Friday, 25 November 2011

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE?

There are times that victim blaming feels like a national sport. Look at any article about rape or sexual assault in any newspaper and even if it isn't at Daily Mail standards, there's almost always an undercurrent of it. Look at the language used. You'll note that often a rape victim is an unmarried mother or a single woman, yet I don't recall ever gleaning the marital status of a male robbery victim from an article. Descriptions of what she was doing or what time of night or day it was add a salacious tone that often lifts it from simple police inquiry for witnesses to morality tale. It's the little comments about her clothes or her routine that are commonplace in sex crimes reports, but would jar if the paper told us what electrical goods or amount of money or type of bank card a man was mugged for.

But it isn't just the papers who do this. Read, if you dare, any thread on Comment is Free on the Guardian or the Daily Mail site about rape and about 80% suggest that if she hadn't been wearing that/doing this/ female/alive and had her vagina unpadlocked while not locked in a cupboard only she had the key for, then she must share some culpability for her attack. This is often dressed up as 'concern trolling' where said opinonated commenter publishes their view because they're just worried wearing a short skirt will end badly for womenhood. It's a convenient smokescreen though for trotting out all the ways that they feel women are ultimately more responsible for rape than the men who commit it. Without fail, these beliefs drip with misogyny and tie themselves in knots to try and justify why women doing legal and normal things in their lives are definitely worse than men committing an illegal act. Hang around long enough and you'll hit the clothing/alcohol/out after dark trifecta that shows the person commenting knows nothing about rape and probably believes it never occurs in countries like Saudi Arabia which to their mind sensibly ban alcohol, enforce burkas and have magically elimanated rape to the point where they can be sure they're stoning the woman to death for the right reason....

Victim blaming and rape myths tend to be a year round chorus to leading your life, but it picks up a notch every Christmas. Police forces, Transport for London, local councils and other public bodies get a free reign to indulge their belief that after a night out men are blameless happy go lucky fools who constantly have the problem of not being able to contain their pesky penises and falling into the drunken/not well enough covered or simply all too tempting Hungry Hippo style vaginas of those modern day Eves they've been socialising with. We are bombarded with expensive campaigns telling us women what we should or shouldn't do to avoid being raped. We must watch our drinks like hawks, spending money on special bottle stoppers, lip glosses and portable CSI labs to test for roofies. We must do everything in pairs as if we are partying in Noah's Ark. We must keep extra money in our shoe to afford a cab, but then carry extra shoes to make sure we aren't vulnerable in our heels, leaving our tiny lady brains wondering which of our four feet contains the magic cash and taking our attention away from the exact level of flirtatiousness and friendliness we must be displaying at all times around men so as not to give incorrect impressions. We should have nightclub bouncers learn a trick from headmistresses and have us kneel down upon entry to check our skirts touch our knees or issue us with a regulation shroud to protect us. And while we all know we mustn't have sexual contact with anyone because consent isn't really a time by time thing, but something that covers you for life. Instead we should be spending all evening considering how we get home. Should we try and renact one of those highly triggering TfL posters about illegal mini cabs or take a black cab and hope there aren't any more John Worboys out here? (This is actually a trick question. We shouldn't have been out in the first place so no matter which way you get home, you're in the wrong, silly!)

The appalling rate of attrition at police level, policy of 'no criming' rape allegations, lack of medical provisions for victims, bias amongst the police, judiciary or juries, stigma against victims, low levels of remand for those charged with rape and the reactions of trauma after assault that all help lead to the woefully low rape conviction rate of 6.7% in the UK don't tend to get a glossy poster campaign. These are expensive things to change and require a huge amount of effort and engagement from people who feel they would have to work harder and not get their own way like they've been used to. The willingness really doesn't seem to there when you read South Wales Police suggest it'd be offensive to men to ask some of them not to rape over the festive period, but refuse to see the disconnect that it's offensive (and patronising) to ask all women not to get raped. But then again, this is the force who hired the officer who deliberately destroyed the paperwork and evidence that allowed my second rapist to go free and said it would be unfair to punish him for something he did at a previous force, promoting him to Sex Crimes instead, so I'm not sure what I was expecting...

Well, a little something like the initative from my own council. For the second year running, Lambeth Council are promoting their 'Know the Difference' campaign this Christmas, making the valid point that not all men rape, but that all rapes involve a rapist and most of those rapes are by men. They've come up with a campaign that puts the onus on men not to rape, but that speaks across the lines of sexual assault to recognise it isn't always a heterosexual crime. But more to the point, they've identified the crucial fact. Rape is not for the victim to prevent, it's for the perpetrator to stop it happening. Nothing about this campaign is about victim blaming. It's about speaking to everyone, especially perpetrators and seeking to clarify the laws and morals that keep people safe. They show the fine line between harrassment and sexual assault and underline everything with the need for informed and enthusiastic consent, all delivered with a reminder of the law and options for victims. Nothing is about forbidding a good time, but about making sure everyone is participating equally.

As long as Lambeth Sapphire have upped their game since I dealt with them and aren't still leaving victims abandoned and scared, then I just can't fault this campaign. Informative, clear, clever and without the merest hint of scolding toward women, it proves to me that there's no excuse for the usual victim blaming cliches. It was widely displayed in Lambeth Tube stations, borough wide buses, bars, clubs, restaurants and prominent billboards last year and I presume this year will be the same. I've been trying to find out if the borough's above average reporting rate last year was because this non-judgemental campaign made victims feel more able to come forward or whether we really do have a big problem with sexual violence in the area, but I might leave the details til after Christmas and just enjoy living and socialising in Lambeth like a normal, non traumatised woman. Being told rape isn't my fault in a campaign like this makes it easier for me to believe it the rest of the year too. Maybe it'll also help me reclaim Christmas as a time to have fun, not be repeatedly triggered? Either way, I'm even more grateful than usual to live in Lambeth right now...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

DOCTOR, DOCTOR...


These days I dread going near a newspaper or the TV. Each day seems to bring another creeping insiduous way to make life more difficult for the sick and disabled in this country from the non stop hassle from Atos, the drip drip of 'scrounger' rhetoric and today, deciding that GPs are not suitable people to decide if someone is too sick to be signed off work for more than a week.

Bearing in mind that GPs are already not seen as suitable to assess whether people are long term sick when claiming benefits, it looks like the government is showing vague consistency by saying they can't do it short term either. Then you realise that they want to hand the entire running of the NHS in England over to GPs and you wonder if they understand what that the word doctor and manager are not actually interchangeable? One requires seven years of training, the other does not. Yet the coalition government seems to think it would help all of us to hand the medical stuff over the managers and the managerial stuff over to the doctors.

Not only do they want to save money, they also seem to be under the impression that GPs are such kind caring people that they are handing out the adult equivalent of lollipops left, right and centre and signing people off work and onto benefits in such droves that it's like a game of roulette as to whether you'll pop in for a prescription or come out signed off. This suggests they have never actually spoken to someone who has been signed off when they get sick but don't actually know what's wrong yet.

It's actually really quite hard to get a sick certificate. These days doctors can also issue something called a 'fit note' that directs employers that you need extra help and can't do your job fully due to ill health, trying to avoid the situation where an injury for example stops people working completely if the employer could try and find you alternative work within your role. This has merits, but sometimes you just need a break from work completely and trying to do bits and bobs just drags things out. I had had a period of employment upheaval for several months and had a few 'fit notes' due to an injury, but at no point did I ask my GP to sign me off even after a turbulent six weeks where I had lost my job, split up with my boyfriend, and been raped. I kept going to job interviews and failing to get them due to the fact I couldn't stop crying in them. I decided to sign onto Job Seekers' Allowance.

Only when my job advisor and his supervisor took me off into a smaller room off the main drag, sat me down and kindly told me that they could not allow me to sign the Job Seekers' contract to be available to work 40 hours a week because I was so clearly unwell and unable to work that the thought of going onto a sickness benefit even occurred to me. They sent me off to my doctor to get a sick certificate to go onto Income Support so that I could claim Housing Benefit at least. Totally and utterly freaked out that the JobCentre were being so nice, I stumbled through the door of the GP tearfully, explained what I needed and then proceeded to have a panic attack and cry for the next 30 minutes to the point where the practice nurse suggested sedating me.

I left without my certificate. The GP refused to say that I was unfit for work and suggested unless things got worse I go back and say I wanted JSA. She didn't think there was anything she could do. I went home and as luck would have it, was made homeless that night by the flaming mob that were my housemates. Shellshocked and unslept, I went back to the Job Centre and explained the last 24 hours. They conjured up a surprisingly formal letter to take to the doctor. I went back to the surgery and had an even more spectacular meltdown this time, but luckily enough, did it in reception and another doctore had to be called out to deal with me.

He took one look at me, signed me off work for 8 weeks and gave me a prescription for anti-depressants, a referral to a counsellor and a Valium. I have no recollection whatsoever of applying for Income Support later that day. The next 8 weeks generally passed in a blur of trips to the housing office, trying to move my stuff, find somewhere to live and continuing to apply for jobs. I was quite surprised when I was signed off again for another 8 weeks. Which took to me to the week I was raped again.

Almost immediately I developed a galloping case of Post Traumatice Stress Disorder and started to become extremely agoraphobic. Just getting to the doctor was an epic struggle and concerned enough about my mental health to only give me a week's medication at a time, but not enough to refer me to the Community Mental Health Team or more specialist services, I continued with the 8 weeks at a time certificates, always aware that everything hung on my doctor remaining sympathetic to me. If he decided there was no certificate, then there'd be no Housing Benefit and no hostel. It was nervewracking.

You might say that removing that pressure from the GP to an impartial body would lessen the pressure but I disagree on several points. What both the GP and I needed were better specialist services. The GP needed someone with more experience of someone in mental health distress to guide him and a faceless council looking to tick symptoms off a list isn't it. It would be better to spend the money it costs to set up this council on retraining GPs to be able to deal with undiagnosed conditions and get them moving people on to specialists to get diagnoses. I also fear that some Atos style pen pusher would have been less likely to sign me off as they'd only have seen me once the problem started, not developed a relationship with me over months and seen how things changed and progressed. They also have bad form on being able to take fluctuating conditions seriously and to see the tie in between mental and physical health.

If the government would like us to stop being signed off work long term, then they'd be better off imposing some kind of rule that you must be referred to the appropriate specialist team within a certain number of weeks if you are signed off for more than 8 weeks with one condition. I wouldn't have had to go through the gamut of emotion of wondering every 8 weeks if my GP was going to sign me off or whether I'd lose my house again if they said no. I wouldn't have had to take up a GP appointment every five minutes. I wouldn't have had to wait three years to get referred to the CMHT and another two and a half to get a proper diagnosis and my PTSD therapy. Waiting almost six years to know what is wrong with you is unacceptable. I literally had no words to describe what was wrong with me and this allowed my mental health conditions to become bigger and scarier and harder and harder to come back from. I had no idea if I'd actually lost my mind completely.

Improving GP services and encouraging them to ask for help and support and link to other NHS services (while we still have an NHS) would be the best thing for the sick and that taxpaying public (who shock horror, are often the same people...). It would also be of advantage to GPs as they'd be able to share the workload better and offer better support to the long term sick which might be a cost effective way to maintain confidence and interaction with the long term sick than yelling at them and giving the impression they are a burden on everyone. Bringing in Atos earlier and earlier will only lead to more money being paid to private companies and diverted from those in need. It will also conflict GPs further and bully them into making decisions only based on cost not care. And it will not help anyone get better, unless your idea of better is ignoring symptoms, rubberstamping forms and tossing people aside in to poverty and fear.

This is total Tory scaremongering to excuse commodifying health and vulnerability further in the UK. There might be a few people in the UK signed off who could work, but do we want to make it that it's impossible to take time of work unless you're dying? Plenty of people need some breathing room when life happens. People's physical health can fail, their mental health may not be stable, conditions fluctuate, people need time to grieve after a bereavement, recover when having a baby doesn't go to plan and cope with an unexpected accident. Unless you're a multi millionaire Cabinet member, you are vulnerable to needing these things on the NHS and welfare state between now and the time you die. Don't let them be sold off. And if you still think it's easy peasy to get signed off because you fancy lying on the sofa for a few weeks, doing some light scrounging, why don't you ask your GP and see how far you get before they hound you out of the surgery, howling with laughter?