Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Catfish, Lies & On-line Identities

cross-posted at Single Lens Reflections

Full Transcript:

D: Hello. We've decided to do an audio-review of the film, Catfish, in order to test out Stephen's new microphone. The film Catfish is one where there's no way to review it without major spoilers, so if you want to watch the film and enjoy it in its completeness, you need to stop listening now.

S: Quite right. And thank you very much for the microphone. It's very beautiful, thank you.

D: You're welcome. Would you like to tell the listeners – I was about to say “viewers” - would you like to tell the listeners what the film is about?

S: I don't think the microphone is that good.

D: No.

S: The film is about – it's a documentary following a photographer, who has an office in New York, who strikes up an on-line friendship with “Abby” who is a seven year old girl from an American state beginning with M.

D: Michigan.

S: Michigan. I keep on forgetting this. We've had a trial run and I came up with Massachusetts and

D: Demure

S: Des Moines. Even I know that there isn't an American state called “Demure”

D: There isn't an American state called “Des Moines”.

S: Is there not? Is that a city?

D: I don't know but I know there aren't any

S: I so want to Google it and I can't really do an “Excuse me a minute while I get out my phone”

Right so, Michigan.

D: It was Michigan.

S: Michigan. And he was in New York and apparently there is quite a large space between those two places.

D: Cause it's in America.

S: Cause it's in America and America is big.

D: It's all spaced out.

S: Is it? News to me. Okay. So they strike up a friendship via Facebook. She paints his photos that are published in various magazines.

D: Makes paintings from his photos.

S: Yep, paintings of his photos. And he then becomes friendly with her mother Angela and her sister Megan and in fact the relationship with Megan becomes very romantically-inclined.

D: Yes, I think he thinks he's in love with her.

S: Yeah. And the thing is filmed by his two friends who both use his office space. But the documentary starts out as really looking at his relationship with this family. They call it the Facebook family because he “friends” them all on Facebook. And we see all of these lives meshed together. A brother who worries about how he's treating Megan. And it's quite in depth and detailed. But the action takes a bit of a tumble when he realises that a song that Megan claims to have produced within about twenty minutes or something - he requests a song

D: Yeah, he requests a cover of a song and suddenly

S: Tennessee Stud, I believe it was.

D: Yes it was.

S: Yeah, see I can remember that. And Tennessee is somewhere in America.

D: And uh, yeah. No it wasn't, it's the name of a playright, Tennessee Williams.

S: Oh I see.

D: I think perhaps they named a place after Tennessee Williams.

S: It makes sense.

D: It's a bit like Denver and John Denver.

S: And Denzel Washington.

D: Yeah, I don't know, I think perhaps Washington was there before Denzel Washington.

S: Okay. So, this song. He receives this song as an MP3 or whatever. And I can't remember why but they go looking for other versions and they actually find the song on Youtube.

D: I think it was a different song. They were getting lots of songs and it was a different song that they searched for but they realised that the recording sounded exactly the same as a cover on Youtube.

S: So they'd recorded the audio stream from Youtube and then sent it on to him. So initially he thinks, “Oh no, this love of my life is a plagiarist.” But the story unravels more and he ends up with his friends – because they're relatively near to where these people live – going and dropping in on them and so the secret unravels.

Now we were, prior to this point, or certainly you were convinced that this was a “Mockumentary”.

D: Not a Mockumentary! I thought it was a “Blair Witch” style fake

S: A spooky unsettling horror type thing.

D: Or “Spinal Tap”. I thought it was a drama pretending to be a documentary. And it is beautifully done.

S: Yes it is beautifully done. The filming, some of the scenes

D: The use of technology, the use of Google Earth when they're moving about

S: And Street View to kind of focus in on these places

D: Really nice use of tech, which is still quite rare in films, to use on-line technology that looks like the on-line technology that we all use. But it just, it is real. It really was real. I think we realise this, without a doubt, when we finally meet the character of Angela.

S: Or the person who is really Angela.

D: The person is really Angela, who doesn't look anything like the photographs we've seen. And turns out to be responsible for all these identities.

S: Twelve separate accounts on Facebook.

D: Which include the daughter. She does have a daughter, but the daughter doesn't resemble – well she physically resembles but she isn't a painter, she isn't this bright spark that has been having this e-mail correspondence with the photographer. And the older daughter, who the photographer believes himself in love with, as well as a brother, some cousins, some friends. And she's fabricated the whole thing. And we were talking about the way that that's changed. You know, having been on-line since the late 90s, I think we feel a lot safer with the people we meet on-line now because we are so interconnected.

S: Yeah, the evolution of social media has created a smaller degree of separation. Just the other day on Twitter, someone I follow who is involved in electric vehicles ended up retweeting from someone I am aware of through disability activism so the reality of both people becomes more solid as they're both linked together.

D: And the people, certainly the people I know. I mean, I don't use Facebook but the people I know through blogging and Twitter and all of that, there are sort of strange connections between people. But you're not having to appraise one person who could be fooling you, if they're fooling you, they're fooling a lot of people. Because they're interconnected. But of course this woman had created an entire network of people, all of which were backing up this narrative. I mean, she was a frustrated novelist really, she didn't know that that's what she should have been doing with her time. But she was managing twelve Facebook accounts and presumably Twitter accounts and things, as well as having two mobile phones so she could pick up the phone as herself and she could pick up the phone as her imaginary daughter. And the whole thing, all these characters and interactions and everything they were doing amongst themselves were an entire fabrication.

S: And she had been the person producing these paintings. Really out of a love for this

D: She was very much in love with the photographer.

S: He was – I think with his interest in dance, which she shared and

D: They did have a lot in common.

S: They did have a lot in common and they seemed to get on very well.

D: Except for the fact that she had obviously deceived him in a terrific way. She'd made him fall in love with someone who didn't exist. And she was terrifically in love with him.

S: Whilst being a married housewife. But we begin to understand her situation as we begin to her house in – what I would say was a very isolated community?

D: It's difficult to judge.

S: It's difficult to judge, but. And looking after, it would appear looking after full time, two young men who were both physically and mentally disabled. And she seemed to have a very empty life? Is that fair?

D: I think she had a very frustrated life. She obviously had a lot of time on her hands. And I think, compared to the life of a photographer working in New York, going to all kinds of Arts things, I think she felt very frustrated. She didn't have the access to that kind of art. She had a very frustrating life.

S: And this had driven her to trying to create something better, something richer. Which I think is a symptom of society that reduces a degree of social care which is necessary. People need the connections she was creating. People need rich lives.

D: She was one of these characters that you do know – I think, when she appeared, you knew straight away that there was no doubt that this was a genuine documentary because she was not a character you normally get in films. She was a compulsive liar really, but she wasn't a crafty criminal mastermind type. She sort of – she was a very sympathetic character, you felt quite sorry for her even though you could tell that she was

S: And even the break down of her life on film was heart-breaking.

D: It was.

S: Because she's confronted very gently. They did do very well. They weren't angry with her.

D: I think they were a bit angry but they were keeping it under control.

S: They weren't vindictive, sorry.

D: No, they weren't malicious or... They could have humiliated her or just bamboozled her with what she'd done.

S: Yeah. But the truth is relatively gently brought to light. And she's given the opportunity to almost come clean. She doesn't quite get there, she does produce quite a few more lies.

D: One of the things that really shoke – was very familiar was um... She had very long hair which she was very proud of. And she'd sent them a photograph that was supposed to be her and the only similarity between that and her was that the woman in the photograph had very long hair. She was complimented on this and she said, “Well, I won't have it for long because I'm on chemotherapy.” Which really kind of struck a chord because, of all the sort of stories that you hear of romances that turn out to be other than they are, on-line, cancer does seem to be a recurring theme.

S: And it also does stop any further conversation because it is the topic to end all topics.

D: Yeah. In the late 90s, the very first one I came across was a friend, a sort-of friend who had this girlfriend who was supposedly in hospital dying of cancer, although she had internet access, which seems unlikely given the time. And she had a PO Box address which seemed a bit suspect. And it seemed unbelievable then to everybody. Most of us hadn't been on-line very long and we just couldn't see how someone could get sucked in like that. But the guy felt himself in love.

And then a couple of years later there was another friend who was exactly the same – well not exactly the same thing happened. But again there was this guy who had seemed to have had a very tragic life and then he had cancer and there wasn't much time and so the whole relationship was very intense. And of course people do have cancer and people do have very intense relationships at the end of their lives but it does sort of, it is a bit too familiar, isn't it?

S: So this was the film. It was quite shocking. We were both – we chose it because it would be – we had a choice between this and Titus Andronicus and I think we went with the lighter option.

D: I still think it was probably the lighter option than Titus Andronicus.

S: Well you say that. Yeah perhaps okay. But we were both quite shocked.

D: Could we do like a Facebook version of Titus Andronicus?

S: Um, well Livinia does have her hands cut off which would limit her options for, anyway. So we were both quite shocked by the end of the film and as well as wanting to test the microphone, we wanted to talk a bit about it because it moved us.

D: Yes, it was very moving. And we talked about, I mean we've both been on-line since our... I don't know, how old were you?

S: I was a teenager still.

D: Well, I was a teenager still. I was going to say late teens and I thought perhaps it was your mid teens.

S: It may have well been mid-teens.

D: When you were young and naïve.

S: And I was called “The Very Cowardly Lion”.

D: That's really – the very cowardly lion?

S: The very cowardly lion. I know, it's really sad isn't it? But anyway.

D: [pause] Yes. Um.

S: That's a bit of a stopper, isn't it? Sorry.

D: That's a bit of a stopper.

S: I wasn't. I was just called Stephen. That was what my username was, it wasn't the Very Cowardly Lion. And I didn't go onto very early chatrooms and not say much apart from “Hello, I'm the Very Cowardly Lion.”

D: Yeah. I can't remember an awful lot of my old usernames and things.

S: That's probably for the best, I now feel very embarrassed. In fact I may cut this bit.

D: I don't think you should. Because people will want to Google it to see if there's any evidence of you.

S: I bet there isn't. That was in the days of Netscape.

D: Wow. So were you ever tempted to be someone you weren't?

S: Well I almost signed up for Second Life, after a friend of mine joined. But I think there's a desire often with, especially people who are ill and could be – aren't very satisfied with there lives, to try and create a new, more fulfilling existence. And the internet's a wonderful tool for this, because you don't have to show you're physical form. You can build a physical form that works with your idea of what you want to be.

D: Amanda Baggs, who blogs at Ballastexistenz. She is non-verbal autistic and she is a wheelchair-user and she's talked about using (bless you) using Second Life and that experience being completely different, because she is non-verbal, to be able to talk and interact and not be a wheelchair-user and her whole experience of life is completely different.

S: And it allows an extra dimension to life.

D: I don't think that is on any level pretending to be other than you are. I mean, Second Life, it is to do with a version of yourself, I don't think it's even an idealised version of yourself.

S: It depends on the person.

D: Yeah. It's a bit like in the Matrix when he incorrectly says, I think he says, “It's a mental picture of your digital self” when he really means – it's one of those many points in the Matrix when he gets his words wrong.

S: I did have a Yahoo chat account with several different identities. And I used them for times when I didn't want to be contacted.

D: I think organised crime is another issue altogether.

S: Yeah, back in the days of the Yahoo Mob, yeah. No, that was when I wanted to. When I was unable to socialise and yet wanted to be around some form of people.

D: Like in a petri dish.

S: Yeah, when I used to experiment on these poor tormented internet souls. I used to a put on a disguise to just sit quietly. But I didn't use that to become someone else. I just had one that was a Latin term and one that was actually a couple of words from a Portishead lyric, both of whom allowed me to sit quietly in a room and not be bothered.

D: Was that “Machine Gun”?
S: Um, no. It was “slave to sensation”. Which, if you've ever been to Yahoo chat, makes you sound like, um...

D: I think we know what that makes you sound like.

S: And so you never ever get bothered, which is wonderful.

D: I'm quite surprised you don't get bothered. I'm quite surprised people weren't interested in what particular sensations you were slave to.

S: Anyway, that was a long time ago. And uh, sorry, I have forgotten where I was.

D: I've pretended to be a man on-line.

S: Have you?

D: Yes, I put on a deep voice like this. [convincing masculine voice] Hello. Hello darling. [resumes feminine voice] That's my

S: It's very convincing! I can almost hear the chest hair.

D: But I've not actually

S: Just a warning to anyone who hasn't watched the film and yet is still listening to this, in which case shame on you. You do see an awful lot of chest hair. He has, he has got an awful lot and you know, in this society where chest hair is banished from the front of magazines, it is quite shocking.

D: Okay. I have pretended to be a man on-line but not actually, to be honest I didn't really try hard. I just let people refer to me in the masculine and call me mister and so on, and not challenge them. Especially when I was younger, I think I very much felt that people – especially on political matters – I felt people took me more seriously if they thought I was a man. I wouldn't do that now.

S: I'm glad.

D: Because I think the sort – I mean it's an implicit bias, so it's not actually people who are horrendously sexist, but at the same time I think it's better that I might be taken a little less seriously but that people see that my point of view is that of a woman.

S: Yes.

D: A lady. I think it's particularly interesting for people who

S: have some sort of internet existence.

D: Yeah and also know people who are – I have know people who are – I mean we've obviously both been isolated at different times. But people who are isolated who turn to online communities to resolve isolation and there's nothing unhealthy about that in itself. But I think it sort of demonstrates where it can go.

S: The power of honesty. The importance of honesty. And the inevitability of lies.

D: Because you meet people and you don't believe who they are. I mean you meet people in real life and you don't buy, you know, there are lots of people who are full of...

S: Yeah.

D: We need a word that isn't a swearword to describe...

S: I do have that Bleep App on my phone. But I'd have to go and get my phone.

D: Yeah. Okay, how about you go “Beep” and I say it? There are people who are full of b....

S: [silence]

D: You've got to beep! There are people who are full of b...

S: I think you're all very glad I didn't beep, aren't you? Because that was far more funny as it was. I think they get the point.

D: There are people who are full of [beep]. Can we beep that afterwards?

S: There are indeed. There are people who lie, and we do have to be careful. But we also have to be caring because often people lie for a reason, a reason that is... well no, often don't, some of them are just idiots.

D: But lots of people do tell lies for a reason. Unfortunately though, they do tend to carry on lying, in experience. I think this is the thing. I think they get found out and, because it's a defence mechanism and as such it is very difficult to help people who tell lots of fibs.

S: So I think that's just about it.

D: Yes, I think it is.

S: So thank you for listening.

D: Yes, thank you. I hope we haven't wasted too much of your day.

S: And if we have, tough luck.

D: Yeah, you should have spent it on Facebook. [phone noise] Oops! Sorry.

S: And with that beep of modern technology, we bid you Adieu.

D: Goodbye.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Abstinence, Victim-Blaming & Female Empowerment

So if anyone had any doubts how messed up we are about sexual violence, this was the week to learn otherwise.

Earlier this month, a bill passed through the preliminary stages of parliamentary process to teach abstinence to 13-16 year old girls in UK schools. The bill is unlikely to become law as it was proposed by Nadine “70% Fiction” Dorries who has throw a lot of issues around porn in newsagents, sexy children's clothes and all sorts into the debate about Sex Education. Then on Monday, she gave an interview on daytime TV in which she said
“...one of the reasons for [the push for abstinence] is that some of the evidence that I’ve heard is that if a stronger just say no message was given to children in school that there might be an impact on sex abuse. Because a lot of girls, when sex abuse takes place, don’t realise until later that that was a wrong thing to do. [...] Society is so over-sexualised that I don’t think people realise that if we did empower this message into girls, imbued this message in schools, we’d probably have less sex abuse.”
which didn't so much take the biscuit, as gobble a whole packet of ginger nuts. And a box of crackers. And half a dozen custard-creams.

Much of what needs to be said about this was covered by last Monday's post about Slutwalk, except before Monday, Dorries wasn't talking explicitly about rape - although the implication of her proposal to teach abstinence to girls only is that girls are gatekeepers and boys are beasts and so it is up to girls to take responsibility for everything.

Some bloggers have written about their experiences of childhood sexual abuse and how very deeply offensive – and damaging – such comments are. To have a serving politician suggest that there was something these children could have done which they failed to do, to throw discussion of sexual abuse in with girly magazines and masturbation is utterly perverse. This especially in the light of recent major child rape scandals like say, within the Catholic Church, where children undoubtedly talk of nothing but putting condoms on bananas.

It is difficult not to get very very angry with this individual. But I'm sure she didn't really think about what she was saying – she's thrown in so many issues in with her crusade against our over-sexed society that she's probably lost track (I know I have). She also has a history of tackling highly emotive subjects without research and she will probably issue a statement along the lines that what she says in interviews is 70% nonsense (fiction suggests at least a modicum of creative process).

Instead of getting angry (or more angry than I am), I wanted to talk a little about empowerment.

When it comes to child abuse, the single most effective way of protecting any given child is by instilling him or her with confidence and trust in other people. This isn't to say that confident and trusting children will never be harmed, but they are difficult to manipulate and silence and are thus very unattractive to abusers. The same goes for adults. One of the great tragedies for abused children is that they are much more likely to be abused as adults. Similarly, once a woman has experienced rape, she becomes statistically more likely to be raped again. This isn't because abused people take undue risks, but because these people are vulnerable, their self-worth and trust in others is damaged, and such vulnerability is very attractive to abusive people.

Cultural anxiety around sexual behaviour – including sexual abuse – can be damaging to the children it seeks to protect. And this is where a cultural obsession with sex is a problem – but Dorries is part of that problem. Attitudes like hers makes sex into a big bad shameful thing. When you grow up understanding sex to be dark and shameful, it is unsurprising when you have sexual experiences which make you feel unhappy and ashamed. The message that girls are corrupted little temptresses for whom sexual expression is dangerous is a very useful one for abusers. This is one of several reasons why abuse carried on for so long in the Catholic Church; if sex is horrible sinful thing, then children can be made to feel guilty and thus silent and co-operative about anything sexual that happens to them, even when it was utterly against their will.*

Our culture has messed up with this stuff too. The level of anxiety around paedophilia, the amount of scrutiny levelled at adults – especially men – who work with children, as well as things like the “no touch rules” which discourage supervising adults to physically comfort children might not be doing any good. Children who have good relationships with a variety of adults and experience appropriate touch from people other than their parents are going to be quicker to identify relationships and behaviour that don't fit. There's anxiety about a lack of male role models for boys, but I think they are just as important for girls – girls who have good relationships with men growing up will better know what men are like (i.e. they vary a great deal and anyone who mistreats you and excuses himself on the grounds of gender is a problem).

But when it comes to those things that girls do have control over, we need to teach girls that there is much more to them than sex. To use an old feminist concept, Dorries condemns woman to being the Sex Class every bit as much as the padded-bikinis and the sexualised images of women we see everywhere. A girl can either have sex or abstain from sex, and what sort of girl she is, what sort of life she has, depends on that decision. Sex is all about girls and girls are all about sex.

The single greatest thing we can do to help girls and women avoid making bad choices is to empower them in every aspect of their lives. When I was a teenager, the principle difference between those female friends of mine who became sexually active early on and took risks (the two did seem to go together) and those who waited longer and were then very careful was how they saw themselves – it had nothing to do with their knowledge of or interest in or moral ideas about sex.

Some of my friends had ambitions, hobbies and a lot of things going on as well. It wasn't that they were being kept busy or that they were any less hormonal and horny, but the way they saw themselves meant that boys might be lovers and some of these relationships were serious, but none were all-consuming and having a child was utterly unthinkable that side of twenty-five. For some of my friends, boyfriends and the soap opera style intrigues of teenage sexual shenanigans were all that was going on. One such friend said, aged fifteen, “Of course I don't want to get pregnant, but if it happens, it happens.” Poor lass needed something to happen.

Another difference between these girls? Massive social and socio-economic privilege on the part of that first group of girls. Not intelligence or temperament, but big difference in education and thus life prospects. But that's a rather trickier political matter than “Just say no”.

* Obviously part of that scandal was the great number of children and their families who weren't silent but were ignored anyway, but my point still stands. I should also add that I realise that very many Catholics think sex is a wonderful heaven-sent gift.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Slutwalk, Victim-Blaming & The Demonisation of Straight Men

I have a few reservations about Slutwalk, but not nearly so many about the media coverage. The project has inadvertently provided newspapers with an opportunity to publish pictures of pretty young barely-dressed white women before opening on-line “debate” about whether or not such women are asking for it. Most of the participants, like the cop who originally warned women not to dress “like sluts” take the view that the compulsion to rape is a natural part of male heterosexuality and it is up to women to avoid rape by removing the temptation. Recurring analogies seem to be all about car theft; sometimes a sluttily-dressed woman is a car left with the keys in the lock, sometimes she's a shiny new cars versus an old rusty one. And of course, there are plenty of comments about how the women photographed aren't up to standard and thus in no danger of rape anyway.

But of course, the temptation to rape has almost nothing to do with sexual attraction. Because, guess what? Most men who are sexually attracted to women are not rapists. Most straight and bisexual men are capable of experiencing an infinite amount of lust and longing without turning to violence. It's not that rape doesn't have anything to do with sex – I think a lot of the solutions to rape are about female sexual empowerment. But the compulsion to rape is not a sexual one.

To say that rape is mostly about power is not just an abstract feminist analysis. We know this to be the case because sometimes straight men rape other men as a punishment or assertion of power; the rape of male prisoners of war is commonplace and the men who rape men in prisons are frequently heterosexual on the outside. We also know this because those women most vulnerable to rape are not those who are considered most sexually attractive – for example, disabled women are more likely to be raped than non-disabled women, despite our lack of conventional attractiveness.

Meanwhile, men who admit to rape (in crafty studies where they phrase questions around physical aggression, sex and consent, so not to actually use the word rape) are not generally sexually-frustrated, but typically men who have a lot of sex with a lot of people. The number of famous sportsmen convicted of rape demonstrates this point very clearly; it is not that these wealthy, famous, often physically attractive young men have any trouble getting consenting sexual partners, they just get nasty when they find that they can't do whatever they like to whomever they like. This comes from entitlement, arrogance and an utter contempt for women. And of course, if rape was matter of lust, then there wouldn't be such variation in rape statistics between cultures. There are entirely non-sexual reasons why in the US, a woman is one and a half times more likely to experience rape than in the UK.

Rapists use sex as an excuse and the rest of us often prefer a narrative of sexual provocation and frustration because it somehow makes rape less horrific than it is – it puts rape on a spectrum of regrettable sexual behaviours and indiscretions. Even rape victims can fall foul of this. At the height of the Julian Assange scandal, I read a blogger writing in Assange's defence, describe her own experience of being physically forced into sex despite objections and physical resistance as “just something that happens between men and women, which is sad, but it's not a crime.”* Which I found very sad indeed.

We also know that women are statistically less vulnerable to rape alone on a street or around strangers than they are indoors with a date, a male friend, boyfriend or husband. Thus, according to the numbers, a woman in a short skirt and high heels walking alone down a dark alley is not creating nearly such a good opportunity to a potential rapist as a woman in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt sitting at home with her boyfriend. The scantily-clad woman on the street has places to run to, maybe people to call out to, probably a phone inches from her hand. And if she is attacked, then there's less confusion. It may even possible she has more chance of conviction than the girlfriend of a rapist, I don't know.

The idea of masculine heterosexuality as something out of control, compelling men to take every opportunity for sexual contact with women, lets straight men off many social hooks. There is still a double standard about sexual morality, whereby girls and women are expected to take responsibility for sexual decisions, contraception and so on, whilst the idea that boys will be boys is used to excuse almost anything, up to and including the rape of children by adult men. There's absolutely no doubt about the effect this has on women's lives, our sexual and mental health, our freedom of movement and expression and our relationships with men.

However these same ideas demonise the sexuality of straight and bisexual men. It removes the value of men's sexual choices, it diminishes any sense of their free will. It makes the sexual assault of a straight man by a woman impossible, since no real man would ever say no to anything. It places a great deal of pressure on boys and men to be sexually active whether they want to be or not, whether they want the available kinds of realtionships or not. It alienates men who are shy, romantic or uncertain about sex, let alone those have religious beliefs around chastity. It makes male celibacy into something deeply sinister. And of course, it makes male sexuality out to be inherently dangerous, leading to a culture of suspicion towards men who work around children and other vulnerable people.

It's not an accident that straight men perpetrate the vast majority of rapes, but it is not because being a straight man makes you bad. This is all about power. And it is up to straight men to take the power away from those within their ranks who use these excuses for violence.

Hannah has written a very good review of some of the more reasoned coverage and discussion around Slutwalk, the reclamation of language, whether it is a feminist movement and so on. I've read other good things written about it, but just now the only thing I can remember is the Germaine Greer piece in the Telegraph, which gave the rallying cry, "If they're to be liberated, women have to demand the right to be dirty. By declaring themselves sluts, they lay down the Cillit Bang and take up the instruments of pleasure."

*I paraphrase for anonymity.

Monday, May 09, 2011

News, Numbers and Nonsense

Cross-posted at Where's the Benefit?

The news that mental health conditions are now the most common reason for somebody to be on incapacity benefits is only the latest in a great slew of statistics published lately about disability benefit which are being used to imply something far beyond their significance. Statistics only become news when they are seen to be interesting - usually when something is going dramatically up, or down.

In this case, the real story here is that the numbers of people with chronic back pain on Incapacity Benefit dropped by 50% between 1997 and 2007 - that's the newsworthy bit, that should be the headline. Not because it's good news, but because it indicates an actual change. And whilst the Occupational Therapists looking at the data couldn't see why they could be responsible for this change, I think it says positive things about workplace conditions - both that workers have been made less vulnerable to back injury and strain at work and after the introduction of DDA, workers with chronic back pain have rights to accommodation so many can carry on working. I'm sure there's also better advice from GPs, maybe other improvements in medical treatment too.

But no, the story is about mental illness, to imply that it is remarkable so many people should be incapacity benefit with mental illness. Only it's not very many at all.

One in four people in the UK will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. According to the article's statitistics (once we do some maths of our own) about one in two hundred and fifty of the country's population is currently incapacitated due to mental ill health.

The same sum is useful to apply to that obesity statistic published a few weeks back. The headline was that 80,000 people are on incapacity benefits because of alcoholism, drug addiction or obesity, but it was the smallest proportion of this group, people with obesity, that gained the attention. My Dad had heard the news and declared that 80,000 people incapacitated by obesity. The Mirror delighted in the imagery, “People who are too fat to work are biting a huge hole in the country’s finances, figures revealed yesterday.”

In fact, it was more like 1800 who were obese. Almost one in four of us is obese, but these figures mean that only one in thirty-five-thousand of us are actually incapacitated by obesity, making the “Loads of people are too fat to work” trope rather moot.

These statistics demonstrate that it is very rare for mental illness or obesity to lead to incapacity. Given that these conditions, along with chronic back pain (usually reported as “a bad back” in the press and usually in inverted commas), are common*, this should lead to empathy as opposed to dismissal.

I have had chronic back pain and mental illness and I have been obese. Had I not been chronically ill as it was, the back pain and mental illness would have lead to significant time off work but neither would have been bad enough for long enough to take me out of work. Despite that, my mental health experiences have been by far the worst experiences of my life, far worse than any level of pain I have experienced. My back pain was intensely painful, tremendously frustrating, very sensitive to emotional tension and presented a constant battle between the need for rest and the need for movement. So when I hear about people being incapacitated by mental ill health or “a bad back”, I have great sympathy – they have what I had but probably worse and definitely for much longer.

The obesity was only a problem to me because I had put on weight very quickly and felt very self-conscious about it, so goodness knows how much more severe a person's condition has to be before it stops them working. People who are incapacitated with obesity are significantly unwell. To carry that kind of weight in the first place, there must be an underlying physical or mental health problem - if someone actually eats their way to that size, they have an eating disorder as serious and dangerous as anorexia or bulimia.

But my sympathy is utterly irrelevant. The point is that someone has to experience a significant level of functional impairment in order to qualify for any disability benefits. Just because a condition is common doesn't mean that a minority of people don't get it very bad. Almost everyone has had the flu at some point in their lives, but that doesn't make it remarkable that a few thousand people who die of it each winter.

* Mental illness can of course be a hundred different things, including relatively rare conditions, but for these purposes all these mental ill health is lumped in together. I'm not going to go to great pains to put this right because the whole matter of diagnostic labels and incapacity is highly problematic and plays into the hierarchy of disability.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Live Long and Prosper

(It's probably too late in the day to say "May the Fourth be With You")

Thank you so much for all your support with Blogging Against Disablism Day!

Numbers-wise, I think it was a relatively quiet year. The numbers go up and down and so far I've not seen an obvious pattern, except Sunday is usually a quiet blog day and there were some groups that seemed to be thin on the ground this year – fewer techies and parent-bloggers than previous years. However, I think we may have had more readers than normal – almost 2,500 hits on Sunday and over a thousand on both Monday and Tuesday.

There was also some excellent writing, and I'm still trying to get round and leave all the comments I wanted to write on May 1st. In the meantime, thank you very much to everyone who left such kind comments on my own posts. Very much appreciated.

I should have said this earlier, but if anybody has any “Round-Up” posts of their favourite BADD posts, let me know and I shall post a link on the archive page. Lisa already did one at Where's the Benefit?

Naturally, I have since been sleeping a lot and I still am.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2011Welcome to Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011!

Thanks very much to everyone who helped to spread the word and to everyone who posted about disability discrimination today. This year there was a very good turn out (especially considering it was a Sunday) and some truly excellent writing.

If you happen to write a "round-up" of your favourite BADD posts, give me a link and I shall include it here. So far I know Lisa has done one at Where's the Benefit?

Blogging Against Disablism 2011

(Disability discrimination in the workplace, recruitment issues and unemployment).

Cheaper than Therapy: The Road to Hell...
Everyone Else Has a Blog: A Definition of Irony
Stickman Communications: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
This Ain't Livin': Disability and Work

(Attitudes and practical issues effecting disabled people and the discussion of disability in education, from preschool to university and workplace training.)

32 Days Remaining: In Memoriam: On the closure of SKILL, the UKs National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
Believe in Who You Are: Unsent Thank yous, getting it right
Education on the Plate: Opening Minds for More than One Day
HelenBowesCatton: Structure, agency, discrimination and privilege
Radical Neurodivergence Speaking: The fights we fight
SpEdChange: Whose Identity is it?
Urbania to Stoneheads: Researching disability in Ancient Greece

Technology and Web Accessibility

Crippie's Corner: Internet Disability
Gilbert and Me: Raising Awareness about an Inaccessible Information Age
Ubuntu Accessibility Team Blog: The Invisible Exhibition at UDS
Ubuntu Linux Tips & Tricks: ASL (cross-posted at Maco)

Other Access Issues
(Posts about any kind of access issue in the built environment, shops, services and various organisations. By "access issues" I mean anything which enables or disenables a person from doing what everyone else is able to do.)

Accessible Insights Blog: It’s On Aisle 5
Cripple Extraordinaire: On Being Able
Elf: Disability and Jury Duty
Footpath-Hogging Menace: A Few Days In My Seat
Memo to Self: Accessibility Fail
Moose J. Finklestein: Pittsburgh: The Most Liveable City - for the able-bodied or seniors
Normal Is Overrated: A Guide For Discouraging Self-Advocacy
Savette Gazette: My Daydream
To Gyre & Gambol: Desperately Seeking Parking
Trabasack: Choosing your battles
Working at Perfect: Steps

Definition and Analysis of Disablism/ Ableism

Crimsoncrip's Blog: Invalids no more, but are we still invalid?
Fatfu: (In)(di)visability
Me Despite M.E.: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011
Ruth Madison: Spying on Disablism

The Language of Disablism
(Posts about the language which surrounds disability and the way that it may empower or disempower us.)

Indigo Jo Blogs: No more Yuppie Flu!
Marian ilmestyskirja: Päivitä sanavarastosi / Update your vocabulary

Disablism Interacting with Other 'Isms'
(Posts about the way in which various discriminations interact; the way that the prejudice experienced as a disabled person may be compounded by race, gender, age, sexuality etc..)

Fat Heffalump: Fat and Disablism
The Files of Mason Dixon, Autistic: Case #3 Mortal Combat
Gilded Cage: Come talk to me
Incredible Hippy: Let us in! (Cross posted to The F Word)
Huimin Magdala Writes: More Deserving of Annihilation
Oi With the Poodles Already: The Body (In)Visable

Disablism in Literature, Culture and the Media

After Gadget: Please Don’t Send Me This Video
Cripz the Comic: A fitting celebration for 1 year on-line
Funky Mango's Musings: Gleeless
Geoff Holt MBE: Letter to the Press
Plato's Nightmare/ Aessop's Dream: The Lame Smith God and Two Sides of "Myth"
Urbania to Stoneheads: Demonisation of the disabled
Where's Lulu: Ten Disabled People with Regular TV Roles Right Now


Disability Studies, Temple U.: Disability History

Relationships, Love and Sex

L'Azile: A few thoughts about sex and disability
Diary of a Goldfish: The political and the deeply personal
Lisybabe: Somebody tell me why I'm on my own, if there's a soulmate for everyone...
This is my blog: It is possible

Non-English Language Blogs


Embracing Chaos: A Glimpse of Success

Poetry against Disablism

Same Difference: Hello, I'm A Wheelchair
General Thoughts on Disablism

Anglers Rest: Blogging Against Disablism Day
Artyeggs: Crafting Against Disablism
Believe In Who You Are: Selecting my spoons
Composite: How I bought a bike
The CRPS Girl: What You Say
Dismantling Disabilities: Blogging Against Disablism Day
Dreamwidth: You're doing it wrong
Exploring the World Through the Web: Invisible Illness - Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not there.
Fausterella: Being Vincible
Genderqueer in Your Closet: Appearances & Functioning
Just Stimming…: This is why
The Language of Respect: Impairment and Disablism: A World of Difference
Life Decanted: Somewhere...
Mimi Cummins: There's no shame in identifying yourself with the disabled community
Monastic Musings Too: Empathy: the antidote to -ism
Nightengale of Samarkand: Independence
Riparians at the Gate: The vast middle
Some Assembly Required: This divisive world we live in
Sunny Dreamer: This and that
TAL9000: Belated BADD post
Thoughts from the bear's den: Why does disablism exist?
Touched with Fire: Taking Up the Flaming Sword
The Trick Is To Keep Reading: A wee rant
UCP of the Golden Gate: Apathy could be the root of most disablism
Warped Woman's Wonderings: Blogging Against Disablism Day
Wheelchair Dancer: Closing Fissures
Wheelie Catholic: Being Youer Than You

Parenting Issues
(whether disabled parents or the parents of a disabled child.)

All our lives: Adoption, Special Needs & Choice
I won't wear gray: Blogging Against Disablism Day

Healthcare Issues
(For example, the provision of healthcare, institutionalistaion of disabled people, reproductive ethics and euthanasia)

Accessibility NZ: The Ultimate Disability Discrimination
All our lives: Reproductive Violence and Injustice Against Disabled People
RoseRodent: Blogging Against Disablism Day

Impairment-Specific Prejudice

The Alternate Lexicon: So this is it
Chronically Crafted: Mobility Scooters and the Posts I didn't Write
Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: Blogging Against Disablism Day
enlighten.me.uk: Reopening Old Wounds
Life and Times of a Teenager With Disabilities: My name is AZ not az
Liguanaut.co.uk: White Stick Pride
Multi-faceted Abnormal /blog: Fighting the stigma of Mental Illness
A Multitude of Musings: “You Are Fake.”: DID and Ableism from Within
Paws for Thought: Independent living
A Quaker Witch: Why I'm tired
Transabled: Discrimination, Transsexual and BIID

Personal Journeys

Posts about learning experiences and realisations authors have had about the nature of disability discrimination and the impact on their lives.

A Little Something For Me: 15.32
Butterfly Dreams: My little ableist friend
Care in the UK: “I’m not disabled – I’m just not able to walk”
E. is for Epilepsy: The Bell
Life in a So-called Strap of Steel: Enjoying Life's Ride and Disabilities
Midlife And Treachery: Resurrection Day/ A Room of One’s Own
Painting: The Unexpected Positive Sides of Injury & Disability Discrimination
People Aren't Broken: Disability from the Inside Out: Forget Kindness, Try Fairness
People with Disabilities: Learners blog against Disablism
Perpetually Myself: Figuring out a not-quite-normal childhood
Strangely Blogged: Disablism - it's really about any of us, isn't it?
Views from the Reading Room: Blogging Against Disablism Day
Witticisms: Be aware of My Best Buddy
A Writer in a Wheelchair: The Fight Never Ends

Disablism and Politics

(For example, the political currency of disability, anti-discrimination legislation, etc.)

Benefit Scrounging Scum: "The Ministry of Magic has fallen. He is coming. HE is coming"
A Blog about a Bloke-living with WHS: Exclusion and Government Funding
branchingouttrees: Mental Health and Care in the Community
The Crimson Crip: Disablism is no longer random its systemic
DWgism: What’s Wrong With Our Society?
Fighting Monsters: Disability, Language and Respect
The Meanderings of a Politically Incorrect Crip: "They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
Psychosis & Soyabeans: Little Brown Envelopes
Single Lens Reflections: Oh Boris, Where Art Thou?
Where's the benefit?: Integrity, Honesty, Objectivity, Impartiality
Where's the benefit?: People like me
Where's the benefit?: Vulnerability

Blogging Against Disablism Day: People Like Me

Cross-posted at Where's the Benefit?

Please click the "CC" button at the bottom right of the frame for subtitles / captions.

This is my vlog for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011. It's not terribly articulate but I was rather tired and nervous.

Filmed and edited by Stephen.

Blogging Against Disablism Day: The political and the deeply personal

One Blogging Against Disablism Day, I was struggling to update the archive page. When overwhelmed, cognitive dysfunction can deny me access to very basic bits of information – I have forgotten my own name before, let alone my address or telephone number. At this point, I was having trouble listing the contributions in alphabetical order – something lots of people might struggle with when tired. In particular, I couldn't for the life of me work out whether M came before N or vice versa. So I asked my then husband which came first.

A brief exchanged followed. It was impossible that I couldn't remember which came first - I wasn't that stupid. I said that honestly, I couldn't remember, and reached for the dictionary, which I should have done first. Asking might have been quicker, but I had obviously picked a bad moment. My husband got up and punched the back of my laptop screen, cracking the case. For a moment I thought the screen was going to die and I would lose my computer in the middle of BADD. That's why I know what the date was.

The damage was kind of unlikely – I guess he meant to punch the laptop shut, but instead it cracked. My ex-husband did not value my things very highly, except when he wanted to criticise. He referred to my things as shit. As in, “There's some of your shit on the kitchen table.” or “Make sure you tidy your shit away before someone comes round.” After I left, I found I was in the habit of referring to my things as my shit, even though I had always objected to it.

The political is sometimes deeply personal.

Disabled people don't get abused because we inspire abusive behaviour in others. It's not even a matter of physical vulnerability and social isolation – although these can play a role. Marginalised people of all variety get abused because we are marginalised, and with marginalisation comes vulnerability, even attractiveness to those people who feel more comfortable with power and control rather than love and respect.

In the last year, I have been asking myself a lot of questions about how and why I remained in a relationship where I was shouted at, mocked, undermined and physically assaulted on a regular basis. There are a lot of answers that I'm still sorting through, about my vulnerability, about the mechanisms of abuse and also about my capacity to see the good in people, my capacity for love, loyalty, hope and so on. But disablity is a big part of what made me vulnerable.

Statistically, being disabled made me three times more likely to be abused than other women – which means that pretty much half of us will experience violence at some time. Disabled men are twice as likely to be abused as non-disabled men and are likely to have even more trouble identifying their abuse and getting appropriate help. I feel it is a near-certainty that somebody reading this is in an abusive relationship right now, which is a big part of why I am writing this.

Initially, it was very difficult to see my personal experience as anything other than the effect of a particular dynamic between my ex and I. After all, I was well aware of the relationship between disability and abuse (physical, verbal, sexual and financial) and thought it had nothing to do with me. My ex was not a monster – I was never more than bruised - and I was an outspoken feminist disability-activist type who wouldn't put up with anything too awful. But now I see that my cultural experience of disability left me particularly vulnerable to accepting all kinds of perverse normalities in my every day life.

For example, I honestly thought it was normal that what I could and couldn't do should be constantly questioned and cast into doubt. It seemed normal that I should have to defend myself against the ever-present suspicion that I must be either milking it, exaggerating my pain and fatigue or not simply pushing as hard as I might. There was a regular, baffling accusation that I acted more sick when I was at home with my ex than on days when I was out with family and friends. Of course, I only ever went out on good days and then with all that extra stimulation, the adrenalin kicked in to make them very good days before I returned home to crash for a week or so. My family and friends never saw me on mediocre days, let alone bad days.

As disabled people in education or at work, claiming benefits or special equipment, attempting to access goods and services, even in healthcare, we are treated as if any accommodation is a privilege, as if none of our experiences are legitimate until we have convinced other people. Our culture struggles with the inconsistency of chronic illness, the idea that variable limitations are real limitations and it allows this to be other people's business. We should be far more outraged by the social sport of judging other people who don't seem very ill, who have a disabled parking badge but who have been seen walking, people who's illnesses have dragged on so long that maybe they aren't trying hard enough.

Speculating about the honesty with which another person reports their health is as intrusive as speculation about the honesty with which someone expresses their feelings for loved ones. I don't even believe that this doubt was genuine – it was even less consistent than the ups and downs in my health – but this was a weapon our culture made available.

It honestly seemed normal that providing someone with help that they needed because of an impairment should be considered special, burdensome and deserving of infinite gratitude. Making a meal for yourself and your partner because someone has to do it is no work at all, but making a meal for yourself and your partner because she can't physically do it is an encumbrance – especially when a disabled woman depends on her male partner. Other men, I was told, wouldn't put up with it. I was lectured on how difficult it was to transport and push my wheelchair, how difficult it was to include me in any trip out. I was repeatedly warned not to make myself a problem for other people, as if anyone who did me any kind of favour was performing a great act of self-sacrifice. Sometimes I received these warnings in front of other people, creating the impression that I was ungrateful and demanding and making it impossible to protest without sounding even worse.

In reality, I may have provided more practical help to my ex than he did for me (we ate very badly and my washing-up and laundry was well below his standards) but because of the few things I absolutely couldn't do without help, I was constantly reminded of my burdensome nature, my incompetence and my dependence on him. And every piece of help I received was first held to ransom. If I was going out somewhere, if someone was coming round, often even when he was cooking dinner, I would be warned to tread carefully or the trip, the visit, even the meal would be withdrawn.

We give “care” special status in our culture, when very few of these tasks are special. I have needed very little intimate care, but I need help with food preparation and housework and I need help getting out and about. When I live with other people, I believe I can make a contribution to a household roughly equal to the help I need, and this is the sort of thing that family members and friends do for one another all the time anyway. The only special thing about the help I need is that I couldn't manage by myself and if I lived alone I would have to pay for help. But then some non-disabled people who live alone and work very long hours pay for help because they don't have time for the kinds of tasks which I don't have the energy for.

I honestly thought it was normal that my competence should be repeatedly called into question. My cognitive dysfunction and poor co-ordination was met with anger, sometimes mockery. If I struggled for words, I was incoherent, inarticulate and it was a joke that I should consider myself a writer. If I was slow to answer, I was living in a “cloud cuckoo land”. If I fainted or collapsed, if I split things or dropped things, then I was stupid and careless. When I argued that it was a symptom of illness, I was told that I obviously wasn't safe doing anything on my own and thus threatened with a further loss of independence.

Disabled people, especially those with mental ill health, cognitive dysfunction and intellectual impairments, are regularly treated as if we are not capable. Having an impairment in one area – or even having experienced a temporary lapse – is seen to signify pathological incompetence. This leads people to be afraid of admitting diagnoses and asking for help. It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy; there is nothing so sure to damage a person's ability to perform any given task than repeatedly telling them they are rubbish at it. Since I left, my ability to manage my poor co-ordination has improved a great deal because I'm no longer in constant danger of being shouted at if I slip up.

People with long-term conditions usually acquire a high level of self-awareness, which often includes an awareness of circumstances in which we lack self-awareness. I have a very good idea about what I can and can't trust myself to do, and although I still undoubtedly make mistakes, everyone does. I think I behave far more sensibly than many non-disabled people do when they experience excessive tiredness – let alone when they are drunk.

It honestly seemed normal that my physical appearance and weight should be a cause of constant criticism and mockery. My body was sometimes disappointing, sometimes disgusting but most often simply hilarious. Every day I would hear jokes about how fat I was, accompanied by sincere concerned remarks that my physical difficulties were not down to my ill health but to my weight. This is about how heavy I was at my absolute heaviest. Most criticisms were about things which I had especially little control over because of my condition such as my weight, my unhealthy-looking pallor, the general lack of firmness and muscle definition in a body with serious problems exercising.

Disabled people receive the same nonsense messages about physical appearance, sexual attraction and personal value as the rest of us, except that we are frequently excluded by default; images of disabled people are extraordinarily rare in our culture (except the obligatory wheelchair-user on politically-correct information leaflets). There are even fewer circumstances where people with physical impairments are portrayed as sexually attractive. In fiction – especially English detective fiction, incidentally, I don't know why – disabled wives are a standard explanation for a frustrated and adulterous husband. In a culture where romantic love is sometimes spoken about as a transaction between people of varying looks, status, brains etc., disability is considered a major disadvantage.

In real life, disabled people are often attractive, some of us are beautiful and it is especially perverse that anyone should be criticised on their looks by their own lover. I also think I made a mistake in feeling it shouldn't matter, that to believe in equality meant thinking that it didn't matter if I was made to feel ugly. It did. None of us should ever feel ashamed to be seen.

The society in which I live does not condone what happened to me. However, disability contributed to my vulnerability because of how society treats disabled people. The experience of disability rocked my self-worth to the extent that it took a long time to see that I did not deserve to be shouted at, laughed at or assaulted at all, let alone in my own home.

The good news is that I got away and now I have recovered enough to be able to open up about some of this. The bad news is that many disabled women and men remain vulnerable to these kinds of relationships. Not just with partners, but with anybody in any position of power over us. Disabled people in the UK are increasingly vulnerable to abuse as their financial independence and the independence brought by care provision slips away. Meanwhile toned-down versions of the messages that abusers use about our integrity, our burdensome nature, our competence and our unattractiveness remain all over our mainstream media.

This post has taken a tremendous amount of courage to publish. I have combed through the archives to make sure that my ex is utterly anonymous, but my anonymity here is paper thin. I considered posting elsewhere or pretending this was a guest post, but I think it is important to say this here, as myself, because I have the strength to do so.