Ed West: Drooling Imbecile

Attempts to defend Nadine Dorries in public are, for fairly obvious reasons, few and far between but even by the usual piss-poor standards of the DDA (Dorries Defence Association), Ed West’s recent missive at the Telegraph lowers the bar for drooling imbecility:

If you ever wonder how human beings could have sunk so low as to commit the atrocities of the 20th century, you only have to type “Nadine Dorries” into Twitter to see the hatred that man is capable of towards his fellow man.

Ed might not have used the H-word but I’m still calling Godwin on that remark, and that’s just his opening gambit.

Or woman, in this case. I suspect part of the reason Dorries attracts such hostility is that she is attractive, and if you’re slightly deranged it is always more fun writing spiteful, hate-filled bile towards pretty women than to the sexless. I even suggested this when I interviewed her back in January, trying not to sound too sleazy, something I didn’t entirely succeed in doing, although she would only say it had more to do with her background and being “an unusual creature in politics”.

Way to go, Ed!

Two sentences in, already we’ve got a Godwin, victim fetishism (unmerited, of course) and a bit of blatant projected objectification in, of all things, an articles that ostensibly about the current sexualisation debate. In Ed’s position I’d worry less about sounding ‘too sleazy’ and be far more concerned about making myself look like a complete and utter tool, but then – in common with Dorries – self-awareness hardly seems to be Ed’s strong suit.

I’ve already explained the real reason why Dorries is almost universally loathed by the massed ranks of the Twittersphere but as it seems that taking the moral philosophy route has clearly failed to register, it looks like it time to set aside the verbal scalpel and reach for the blunderbuss.

Nadine Dorries is widely loathed simply because she’s a bullshitter and compulsive fantasist who, without any thought whatsoever for the truth value of her utterances, compulsively spews wilfully ignorant arse gravy in the public discourse because it suits her own personal agenda, whatever that might be at any given moment.

If Dorries is, indeed, an ‘unusual creature in politics’ it is only because British politics remains, for the time being, relatively free of the kind of low-rent, semi in-bred morons that sadly infest the lowest sewers of the American political system, dragging a once-great beacon of enlightenment and rationality into an intellectual cesspit of theocratic infantilism. This isn’t hatred – it’s justifiable abomination of a politician who, irrespective of her physical appearance, is utterly devoid of all honesty, integrity and personal authenticity.

I don’t give a flying fuck what she looks like, she’s a wilfully ignorant and dangerous moron and she’d be a moron if the unusual creature she most resembled were the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Dorries has whipped up the mob this time by suggesting that children are being too sexualised, too young. She told Radio 4: “The problem is that we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK, the highest rate of abortion.

“We have an over-sexualisation of this culture which is everywhere. It is in Sky Television, in video games that children now can access, on computer games, mobile phones.

“It’s on billboard advertising, it’s in teenage magazines, it’s everywhere and it is too much. And we have to now say, enough.”

Dorries has actually ‘whipped up the mob’ on this occasion by.amongst other things, bullshitting profusely on the public record and suggesting, on national television, that teaching abstinence to teenage girls might reduce the prevalence of sexual abuse.

Rather predictably, she’s been attacked for wishing to return to Victorian times (people always seem to judge Victorian times by the problems the Victorians inherited, not the improvements they made), for being anti-sex, prudish, being apparently our Sarah Palin, and wishing to turn the clock back.

And your point is?

The strangest argument is that the sexualisation of children is a myth. Like that other “myth”, of the post-1955 crime explosion, it is one that left a surprising amount of evidence. Look at the pregnancy rates for under-16, as opposed to all teenagers; it went from 0.3 per 1000 girls aged 13-15 in 1955 to 5.1 per 1000 today. Likewise the (less scientific) percentage of girls under-16s claiming to have sexual intercourse has vastly increased from 5 per cent in 1964 to 38 per cent today. And the rate of sexually transmitted diseases among under-16s rose by 58 per cent in just four years of the 2000s.

Critics of Dorries accuse her of being unscientific in her use of data, yet does anyone seriously dispute these figures, which are the best indicator of sexualisation?

You had to ask, didn’t you.

First, making sweeping generalisations on the back of a few datapoints sourced from Wikipedia is generally a pretty bad idea, even if – for once – the statistics appear to have been extracted from a few reasonably reliable sources.

Nevertheless, we’re being invited to crunch the number and so the numbers we will most certainly crunch, starting with the ‘pregnancy rates for under-16s’ neither of which actually measure the pregnancy rate for under-16s. The 1955 statistic is the just birth rate while ‘current’ figure combines the birth and abortion rates for 2009. Neither figure provides an accurate reflection of the ‘pregnancy rate’, or rather conception rate, and neither figure includes those conceptions which, sadly, result in either a miscarriage or stillbirth – and, based on current data sourced from the ONS (rather than Wikipedia) these account for around 30% or so of all conceptions to under 16’s.

So, the actual conception rate for 2009, the most recent for which this data is available, was 7.2 conceptions per 1,000 women, a figure we can rely on within the usual margins of error one finds in ONS data as a result of rounding, etc. For the 1955 figure, things get a little trickier. Not only does this figure not include miscarriages and stillbirths, both of which you’d expect to be at least a little more common than they are today given the marked improvements in ob-gyn standards over the last 55 years, but it also has to be remembered that the official birth statistics are generated from birth registration data, so we also have to take in account the fact that we have very little reliable information on the prevalence of illegal abortions during the 1950s. Although adoption had, by the 1950s, become a much more formal process that it had been before the Second World War, the extreme social stigma associated with illegitimacy remained very much a part of the social landscape and one cannot, therefore, exclude the possibilty that the birth statistics of the period might also exclude some secret within-family adoptions in which even the true maternal parentage of the child was concealed at the time of its registration.

Regardless of any doubts about the reliability of the statistics, one simply cannot explain and account for 54 years of profound social and cultural change on the back of two data points, let alone put the forward as concrete evidence of the causal working of a such a complex and nebulously defined social phenomenon as ‘sexualisation’. One can, however, with a little judicious effort, use the data that is to hand to illustrate just how boneheaded some of Dorries’ arguments actually are – in this case, by estimating the likely trend in teenage conceptions over the last half century using the following graph:

We needn’t worry too much about precision here. What matters is the overall shape of the red trendline which clearly shows that the vast bulk of the recorded increase in under-16 conception rates took place before the 1990’s.

Taking 1990 as roughly the point at which the overall trend in under-16 conceptions began to stabilise at around 8 per 1,000 women per annum, that year saw the merger of Sky TV, which had all of four channels (Sky, Sky News, Sky Movies and Eurosport) and BSB, which has five. The big ticket items in the video gaming world were Super Mario World 3, James Pond, Railroad Tycoon and the first game in the Final Fantasy Series. Lad’s Mags wouldn’t arrive for another four years, with the launch of Loaded in 1994. The relaunch of the Wonderbra was still a year away and the famous/infamous ‘Hello Boys’ poster campaign not due for another three years after that. Mobile Phone were for businessmen not teenagers  the top-selling teen magazines in the UK were Just Seventeen and Smash Hits and the World Wide Web was a single webserver at CERN that ran on a NextCube.

Porn on the internet? Nah, the first photograph wasn’t posted to the new World Wide Web until 1992, and that was an image of the CERN ‘house band’, Les Horribles Cernettes.

In regards to the ‘less scientific’ figures given for the percentage of girls claiming to have had sexual intercourse before their sixteeth birthday, the source given by Wikipedia say just ‘2008, Youthnet’ – no hyperlink and no sign of any statistics on the Youthnet website either. Without a proper link to the source, we can’t verify where these figures came from but what we can say is that, from time to time, studies are published in scientific journals which examine trends in adolescent sexuality and that these are invariably sample-based self-report studies with the all the methodological limitations that implies. For the 1964 figure that West cites for girls (6%) the parallel figure for boys was 14%, which suggest either the ‘bad girls’ were getting around a bit or – more likely – a sizeable proportion of the boys were bullshitting the researcher. What we don’t get, from the either the minimal amount of data we have to hand or even from many of the early studies, is any real sense of the context in which this claimed sexual activity was taking place.

Were these teenagers merely experimenting with sex or were they forming committed, intimate relationships and, if so, in what proportions? We really don’t know because the figures, on their own, are entirely unilluminating.

That said, it is well worth taking the time and effort to dig out some of the studies from the 1950s and 60s if only because the researchers of the period used to go to rather concerted and, by modern standards, quietly hilarious lengths to appear urbane, serious-minded and highbrow when writing up their findings. One paper, published in the British Medical Journal in 1965, begins with the observation that:

It was a shred observer of human frailty who once that to the impure, all things are scientific. Conversely, it seems that any study of sexual relationships, however coldly detached, has an appeal extending far beyond the circle of those whose interest is primarily scientific. Presumably this was why a recent report from the Central Council for Health Education has been introduced with a roll of journalistic drums and the dullest television programme of the year.

You just don’t get introductions like that anymore, more’s the pity.

That leaves us with the claimed 58% increase in STIs is under 16’s and here we can easily track down the source as the figures come from a written answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Lib Dem MP, Norman Lamb, in 2009 and, of course, they were widely reported in the press, as here by the Guardian, who really should have known better than to entrust the reporting of epidemiological data to its society pages even if, as the ‘Staff and agencies’ byline clearly indicates, they were mostly regurgitating wire copy on this occasion.

The number of under-16s contracting sex infections has rocketed in five years, new government figures show today.

The number of diagnoses of sexually transmissed diseases among young people in England rose by 58% from 2,474 in 2003 to 3,913 in 2007.

The biggest increase was in cases of chlamydia, the most common sexually transmitted infection, which rose by 90%, with genital herpes up by 42% and genital warts by a third. Cases of syphilis doubled from three to six, but peaked in 2005 at 17.

The curse of relative statistics strike again.

The key to understanding what’s actually going on here (and the relative rise was 57% not 58%, BTW – no competent mathematician or statistician would round upwards from 57.07 to 58) can be found in the fifth paragraph of the article:

The national chlamydia screening programme has been phased in since April 2003 with testing in community contraceptive clinics, some further education colleges, and more recently through postal testing kits and pharmacies.

Almost 80% (79.6% to be a bit more precise) of this increase in reported STIs in under 16’s is accounted for by the introduction of a national screening programme for chlamydia in 2003, the first year for which figures were given in the written answer and it doesn’t take a genius, or an epidemiologist, to realise that the recording annual incidence of a particular disease will increase if you suddenly decide to go out and actively look for it, rather than wait for patient to report it to you.

Context matters, and so to does the manner in which you present the statistics. The Guardian article gave its readers nothing more to go on that raw figures and relative increases which are ultimately of little value unless you also know the size of the population to which the figures relate. In sexual health statistics, what ‘under-16’ actually means in practice is the 13-15 age group which, for 2007, gives us a baseline population of 2.031 million young people, from which we can now give a much more accurate picture of the change in STI rates using incidence rates.

Taking the old favourites first, there were 1.59 cases of gonorrhoea for every 10,000 young people aged 13-15 in 2003 and that actually fell, by 2007, to 1.1 cases per 10,000.

Syphilis went from 1 case per 1 million young  in 2003 up to 8 case per million in 2005 and then fell back to 3 cases per million by 2007.

For genital herpes, we started at 7.4 cases per 100,000 young people in 2003 and ended up at 10.6 cases per 100,000 in 2007.

For genital warts, which are caused by the Human papillomavirus (HPV), there were 2.8 cases per 10,000 young people in 2003 and 3.75 cases per 10,000 in 2007 – the HPV-related figures, of course, pre-date the introduction of the HPV vaccination programme in late 2008, which one would expect will result in a significant fall in cases of genital warts as coverage improves.

Finally, we get to chlamyida for which the incidence reported by GUM clinics came in a 6.76 cases per 10,000 in 2003, rising to 7.4 cases per 10,000 in 2007 with an incidence rate from the screening programme for 2007 of 5.79 cases per 10,000 which looks to risen again, in 2008, to just under 10 case per 10,000.

Context, as I’ve said, matters and throughout what we’re looking at are conception rates of 7-8 per 1,000 and STI’s rates given in single finger rates per 10,000 and even 100,000 arising out of population of 2 million or so young people of which getting on for 40% appear to claiming to have sexual intercourse at least once before their 16th birthday.

The overall percentage of teenagers having sex before their 16th birthday may have risen considerable since the 1950s but, as the figures clearly show, the overwhelming majority of those those that do aren’t getting pregnant, they aren’t having abortions and they aren’t contracting STIs. That doesn’t, of course, that we should simply disregard the one that do and do nothing to try to reduce teenage pregnancy, abortion and STIs but what it does mean is that we really should be basing both our policy interventions and the public debate on the actual evidence and not the febrile witterings of opportunistic politicians and the hyperventilating morons who, today, pass too easily for journalists in the tabloid press.

No one is suggesting that sexualisation is a myth. Sexualisation, for want of a better term, is a perfectly natural and healthy developmental process that all adolescents go through as they develop through their teenage years. The real debate here, the one that sexual health professionals are trying to engage in, is that of how best to support young people safely through this important stage on the road to adulthood without them either making mistakes that will a serious impact on their future prospect or turning them into moral, intellectual and emotional cripples by infecting them with the ridiculous sexual hang-ups of previous generations.

We’re not disputing the figures, necessarily, what we are disputing is the crude, unnuanced and pig-ignorant interpretations placed on them by amateur moralists in the mainstream press and by politicians and religious campaigns who harbour the frankly nonsensical belief that the sexual mores of the Bronze Age and the late Roman Empire are solution and not the cause of many of these problems.

The reason that she attracts such hostility, and receives so little back-up from quiet sympathisers, is that a non-judgmental approach to sex is part of a series of status-defining beliefs by which university-educated people identify themselves. There is nothing to be gained by suggesting restrains on sexual behaviour or displays – no one young, sexy or in any way cool will support you, because any form of sexual conservatism is seen as highly unattractive, strange or even sinister. That is why there is this almost knee-jerk reaction to what Dorries says, despite large numbers of people feeling extreme unease about hyper-sexualisation.

We’ve already established that Ed doesn’t do state and now we find that he no great shakes when it comes to cod psychology either. Thinly veiled attacks on the supposed ‘liberal elite’ are one of the surest of all indictators that what you’re dealing with is a ‘gnoron’, a wilfully ignorant moron with no substantive arguments to put forward beyond their own ill-conceived personal prejudices. In short, a complete and utter cock.

Sexual conservatism, of the kind espoused by Dorries and her fundamentalist buddies isn’t [just] highly unattractive, strange and sinister its also deeply misogynistic, oppressive and actively promotes a particular pernicious form of moral and intellectual infantilism. It’s also – as you might well expect – utterly hypocritical as is rather nicely illustrated in this 2008 paper by Benjamin Edelman of the Harvard Business, which analyses state-by-state subscription patterns for pay-per-view online porn sites in the United States.

Edleman’s paper makes some interesting observations. Analysing subscription patterns amongst broadband users – an absolute must for anyone into video porn – Edleman found the top ten states in the US in terms of porn site subscriptions per 1,000 users were [in rank order] Utah, Alaska, Mississippi, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Florida and West Virginia. Clearly, ‘The South will rise again’ applies to more than just politics. As for the bottom ten on the same list, this did include ultra-conservative Tennessee but it also included the traditionally liberal Northern states of Michigan, Conneticut, Delaware and New Jersey.

Perhaps my favorite observation in the paper comes not from Edleman’s analysis but from a citation from a 2008 book by Bill Tancer entitled “Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters.”, which provided this delightful nugget of information:

Furthermore, I found no significant relationship between subscriptions to this adult entertainment service and presidential voting in 2004, based on poll data by congressional district. However, using individual-level data from a Hitwise sample of ten million anonymized U.S. Internet users, Tancer (2008), finds that adult escort sites are more popular in “blue” states that voted for Gore in 2004, while visitors from the “red” states that voted for Bush in 2004 are more likely to visit wife-swapping sites, adult webcams, and sites about voyeurism.

All of which probably proves nothing very much even as it rather amusingly suggests that while liberals head upmarket to the classier online clip-joints, conservatives like their porn cheap and gonzo.

Overall, the differences in subscription patterns found by Edelman were relatively modest – all but eleven states had between two and three porn subscriptions per 1,000 broadband users and only four states had a subscription rate outside a 1.5-3.5 per 1,000 range. Utah had a subscription rate of 5.47 per 1,000 which perhaps indicates that there may be something to that whole magic underpants business after all.

This is not only because of the obvious social costs of unwanted pregnancies, but because overt sexuality is a form of aggression and an intrusion into people’s private space. And as countless teenagers have told countless surveys, heightened sexuality also makes them feel insecure and miserable and aware of an increased sense of sexual competition. If the main ambition of so many teenage girls is to be considered sexy – and having worked in men’s magazines, I can tell you it is – something has gone seriously wrong in our feminist utopia.

WTF? Overt sexuality is a form of aggression and an intrusion into people’s private space?

Sure, the world would be peachy if only Rihanna would lay off popping round my house every night in order thrust her crotch into my face.

Don’t you see women, IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!!!

For fucks sake, won’t you at least put your tits away for five fucking minutes so Ed can enjoy his private space in peace.

What a complete and utter tosser!

Underneath Ed’s thinly veiled misogyny there are some genuinely serious issues is relation to the prevalence of eating disorders and body image problems amongst teenagers and serious issues deserve serious consideration and need to carefully researched. These are issues that don’t arise in isolation. Girl’s don’t fall suddenly into a fugue state and merest hint of Christina Aguilera’s lace-clad butt-cheeks, there’s more to the complex and often bewildering social and cultural environment that teenagers have to navigate on the way to adulthood.

The plural of anecdote isn’t data, least of all when the anecdote begins with ‘Well I know because I used to work a men’s magazine’.

Sexualisation is also un-egalitarian. As Michel Houellebecq once wrote, a world in which sexual pleasure is made a pre-eminent good is one where the gap between haves and have-nots is magnified along new dimensions. The ever-presence of sexual images rubs failure in the face of low-achieving men, further creating the feeling of a society in which anyone who doesn’t make loads of money, drive a fast car, appear on television or have sex with models is considered a failure. Pointing this out doesn’t mean you want women to wear metal chastity belts, have unmarried mothers confined to lunatic asylums, or walk around Whitechapel in a top hat carrying a bag full of medical instruments.

Oh well, let’s look on the bright side, at least he’s not quoting Ayn-fucking-Rand.

Sexualisation is not un-egalitarian – sexualisation is an entirely normal human developmental process which occurs in adolescence. the pscyhological counterpart to the biological process we call puberty. As we develop the bodily capacity for sex and reproduction, so we develop the psychological capacity for sex and reproduction and begin to explore our own sexuality and sense of sexual identity.

What Ed’s trying to describe here, using Houellebecq as a rather pretentious proxy, is much closer to objectification, which is very different matter of sexualisation for all that the two are commonly, and wrongly, conflated in the public discourse on human sexuality and what is, again, most interesting and revealing is Ed’s choice of source material is that fact that Houellebecq’s principal concern is not potentially deleterious effects of objectification on the female psyche but the alienation that ‘low-achieving men’ are presumed to feel as a consequence of their inability to swan around in a Ferrari and get a shag off Kate Moss.

What a bunch of superficial bastards us men are – life just isn’t worth living unless you can score blow-job off Pippa Middleton.

Somewhat ironically, perhaps the best possible evidence for the contention that Houellebecq is talking bollocks is to be found in the world of online porn where, but for a few necessarily legal constraints, if you can think of a niche in the human sexual repertoire you’ll find that someone’s got a video or two to float your libidinous boat. If you set aside any ethical misgivings you might have about  pornography and, particularly, the working of the porn industry for moment, it cannot but be acknowledged that internet porn is an absolute monument to the complexity and diversity of the human sexual repertoire. If you take the time to look beyond the moralising tone of the current debate a look at the current industry statistics – treat the porn industry for what it is, an economic enterprise, than a rather more interesting and nuanced picture of the interaction between the free market and human sexuality rapidly emerges and its a picture that’s very much at odds with Houellebecq’s rather trite thesis.

The fact of the matter is that the market for the kind of porn that would fit Houellebecq’s model – upmarket, high production values, stereotypically attractive and, usual, surgically enhanced women in the their late terms and early to mid 20s – hit saturation point and plateaued five to six years ago. Most of the actual growth in online porn for the last few years has been in the genre and niche porn markets; gay and male bisexual porn, ‘Milfs’ and ‘Cougars’, Gonzo and reality porn, BBW’s (look that one up for yourself) and ‘Porn 2.0’, which covers everything from free-to-access Youtube-style video porn with at least some genuine user-generated content (most ‘amateur’ porn still tends to studio-made porn filmed to look a bit like like an amateur video) and interactive web-cam porn.

As is also very much the case with mainstream sites like Youtube and iTunes, at least some consumers are, over time, also becoming producers, making and sharing their own content. Pornography is, of course, still very much driven by imagination and fantasy but, increasingly, what’s driving the market forward are real people acting out their own sexual fantasies on camera rather than relying on professional porn actors and actresses to act their fantasies for them.

From a moral standpoint you may consider that to be a bad thing, from a sociological standpoint it rather explodes the thesis that male alienation is an inevitable consequence of the existence of commercial pornography.

Incidentally, based on US figures from 2005, around 60% of the users of adult websites were aged 35 or over, 30% were women and just over 60% had a personal income in excess of $50,000 a year, equivalent to a gross salary of £27-28,000 a year in the UK based on the exchange rates of the period. These figures, of course, pre-date the more recent Porn 2.0 ‘revolution’ but nevertheless neatly illustrates some on the hypocrisy one finds when you asking questions like ‘who’s actually accessing all this porn?’.

The turning-back-the-clock analogy is wrong, anyway, as social attitudes are more like a metronome, swinging from one extreme to another, from excessive licence to prudery. Dorries is just trying to push them back to the middle.

No, the turning-back-the-clock analogy is perfectly correct.

What Dorries wants is simply to force Britain back to the days when public morality was based almost entirely by the imaginary opinions of an imaginary sky fairy and his great celestial waggy finger of tut-tut (hat-tip to Flying Rodent for that gag) and if Ed genuinely considers that to be the ‘middle ground’ then he’s as much a bullshitter as Dorries.