London’s Chinatown in Soho. Photo: Getty
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Trawling Chinatown for a backscratcher, I see there are some itches that never go away

Even thinking about a backscratcher makes the back cry out for one.

I’m trying to find a backscratcher. It’s about the only thing my father can make use of at the moment. Complications following his fall – we think – have resulted in him losing most of what little eyesight he had remaining. It has come to the point where, in order to remember all the ways he’s falling apart, you have to make a list. Add to this my mother’s infirmities and the list reaches halfway down the page. My own woes and worries are not trivial in themselves, but they are by comparison: not (touch wood) life-threatening.

So, my father wants his backscratcher. It’s like the answer to the question: what do you give the man who has nothing? He is on the precipice, the crumbling ledge of existence, and there are more ignoble desires. Unfortunately, the house is large and the backscratcher is relatively small. I have little hope of finding it. But where does one buy a backscratcher these days? I imagine a prelapsarian past in which grocers would have bundles of them and in which chemists dished them out with prescriptions. Every high street would have a shop devoted to nothing else; indeed, London was famous for its Backscratcher District, in the way Harley Street is known for doctors and Swiss Cottage for shrinks. All gone now, irretrievably gone, another part of our cultural legacy mown down by the forces of rampant capitalism unleashed by Mrs T.

Trying to find one becomes vexatious. Even thinking about a backscratcher makes the back cry out for one. I am very prone to the suggestive itch and have already had to pause several times to scratch myself while writing this – which is why I knew, deep down, even from childhood, that I could never be an astronaut. I’d start thinking about getting an itch on my nose while spacewalking and would either be driven mad by not being able to scratch it, or pull my helmet off to do so and then die in the inky vacuum of the cosmos.

A backscratcher’s not much to ask for, is it? I go to the local chemist, the one that’s been there for over 200 years. If anyone’s going to stock a backscratcher, it’s going to be this shop.

“We used to have one,” says the nice assistant, peering into a corner where, presumably, the backscratchers would gather, until, one by one, they disappeared, like great auks, or passenger pigeons, or electable socialist politicians.

“But not now,” I say. He shakes his head ruefully. First they came for the backscratchers, I think to myself, but I did not speak up, because my back didn’t itch . . .

I try a social medium. My friend Mei suggests Chinatown. So there is a Backscratcher District in London after all. But Mei, for reasons you might be smart enough to spot for yourself, is able to navigate Chinatown better than I can. I would go to Soho in search of a simple stick of sandalwood, carved into prongs at one end, and end up buying a Mogwai, which would end up causing all sorts of havoc. Besides, there’s enough wildlife in the Hovel as it is.

I go to Boots. The assistant at the till looks at me as though I’m mad, but she gets out a little iPad and does her utmost to help me. We come across something called a “self-massager”, which sounds incredibly rude and looks insanely complex, like something you’d use to shift cargo into the space shuttle (again, the astronaut theme; what’s that all about?), and which costs twenty-odd quid. I am beginning to think it would be easier for me to learn how to carve one myself, or nip up the road from the Royal Free and find a suitably shaped stick on Hampstead Heath.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, the letters about where to find backscratchers will start coming through this paper’s letter box by the dozen; some of the more generous of you may even send me one, and the corridors will echo to the clatter of the things. Please don’t bother. In the end, my mother (in hospital, too, so not in situ) suggests I look in a certain drawer by her bed.

There it is, the faithful family backscratcher, a little more polished with use than I remember it, its teeth a little more worn down, but still slender and graceful, the last living backscratcher in captivity. Yet what you’ll have realised is that my search wasn’t for a backscratcher at all, but for something else entirely: a lost link, perhaps, and also a symbol of something I can do for my father, because the things that I can do for him are becoming ever fewer by the day, it seems.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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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.