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Commons Confidential: Milibandoned, Harman's hardships and Tony who?

Pick of the best gossip from Westminster.

I hear that Harriet Harman is grumbling that she never wanted to be Labour’s acting leader for a second time and blames Ed Miliband for leaving the party in the lurch.

Harman, who also stepped up from deputy to sheriff after Gordon Brown left office in 2010, has had her bouquets replaced by brickbats over the past few weeks. Favourable reviews have turned into a wall of moans in parliament. The first task of an acting leader is to hold the party together. Harman split hers right away over welfare cuts – in particular, David Cameron’s plot to breed Tory voters by ensuring that only wealthier families can afford to have three children or more.

My snout overheard Harman accusing Miliband of abandoning his post, arguing that her former boss should have overseen the election of a successor. Meanwhile, according to my snout, the carefree Ed is telling anyone who will listen how much he is enjoying life as a backbencher, adding insult to Harman’s injury after he left her to pick up the pieces. If the Labour Party were a card game, it would be Unhappy Families.

No Tory is grander in his own lunchtime than Sir Nicholas Soames, a blue blood who says what he likes and likes what he says, in a booming voice. Soames is a traditionalist who prefers the natural order of life, as one might expect from a grandson of Winston Churchill. The hereditary politician is exercised by his colleague Charlie Elphicke’s barnet. Tories report that Soames chunters disapprovingly that a member of the Whips’ Office is now dyeing his hair. I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding.

The tightly knit SNP displays a Leninist discipline that is the envy of old lefties. To date, the only discernible split is between the “wets”, who drink in the Sports and Social, and the “drys”, who prefer Westminster’s restaurants. One Labour MP says that she knows when the Nats are on manoeuvres by the thud of 56 pairs of boots marching in unison. Most SNP MPs have offices in a block near the Red Lion; the Cry Freedom brigade refers to it as Caledonia House, a bit of England that is for ever Scotland. Until independence, anyway.

Andy Burnham’s step to the left surprised an informant who recalled the Labour leadership hopeful referring to Tony Blair as “my mate” in a Brighton bar at the 2006 TUC conference. These days, it’s: “Tony who?”

Austerity policy applied to the food, if not the booze, at a smug George Osborne summer preening session in front of invited hacks at the Treasury. The nibbles were smaller than a teacher’s pay rise but the alcohol flowed mightily well. The Chancer of the Exchequer’s crash diet has lost him a couple of dozen pounds. The national debt has soared by £400bn.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

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.