1. Tits & class: page 3, the Duchess, & public bodies

    There is one main reason why News International have been under fire this week. Not that they seem to ever be sinkable - tapping dead children’s phones, blackening the names of a whole city, none of it seems to actually matter when you have enough money and power to continue to push your way through the public letter box like some kind of credible media. 

    Beyond the headlines - the details of the full horror, the shameful cover-up, and the pathetic apologies - another group have been trying to take on the Sun for different reasons. This week saw a campaign, based on one woman’s attempts to get page 3 removed by asking very politely if it could go, gathering pace. You can read about the campaign and sign the petition here:


    The likelihood of a group of feminists winning in a power-struggle with News International seems pretty slim. As mentioned above, this is a media corporation so powerful it seems they can do the most vile and disrespectful things to the British public and still wash it all away with a bit of populist banter and some free holidays. NI are almost certainly otherwise engaged at the moment but no doubt if/when enough of a ripple happens to catch their interest current campaigners will receive the same abuse that was dished out to smear the Labour MP Clare Short when she made the same arguments - that any dislike of Page 3 comes from a combination of jealousy, prudish dislike of sex, and a general busy-body nature found in those who like to gain power by restricting the freedom of others. I’ll look at each of these three contentions in turn.

    Jealousy. Do people like Clare Short and the current campaigners actually harbour resentment for the page 3 lovelies, and seek to drive them out of the public consciousness for this reason? After all, we all know a lot of feminists don’t diet. Some of them don’t wear make-up. Some of them Don’t Even Shave Their Body Hair. All of these are prime signs of not being a Stunner, so it is natural that these kinds of women would be jealous of the male attention attracted by a more conventionally attractive woman’s naked torso. Well, the answer here is probably multiple. Some women don’t actually care what men think of them (shocking!). Many hetero women probably like male attention from men they find attractive but wouldn’t extend to wanting it from the entire Sun readership (some of whom also have issues with lifestyle/exercise and excessive body hair) - I’m conscious here of taking a heteronormative view of things but I don’t even know where to start in extending this, so am probably better leaving that to someone else. Many more women feel massively insecure about their bodies in a way that is shaped by the proliferation of the public female body - not just in the Sun or lads mags but women’s magazines too - as something which is owned by all, open to continual scrutiny, and must fall into very specific boundaries of what is not what is not an acceptable form. If these women are reacting to this by trying to challenge the thing which causes them some of this body angst, I’m struggling to see what the problem is.

    Prudishness and dislike of sex. I’m not really sure what to say to this. I know a lot of feminists. Most of them like sex. A lot. Some of them don’t, though they have no interest whatsoever in whether other people do or not. It’s a tired old allegation that is always used whenever women campaign within anything relating to the sex industry - for example, it is apparently pretty prudish to look into the huge amount of human trafficking and internal injuries involved in many prostitution rings.

    Freedom and censorship. This seems to be the main liberal argument used against this type of campaign (ironic, when liberal feminist groups such as UK Feminista and the Fawcett Society are generally fully behind this type of campaigning compared with more politicised issues). Censorship does not generally win over minds, it’s true, but it is incredibly reductionist to see women’s attempts to control what they are exposed to on a daily basis in their home, workplace etc as a form of censorship and an unfair attack on the freedoms of a multi-billion corporation in controlling what is in that environment. 

    The main dimension which seems to be missed in a lot of these arguments is class. What exactly makes the mass printing of working class woman’s tits a national treasure but the publication of a national treasure such as the Duchess of Cambridge’s tits a terrible disgrace? Consent, in a way, because obviously in one case it is there and the other it isn’t. I think it goes beyond that though - the old distinctions between the earthy and the sublime, all the age old Madonna/whore rubbish that we get spoonfed from an early age. Probably life would be a lot easier all round if we didn’t have all this public/private fetishisation surrounding tits and had the same norms for women as men, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. The women who work Page 3 are put up for public display as simple, good-hearted creatures, and there is a danger that this form of patronisation is extended into any feminist analysis in which they are pitied as unintelligent. Time and time again we get raw intelligence confused with educational opportunity and the norms supported by consumer based class system of capitalism. It is not as simple as poor silly girls being exploited, but it is also not as simple as free agents choosing from a wide array of equally weighted life choices.

    So, I am supporting the campaign. I think women (and men) should have the right to control what they are exposed to in their day to day life if it continually shapes the way they are treated by society and the way they treat themselves. News International is still one of the biggest global forces there is so I don’t have much hope for the success of this particular campaign: it will almost certainly be seized upon and smeared. That said, political change in general doesn’t happen if we don’t have the argument or, more importantly, give the alternative and share the hope for change.

  2. Depression - blog for depression awareness week

    It was brought to my attention yesterday that this is depression awareness week, so as it is something that has featured a lot in my life personally and professionally I thought I would write about it.

    Depression became a big part of my life in my mid teens, when my dad had a breakdown. It pretty much turned my world upside down, and while a lot of what i experienced was to do with worrying about what I could see happening to people I loved, I also had to deal with a lot of stuff relating to social attitudes. Not anything anyone said to me - I don’t think we ever received anything but kindness or support from people around us, who were mainly family members and their church friends - or implied, but my own issues in feeling uncomfortable about talking to anyone about what was going on, anger at what I imagined people thought based on how depression tends to be viewed. I don’t think I talked to any of my friends about it much if at all at the time. I felt like he was being swallowed up in his own sense of failure.

    When I met Ian, my partner, he was being treated for depression (at the age of 19), though fortunately this has not been a long lasting issue. Since then at least four of my closest friends have gone or are going through some form or other of it, along with lots of people I know less well.

    There is no one cause of depression. I think the simplest and most accurate way to explain it is as a normal human experience (rather than a psychological disturbance as such, which is how it is clinically viewed), but one which can cause a lot of suffering for those who experience it. The stats for reported depression suggests that it is one of the most common mental illnesses:

    It is estimated that 5-10% of the population at any given time is suffering from identifiable depression needing psychiatric or psychosocial intervention. The life-time risk of developing depression is 10-20% in females and slightly less in males.” (WHO, 2004)

    Clearly with any sort of neurotic mental illness (a condition where people are still aware of reality) there are problems with report rates as a definite stat, because there are two issues which impact: firstly, the social stigma surrounding mental illness, and in particular the barriers to admitting an inability to cope. This may be the reason why the figure is slightly higher in women, who tend to seek medical help quicker and have less social pressure not to crack or show emotion. Additionally, there is probably a good deal of self-treatment, including relatively healthy activities such as exercising but also forays into other things such as alcoholism (or other addictions) or eating disorders.

    Depression is in part biological, in that people who are experiencing depression have chemical differences in the brain. It relates in part to levels of serotonin (a neurochemical which has a knock on effect on lots of other things chemically) activity in the brain, so is in that sense an invisible physical difference between those who experience it and those who do not, and like many other invisible physical differences tends to be misunderstood as a matter of choice (just not choosing to snap out of it). It is likely that people are to some extent genetically predisposed towards depression - born with a genetic combination which does not determine that they will become depressed but maybe makes their vulnerability greater in the right set of circumstances.

    Environmental stressors, including both issues in the home environment, personal relationships, work life etc, but also wider factors such as poverty and discrimination, all increase vulnerability to depression. Depression levels tend to go up at times of economic austerity (and have risen under the coalition). This may be in part down to increased personal failure and hopelessness - it has long been argued that depression is in part a behavioural response to repetitive failure and lack of control (Seligman’s learned helplessness theory) - in a time of high unemployment but may also relate to cuts to support services which could manage depression at a milder level.

    Anti-psychiatrists argue that the medicalised diagnosis of depression is a form of social control: that depression is a result of a failure of our social support systems and structure to provide opportunity and care, and that by diagnosing we point the finger inside the individual in deciding the cause rather than engaging with a wider look outwards at what is going wrong in our society. They also point to the massive international capitalist interests of psychiatric drug companies which do bear some investigation, though there isn’t space to do it here.

    Treatments for depression are controversial. Generally SSRIs (a drug which impacts on serotonin activity) are used these days but there is much debate over their effectiveness: they seem to be most effective for those with moderate to extreme depression, with placebos performing at the same level for mild depression and possible increased risk of suicide in teenagers and young adults. As with any psychiatric drug, there are issues surrounding control (by giving someone a drug you are taking away their involvement in their recovery, to some extent), dependency, side-effects etc. While traditionally depression has also been supported by psychotherapy with a humanistic element (person-centred counseling for example), in recent times Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a shorter, cheaper therapy which involves a large body of work being undertaken by the client alone, is rising in popularity. Reviews of therapeutic effectiveness suggest that the most important factor in success is how skilled the therapist is rather than the therapy chosen.

    As with most mental illnesses, I think it is really important that we look at the extent to which those suffering feel obliged to take responsibility. The assumption is that mental illnesses are a matter of choice, and this causes real problems in terms of what people have to go through, It puts up barriers which prevent the same level of social support that someone with a clear physical illness can get (though even that is being eroded under the current climate of suspicion over “scrounging” being deliberately stirred by the government and media). Depression may not be visible to the naked human eye, but unless it has been experienced there is no way to really judge how much it distorts judgement and decisions or what it is like living inside it. Like many other social issues, I think one of the first things we should do is look at the extent to which our education system and society teaches children an empathic imagination: the ability to see the world from another’s point of view rather than a shallow process of uninformed judgement.