The morning after: festivals are prone to outbreaks of mumps and measles. Photo: Olivia Harris/Reuters
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How to stay healthy at summer festivals

Following outbreaks of campylobacter infection at Glastonbury and flu at festivals in Europe, some researchers are calling for better surveillance of the threats to festival-goers’ health.

It’s the season of crowds. We’ve had the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and countless music festivals. Our airports are heaving. There’s a plethora of diseases you might catch from such proximity – so, should you worry? Astonishingly, almost certainly not. And that is thanks to mass surveillance.

For instance, we now have a report on the effectiveness of health surveillance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The event threw 11 million people from 205 nations into close contact. Objectively, it looks like a public health nightmare – yet it wasn’t.

In fact, we might have predicted that from the entirely dull health records of previous Olympic gatherings. At Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, less than 1 per cent of the visits to health-care professionals were due to infectious diseases. Athens 2004 had no reports of infectious disease outbreaks and the communicable disease reports from Beijing 2008 were down 40 per cent on those for the city in 2007.

London 2012 followed the pattern. As with previous Olympics, its safety can be ascribed to years of planning, with protocols established for the daily reporting of any threat of a virulent infectious disease. Intensive-care units were given access to websites for alerting public health authorities to suspicious cases.

The precautions included daily assessments of the worldwide threat of new infectious diseases and how these might travel to London. That is how we know that a few teams suffered norovirus outbreaks before they arrived, and that there was an outbreak of chicken pox among staff at one of the Olympic hotels. All threats were safely contained. During the event, there were a few cases of gastrointestinal infections but little more. In the end, nothing occurred that would not happen in the average UK summer.

Not every mass gathering benefits from Olympic-style planning. Music festivals are particularly prone to problems. There have been outbreaks of Campylobacter infection at Glastonbury and of H1N1 at festivals in Belgium, Hungary and Serbia. That is why some researchers are calling for better surveillance of the threats to festival-goers’ health.

A comprehensive survey of 32 years of medical reports from large-scale music festivals shows that they are generally low-risk events, but this does vary. Reports of gastrointestinal problems range from nine per 100,000 people at Glastonbury 1997 to 55,000 per 100,000 at the 1987 meeting of the Rainbow Family in North Carolina. When over half the people at your chosen event contract dysentery, you know you’ve picked badly.

Music festivals are also hot spots for occasional breakouts of measles and mumps. That is partly because there is a higher incidence of vaccine-shunning among the segments of the population likely to attend music festivals. Some health researchers are recommending that festivals implement a rule similar to the one in place for Hajj pilgrims, who have to present a complete immunisation record; or at least offer on-site vaccinations.

Judicious use of social media might also help. A collaboration between British, Israeli and Danish researchers correlated 7.5 million tweets and 32,000 online health searches to link disease outbreaks with specific festival gatherings. It wouldn’t be hard, they pointed out, to use Twitter or Facebook to follow up visitors at a festival that has created particular health problems. Festival-goers might benefit from messages with advice about their likely exposure, symptoms to look out for and whether to seek a medical consultation. Mass surveillance doesn’t always have to be used for evil. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times