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Laurie Penny on opinion journalism: Columnists now are like street performers – collecting coins in a hat and dodging angry racists

By 70, will I be screeching about immigrants from an enormous throne made of my clippings?

People keep asking me when I’m planning to sell out. Over the past 100 years of British punditry, the trajectory of the angry young leftist columnist growing up to develop a taste for smart dining, Botox and bigotry has been well established. I’m told that it’ll happen whether I want it to or not: no matter how many communiqués I read or marches I go on, by 35 I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrats and by 70, presuming my hate-hardened arteries make it that far, I’ll be screeching about immigrants froman enormous throne made of my clippings, clutching a set of pearls that once belonged to Maggie Thatcher. This is nonsense. Even if I had the inclination, there won’t be a Liberal Democrat party to vote for when I’m 35.

The New Statesman’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, believed in 1913 that sincere political writing could move hearts and minds and bring about social change. The European tradition of radical opinionating has deteriorated since the days when George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf wrote for these pages and expected to make a positive difference. In 1968 Ulrike Meinhof wrote: “Columnism is a personality cult. Through columnism, the left-wing position . . . is reduced to the position of one individual, an isolated individual, to the views of an original, outrageous, nonconformist individual, who can be co-opted because, in being alone, they are powerless.”

It’s worth noting that, a few years later, Meinhof decided that armed insurrection was a more efficient route to the revolution she wanted to see and helped form the militant Red Army Faction. For Meinhof, the pen may have been mightier than the sword but home-made explosives got the job done quicker.

She was wrong about at least one thing: columnists do still have power.

Unfortunately, it is easier to wield that power in the service of lazy reaction than use it to change the world for the better. Right now, as the British newspaper industry panics about its vanishing returns, “star” writers are encouraged to abandon nuance and say the most shocking, hateful things they can think of to attract controversy. They target welfare claimants, women, minorities, immigrants, disabled people, single parents and, if all else fails, each other.

This produces casualties. It spreads suspicion in communities, provokes incoherent violence and murders compassion. Last month, Lucy Meadows, a woman hounded by the media and attacked for being transsexual in an article by Rod Liddle or Richard Littlejohn – forgive me, I can never tell the difference – took her own life.

Hate and empty controversy are used to titillate readers and advertisers. The rightwing and centre-right press is dominated by largely indistinguishable, middle-aged bigots, most but not all of them men, who know each other and are paid handsomely to make prejudice palatable. When they bother to engage with their readers, they do so with deep distaste, outraged that mere civilians have dared to answer back. Fortunately, a change is coming.

On 4 April, Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor responsible for, among other things, the front page that blamed victims of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster for the tragedy, started a new online column for the Telegraph. A day later, the column was cancelled. Editors have begun to realise that their readers have the power to coordinate their disgust.

The elitism and entitlement that have long poisoned the British commentariat are beginning to disappear and, despite itself, the industry is becoming more ethical. Eventually, one hopes, the Littlejohns and MacKenzies of this world will be relegated to a time loop of irrelevance in which they can attend the same awards ceremonies, drink the same champagne and eat the same olives for ever while more competent people get on with capturing the public consciousness.

I count myself extremely lucky to have grown up as a political writer in the age of the internet. Suddenly, where once there were only a few privileged pundits talking to each other and expecting the proles to listen, there are writers from all walks of life producing dazzling, meaningful prose and finding their audience. I’m part of a growing cohort of reporters and columnists who are not surprised when our readers chat to us like old friends, correct our mistakes or call us unprintable things in the comment section – because we started out online and have never experienced anything else.

The most forward-thinking “dead-tree” magazines and papers, including the New Statesman, have recruited hard from this new cohort, treating the internet as an extension of their editorial mission. They have understood that the age in which middle-aged white men pontificated from rarefied platforms and expected to be listened to is over.

To be a columnist today is no longer to stand on a stage alone, reciting marvellous soliloquies while a paying audience waits to applaud. Apart from anything else, few publications can now afford to fork out the kinds of salaries that make principled writers lose perspective. Being a columnist today is more like being a street performer – collecting coins in a battered suitcase, telling stories about a better world and understanding that the audience might change the story.

It’s hard work, because you’re competing with everyone else on the block, including the drunk, deranged old racist shouting abuse and the naked exhibitionist who does - n’t ask for money, and you have to move fast to avoid the pelted sandwiches and, occasionally, the police. In other words, it’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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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.