The doublethink that allows tabloids to campaign against online porn

A teenage rapist was excused by a judge because he had been "corrupted" by online filth. Where's the evidence?

Two fourteen-year-old children, separated by an ocean but united in the pages of the Daily Mail.

One, a British boy, tied a “Hello Kitty” apron around the eyes of a five-year-old girl and made her perform a sexual act on him. Wearing his school uniform in the dock of Cambridge Crown Court, he listened as Judge Hawkesworth blamed “the world and society” for allowing him to become “corrupted” by his exposure to sexualised material on the internet - further evidence of the need for the Daily Mail’s ‘Block Online Porn’ campaign.

The other, an American girl named Kylie Jenner, is famous for being the younger half-sister of Kim Kardashian, a woman who achieved fame through the release of a sex tape in 2007. Kylie can be seen with her sister in the Mail “stripping off” to “pose in bikinis.” She is pictured “displaying her … trim figure for her two millions (sic) Twitter followers to ogle at.”

There are those who are concerned about the sexualisation of children, and there are those who think that it’s fine to print pictures of a 14-year-old girl posing in “skimpy bikinis” and “tiny wetsuits” to sell newspapers, but only an institution as morally bankrupt as the Mail could hold both views simultaneously. Only the sort of editor one can imagine stalking the newsroom with sparkling white semen stains decorating the crotch of his handmade trousers, sneering contemptuously at his own readership, sickened by the girls he pimps to them, his skin coated with a stickiness that no amount of scrubbing and showering can rinse away.

Judge Hawkesworth himself is now a victim of this schizoid doublethink. On Wednesday he “spared” a teen “corrupted by internet porn”, his sentencing a convenient hook for the Mail’s campaign; but by Thursday an article described him as a “soft sentence judge” - a headline later altered (note the URL) to refer to a “cheap sentence”. Hawkesworth’s fate is to be cast as a heroic villain, a dangerously-liberal conservative judge who endangers the children he protects.

The Judge deserves some scrutiny though, as this isn’t the first time he’s come to national attention for unusual rulings. In 2011 he gave a suspended sentence to a 26-year-old man who had groomed a 14-year-old school girl for sex, ruling that he was “simply a young man who was unable to control his sexual urges.” His argument invoked the myth of the self-guiding penis; the idea that men are helpless ballistic spunk missiles, a careless whisper away from deploying their payload over some innocent bystander. It’s an idea usually espoused by men trying to excuse their crappy behaviour; people like Brendan O’Neill, whose penis forces him to wolf-whistle at passing girls, and writes many of his columns.

Judge Hawkesworth blamed impulses in this latest case too, sympathizing with a young boy who, according to the Mail, “later admitted he regularly looked at hardcore pornography on a laptop at home.” “I’m satisfied it was impulsive and I believe you have become sexualised by your exposure to and the corruption of pornography,” the judge is reported as saying: “Your exposure at such a young age has ended in tragedy. It was the fault of the world and society.” Not the parents, nor the school, nor even the town – nothing so crudely specific.

The phrase, “sexualised by your exposure to and the corruption of pornography,” is syntactically dubious and semantically void. ‘Sexualisation’ is one of those terms like ‘big society’ that has become synonymous with “something I can’t adequately describe.” It is a mythical mental health issue invented by campaigners who feel that it’s ‘common sense’ that children are be damaged by sexually explicit material, but who are unable to define either the damage or the causes beyond terms that are so vague as to be meaningless.  In effect the judge seems to have invoked a new mental health condition for the purposes of giving the child a lighter sentence.

This condition - new to medicine - is brought on by exposure to a class of entertainment that covers everything from erotic fiction writing to water-sports via knee-jobs and macrophilia, but which emphatically does not include topless women (or 14-year old bikini models) in tabloid newspapers. It leads to the generation of ‘hormones’ – unprecedented in teenage boys - which in turn persuade  patients to do things like coercing a 5 year old girl into performing a sex act. If this model is true, and a majority of teenagers view porn, then only some miracle is preventing horny youth gangs invading nursery schools up and down the land.

“The case has fuelled demands for stricter controls to be put in place to stop children accessing online porn,” according to the Mail, who cite no examples. They fell foul of a PCC complaint by some bloke recently, and ended up removing an article that falsely inflated public support for an automatic internet filter. Still, their editorial line – one of them at least - has strong support from powerful politicians; people like the rising Conservative star Claire Perry, an MP who campaigns on her opposition to the sexualisation of children. I asked Perry on Twitter what she thought of the Mail’s regular bikini shots of Kylie Jenner. She didn’t reply. 

 

Kim Kardashian: "a woman who achieved fame through the release of a sex tape in 2007". Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.