Why is the Daily Mail promoting a site that appears to be little more than an escort agency?

As the Daily Mail celebrates success in their online porn campaign, Michael Marshall explores the PR influence behind their headlines.

Sun, sea and sex: More than 40% of women under 30 admit to having one-night stands on holiday.

This was the important sociological research covered in the Daily Mail on 18 June last year, outlining the effect a summer getaway can have on the female population of our nation.

"The poll, which explored the nation's sexual habits, found that holidaymakers are more likely to have casual sex abroad than when they are at home."

The findings were clear: a woman on holiday is far more likely to sleep with someone she doesn't know than she would be if she were at home. What may not have been apparent to the casual observer, however, is that this research came not from a respected sociological study, but instead formed part of a marketing campaign for a "travel dating website".

"The findings were revealed in a poll for dating website MissTravel.com, which asked its 30,000 female British members ten questions about their sexual habits during their summer holidays."

For the unacquainted, MissTravel.com's "travel dating" model is rather simple: members join as either a "Generous" member, or an "Attractive" member. If you're a wealthy, generous man looking for a "miss" to take on holiday, MissTravel.com will pair you with your ideal travel date – an attractive young woman looking for a free holiday. And while the site does allow for the generous woman and attractive man, it’s little more than tokenistic – as a glance at the site’s homepage will confirm. Even the logo displays a sassy silhouette in tottering heels. The implications are quite apparent.

Given the source of the data, the nature of the findings becomes highly questionable – although a sample of 30,000 is very large (if, indeed, all purported 30,000 female members took part in the survey, which is far from clear), that the sample included only women who had signed up to a site pairing them with strangers for free a holiday makes extrapolation of the results to the wider British population a totally meaningless exercise. It’s fair to say members of MissTravel.com don’t necessarily represent society as a whole.

To anyone well-versed in the nature of PR, the signs in the Daily Mail article were clear - not least in the handy quote from the dating website's founder:

"Commenting on the findings CEO Brandon Wade, said: 'It is clear that women become much more sexually liberated when they are out of their comfort zone

'Once they get into their bikini or travel to an exciting new city our members' thoughts turn to sex."

The message, then, borders on explicit: "if you take a girl away on holiday, you're far more likely to get laid - and we have the perfect site for you". In terms of business model, it's bears a reasonable resemblance to an escort agency. In that respect, it's a perfect fit for CEO Brandon Wade - founder of two other "themed dating" websites: SeekingArrangements.com (describing itself as "The elite sugar daddy dating site for those seeking mutually beneficial relationships", replete with secretive, shushing women and smug, satisfied businessmen), and Whatsyourprice.com (where generous members bid to secure dates with attractive members, in a business model most frequently witnessed at your local livestock auction).

Say what you like about Brandon Wade, but when he finds a formula, he sticks with it. What may be slightly surprising, however, is how willing the Daily Mail were to print promotional material for a site which appears to be little more than an escort agency. The Mail, lest we forget, are the newspaper spearheading the campaign to introduce a nationwide block on pornographic images – a campaign they’ve deemed a success after gaining the attention of David Cameron.

What’s more, the article in June was by no means the only article published in the Mail to promote Wade’s escort services. Take, for example, from 15 November:

“Ten ways to leave your lover: 'I'm not ready for commitment' is the line used most by women when dumping their partner, while men go for 'it's just not working'

... Dating site SeekingArrangement.com asked 1,000 of its male and female members why and how they would dump a partner.

Going against the stereotype of the commitment-phobe male, the most popular line used by women in ending a relationship is: 'I’m not ready for commitment yet.'...

... Interestingly, money – and the earning power of their partner – is far more important to a woman than a man.”

With the implication that there are an abundance of women for whom relationships and commitment matter less than money and fun, it isn’t hard to see why this article was released by Wade’s "Sugar Daddy Dating" site.

In fact, Wade’s PR machine has found an astonishingly fertile home in the Mail Online – including the revelation that Carlisle is the most promiscuous city in Europe (9 October), women officially get old at 28 (17 October), single women in their twenties are pining for the exes (8 October) and that single women routinely sleep with their ex while looking for a new partner (30 October).

In all, between January and November, there were no fewer than 29 stories in the Daily Mail highlighting dating services run by Brandon Wade – an average in excess of one per fortnight. Articles ranged from faux condemnation (“I love to be treated like a princess: Meet the young women seeking sugar daddies online as disturbing trend hits UK” – 22 May), to the bandwagon-jumping (“Fifty Shades Of Grey effect turns British bedrooms red hot as women copy scenes from smash-hit 'mummy porn' book” – 3 July), to the obscure (“It started with a kiss... How use of Xs in texts and emails spark more than HALF of office affairs” – 23 August), to the outright blatant (“'They give me sex, I give them money': Meet the real-life Christian Grey entering into 'mutually beneficial contracts' with students” – 23 November).

Fortunately, at least, even the Daily Mail has limits. In July 2012, seeking to capitalise on an event from the headlines in order to publicise his "dating auction" site WhatsYourPrice.com, Wade released the following press release:

In the event of a tragedy like the Dark Knight Massacre, who would you want by your side on a first date?

According to the results of the survey... men who make between $80,000 to $150,000 per year are more likely to take a bullet for you on a first date.

Thankfully, not even the Daily Mail were willing to run with this article. However, for a newspaper so publicly committed to preserving morality, the Daily Mail would be wise to be more discerning in its choice of bedfellows.

Michael Marshall, Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, regularly writes and lectures on the role of PR in the tabloid news. He tweets as @MrMMarsh

The website for MissTravel.com.
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.