Harman plans to be part of Labour's negotiating team. Photo: Getty
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Would more women on the parties' negotiating teams form a better coalition?

Backroom girls.

"Backroom boys" is a standard phrase when discussing the wheeling and dealing behind closed doors in Westminster. But what about the girls?

A good question asked of the panel on the BBC's Woman's Hour debate this morning was how each of the women (Harriet Harman, Caroline Lucas, Theresa May, Leanne Wood, Sal Brinton, Eilidh Whiteford and Diane James) would influence coalition negotiations. And would more women negotiating create a better-quality coalition?

The most telling answer was from Harriet Harman. She said: "I think all-male decision-making with women abiding by it is wrong, it's old-fashioned." She pointed out that decision-making is more effective when carried out by a diverse team. 

Harman was part of Labour's negotiating team (which failed) in 2010, but the successful two parties didn't have a single woman involved in the Tory/Lib Dem deal between them. And although Harman gave the standard line about working for a majority, there was a heavy hint that if it comes to doing a deal, she plans to be part of the process.

I hear from a shadow frontbench source that she would sacrifice a departmental role (she is currently both shadow culture secretary and deputy leader) to take a front seat both in negotiations, and the long-term establishment, of an alliance with another party.

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Here are the other panelists' replies:

 - The SNP's Eilidh Whiteford struggled to answer the question, talking about the need for more women MPs in general.

 - The Home Secretary Theresa May too preferred to dodge it by saying "one woman in particular" (Nicola Sturgeon) would have all the influence in negotiations with Labour. 

 - Ukip's Diane James began talking about the experience of women in business, before being admonished by presenter Jenni Murray for failing to answer the question. "We all have testosterone," she retorted, when asked if Ukip was testosterone-fuelled.

 - Lib Dem party president Sal Brinton deployed what must be the Lib Dems' latest differentiation tactic (she gave the line to me first in an interview in January and Vince Cable said a similar thing to the Guardian in April): "The love-in in the rose garden wasn't helpful, it was wrong."

 - The Greens' Caroline Lucas and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru were more direct about women working together to form alliances, the former saying, "What we don't want to see is yet more men going behind closed doors, cooking things up." The latter highlighted how her party, Plaid Cymru, has been working with the Greens and the SNP on a more progressive agenda (all three parties have female leaders).

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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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.