A weapon against half the world

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, Julie Bindel calls for a global movement against sexua

Inside the walls of a coastal town in Morocco, several women crouch at the roadside selling bunches of herbs. One of the women catches my eye. She is nursing a baby but looks at least 60 years old. I try to see her as a woman with whom I share substantive experience. I have no children; I am not poor. As a lesbian, I do not require access to safe contraception. I do not need to worry about my rights as a married woman. Yet there is one thing that all women share - something that shapes our lives and partly determines the way we live and the choices we make - that is, the threat and reality of sexual violence.

It is this commonality that is taking me to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York this month. In the past 15 years, the women's movement has become truly global, a development kick-started in an unlikely place: Beijing. In 1995, 23,500 women and 5,000 government representatives of 189 counties gathered in the Chinese capital for the UN Conference on Women and formulated a Global Platform for Action (PfA), through which governments should address gender inequality, including measures to end violence against women. The PfA remains the most wide-reaching international commitment to women's equality. At this year's catch-up conference in New York, many of the delegates will be asking how far we have come and what still needs to be done.

As I write, women and girls all over the world are being beaten by their husbands, raped, burned and mutilated in the name of "tradition", forced into marriage, sold into prostitution and murdered for transgressing a twisted code of "honour". Violence against women is an international epidemic. It has been identified by the World Health Organisation as a grave health issue, affecting more people than HIV and Aids.

Globally, at least one-third of all women and girls will be beaten or sexually abused once or more throughout their lives. In Kenya, 70 per cent of those asked by the Women's Rights Awareness Programme admitted they knew neighbours who beat their wives, and almost 60 per cent said that the women were to blame. The news is not much better in the UK. A recent survey on Londoners' attitudes to rape found that almost half think that rape victims are at least partly to blame.

The poorer the woman, the more vulnerable she is to exploit­ation and sexual violence. If a woman has to fight for clean water, she may be pressured to swap this for sexual favours. If there is no work in her town or village, she could be targeted by traffickers promising her a better life overseas.

Under attack

In most countries, women have won the right to vote only within the past 50 years. There is still nowhere in the world where women have access to political or social power equal to that of men. I spoke to Rachel Carter, head of policy and advocacy at the UK-based NGO Womankind Worldwide. She believes that the main achievements of the Beijing conference have been the formation of a vibrant international movement and the development of legislation against violence towards women in countries that had no prior public awareness of the issue.

“However, the massive gap left to be plugged is implementation," Carter says. "There is a tendency for some governments to see their country strategies, legislation and policies as an end rather than a means to an end."

Do we need to create a new formal agreement, as we did in Beijing? "I would be reluctant because, if anything, in today's climate, I think we would go backwards. Climate change and the rise of fundamentalism have made it worse for women. Women's rights are being eroded. Women's freedom was used as an excuse for the invasion of Afghanistan, but now women's rights are being traded out and it is worse in some ways for them."

Baroness Gould is chair of the Women's National Commission, which provides a link between the UK government delegation to the conference and NGOs. She is similarly cautious: "If we had another Beijing, we might go backwards in terms of reproductive health, in particular abortion and contraception. There are very few countries in Africa where abortion is legal."

There is evidence to back up Carter and Gould. Zimbabwe has long had a vibrant women's movement, but women have borne the brunt of the recent turmoil there, and growing numbers of cases of both sexual and domestic violence are being reported. In countries experiencing conflict, or which have recently done so, violence towards women tends to have increased.

During the Beijing conference, representatives of uncompromising Catholic and Muslim countries refused to sign in support of women's rights to abortion and contraception, or a right to sexual self-determination, and yet these are the very issues that lie at the root of women's vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence. "If a woman lives in a country where rape in marriage is not a crime, and domestic violence is viewed as perfectly acceptable, how can she ever leave?"asks Hilary McCollum, a UK-based anti-rape activist. "And if there is no option for a woman not to marry, how is she ever going to be free from the control of men?"

South Africa is one country that is suffering from a surge in sexual violence, even though it has one of the best constitutional and legal frameworks in the world for human rights, including violence against women. After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, and during its transition towards democracy, South Africa experienced a rapid increase in reported rapes. South African rape statistics are now among the highest in the world. In 1997, the Human Sciences Research Council released a report claiming that child rape in South Africa had reached "epidemic proportions". One-third of reported rapes between January and September 2001 were of children between zero and 11 years of age.

According to rape crisis groups in the country, many of the rapes committed are akin to those experienced during the anti-apartheid struggle, with victims suffering extreme violence, often by multiple perpetrators. "While the history of apartheid and conflict must play a role in this," Carter says, "I think we must go back again to the root causes of power imbalances between genders, patriarchy, and women's bodies being used as both personal and political territory upon which wars are played out." It has been recognised since the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict that rape is a tool of war. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, up to half a million women were raped by combatants.

Women in rich countries are also vulnerable to pimps, rapists and wife-beaters. Dowry deaths, honour killings and female genital mutilation all happen in the UK. Girls are taken to Harley Street clinics by their Somali-born parents to be mutilated in the name of culture. Pakistani families send girls "home" to marry a cousin they have never met, often before puberty. Women born into Turkish families can be killed by their male relatives for daring to love an unsuitable man.

Heroine Harman

Honour crimes also happen to women of British descent. Wives who dishonour their husbands by leaving them or being unfaithful often die for stepping out of line. The Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, much derided for her outspoken feminism, has fought hard to prevent men from pleading provocation in such cases, a defence that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

But the global women's movement is making a difference. A recent Unicef report found that female genital mutilation in one region of Ethiopia had fallen from 100 per cent to 3 per cent, largely as a result of innovative public education programmes run by Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope, a women's self-help centre in the township of Durame. Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, has saved the lives of countless women and been replicated around the world. By developing a multi-agency approach that involves the courts, prosecutors, probation and refuge workers, it has brought about a sharp fall in the number of women killed as a result of domestic violence.

“In the UK, we have made enormous progress in terms of sexual violence," Gould says. But we live in difficult times. For Carter, relying on what she calls "paper rights", such as those outlined in the PfA, will not translate into women's lives being saved or sexual violence being eliminated. We need concerted action, she says, and her hope is that the conference at the UN this month will inspire just that. "We need to be able to tell men what they will gain if they give up power, which will be no easy task.

“Right now we don't have enough mechanisms to hold governments to account, despite the PfA. Fifteen years after Beijing, and we are struggling to hold up the damn walls."

Julie Bindel is co-founder of Justice for Women

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge