Maybe even Murdoch isn't smart enough to solve this one

With every new revelation, you have question how much longer this can last without becoming real tro

Where do we go from here? The events of the past week have left many of us reeling, and it seems there is more to come. Every time I sit down to write something about the unfolding disaster for the Murdoch empire, there's a new development. The news is moving faster than ever before, it would seem, and the old rules of engagement have been cast aside: now the papers are openly taking shots at each other.

Time was you could rely on what Henry Kissinger might have called an "uneasy peace" in Fleet Street. We knew they all hated each other, and wanted to bring each other down, but they didn't declare open warfare. Now that's changed: the Mirror has piled on to the giant playground bundle on Rupert Murdoch and decided now is the time to make capital out of their rivals' misfortune (or misdeeds, whichever way you want to look at it). You can see the attraction, although I rather fear it will be the Daily Mail, as ever, which quietly goes about picking up the biggest share of disaffected Sun readers and former News of the World readers. It doesn't need to go for the jugular -- it just sits back and picks up the scraps.

It's a strange, bewildering scene, this News of the World-free Britain, a place where allegation and counter-allegation get fired out in rapid succession. When the biggest selling newspaper can disappear in the course of a week, it seems everything is built on sand, including the sureness of our Prime Minister's long-term future. The once automaton-smooth David Cameron has looked agitated, out of his depth, uneasy and uncertain when answering tough questions from the kind of journalists who don't do dirty digging. He even ended up repeating the same phrases over and over again ("second chance" re: Andy Coulson) in exactly the same way that made his counterpart Ed Miliband a laughing stock only a few days before. And then there is Miliband, a Dalek-like milquetoast one minute and a ferocious performer the next, seizing his opportunity to be more than a punctuation mark in Labour's history. What's going on?

Peering on from the sidelines, one feels like Harry Carpenter incredulously screaming "He's hurt Tyson!" as the massive underdog Frank Bruno landed a quality shot on the world heavyweight champion back in 1989. We all knew it wouldn't last, and Bruno was going to be splattered into a meaty pulp at some point during the evening, but there, just for a moment, the certainties were shaken to the core. Surely it will all be all right in the end for Rupert Murdoch; surely this is just a blip in his otherwise glittering career. "Say what you like about Murdoch, but he always gets it right." That was the received wisdom before this past crazy fortnight -- something we could all rely on, whatever happened. And surely that won't change. It can't change. Can it?

Perhaps it can. Maybe Murdoch's aura -- if it ever really existed -- is beginning to fade. For now, acts of desperation can be top-spun into shrewd little deals. Optimistic statements that everything is going to be all right can be portrayed as promises, rather than aspirations. But with every passing day, every passing moment of uncertainty and turmoil, every new revelation eagerly unearthed and devoured, you have to call into question how much longer this can last without it becoming real trouble. It was tempting to see the daft old billionaire grinning away with Rebekah Brooks in the street the other day and recall the outraged Sun headline "CRISIS -- WHAT CRISIS?" Which presaged the decline of "Sunny Jim" Callaghan. But maybe not. Maybe Murdoch will get out of this, like he's got out of fixes before.

We shouldn't underestimate him, of course. He's not that dumb; far from it. But maybe even he isn't smart enough to solve this one.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.