Lib Dems are confident of winning the Battle of Beecroft

Clegg's team doubt Cameron is in a hurry to heed the same voices that urged him to cut the 50p rate.

One of the things that most frustrates Tory and Lib Dem ministers alike in the coalition is the way that policy disagreements that might be easily resolved through compromise are ramped up into tests of identity and virility on party back benches.

One often cited example is the appointment of Les Ebdon to head the Office of Fair Access, the body that is meant to guarantee that universities have as diverse an intake as possible. Most Conservatives didn’t like Ebdon, seeing him as a dangerous social engineer and (more dangerous still) the chosen candidate of Vince Cable. David Cameron was not enamoured with the idea of Ebdon getting the job.

Privately, senior Lib Dems say now they would have easily sacrificed Ebdon to get some other minor concession elsewhere – or banked the gesture of coalition goodwill to get an equivalent concession further down the line. But the scale of he anti-Vince, anti-Ebdon backlash meant Nick Clegg could not surrender without looking as if he had been bullied into it by the Tory right. So the Lib Dems stood their ground and the appointment went ahead.

Something similar is unfolding around the Beecroft report. When the report was first delivered the Lib Dems made clear they could accept bits of it but had to reject some of the more outlandish ideas. Chiefly, they oppose  “no fault” dismissal at will on the grounds that it would strike fear into the hearts of employees on whose confidence consumer demand still depends. There is no evidence, the Lib Dems say, that making it easier for bosses to sack people on a whim creates new jobs.

Adrian Beecroft, the venture capitalist and Tory donor who authored the plans, blames Cable as the obstacle to their implementation and has today  attacked the business secretary as a “socialist”. In fact, reservations about Beecroft go way beyond Cable’s office. When the report was first delivered, Ed Davey (now Energy Secretary) was still in the Business Department and he was as scornful of much of its content as Cable. Davey is in most respects a classic “Orange Book” liberal, respected by sensible Tories and simply incompatible in every way with the caricature of a secret Bolshevik. Likewise, Clegg’s office was happy to heap derision on Beecroft’s report as “a really shoddy piece of work” - flimsy, poorly researched.

The Lib Dems thought they had already made sufficient concessions to send the more extreme elements of Beecroft into touch earlier this year. The report is only enjoying a zombie renaissance because the Tories are feeling wounded and anxious about the economy and the atrocious public reception given to George Osborne's Budget. In the absence of other ideas, Beecroft’s fanatical supply-side assault on “red tape” looks to many Conservatives like a decent way of re-asserting true blue control over the economic agenda.

The yellow team, meanwhile, are pretty confident that this manoeuvre won’t succeed. For a start, Team Clegg likes to point out that the last time they warned the Tories to steer clear of an idea that would reinforce the impression that they were callous cheerleaders for plutocracy it was the notion of cutting the 50p top rate of tax. Osborne ignored them; they felt vindicated by the result. No fault dismissal, they say, has the potential to be similarly toxic. As one Lib Dem in government told me recently: “Cameron and Osborne look at the scale of the problems facing the economy and they look at Beecroft and see its not the answer. They may be quite right wing, but they aren’t stupid.”
 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.