Monday, 17 March 2014

Alcohol is a feminist issue

Alcohol is a feminist issue. In 1978 the writer and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach published one of the most important books in modern feminist literature since Germaine Greer's 'The Female Eunuch'. Reflecting the growth in obsession over women's bodies, dieting, their relationship with food and our image obsessed society, 'Fat Is A Feminist Issue' has put body image at the centre of debates surrounding women's rights ever since. Today, whilst images of the female body continue to be highly contested and a new generation of assertive and proactive women leads the charge to abolish everyday sexism in the guise of the Sun's Page Three, the threat to women's physical bodies has never been greater. A new report showing that half of all women in Britain are likely to have been physically or sexually assaulted also puts alcohol in the frame as one of the chief aggravating factors in this shocking epidemic of violence. Alcohol, a drug that is everywhere and that is naturalised and normalised by advertising and popular culture, is actually implicated in countless crimes against women. In short, alcohol is a feminist issue, and perhaps the pre-eminent one of our times. The Violence Against Women report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, published last week showed that Britain was one of the most violent countries in Europe when it came to sexual and physical assaults on women by men, with the country exceeding the EU average for sexual violence by 11 percent. The report cited Britain's drinking culture as a key exacerbating feature of this violence, not only does alcohol make people more likely to do violent things that they would be very unlikely to do when sober, it also puts drunk women in very vulnerable situations. Even though these figures have now been made available and alcohol's role in such widespread violence and suffering is abundantly clear, our government has uttered little more than a murmur. Ministers are content to remind us that the distillers, brewers and supermarkets are all committed to 'responsibility deals'; meaning that the government will not regulate or dare we say 'govern' this incredibly powerful industry, no matter the harm to the public. A responsibility deal amounts to little more than a PR campaign to shift sole responsibility for the effects of excessive drinking on to the shoulders of the drinker. Men are the victims of alcohol fuelled violence too, but the disproportionate manner in which women are harmed by this powerful, intoxicating, addictive drug sure makes the availability, pricing and aggressive promotion of it one of the key issues in women's rights today.

Monday, 3 March 2014

An epic crime dressed up as choice

An epic crime dressed up as choice. A war is being waged on Britain’s most impoverished and vulnerable communities and its front line is the high street betting shop. Warfare is invariably the struggle for material resources when business negotiations break down and it is typically waged by the powerful against the weak; whilst it is normally carried out using conventional weaponry the economic war that is raging across the country at the moment uses a modern tool of mass destruction, the fixed odds betting terminal. A report to be published by Campaign for Fairer Gambling in parliament next week, but released to the national press today, has estimated that some £13 billion has been extracted by bookmakers from the most impoverished communities across England. So far there is no data for Wales and Scotland but it is unlikely to be any better given the explosion of high street book makers in all parts of the UK. The gambling industry likes to present gambling as a bit of harmless fun, a traditional pastime that dates back centuries, after all who hasn’t bet a pound on the Grand National, played a fruit machine in a pub or bought a lottery ticket? As with the drinks industry, pseudo-libertarian notions of resisting the nanny state and giving people the right to do what they want with their own money are trotted out whenever the possibility of legislation that might affect profits is mentioned; the punters are rational economic agents, making clear choices about what to spend, save and gamble, introducing the idea of compulsion and addiction ruins this rosy picture. This sanitised view of modern gambling is a fantasy for many, and the occasional punter that places a bet once or twice a year is of no interest at all to the gaming lobby, their favourite client is the vulnerable addict. The current explosion of betting shops on the high streets of Britain results from Labour’s Gambling Act in 2005, which relaxed the rules on how many gambling establishments there could be in any given area. The result, as with Labour’s introduction of 24 hour drinking, has been a catastrophe. In one instance the report showed that £118 million had been poured into just 570 machines in Liverpool, leading to a £23 million loss for the ‘customer’; little wonder that they are described as the crack cocaine of gambling. The current government’s mantra of solidarity, that we are ‘all in this together’ could not be further from the truth, the gaming lobby has as powerful hold over David Cameron as the alcohol lobby does. Far from being united by the adverse times in which we live and the struggles of the recession, the reality that has been exposed in this new report is that during this financial crisis there are winners and losers and the latter have become prey. The massive epidemic of gambling addiction in Britain, existing in symbiosis with crippling pay-day lending, has been deliberately ignored for years but the past decade of governmental irresponsibility has allowed the problem to grow until it is unavoidable. It is impossible for the government and the industry to argue convincingly that problem gambling is an issue for a tiny fraction of the betting community. Once that convenient narrative falls apart, the industry’s deliberate onslaught against the poorest in the country will no doubt continue, but without the veneer of legitimacy that all wars need.