In celebration of life

In his final blog entry, Jim Corrigall attempts to recapture his spiritual journey into Unitarianism

I was brought up in an anti-apartheid household in South Africa by parents of no religious faith but with strong principles. After my father died, I was sent to a church boarding school. Here I chose to be both baptised and confirmed in the Anglican faith – largely because I wanted to fit in with my peers. By the time I left school, I regarded myself as an atheist and did so for most of my adult life.

However, I studied both English literature and theology at university, and always had a great love of religious poetry. As a student in South Africa, I campaigned against apartheid, working closely with radical Christians many of whom I came to admire.

I continued with political and trade union activity throughout most of my journalistic career in Britain, but several years ago I began to wonder if there was more to life – however much I valued my family, friends and work.

I began reading widely, including religious literature. I tried one or two churches, but found them too dogmatic and literal in their interpretations of Christianity. A chance remark by a friend just over four years ago led me to the Unitarian website.

I was hugely inspired by what I read there. Here was a faith that did not demand any body of beliefs, but would allow one the chance to explore. I was not sure what I believed, not sure even that I believed in God, but I felt I wanted to allow my dormant spirituality a chance to develop. I told friends that I did not know whether I wanted to ‘worship God’, but I certainly wanted to ‘celebrate life’.

And I found in Unitarianism a group of people who welcomed me for my doubts, my scepticism and my questions. And I found I could ‘celebrate life’ in Unitarian chapels and churches – in services which seemed to follow traditional patterns, with hymns and ministerial addresses and meditations (or prayers), but which were in fact quite different – full of poetry and the wisdom of many faith traditions.

I have found a religious home which has indeed enabled me to explore my spirituality – after a period of looking at Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, I have more recently been exploring radical Christianity – including its roots in the Unitarianism of the Radical Reformation. I trust this will be a spiritual journey without end, as rightly befits a denomination without dogma.

Jim Corrigall is communications consultant to the Unitarians in Britain, a post he took up in June 2007, after 17 years as a journalist at BBC World Service. He was born and educated in South Africa, coming to Britain in 1974. He was an anti-apartheid campaigner for many years. Jim became a Unitarian four years ago, and is chair of the congregation at Golders Green Unitarians.
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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.