.  But perhaps the Cabinet itself that is now almost as decorative a part of the constitution as the monarch herself.

Queen Elizabeth Land sounds like a slightly tacky theme park where one can watch re-enactments of Francis Drake playing bowls or be served ale by wenches in mob-caps.  It's not negligible, being about 170,000 square miles, and the gesture provides a nice reminder that even in these reduced days the British crown retains technical sovereignty over a number of desolate penguin colonies.  But it scarcely compares with Virginia, named after the first Queen Liz, let alone all the mountains, cities, lakes, waterfalls, islands, provinces and states named after Victoria.  She even has a crater on the surface of Mars.  In retrospect, Victoria was a bit greedy when it came to having bits of the globe named after her, not leaving enough to her heirs and successors.  And yes, she does have her own bit of Antarctica.  It's called Victoria Land.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Significant Others

Officially, around 241,000 people in England and Wales listed their religion as "other" on last year's Census form, the results of which were released yesterday.  This doesn't include the 177,000 self-declared Jedi, who are counted separately (the Census people assume, for some reason, that it's not a proper religion).  In 2001 there were 390,000 Jedi Knights, who were put down as No Religion, as were people who called themselves atheists, humanists and even heathens.  This was problematic because many, perhaps most, "Heathens" are followers of Norse gods rather than atheists.  This year, following a campaign, Heathens were listed as "Other religion".  Otherwise, the figures were calculated in much the same way.

The total represents a big increase on the 151,00 Others in 2001 - even allowing for the misidentified Heathens.  It mirrors, almost exactly, the percentage increase in those of No Religion, which rose from under 15% to over 25%.  It's up by two thirds.  It's a smaller increase, in both absolute and percentage terms, than Buddhism has enjoyed - Buddhists leapfrogged Others to go from 144,000 to 248,000, an increase of 72%.  It also trails behind Islam, up 75%.  But Islam's increase can largely be attributed to immigration and birthrate.  It's dramatic when set against the huge fall in Christianity (down from 72% to 59%), the modest rise in numbers of Hindus and Sikhs and the flatlining Jews.

But Others is a hodgepodge sort of category.  The raw figures are here, with Jedi and various non-believers mixed in.  I've grouped them into categories to produce what I hope is a more easily assessed picture.

The largest group is the Pagans: more 56,000 using that term alone, to which I've added Wicca (11,766), Druid (4,189) and assorted Heathens, Pantheists, shamans and witches.  This gives a total of 78,675 for England and Wales.  Add another 251 if you think that "reconstructionist" refers to that type of Paganism that aims to recreate the ancient worship of pagan gods (devotees of Zeus and Athena, for example).  In the 2001 census there were approximately declared 40,000 pagans in England and Wales (as far as I can tell, this was the combined figure for all varieties of pagan nomenclature).  The figure for Scotland was around 2,000.  So at almost 80,000 Pagan numbers have almost doubled over the past ten years; at least it's the case that twice as many people are now willing to identify as such. 

The next group are people I call religious freelancers: people who make up their own beliefs, picking and choosing from various traditions, or who prefer to describe their religion in particular philosophical terms.  Linda Woodhead's research suggests that a high proportion of the population views religion in this personal way, perhaps combining vague Christian belief with New Age ideas, angels and the like.  But relatively few are sufficiently self-conscious about it to explain their beliefs in the Census.  A mere 698 put down "New Age", for example.  But combining them with those who put "mixed religion", "spiritual", "believe in God", "I have my own belief system", "deist" and the like I get a figure of 47,091.

Then come the Spiritualists.  There are more than 39,000 of those.

I wasn't sure what to do about the 1,893 Satanists, some of whom may well have been joking (in which case there's probably an overlap with the 6,242 adherents of the Church of Heavy Metal).  For comparison, there are just 502 Occultists and just 184 Thelemites (followers of Aleister Crowley).

If you lump all these categories together as "New Age, Paganism and alternative religion", you get a total of 166,000.  This may be an artificial exercise, however, given the wide variety of ideas and levels of structural and doctrinal coherence, ranging from independent thinkers to the highly organised Spirtualist Church.

The Category "Others" also includes well-established faiths, some of great antiquity, others just about long-enough established to count as "proper" religions.  These can be broken down as follows:

Minority Indian religions:

Jain: 20,288
Ravidassia: 11,058
Total: 31,346

Baha'i: 5,021

Traditional Chinese Religion:
Taoist: 4144
Chinese: 182
Confucian: 124
Total: 4450
(I suspect that the majority of UK Chinese put themselves down as Buddhists or Christians)

Zoroastrianism: 4,105
Shinto: 1075
Druze: 515
Traditional African, Voodoo, Animist: 1290
Native American Church: 127

The grand total of "minor faiths" is 47,929: well behind the number of pagans and very similar to that for the religious freelancers.  No Mormons are listed, incidentally.  I assume that all the Mormons described themselves as Christians.

Finally, New Religious Movements, some of which come under the rubric of cults.  By far the largest (and certainly no cult) is Rastafarianism, with 7,906 adherents, more than the Baha'i, Zoroastrianism or all the traditional Chinese faiths combined.  The others that make the list are: Scientology (2418), Moonies (452), Brahma Kumari (442), Eckankar (379).  This brings a total of 11,597, or just 3691 if you exclude the Rastafarians.

There are some notable omissions.  The Census may have had a cut-off below which religious affiliations were simply not recorded; or perhaps some religionists are just too shy to out themselves.  No UFO cultists are listed: no Raelians or Aetherians.  Nor do we find any adherents of the Church of All Worlds, the free love movement inspired by the writings of Robert A Heinlein.  No Heretics, either, which is a particular disappointment. And where, but where, are the Pastafarians?  His Supreme Noodliness is sure to be mightily offended.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Equal Civil Partnership Now!

If today's proposals go through, gay couples wishing to formalise their relationships will soon be able to choose between marriage and civil partnerships.  But for heterosexual couples there will be no such option - it will be marriage or nothing.  So how does the government attempt to justify this flagrant discrimination?  It doesn't.

The official response to this year's consultation, released today (pdf), admits that the majority of those who expressed an opinion argued that civil partnership should be extended to all, while others thought that equality could be achieved by abolishing civil partnerships altogether.  It notes the "concern" contained in the Church of England's response that allowing civil marriage for same sex couples without allowing civil partnership for heterosexuals would be "legally unsustainable." It points to a submission from transsexual representatives, who drew attention to an anomaly that would result: if one partner in a civil partership legally changed sex, they would be forced to marry, whereas if one partner in a marriage changed sex they could stay married.  But it is unmoved: "We remain unconvinced that extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples is a necessary change. We will therefore be retaining civil partnerships for same-sex couples only."

It's not clear how they reached this conclusion, since there are clearly many people who do want to have civil partnerships, as the government acknowledges.  The statement is a remarkable piece of doublethink:

When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, they were created to allow equivalent access to rights, responsibilities and protections for same-sex couples to those afforded by marriage. They were not intended or designed as an alternative to marriage. Therefore, we do not believe that they should now be seen as an alternative to marriage for opposite sex couples.

Opposite sex couples currently have access to marriage, either via a civil or religious ceremony, which is both legally and socially recognised. We understand that not all opposite sex couples wish to marry, but that decision is theirs to make and they have the option to do so if they wish. Through the responses received to this consultation, it has not been made clear what detriment opposite sex couples suffer by not having access to civil partnerships.

The "detriment" they suffer is simple: the inability to contract a civil partnership, which they may see as preferable to marriage.  Until now, gay couples have suffered an equal detriment.  They couldn't get married, even if they preferred it to a civil partnership.  So, although there was discrimination, it went both ways.  It balanced out (sort of).  Now there's imbalance, and that's a "detriment" in anyone's lexicon.

The government is in a logical mess here.  Either civil partnership and marriage are equivalent, in which case there's no need to have equal marriage; or the two are distinct, in which case both should be open to all or else there should only be one type of legally recognised union.  Why retain civil partnerships for gay people?  Here's the government case:

Since their introduction in December 2005, over 50,000 civil partnerships have been registered. Civil partnerships are not available to opposite sex couples and legislation specifies other prohibitions on who can form civil partnerships, for example, siblings. But differences remain and at the time of introduction it was clear that civil partnerships were distinct from marriage.

So the two are not the same.  It's not just a matter of language.

Having taken the range of views into account, we intend to proceed with the proposals in the consultation document to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples only, including continuing to allow civil partnerships on religious premises. This is because we acknowledge the important role that these unions play in the lives of many couples. Civil partnerships are a well-understood union, which have been become part of people’s everyday lives and society in general. We see little benefit from removing them.

If civil partnerships are well-understood, and part of "society in general", it is wholly illogical not to extend them to "society in general".  It's true that they began as the gay alternative to marriage (largely, let's remember, it was a way of answering religious objections to same-sex marriage by saying "it isn't marriage").  But in retaining them now, the government is confirming, and strengthening, their different status from marriage.

In support of maintaining the option of civil partnership for gay couples, the government quotes the Law Society:

It would be unfair and legally tenuous for those couples to be faced with the choice of either being married or no longer being in a formalised relationship. We can see no practical benefit in dissolving civil partnerships.

But the Society also responded to the question of equal civil partnerships.  The statement doesn't appear in the government response, so here it is:

The Law Society believes that not opening up civil partnerships would constitute discrimination against heterosexual couples by denying them equal access.

We cannot see any reason why civil partnerships should not be open to heterosexual couples who want to formalise their union without the connotations that the term ‘marriage’ can bring. The issue is equal access and non-discrimination. We therefore disagree with this proposal.

The government has completely failed to address, let alone answer, the question of how banning heterosexual couples from civil partnerships will accord with equality and human rights legislation.  The Law Society response, as well as that from the Church of England, suggests strongly that making such a case would be very difficult.  I'd love to see the government's legal advice on this issue, but so far it hasn't been produced. 

So what arguments does the government have?  The first is that the change is "not necessary", a point that would apply equally to same-sex marriage itself.  Except that what the government actually means is that they don't think it's necessary "to open up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples in order to enable same-sex couples to get married."  The consultation, it's argued, was only concerned with that narrow question - this despite the fact that the question about heterosexual civil partnership (HCP) was asked.  The government also contends that extending civil partnership to opposite-sex couples would involve "a wider process of reform."  It wouldn't.  It would just involve more people.

When I last wrote on this issue I suggested that the real reason for not allowing HCP was that it was afraid of being seen to "undermine marriage":

On the face of it, and despite the Pope's paranoia, allowing more people to get married will not undermine the institution. It will make it stronger. But allowing more people to not get married, yet escape the legal discrimination that still exists against informal cohabitation, might well undermine marriage. It would no longer have much attraction to those who lacked a religious or cultural commitment to it; it would have a powerful, and perhaps in time more popular, rival.

While the consultation response doesn't quite admit this, it does perhaps let the cat out of the bag with this:

A number of organisations, including the Hindu Forum, indicated they did not think that civil partnerships should be available to opposite sex couples. Manchester Rabbinical Council felt that allowing more people to enter a legal relationship other than marriage would weaken marriage further. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales stated that “it does not give recognition to any other partnerships or legal unions as having an ethical or legal equivalence with marriage. The Church opposes … extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples who can marry”.

This chimes with David Cameron's repeated assertions that he supports gay marriage because he supports marriage, and that allowing same-sex marriage would strengthen the institution.  He thinks that marriage that is open to all couples would prove more popular.  Perhaps he even believes that marriage equality would strengthen its attractiveness to heterosexuals.  He might even be right.  But "you've got no choice" is a poor argument to offer on behalf of marriage, especially if a minority of couples do have a choice and many are choosing to get married.  In any case, I suspect this mean-spirited piece of moralising will backfire.  If equal civil partnership isn't added to the bill, I can't see how it will survive the inevitable legal challenge.  Would any lawyer like to explain how it might?
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Bound to You: an erotic memoir by Nichi Hodgson

2012 has been the year that kinky sex entered the mainstream; at least, it has been the year when kinky sex has been talked about endlessly in the media, to the equal delight and bemusement of people who have been indulging in it for years.  Much of this, though not all, was down to the phenomenon that was Fifty Shades of Grey, which opened the eyes of millions of (mainly) women readers to the erotic possibilities of submission and spanking. 

Many BDSM enthusiasts welcomed the greater awareness and social acceptance of their lifestyle that has followed.  At the same time, as many knowledgeable critics noted (including Adele Haze here) the Fifty Shades books were rooted in the author's fantasy and imagination rather than actual knowledge.  As such, they could give at best limited insight into the actual world of BDSM.  At worst they were misleading.  Also quite badly written, but that's beside the point.

Nichi Hodgson does know the scene, and from two distinct perspectives: she worked for a time as a professional dominatrix, while being a submissive in her personal life.  Her book explores both these aspects of her life history.  It's not a novel, at least it is not presented as such, nor is it, as erotic memoirs of this type tend to be, anonymous.  Her decision to use her own name is a brave one for someone who already has a public profile as a journalist and broadcaster  (although as she has written extensively about sex, including alternative sex, in the past) especially as a large proportion of the book consists of explicit, even pornographic, sex scenes and unflinching descriptions of her domming activities. 

The cover promises to introduce the reader, assumed to have read Fifty Shades, to the real-life counterpart to the novel's Christian Grey.  But there's rather more (and less) to it than that.  It owes as much to Bridget Jones' Diary and Belle de Jour than to the EL James trilogy.  An extended prologue concerns a long-term and largely "vanilla" relationship with a Greek boyfriend, which fails amid the pressures of cultural divergence and mid-Twenties metropolitan ennui.  Sunk in gloom about the break-up, and trying to fund endless unpaid internships by temping as a hospital administrator, Nichi is saved by Mistress Sapphire, a dominatrix she meets at (perhaps appropriately) a Halloween party.  Sapphire recruits her, initially as a "vanilla girl" whose job is to sit on a throne while Sapphire humiliates a PR man (compared cuttingly to a waxy ham).  But our Nichi, rechristened Jade, is soon turning her talents to everything from verbal humiliation to full strap-on sex, the passage describing which is one of the most memorable in the book.

Nichi/Jade finds the work "psychologically intriguing" and also, increasingly, a turn-on.  At least when the client is attractive.  It's also highly remunerative: much more so than the hospital job, and the hours are better.  The Independent's recent story exposing what looked like a scam offering to match impecunious female students with wealthy sugar daddies (provided they first passed an "audition") drew attention to a growing phenomenon of the tuition fee era.  But trying to clamber on board the London media merry-go-round without a trust-fund to support you can prove far more challenging than student finance, with its organised loans system.  Nichi Hodgson is most certainly not the only young journalist to discover an unconventional means of financing her writing career, though she is unusual in talking openly about it.

Eventually, Hodgson finds a "proper" job at a magazine (unnamed, but work it out for yourself) and hangs up her whips.  Instead, she meets Sebastian, a somewhat Byronic artist with whom she begins a torrid, sadomasochistic, sexually exploratory but ultimately unfulfilling relationship.  They meet up about once a week for intense sex sessions but little more; he never phones and is emotionally distant.  You get the idea.  He's a narcissist with commitment issues; she mopes and tries to work out what's going on in his head.  She's in love with him; the closest he comes to a romantic gesture is to implore her to send him YouTube clips of her reviewing the papers on Sky News. He claims to have an inability to fall in love, but the problem may just be that Nichi, being short, blonde and bosomy, doesn't sufficiently resemble Sebastian's ideal woman, who is Queen Rania of Jordan.  In a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship she helps him fulfil a castration fantasy involving a large pair of scissors, but while it turned him on it left Nichi an emotional wreck.  So they go their separate ways and we all breathe a sigh of relief.  The book itself winds down slowly, ending on an optimistic note when another domly artist enters her life.

Bound to You was written over a mere six weeks this autumn and at times it shows.  It reads well - once it gets going, which isn't until the Greek boyfriend is out of the picture, it's something of a page-turner.  But the structure is rather episodic, and there's an ambiguity of tone.  It's unclear whether Hodgson is trying to educate her readers or turn them on.  There's also a vagueness with time: dates don't add up, so that identifiable events happen at impossible times.  This may be intentional fictionalisation.  In fact, the whole story might have worked better as a novel.  Hodgson is good on the psychology of dominant/submissive relationships and there are some memorable passages both erotic and hilarious, especially those that describe the intricacies of her dominatrix work. The problem is that Sebastian, the supposed "real-life Christian Grey", just isn't interesting enough to sustain the role of romantic antihero; although (I assume) he's a real person, he's too much of a cliché to convince as one.  The much-anticipated kinky sex doesn't seem to amount to much, either: he tugs her hair and spanks her, while she has exposive orgasms.  I suspect there was more to it than that.  And the submissive Nichi in the book seems far removed from the firecracker of real life, especially during the Sebastian passages. 

Dominatrix Nichi, on the other hand, seems like a lot more fun. But perhaps that's just me.
Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Leveson at last

So then, Leveson. I had vowed to say nothing about it until I'd inwardly digested all 1987 pages (including bibliography and notes) of Lord Justice Brian's long-awaited, and certainly long, report. But that's rather like when I decided to read the Bible from cover to cover and then gave up two-thirds of the way through Exodus. Actually, the Bible's a thrilling page-turner compared to Leveson, even the bits that explain in exhaustive detail what varieties of animal are and are not acceptable for sacrifice. So that's the first thing: it's boring.

Partly, I suppose, the dullness comes from the predictability. The cases of press intrusion that Leveson enumerates have all been gone over time and time again. Take Max Mosley, for example. First there was the court case, in which Mosley and Mr Justice Eady dealt a well-earned spanking to the News of the World. He was a hero then, but has since become a bore, hawking his familiar complaints around endless committee rooms and TV studios. His appearance before Leveson added little, and the write-up of his case in the report adds nothing at all.

Leveson's predictability, though, goes beyond the familiar nature of much of the evidence, and the fact that the central conclusion - calling for a semi-independent regulatory body with statutory "underpinning" - was well trailed in advance. Leveson plods through the evidence, showing little insight and almost never offering an original observation. There's no analysis beyond a general sense that the press's critics are right and its defenders wrong. The turgidity of the prose seems to be an accurate reflection of the turgidity of the judge's brain.

Perhaps he doesn't understand journalism. (He can't write, after all.) His regime, which requires meticulous record-keeping and would remove vital protection of investigative journalists from the rigours of the Data Protection Act, would make the most vital functions of a free press in exposing corruption and wrongdoing next to impossible. These proposals are astonishing, and show the dangers of the demand by Ed Miliband and the Hacked Off campaign, that Leveson's recommendations be adopted "in full." If Parliament's job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of a single judge, we might as well abolish democracy entirely and hand legislative responsibility to the judiciary. They would, of course, make a pig's ear of it, because however knowledgeable judges are about the law, they have the same occupational blind spot as members of other professions and callings, the assumption that what they happen to be expert in is the only thing that really matters.

Leveson almost entirely dismisses of the internet as a source of news, although he seems to make a bizarre exception for Mail Online, which he thinks "legitimately proud" of its large international readership, most of whom are there to gawk at celebrities' fashion faux-pas and suggestive pictures of under age girls. It might be said that the internet was beyond his strict remit. In the strict sense it was. But he was clearly free to point out that an inquiry into press ethics that ignored the media revolution that is going on all around us is bound to be inadequate. Instead, he appears to have taken the absence of cyberspace from his terms of reference as evidence that it is of fairly peripheral importance to the newspaper industry. The result is a report that might as well have fallen stillborn from the press.

Largely as a result of the head of steam that built up before and during Leveson's hearings, there will be some new form of much tougher press regulation, with or without "statutory underpinning." The press managed to resist such a conclusion for decades, eking out the last rounds in last-chance saloon. That they must surrender now is not because their abuses are greater than formerly. By any objective measure, press behaviour today, while far from perfect, is considerably less egregious than it was during, say, the 1980s. Most of the abuses into which Leveson inquired dated back several years: in Charlotte Church's case, a decade or more.

Some were, it is true, more recent, such as the smearing of Christopher Jefferies after his arrest by police investigating the murder of Joanna Yeates. He was, of course, entirely innocent; his innocence, indeed, should have been obvious from the start. But the press's behaviour didn't go unpunished. Two newspapers were held in contempt of court and Mr Jefferies won considerable damages from several titles. It's often forgotten that in defaming the retired teacher, the press were following a strong lead from the local police. To say that is not to defend their libellous and prejudicial pursuit of Jefferies, but it does perhaps point to the real problem here, which is the tendency of the press to be too close to the police and insufficiently critical of their shortcomings. This is but a subset of a wider issue: the vulnerability of much of the media (including the broadcast media) to official mindsets and pre-packaged points of view. But it would have been too much to expect Leveson to get to grips with that.

But to return to the point: it is because the newspaper industry is severely weakened that even though it has been cleaning up its act for some years now - even if there is much further to go - it is facing regulation today. In previous decades, its power was such that it could ride out bigger storms. At the heart of the various proposals for press regulation and oversight, whether Leveson's or those coming from Lords Hunt and Black on behalf of the industry itself, is a paradox. If statutory regulation is now imposed on an unwilling press (as might still happen) it will be because the press is no longer powerful enough to need statutory regulation.

And even if the press escapes statutory regulation (or independent regulation "underpinned by statute") it will give itself something almost indistinguishable from what Leveson is now proposing, just to save it from what Leveson actually is proposing. This is why most of this week's debate is hot air. Whether the regulation be underpinned by statute or not makes little difference. Either way it will be "independent" - in other words, it will be some sort of quango. It will be stuffed with the usual people of impeccable liberal credentials whose real talents are for empire-building and securing themselves attractive pension plans. The press is the main remaining area of public life over which the class of regulators has no control, and now is their chance to make good the lack.  But would a press controlled by the same regulatory oligarchy as the rest of the country's institutions be so preferable to one controlled by an oligarchy of press barons?

Statutory underpinning would not imply political or state control of the press, nor would voluntary "self-regulation" (which will not actually be self-regulation, for independent self-regulation is a contradiction in terms) imply that the press remains free or unfettered. Either way, ultimate control of the press is handed over to a quango or a quasi-quango staffed by people whose job is to represent the public interest but over whom the public have no control. The people can neither vote them out nor refuse to buy their product; and in need of something to fill their days as the press turns more and more risk-averse the regulators will find themselves listening to advice from special-interest groups and commissioning reports of their own.

Leveson himself (clear-sighted for once) anticipates much of this: buried in the report are several comments to the effect that "representatives bodies", rather than individuals who have been traduced or libelled, will have the major role in bringing matters of wider interest to the attention of the new regulator. Typically, he seems to think that this is a good thing. It isn't. Many such pressure groups believe deep down that all British newspapers should be indistinguishable from the Guardian. But there's only room for one Guardian, and they way things are going there may not for much longer be room even for one.

Lord Justice Leveson has written a staggeringly boring report. Let not his legacy be a staggeringly boring press.
Read the rest of this article