Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lost, with a Political Compass

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry that was political in nature. I tend to shy away from it now, because getting political can send my mood crashing and anxiety rising, and I’m not as brave as other people I know who are more committed. But this one is an exception. A few weeks ago I took part in an online questionnaire called ‘The Political Compass’, and the results surprised and fascinated me. They may help to explain one of the serious flaws of certain so-called democratic states, as well as the feeling so many people have (which I share) of being disenfranchised.

The questionnaire can be found at It’s worth reading the explanation at the start, and I’d better warn you that this blog entry contains spoilers! It’s possible that knowing them might influence the answers you give to the questions – if you take the test. So if you do want to, it might be worth taking the test before reading the rest of this article. (It only takes a few minutes).

The results are plotted on a graph, and measure not only how left-wing or right-wing you are politically, but also how authoritarian or (its opposite) libertarian. My score was -7.50 for economic left and right, and -7.44 (almost the same) for social authoritarian/libertarian. This means that I am both very left-wing and extremely libertarian. I was pleased with this, because when I looked at the score for certain well-known political and spiritual leaders (based on what we know of them through their words, actions and policies), I could see I was in what I regarded as very good company! 

Those self-same results for famous people, however, were extraordinary, and so were mine in relation to them. Certain figures were about where I expected them to be; Stalin very left-wing and authoritarian, Hitler rather more right-wing and equally authoritarian. But Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, all of whom I admire greatly, were all significantly less left-wing and libertarian than I am, although they were the closest figures to me on the chart. Pope Benedict XVI (the present pope – actually not so surprising!) is nearly as authoritarian as Robert Mugabe, Hitler and Stalin. And a whole host of present-day Western leaders, including David Cameron, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, and the completely loony Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, are clustered in a group towards the upper right hand corner. They are both very right-wing and authoritarian (only a little less authoritarian, in fact, than Adolf Hitler!), and hold some pretty extreme, not to say crazy, views. But this same group also includes those who most people consider more moderate, such as Obama. Only the current French president, Francois Hollande, is on the libertarian side of the chart, and a little to the left as well.

What the chart suggests is that Obama is only a little to the left of Mitt Romney, and Cameron only slightly further right than Ed Miliband – although significantly more authoritarian. What does this say about the range of political choices we have in Britain and the US? Think of the spectrum of possible leaders we could vote for in an election – from Cameron and Romney to someone more like Nelson Mandela, who is vastly more left-wing and libertarian. Yet the choices we actually have, especially in the US, are very narrow indeed. Obama and Romney, for all their much vaunted differences, are very close indeed on the chart. They are both very right-wing and authoritarian, with Mitt only a little more so than Barack. American voters have a choice between right-wing authoritarianism and… right-wing authoritarianism with a few more brain cells. The situation is only slightly better in the UK

On a personal level, these results show why I no longer feel able to vote in General Elections. There are no candidates capable of getting anywhere near winning, who come anywhere close to representing my social or economic views. In the past, like many people, I’ve voted tactically – for the candidate most likely to beat the even worse, next-likely candidate. After the horrendous result of the 2011 election, however, I am resolved never to vote tactically again, because all three main parties are a) awful, and b) very similar. And in the last election, there were no candidates of any party in my home constituency who came near to representing my views and values (I can hardly vote for the British Nazi party, can I?). 

The same is probably true for many other people. Several friends of mine also took the test, and their results varied; a couple had results very close to mine, while others were less left-wing or libertarian. But none of them were anywhere near the top right-hand corner, where the supposedly mainstream political leaders and candidates are.

Of course, my friends are only a few, and because they’re my friends I suppose they are more likely to hold similar views to mine – like attracts like. I would like to see a scientific study done of a wide range of people, and see how many of them were near the top right of the chart. Probably quite a few would be. But possibly not as many as you think! Surveys of people’s views on various issues often seem to suggest that in Britain, at any rate, we’re a pretty liberal lot. That doesn’t mean Liberal Democrat; Nick Clegg would probably be in the top right, somewhere between Cameron and Miliband. But when we discount issues where the public have been partially brainwashed by concerted propaganda efforts by politicians and the mainstream media (benefits claimants, for instance, or asylum seeking), very many of us tend to hold pretty liberal – and libertarian- views. We are not by nature a right-wing or authoritarian people. And yet all our leaders and would-be leaders are. 

We often hear these days that people feel politically disenfranchised. “They’re all the same!”, people say, or “my vote doesn’t really count anymore”. Perhaps this chart helps to explain why. There are other parties and candidates, of course: the Green Party, Respect, the Socialist Alliance… Yet the mainstream (ie: far right) candidates, as well as the mainstream media, tell us that such parties are extreme and in any case, highly unlikely to win an election. Before the last British election, the Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas was accused by an interviewer of being “more left-wing than Labour”. Her response (with an amused smile) was something like, “So?” In other words, to be left of the present-day Labour party isn’t saying much!

The result is that people end up voting anyway for parties they don’t actually like, or dislike less than other mainstream right-wing parties. They vote tactically, for the lesser of two or three evils – just as I have done repeatedly until now. The parties they vote for, in many cases, probably don’t represent their true views on social and economic issues.  

No wonder there is such apathy. No wonder the number of people who actually vote on Election Day tends to be so small. If what I’m saying is true, there is something seriously wrong with our democracy. In America it may be a little different, as election fever tends to be more frenzied in that country. But even there, I suspect that millions and millions of voters are actually to the left, and almost certainly less authoritarian, than Obama or Romney. Yet those two men are the only choices being presented to the electorate. Two candidates who, compared to the range of candidates theoretically possible, are very similar indeed. 

Funny, isn’t it, how these leaders are presented as being mainstream, when the chart actually shows that ‘mainstream’ means very right-wing and authoritarian, and not a very long distance away from the most famous tyrant in history? An intuitive sense of this is perhaps partly why I snorted derisively when the previous UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, said publicly, “Gandhi will be my inspiration” (another reason was that he was bombing Afghanistan). No western leader is anywhere near Gandhi on the chart, and any candidate with similar views to Gandhi would immediately be presented as extreme by the mainstream media. It’s also why I said to a friend yesterday that the US is about as right-wing as a democracy can get (which means not truly democratic, in fact). And yet there are the Republicans and their corporate media friends, busy labelling Barack Obama a socialist!

So we have a situation where leaders such as Gandhi and Mandela are widely admired, while anyone who held views like theirs would never win an election in the US or Europe. The electorate have been hoodwinked into believing that candidates on the authoritarian far-right are the only ones worth voting for, and that the differences between them are huge, when in fact they aren’t. All this is fascinating, but nonetheless depressing, to think about.

I’m not an expert, it’s true, on these kinds of surveys, or on how the results are worked out. It’s possible that this one is flawed or simplistic, and like I said, I’d like to see a proper scientific study conducted. But The Political Compass is certainly suggestive. It provides a convincing explanation for why I, at least, feel completely disenfranchised – why I feel there’s no one left for me to vote for. All those centuries of struggle for a gradually evolving democracy, and this depressing bunch of far-right authoritarians (the argument moves further to the right every year, it seems) is all that I and so many of my liberal friends are left with.

Of course, there are other ways of engaging in democracy, which many people, increasingly disenchanted with the political process, have discovered. Needless to say, governments are cracking down on non-violent protest and becoming more draconian in their tactics all the time. But increasingly, it looks as though the ballot box is not the way to change things. The Arab Spring showed that non-violent protest can, sometimes, effect a change – although keeping that change is often another battle. It seems to me that if we don’t find some way of increasing the political choices open to us, our democracies are only nominal ones. And our sometimes rather smug sense of living in a real democracy is no more than an illusion.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

'Confessions' of a Buddhist Agnostic (or Whatever)

Someone once described me as having a “pick ‘n’ mix faith” – which was both insulting and funny, since I haven’t had a faith in nearly twenty-five years. At first I wondered where he got that idea from. Then I remembered my Facebook profile, in which I described myself as:

“Agnostic, verging on atheist, with ambivalent remnants of a Catholic upbringing and an interest in some aspects of Buddhism.”

I guess that could be easily misunderstood! But at the time I thought I’d made myself clear. Being interested in ‘some aspects’ of Buddhism didn’t make me a Buddhist. I had remnants of a Catholic upbringing, because being brought up with any kind of faith is bound to leave lasting effects (or scars, for some people). And although I thought of myself as an agnostic, this sometimes veered vigorously into near-atheism, usually in proportion to how often I was subjected to Tony Blair in the media.

I was brought up, forty-odd years ago, with a ‘benign’ form of Roman Catholicism (thanks mostly to my mother; my Dad seemed only nominally religious). I put ‘benign’ in quotation marks, because I don’t really think that bringing children up with any kind of faith is totally harmless. However gently it’s done, indoctrination is still indoctrination. How can a child begin to understand that the faith (s)he is brought up in is only one of many faiths and none – an infinite number of ways of trying to understand the universe? Small children instinctively (with good reason) trust that what their parents and elders tell them is true, and if on some level they suspect it isn’t true, psychological confusion and conflict results. By the time they’ve reached the age where (if they’re lucky) they can begin to seriously question what they’ve been ‘encouraged’ to believe, their religious education has had effects which are very difficult to completely shake off. If their experience was ‘benign’ then this may not matter much, but if it wasn’t, they may be damaged and traumatised for life.

My Catholic upbringing left me with lasting effects which I still feel, decades after I consciously rejected it. Some of them I’m glad of, others definitely not – none of them have been totally catastrophic. I feel utterly at home (and often deeply moved) in English country churches and the vast Gothic cathedrals, which I think are some of the wonders of the world – like their Muslim counterparts in the East. I love Christmas carols, and Christmas never feels purely materialistic to me even now. I’m moved by the story of God becoming man and sacrificing himself to expiate the sins of humanity (although I don’t like to think of them as ‘sins’), and my tendency to hero-worship Jesus (the one in the Bible, that is; I don’t know who the real Jesus was) has only gradually lessened. I often have nightmares about the Crucifixion, as well as a certain morbid interest in it whenever a Biblical epic comes on TV (fancy subjecting children to such gruesome imagery; well, it was everywhere!) And, like many Catholics, I have a deep sense of personal guilt and shame, and have really only recently begun to realise that it is quite unnecessary. It will take a lot of working on, though! These latter effects are probably common to most of us in the ‘Western’ world, because even atheists have grown up in a largely Judeo-Christian culture. It permeates so much still, even with the enlivening effect of multiculturalism, that it’s very hard to completely escape it (in politics, for example, religion shouldn’t be but is pervasive). 

In my teens, I questioned the tenets of Catholic faith bit by bit. In church I recited the parts of the Creed I believed in, stayed silent for those I didn’t. This former, devout little altar boy, who’d been to a Catholic primary school mostly run by nuns, believed less and less of what he’d been taught. But I still thought of myself as a Christian – until I started college and began reading more widely.

What stimulated an interest in psychology I’ve no idea, but I suddenly found myself reading Freud. I was astonished by the originality, depth and fascination of his thinking. I am much less sure these days about some of what he said, but from the point of view of religion, Freud made suddenly clear to me what should have been obvious but wasn’t. We can so easily fool ourselves into thinking that what feels true must be true. But it doesn’t always follow. Just because a deep spiritual experience feels like a link to the supernatural (or God), doesn’t mean it is. I began to realise that there were other explanations for experiences that had previously felt self-explanatory. There were other explanations for religious experiences; a whole new world of thought had opened up. No wonder the religious fundamentalists typified by the Christian right in America regard not only Marx and Darwin as an enemy, but Freud too.

I never considered myself an out-and-out atheist, though, and the process of separation from my faith continued for some years. In a state of emotional distress, at the age of 21 I went to confession because I’d done something that felt deeply sinful. It wasn’t at all, but I suppose at least it felt like something actually worth confessing, unlike the occasions in my childhood (“Bless me father, for I have sinned… erm… I told a lie… erm… erm… can’t think of anything else, father”). That was my last experience of that particular Catholic strangeness. And my mother had to come to terms with it as well. I stopped going to Sunday mass, and there was a difficult moment when I told my mother that, for the first time, I wouldn’t be joining the family at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. From my bedroom, I heard her quietly sniffing on the stairs, so I went out and said okay then, I’ll come. But I didn’t the following year, or any year afterwards…

So I remained a rather un-militant agnostic, aware that I’d definitely rejected my religious training but also that part of me still felt an affinity with at least some of it. I couldn’t reject it entirely, and to an extent the attitudes I voiced depended on the company I was in. Then 9/11 happened, and the Bush/Blair axis and a new Crusade (I was amazed when Bush openly called it that) against several Muslim countries, interspersed with broadcast threats from a few bigoted criminals in caves. The President and Prime Minister, in their smart suits, sat down to pray together while stripping habeas corpus from uncharged, untried and frequently innocent men, dressing them in orange jumpsuits, locking them in cages indefinitely and then torturing them. Other worrying things were happening, too. Having long ago discovered the wonders of the natural world and Darwin’s great theory, I was dumbfounded to learn that here in Britain, Tony Blair had given the go-ahead for faith schools run by ‘teachers’ who thought that Noah’s Ark should be part of science classes (perhaps on the orders of Mr Bush, who had them from God). Had I really voted for this idiot, twice? Meanwhile, Christian parents took their children to see Mel Gibson’s big budget video nasty, Tony Blair joined the Roman Catholic faith (in the schmoozy, high profile way that only he can – “quick, wash the blood off, Mr Cardinal!”), and even only last year, the Pope who had conspired to cover up countless cases of child abuse came on a state visit to Britain and had the gall to complain about militant atheists. So I found myself siding with Richard Dawkins (I still admire most of his books) as he found voice for the outrage of secular humanists like myself. I looked down on my mother for the apparent contradiction between her following of a man who preached love and forgiveness with her cheerleading of the Iraq War. It was the closest I’ve ever come to describing myself as an atheist.

I still have moments, usually in reaction to something in the news, when a voice somewhere in my personality suddenly speaks up and threatens to turn into Christopher Hitchens (well, maybe not that bad!) As I write, three members of a Russian punk band may be sent to a labour camp for seven years, in punishment for a protest in a cathedral where they mocked the Russian Orthodox Church and recited a prayer for the removal of Vladimir Putin from office. Three ordinary young women, sitting in court locked in a cage, thanks to the twin bullies of Church and Government. Whenever I think about this, I want to scream at those Pharisees and bellow, “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?????!!!!!” I still partly hero-worship him, you see, and part of what I love about him is his iconoclasm and low opinion of Authority. How he would have loved storming into the Vatican and ripping those robes and riches off his Representatives on earth!    

In the past few years, though, I’ve mellowed in my stance towards religion. Partly its frustration at Richard Dawkins ranting about it on TV when I always preferred to read him in my bedroom writing with a sense of wonder about the symbiotic relationship of figs and fig wasps. Christopher Hitchens appalled me when he was alive – an intellectual bully who supported the War on Terror and relished the dropping of cluster bombs on people in Iraq, boasting that their Qurans wouldn’t protect them against our weapons. Even the milder tones of the new atheism seem rather smug at times: “Oh, you poor believing idiots making up 99% of the world’s population, you don’t know anything, do you?” Many of my Facebook friends, thanks mostly to my several years involved in peace activism, happen to be Muslims, and quite a few others are Christians. I don’t agree with their faith or indeed their practice (which they share with my parents) of teaching it to their children. But they’re not idiots and they don’t deserve to be patronised or insulted. They have a right to believe what they like. I sometimes think the atheists should be targeting not religion but religious intolerance – although I do agree that teaching children outright lies should be outlawed, not encouraged. Pretending that myth is science is a lie.

The other influence on me here is Buddhism. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post; how can I describe myself as an “agnostic, verging on atheist” and still have a deep interest in Buddhism? A bit pic ‘n’ mix, that, don’t you think? Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. For one thing, not all Buddhists describe their ‘faith’ as a religion.

My interest began through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which I started as a way of coping with chronic pain and, later, with anxiety. Mindfulness, which started as a Buddhist practice but has since spread around the world and is often adopted as a ‘secular’ one, is really the practice of being non-judgementally aware of whatever is happening in the present moment – both internally and externally. This can help people suffering with chronic pain in several ways – one being that it can help us to experience pain non-judgementally (ie: as just another kind of experience), without getting so caught up in the frightening stories that our thoughts spin around it when fear is present.

The founder of Buddhism was brought up as a Hindu, so in his world such beliefs as reincarnation were taken for granted. But although the Buddha spoke about ‘rebirth’ many times, it’s not absolutely certain that he was talking about literal reincarnation; he might have been speaking about the rebirth into each moment that occurs within mindful awareness. In fact, he didn’t really speak about God (or metaphysical matters, in that sense) at all. And although many Buddhists claim that the Buddha was divine, he made no claims for himself in the way that Jesus did, for instance. All he described himself as was ‘enlightened’ – something which he believed it was possible for anyone to become.

Buddhism’s central concerns are mindfulness, and the practice of compassion and kindliness (usually referred to as lovingkindness) towards oneself and all other beings. All of these qualities are developed through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which can be through an extended formal practice or in moments of brief practice throughout the day. My favourite quote said to be from the Buddha is this expression of what the purpose of his work was for: 'This is for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the benefit and welfare and the happiness of beings. This is out of sympathy for the world.' 

The growth of a kind of ‘secular’ Buddhism in recent years in the West, has I think resulted from the attraction towards these practices felt by many who are dissatisfied with the punitive aspects of the three Abrahamic religions, and/or unable to believe in the existence of a supernatural. Perhaps also, mindfulness meditation is perceived as an antidote to the kind of stressful living-in-the-future that typifies Western living. In a way, I wonder if Buddhism is the purest kind of religion, because it doesn’t require a belief in the supernatural in order to practice being exactly what the Buddha invited us to be. Those qualities and practices which are preached by other religions as a guide to living purely and morally – love for others, not judging – are the very essence of Buddhism; there isn’t really much else that’s essential. The emphasis on kindliness includes that of tolerance for those of other faiths and none – a quality which is exemplified by the current Dalai Lama but not, appallingly, by the so-called Buddhists apparently intent on wiping out the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. (It’s recently come as quite a shock to me that Buddhists can be just as capable of terrible violence and atrocities as those of other faiths).

This is how I feel able to describe myself as an agnostic with an interest in Buddhism. I might one day go the whole hog and describe myself as an agnostic Buddhist or a Buddhist agnostic; it doesn’t seem to me a contradiction. I once came across a book on the web called ‘Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist’ – which made me smile, both because I could relate to it and because of the very Western (one might almost say ‘Catholic’) use of the word ‘confessions’!

As a recovering Catholic myself, the emphasis on lovingkindness is attractive as an antidote to the preoccupation with guilt that is part of my earlier ‘faith’. I described my religious upbringing as ‘benign’, and in many ways it was; the priests didn’t preach fire and brimstone, the nuns were mostly kind. Other people have had far worse experiences of Catholicism, as the recent child abuse scandals show. But I’ve still been scarred, in more minor ways, by my childhood indoctrination, in ways that both therapy and my interest in Buddhism are helping me to deal with. I was very much brought up to believe that other people’s feelings, needs and welfare were more important than my own, in contrast to the Buddhist emphasis that compassion can only begin with self-compassion. And so I find myself engaged in a sort of late re-parenting, and although it’s difficult, after more than forty years of habit-formed shame, I am indeed discovering that it’s easier to feel compassion for others if I can first of all feel it for myself.

One of the reasons I hesitate to describe myself as Buddhist (apart from a dislike of the limiting effects of ‘ists’ and ‘isms’) is that I don’t feel I’m a very ‘good’ one; I don’t practice regularly enough for that. There’s more than a shade of self-judgement creeping in even there, but allowing for that, I still feel I’ve a long way to go. For example, as readers may have noticed, I have a problem with anger – and I’m not even sure what my attitude is towards that emotion, after a childhood where it was forbidden and an adulthood in which it’s been hard to express it. Not only do I find it difficult to extend lovingkindness towards some people, but with certain politicians I don’t even want or intend to. One of the nice things about Buddhism is that it’s the practice that’s important, and by practising, we are supposed to find it easier. But like I said, I feel I’m at a very early stage – tentatively dipping my feet in the water, as it were.

Even so, I think Buddhism has contributed to the mellowing attitude towards religion that I’ve noticed in myself over the past few years. Like Dawkins’s friend David Attenborough, I cannot bring myself to embrace atheism, despite not believing in God or the supernatural. To completely dismiss the whole thing, definitely and absolutely without any doubt, seems to me irrational, however unlikely its premises may be. But more than that, it would seem to invite feelings of arrogance and intolerance, and seeing those forces at their destructive worst in the world right now, it doesn’t feel right to encourage them, especially when it would also suggest arrogance and intolerance towards the beliefs of so many of my friends.

I still have a few things to work on, and remnants of my childhood that I still kick against. A few years ago, my mother suggested that I send my sister an Easter card, because she’d been “hurt” by certain opinions I’d once expressed about religion. Recognising the Catholic guilt forces at work again, and their genius for emotional blackmail, I didn’t send a card but I did explain to my sister why. Only today, a similar situation surfaced. My mother phoned to give me an update on my sister’s progress in hospital; she’s suffering terrible pain following surgery for severe endometriosis. “I know you don’t believe in the power of prayer”, she said with an audible smile, “but maybe you could do it ‘just in case’, as it were.”

That one was more difficult, because Clare is suffering so much that it seems churlish not to pray for her if there’s the slightest possibility that it may help her. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I simply don’t believe, so I won’t do it just as I won’t slit the throat of a lamb in the remote possibility that it may help. So there’s a little bit of guilt hanging around here, amongst the feelings of worry and sadness for what Clare is going through. I have such a fear of pain myself that it’s not difficult to empathise. But – and no offence is meant here to anyone who believes differently – I can’t help thinking that a caring and omnipotent God wouldn’t need praying to. Without hesitating for a nanosecond, he’d help my sister straight away, and the Burmese Rohinga Muslims too, and everyone suffering pain and fear throughout the world.

So, it’s difficult for me sometimes even to extend lovingkindness to those close to me – let alone a multimillionaire British war criminal. But there are times, too, when it is easier – when feelings of tenderness for myself and for someone else can surface and lead to a practice of Buddhism. Agnostic that I am, I’ll be practising a lovingkindness meditation today – and my sister will be very much a part of it. I don’t see any contradiction in that.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Jumping Through Hoops

This post is a copy of a letter I've just written to the Department for Work and Pensions, as the latest part of the jumping-through-hoops process called Applying for (and Keeping) Employment and Support Allowance. I may shorten and edit the letter further before sending it, as it is long. It is not a happy post, and does not make cheerful reading.

I've shared it here on my blog, however, because it feels important to do so at a time when disabled people in Britain are being blamed for the budget deficit and, in effect, disbelieved for being ill. By the government and by newspapers, they are labelled as workshy scroungers. In reality, many chronically ill people are being made more sick through the prolonged stress and anxiety of rejected applications, humiliating medical assessments, nerve-wracking tribunal hearings and more. In my case, even having had my appeal successfully heard by a tribunal is proving to be far from the end of the story. I am fed up, depressed and very angry. And yet there are others who need their benefits even more than I do, who are suffering more than I am. This awful situation has already led to many becoming homeless and at least one preventable death.

ESA is a hideously complicated benefit, and to clarify the bit near the beginning re the two components: the reason I'm asking to be considered for the support component of ESA, is that if I'm on the work component alone I will not get any more money after January 2013. If I'm placed on both components, there's a chance (although this is not guaranteed) that my payments will continue.

If, before, after or instead of reading this, you would sign the following Avaaz petition, I will consider this posting well worth it.

Many thanks.

11 June 2012

To whom it may concern

My partner spoke to one of your advisors on the telephone on 8 June 2012, to discuss why I have not been placed in the support component group of Employment and Support Allowance. A tribunal I attended last month allowed my appeal against your earlier decision that I was not eligible for ESA, but they said only that I was eligible for the work component. The advisor last Friday explained that I would be considered for the support component as well, if I submitted evidence that my mental ill health (anxiety and occasional depression) also affect my ability to work, and not just my chronic pain condition.

I am therefore writing to you to explain more about my anxiety and how it affects me. You will also be receiving letters from my partner, my GP and my counsellor on this issue shortly.

As far as I’m concerned, my chronic pain condition (neuropathic pain) is already severely disabling, in that it affects my ability to sit upright, stand or walk for more than short periods. I believe (and the tribunal evidently agreed with me) that I would be unable to hold down a job, considering these disabilities. However, my anxiety is also a major issue and would greatly impair my ability to cope with a job, especially as it is often triggered by flare-ups of pain. I would like first to explain something once more about how my chronic pain affects me, because this is often a cause of great anxiety for me.

One of the main difficulties I would have in a work situation, would be pacing my activities so as to avoid these major distressing flare-ups of pain. At home I have to pace myself constantly in order to avoid these flare-ups, which can be incapacitating and cause great distress, often triggering anxiety or low mood.

Pacing myself involves regular and frequent rests after any activity that involves sitting, standing or walking. This would be extremely difficult if not impossible in a work setting, and from long experience I believe that flare-ups would be frequent and inevitable. I would therefore need to take time off sick on a frequent basis. Flare-ups can sometimes last for weeks or months, which would obviously be impractical if I was working.

With regard to sitting times, I can usually sit comfortably for no more than fifteen minutes, not thirty minutes as stated in the assessment. I can usually stand for only a few minutes without rapidly increasing pain. During flare-ups, sitting for only a few minutes can be very painful, and standing is correspondingly more difficult too. The need to pace myself by sticking to sitting and standing is therefore essential for me to avoid such flare-ups.

In order to attend the tribunal in Brighton, my partner had to recline the passenger seat of the car for me, so that the journey of nearly an hour would not trigger a pain flare-up. We do this for all car journeys of longer than fifteen minutes. Similarly, during the tribunal hearing I had to lie on a sun lounger we had brought with us, as there was naturally no reclining furniture available in the hearing room. Wherever I go, I take a couple of cushions with me, so that I can be as comfortable as possible and if necessary lie down in order to prevent and increase of pain.

Other activities also trigger more pain, such as reaching repeatedly for things, or lifting and carrying. These activities are correspondingly more difficult if I’m in a pain flare-up. I can also get pain in my hands from using a keyboard repeatedly or over long periods. In the past I was given redundancy from my job because I had developed a repetitive strain injury in my hands from using a keyboard continuously. I was not able to go back to work for another eighteen months. The pain in my hands can still flare up again sometimes if I write or use a computer keyboard too much.

With regard to my mental, cognitive and intellectual functions, I suffer from anxiety which at times has been very severe, as well as emotional distress when I am in a lot of pain. The anxiety itself began in 2008, when I suffered a nervous breakdown. For several months I was in such fear that I couldn’t function, or even be left on my own for long; my partner had to take two months off work to look after me. I was on very high doses of valium at the time. I had a lot of help from an organisation called No Panic, which runs a helpline, but it still took me much of that year to recover. It was the worst time in my life, and whenever I suffer bad anxiety now the feelings are worsened by a fear of becoming as ill as I was then.

Since 2008 I have had fairly frequent recurrences of anxiety. These setbacks are often triggered by flare-ups of pain or other health problems, many of them quite minor. My anxiety also worsens these flare-ups, by adding extra emotional distress to the distress I already feel as a result of the intense pain. During flare-ups I struggle to manage both the pain and the anxiety, and my GP sometimes prescribes me valium to help with the latter. I don’t take valium all the time, but I do need it to help me through the worst of these episodes.

When suffering from anxiety, I am under such stress that it is difficult to concentrate on learning new tasks, coping with changes, and dealing with people I don’t know. I also feel nervous of answering the phone at such times. The stress involved in such situations tends to feed back into my pain and anxiety, making both worse because I am under such stress. When this happens I need to rest in a comfortable position (ideally, lying down), and practise deep relaxation exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing, in order to reduce pain and anxiety. I also practice mindfulness meditation, but it can still take days or weeks to bring the anxiety back down again.

As an example of the ways in which my anxiety would affect my ability to work, this current situation with my benefits has itself caused me significant anxiety. Receiving the letter which mentioned that I would not receive any ESA payments from January 2013 was a big shock, and as my partner and I did not understand the situation we needed to make several phone calls to the DWP for an explanation of how ESA works. This was so stressful for me that I had to go to bed to try and stay calm, while my partner made the phone calls. I am also very anxious about my interview at the Job Centre on Thursday, to discuss ‘getting back into work’. My feeling is that the DWP still believes I am capable of work, and so the thought of having to explain all this once more to someone I don’t know is very difficult for me.

I have been prescribed anti-depressants since my chronic pain began eight years ago, but I still experience low mood. In 2009 I suffered a spell of deep depression following the onset of a big and debilitating pain flare-up. This depression lasted several months. Even now, I still have to work hard to keep my mood up, as the pain and my inability to do many of the things I want to do causes me such distress. Over the past few years I have had frequent support from Health in Mind (the local mental health team), which has helped me to manage my mood, but it is still very difficult at times.

In a work situation, managing both the pain, anxiety and my mood during a flare-up would be next to impossible, and once again I believe that I would inevitably need a lot of time on sick leave in order to recover. Such times are also emotionally distressing for my partner whom I live with, and whose life includes extra stress when I am suffering in this way.

Finishing tasks is another area that I would find difficult at work. Because I need frequent rests, completing tasks takes a lot longer than it would for someone without my chronic pain condition, which I believe would make it very hard if not impossible for me to meet targets and such.

I can get about on my own if it is to a place that isn’t too far. However, if it is further than walking distance I need someone to transport me in a car or a taxi (I don’t drive). This is because I find bus and train travel too painful, partly because of the seating and also the waiting times. Such travel therefore exacerbates my condition and tends to make flare-ups more likely. My partner works and lives in London for three days each week, so would not necessarily be able to drive me to and from work.

Such difficulties are very common for people with my condition (neuropathic pain or NeP), which is notoriously difficult for people to manage. One of the main problems is that often an activity does not cause much extra pain at the time, but tends to trigger it afterwards. So sitting or waling for too long, for instance, might be manageable at the time. But doing it persistently always leads to pain flare-ups. I’ve learned this through long, hard experience, which is why pacing myself and resting frequently is so important. It is also something that was confirmed on a pain management programme I recently attended at the hospital, where much emphasis was placed on pacing and relaxation as well as certain exercises which help to strengthen and mobilise without increasing the pain.

Part of my pacing involves gradually trying to increase what I am able to do. It is a very slow process, but I believe I am gradually improving in my ability to do certain activities without increasing pain or causing flare-ups. I hope I will be able to go back to work sometime in the future, especially as I greatly enjoyed my last job working with people with mental illness. But that time is not yet. I do not believe I am ready to go back to work, as my condition has not yet improved enough for me to be able to do so. 

Although I would really like to work again, and hope to do so in the future, I firmly believe that working at present would present a huge risk to my health – both physically, in terms of greatly increased pain, and mentally, in that it would almost certainly worsen my anxiety and low mood. I cannot emphasise the latter too strongly. My anxiety seems so closely tied to my physical health – my chronic pain in particular – that any increases in pain as a result of work, not to mention the stress of the working environment, would almost certainly make me anxious and present a risk of another nervous breakdown. At the present time, working would be completely impractical for me – and I have previously sent you letters from my GP and counsellor advising you of the same.

I hope that what I have said here, as well as the other letters which will follow, will give you a better idea of how my condition affects me and help you to make a decision which reflects this. I believe I am fully deserving of both the works and support components of ESA, and am asking you to award me the support component because of the extent of both my physical and mental difficulties.

Finally, I would like to add that this ongoing situation of having to defend my claim for ESA, is causing me great emotional stress. Almost every day now I am anxious and worried about my claim, and my mood is often low. I have already suffered eight years of physical pain and four years of anxiety. I did not ask to be ill, and I would be out there working in the world if I could. And yet, although I trust that staff at the DWP are trying to help me, the process is making me feel powerless and stigmatised. These are not good or safe feelings to have, for someone who already frequently suffers from anxiety and low mood, and I am worried about my mental well-being as a result of this ongoing situation.

Please do contact me if you have any questions. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

With best wishes 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

When Sex is a Pain

I wrote a blog entry a while ago about sex working, called ‘Safety and Exploitation in the Oldest Profession’. It’s a subject I seem to have different views about from my other liberal friends; perhaps because with trafficking and slavery being so rife, it’s becoming easier for people to generalise about exploitation. In the blog I mentioned briefly that one of the legitimate uses of sex working was to provide sexual experiences for those who cannot find them through the ‘normal’ channels. This includes the disabled, who can often find it very difficult to find sexual partners or even to have sex ‘normally’.

Although I didn’t develop that theme, it got me thinking about my own difficulties with sex, caused by my chronic pain condition which began eight years ago. I have never seen the issue of sex treated adequately, or even at all, in books about chronic pain, no matter how excellent they are in many ways. And this is strange, because sex or the absence of it is a very important part of most people’s lives. The difficulties that chronic pain and illness cause for people’s sex lives are very significant, and can cause great distress. I know I’m not the only one who is affected by this. So I decided, with the encouragement of a friend who is writing her own blog on the subject, to discuss the issue here.

In brief, here’s my own experience. Without going into too much detail, my chronic neuropathic (nerve) pain is centred mostly in my groin area, and is exacerbated by simple activities such as walking, standing or sitting for too long. I have to pace myself with all these activities, neither of which I can do comfortably for more than a few minutes, most of the time. So you can imagine what sex does to this painful condition! (which at its worst, is very painful indeed). Sex has to be timed carefully for when I feel at my best. It also tends to be brief, careful and somewhat inhibited. My partner and I still have a sex life, but it’s much less frequent and obviously not the same; neither as satisfying or excited or uninhibited, as it used to be. Both of us very much aware of the possibility of flare-ups, our enjoyment is tempered by a continual effort to be careful and avoid any lasting increase in pain.

Since being in pain, I’ve also felt a gradual but not total loss of libido. It may be partly the medication I’m on, and it may also be that I’ve adjusted to not experiencing sex as often. But I also think (and other sufferers have said this to me as well) that when we’re suffering we don’t feel sexy. During flare-ups, I feel less like a man and more like a child, because I feel sad and vulnerable and in need of ‘looking after’. It’s aggravated by the fact that I often suffer anxiety during these times, which makes me feel even more vulnerable. All this greatly changes the nature of a relationship.

I think when we’re sick or suffering, the need to get better or to be in less pain becomes an over-riding priority. Other needs take second or third place. I guess, in evolutionary terms, this makes sense. The need to reproduce is of paramount importance to all animals, but we need to survive first if we’re to be able to have sex! When we’re suffering, we go into fight or flight mode, and from the point of view of our nervous systems, our survival feels threatened. So sex, along with many other human and animal needs, feels less important. Recovery, or feeling better, feels all-important.

Perhaps this why I (and other people I’ve spoken to) feel an increased need for physical affection, even while our libido is reduced. Because we’re suffering, we need love, reassurance, and ‘holding’. We need comfort and cuddles more than we need excitement. We feel a bit more like a vulnerable child, and a less like a virile adult.

When I can afford it (which isn’t often!), I treat myself to a professional back and shoulders massage. This is very nice, a beautiful sensation, but it isn’t exactly sexual! It creates a much needed relaxation more than it does arousal. For this reason, it seems to have more in common with the gentle reassurance of ‘affectionate’ touch than it does with sex. There’s no love there, but its effect is calming and reassuring, and only little bursts of intense pleasure relate it to sexual excitement.

There’s another aspect to sex and chronic pain or illness. Because sufferers can be disabled in varying degrees, it can also be difficult to ‘find’ sex in the first place. I know that if I wasn’t already in a relationship, it would be very difficult to meet potential partners (I never found it that easy anyway!), or to find someone who could be patient enough with the sexual difficulties my chronic pain leads to. Who would, in short, be willing to forgo a fully-active sex life herself. And I’m lucky; I’m far less disabled than some! Some people find having ‘normal’ sex impossible, and yet they have the same desires and needs. Where do they go?

In response to my article on sex working, a friend sent me this link to an Australian newspaper article: The majority of this article concerns one woman’s attempt to get the law changed, to provide government funding to allow the disabled to visit sex workers – and so have sexual experiences that would otherwise be denied to them. But what struck me, and touched me the most was the quote from the Adelaide sex worker at the end of the article: "It's often a long time since someone (with a disability) has been touched in a sensual way," she said. "I'd really like to see a time when we can speak about it openly."

I find this very moving. We all of us crave touch, and sensual touch is very special. Even though I have a (limited) sex life, I found myself instantly relating in a powerful, emotional way to that sex worker’s words. It’s a reaction which tells me that, even though sex and physical affection are not absent from my life, I have needs which are greater than the part being fulfilled. I haven’t had totally relaxed, free and uninhibited sex for the past eight years.

As another friend said to me, all the difficulties around having sex with chronic pain, illness and disability create yet another loss for us to have to deal with. Yet it’s one that, for natural reasons, is very hard for us to talk about with others. I guess I’d like the non-disabled, non-sufferers, to think about this for a while, especially in the current social and political climate. The British government, and the newspapers who support it, are encouraging hostility to the disabled, who are seen increasingly as work-shy benefit-scroungers. This is classic politically-motivated scapegoating; the disabled (and others on benefits) are being blamed for the budget deficit, which they didn’t cause. And it seems to be working; verbal and physical abuse of the disabled is apparently on the increase. But think about what we have lost, and then think what being ‘work-shy’ would involve sacrificing. We often cannot work, and yet our means of basic survival is being cut and many are plunged into poverty or even made homeless. Many can’t walk, or have difficulties walking. Many can’t get out of bed. Holidays, or even a drive out of town, are a no-no for many. Our relationships can suffer, and we can lose friends or even the support of our families. And on top of that, we also have to deal with the total or partial loss of sex in our lives. So many of the things that non-sufferers take for granted in their lives…

One irony is that chronic pain sufferers can probably benefit from a passionate and satisfying sex life even more than ‘healthy’ people can. Sex is one of those things (like other activities, such as laughing and eating spicy food, would you believe!) that releases endorphins – opiate-like substances which are released naturally by the body. Also, pleasurable sensations send messages to the brain from the peripheral nerves, up to seven times faster than unpleasant sensations! So the sheer pleasure of sex can help to block pain signals from even reaching the brain. I presume that this explains why I often hardly notice my pain while enjoying sex, but find myself suffering afterwards. My body is telling me to let go and get carried away, but my mind knows that if I do I may pay for it later. A short-lived increase in pain I don’t mind, but a really big, lasting flare-up? No thanks! And so my sexual experience, despite the physical and psychological benefits of having sex, is diminished – along with that of my patient, long-suffering partner.

It goes without saying that many of these losses, including the sexual ones, are felt by our partners as well. They struggle with us, knowing at close hand what having a chronic illness means for sufferers and their loved ones. Those of us who have understanding partners are very lucky, despite all we've lost. We have the understanding and compassion of those we love the most, and even if we don't always have sex, we have physical affection and love. How much harder for those who don't have that either...

The painting at the head of this article is called 'Bride of the Wind', by Oskar Kokoschka.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Meditative Fish

A woman I studied with on a degree course in the 1980s is now a very fine and successful artist. With her love of nature, almost all of her paintings are of landscapes or animals, and I have a big and beautiful print of hers on my bedroom wall. Entitled ‘Evening at Sweetbriar’, it’s a calm and atmospheric painting of a fishpond, with trees and the rising moon reflected, and two koi carp swimming in the depths below. It’s a magical and, for me, a rather comforting picture.

Last week, my partner Angie and I discovered that a neighbour of ours has a wonderful fish pond in her back garden, and the fish are impressive: large and graceful, some orange and others of different colours and patterns. We took photos of them at the weekend, and behold! – the results are very like Rachel’s paintings. I spent a couple of happy hours editing them on the laptop, and cropping them into pleasing compositions. One of them I’ve posted above, and if you imagine it created in paint instead of pixels, you’ll have a good idea of Rachel’s work.

Working on my photographs is very therapeutic for me, all the more so because like Rachel, I tend to focus a lot on nature and wildlife. Being at home a lot of the time because of my disability, I can get isolated, anxious and occasionally depressed. I have to work quite hard to stay positive, especially when I’m in a lot of pain. So just looking at nature, even if on a computer screen, lifts my mood because I’m focussing on beautiful things. The fact that I’m being creative at the same time – doing my best to create a beautiful thing – helps even more.

There’s something meditative about these new fish pond photos, I think. I need to remind myself to slow down a little, because I’m on a high at the moment after winning an appeal against a decision last year that I was able to work and therefore ineligible for state financial help. Now that all the anxiety and stress have subsided, I want to get out and experience new things – but I also need to remember that my body can only cope with so much. So right now, I’m working on these photos and enjoying the sight of the cool colours, the bright fish, and the reflected sky. Thanks to my camera and a helpful neighbour, I can enjoy these even without having fish of my own.

After this experience, I would love a fish pond in our garden, though. I could sit there and breathe gently, mindfully aware of the ever-changing movement and colours of the gentle scene below me. And every photograph I took would be different.

There’s just one problem: our darling cat Tally. She’s definitely a fisher cat, because she sits on the edge of the bath and reaches for our toes! So I wouldn’t trust her with no fish. She’s too slow to catch insects or birds – although she manages earthworms and the occasional moth. But I wouldn’t be happy to see her jump through the cat flap with a bleeding, chunky koi carp in her mouth. Although judging by the size of some of them in Val’s garden, she wouldn’t need another meal for days…

Sometimes you can’t have everything you want. I’m quite happy to sacrifice a fish pond as long as I can keep Tally!

PS: You can see Rachel Lockwood’s art at

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Self-Compassion First!

This is an extract from a draft of a chapter for my new book, whose working title is, ‘Healing the Second Wound: A Compassionate Response to Chronic Pain and Suffering’. No doubt much of the text will change before I try to get it published. I thought I’d use this part in my blog as a defence of self-compassion, which many people confuse with self-pity or selfishness, believing that compassion for others is only what matters. On the contrary, it seems clear to me that self-compassion has to come first. If we can’t show compassion for ourselves, we are liable to damage ourselves, and then we cannot effectively show it to others either. The example I give from my own life, towards the end, is a case in point.

The Dalai Lama defined compassion as ‘the state of wishing that the object of our compassion be free of suffering… Yourself first, and then in a more advanced way the aspiration will embrace others.’ Buddhism is strong on compassion. One of my favourite quotations from a Buddhist is by Rob Nairn in his book ‘The Tranquil Mind’: ‘The most important thing in all the world is to be kind.’ It’s a simple statement, but true. Imagine how universal kindness would transform the world and its fortunes!

The Dalai Lama’s definition is interesting because it puts self-compassion first, before any compassion we can give to others. This is the opposite of what many of us are brought up to believe from childhood onwards. So often we are taught to go out into the world and put other people’s needs first, if necessary sacrificing our own. Although it’s an understandable belief, an awful lot of guilt is created by this, and a terrible amount of self-punishment and suppression of the most natural basic needs. Sometimes this suppression – which, when it becomes unconscious, is called repression in the Freudian sense – can only allow our thwarted needs to be expressed physically, through pain or illness. We saw in Chapter Four how the effects of trauma can become ‘locked’ into our bodies, but normal tension and stress also have physical effects; often being expressed in the muscles, causing back pain or irritable bowel syndrome. Chronic back pain, for instance, is often correlated with unhappiness or frustration at work, where someone is in a job but getting no satisfaction from it, and constantly under pressure to meet targets or deadlines imposed by someone else. Sacrificing our own needs can become such a habitual feature of our lives that we are unaware we’re doing it. But self-sacrifice, on a regular basis, causes much unnecessary suffering.

Often, if we are willing to get our needs met, such as the emotional and psychological needs which inspire some people to go for counselling, other people may regard us as selfish or navel-gazing. As a counterpoint to the talking therapy industry which is so popular in the western world, there is great hostility to it in many quarters. “Why can’t this person just pull themselves together and get on with it?” people say. I suppose it is possible for some to get addicted to counselling or therapy. But people often have very good reasons for embarking on such a journey: relationship problems or childhood traumata, for instance. Studies suggest that in the United States, between 20 and 25% of women and between 5 and 10% of men were sexually abused as children. Think about that for a moment! Embarking on therapy to deal with these traumata constructively and with self-compassion, takes a deal of courage and some wisdom too. Less constructive ways of dealing with abuse include self-harm (self-abuse) and abusing others. Are those ways less selfish than treating our emotional needs with compassion?

It makes sense to realise that we have to help ourselves first before we can help others effectively. This means that compassion follows on from self-compassion, not the other way round. It’s almost impossible to give attention to others if we’re trapped in our own internal struggles, and likewise we can’t begin to empathise with others – their fears, joys, struggles and hopes – if we take a hard line on our own feelings. Once our own difficulties become workable, we can extend our compassion to others, and truly go out and participate in the world, giving what we can to help others be free of suffering.

A friend of mine who experienced a major and traumatic bereavement, finds it impossible to offer emotional support to bereaved friends; it simply hurts too much. Her counsellor said to her: “You can’t give what you don’t have.” It’s true! Our own healing has to come first.

In the context of having chronic pain, if we ignore what our bodies and emotions are telling us, we are likely to make our own suffering worse. This depletes our energy and our ability to help others. It will also make life harder for those around us, because they will have to deal both with our emotional distress and our diminished physical capacity. So either way, it makes sense to look after our own needs, and to treat them with understanding, patience and compassion. Not doing so causes problems for everyone, starting with ourselves.

Before I had my nervous breakdown in 2008, I had been putting myself under stress for years, and at the same time berating myself because I still didn’t think I was doing enough for others. In my case it was anti-war campaigning that did the damage. I cared passionately about the suffering of millions of people in other countries, was beside myself with frustrated anger at the politicians who caused such suffering and lied to us in order to justify it, and was fearful of where such developments would lead us in the future. So: I was upset, angry and scared. I focused on these issues almost continuously, but because of my chronic pain condition I couldn’t get out into the world and campaign as actively as others. Neither did I, like friends I knew, put myself on the line by non-violently breaking laws that criminalised peaceful protest. Nothing I ever did was enough. I was pushing and pushing and pushing myself to campaign harder, despite being afraid and in stress already due to a chronic pain condition, and I certainly wasn’t treating myself with compassion. Is it any wonder that my nervous system, without the buffering of anti-depressants that I’d recently withdrawn from, finally seemed to decide it had had enough?

Trying to help the bombed and traumatised people of Iraq and Afghanistan, while not taking care of my own basic needs (including the need to feel safe), is a fairly extreme example of where non-self-compassion can lead. But I learned about the importance of self-compassion the hard way. I’ve had to learn how to gradually implement it in my life since, and I must say it’s better late than never! My hope is that this book will help readers to learn self-compassion in an easier way, because it really is the first step in managing chronic health problems of all kinds. We can, like the Dalai Lama says, wish ourselves to be free of suffering, ‘and then in a more advanced way the aspiration will embrace others.’

In Chapter Eleven we will look at ways we can extend compassion and kindliness to others as well as to ourselves, as this too is a part of getting well and regaining more of our lives once more. But for now, let’s focus on ourselves, and how we can help give ourselves the compassion that, in our difficult situations, we both need and deserve.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Safety and Exploitation in the Oldest Profession

This piece started as a reply to a letter in my local newspaper, by a Mr Dalton who I know personally through our mutual work in a local peace group. He was effectively condemning the profession of sex working as exploitative, with the workers portrayed as victims and their clients as ‘sad’. He gave examples of the increase in trafficking, sexual slavery and child prostitution as evidence for his assertion that ‘prostitution is exploitation’.

This got me thinking, because sex working is a subject that interests me and one of my friends used to be in the profession herself. While she admits that prostitution is almost always exploitative, her experience was nothing like that portrayed by Mr Dalton in his letter.

Let me say that I agreed with a great deal of his letter, and feel the same compassion for the victims of crime that he mentioned. He’s a liberal and humane man with a deep concern for human rights, which I share. But the letter seems too great a generalisation. It’s as if he took examples from the extreme end of the spectrum, and then tarred the whole profession with that brush. It’s certainly true that prostitution is often highly exploitative, and that there has been a great increase in trafficking over recent years. So the kinds of experiences that my friend had over ten years ago may be rarer now; although I’m sure there will always be honest people who decide to make a living from selling sex. But to state in such a bald way that ‘prostitution is exploitation’ is too great a simplification, and I don’t see that in itself it’s necessarily a bad thing, especially if it could be legalised and the women involved better protected. It’s the exploitation that is wrong, not the prostitution.

My friend, who I’ll call Martha (not her real name) lives and works overseas, in a far less controversial profession; but she used to work near the heart of Soho in London. She wasn’t very happy as a sex worker, although some of her friends were more comfortable with it than she was. Neither of these women were forced to become sex workers, and although they were exploited financially, they felt physically safe and were not abused by those they worked for. They chose to be sex workers, and when my friend was totally fed up with it, she chose to stop being one.

Tragically (and everything Mr Dalton says about the desperate circumstances of many sex workers is true), a huge number of women don’t have that choice. But many do, and their reasons for sex working are as varied as the reasons people choose any job. Neither are they necessarily any more likely to become HIV positive than people with a predilection for one night stands are; in fact, they may even be safer. Mr Dalton’s letter very much overemphasises the danger here, as if there’s something especially unhygienic about having sex with a prostitute. Sure, it depends on where they work, how desperate they are for money, and other factors. But Martha and her friends weren’t HIV positive; they worked in the business for many years, and protected themselves every time they worked. Neither she nor her friends ever became infected with anything.

Mr Dalton’s letter really got me thinking though, because the subject of exploitation, trafficking and slavery is such a serious one. So I asked Martha if she would tell me more about her years as a sex worker, because I didn’t feel I knew very much about it. She sent me the following reply - which I’ve edited somewhat, without removing anything she says about her experiences:

Hey Michael! Don’t worry; I have no problem in talking about my days of a working girl. No regrets, that’s what I think. Sometimes one can find a greater exploitation between a man and a woman who are in a “loving” kind of relationship than between a prostitute and her client. In the latter, everything is clear and open. It is like any other business where one has to deal with people. Some people are easy going; some others are hard to manage. 

All I know is my own experience and things I heard about at the time. Everywhere I worked I felt exploited by the premises owners and maids. The rental we had to pay was very high and the maids were very expensive. Not only we had to pay a very good wages but we also had to give them commission over our earnings. Sometimes we would go home with a lot less than we paid out…or even owing money. It was sad, depressing and humiliating. They wouldn’t pity us. The one I worked with most often was the greediest. 

All the girls would go for medical checkup frequently, and we were very aware of the danger of doing anything without proper protection. Yes, it’s easier to catch something with a one night standing than with a prostitute.

I thought it was quite safe. Out of all the years I worked there, we got mugged only once, but that can happen anywhere. We just have to be careful everywhere these days.

Well, about trafficking, slavery and all the rest of it; I don’t consider it prostitution; these are crimes, despicable crimes. Just the thought of what these poor girls, usually children, go through brings tears to my eyes. Some men are just so sick that I can hardly find words to describe them; they should be put in jail for many years…and where children are involved, they should throw away the keys.

Many kisses to you and baby Tally, and kiss Angie for me when you see her.


Beyond its honesty and openness, there are several striking things about this message. The first is in Martha’s opening paragraph, where she writes about the contrast between the ‘open’ relationship between prostitute and client in contrast to certain other relationships. Working girls and their clients only do openly and honestly something that mirrors the more covert dependent/exploitative relationships that can exist between other partners. It’s often been argued that traditionally, the state of marriage was exploitative, in that the wife would provide sex, the rearing of children, cook the meals and keep the house clean, all in return for financial security. In past times, it was virtually impossible for the vast majority of women to be financially independent.

Martha and her friends were exploited not only by men (in the sense that the rents were very high) but also by other women. This somewhat turns the table on the popular idea of prostitutes as tragic victims of men’s despicable behaviour – which of course is often true, but a simplification nonetheless.

They felt safe. That’s not to say that some clients weren’t ‘hard to manage’, but generally the women felt okay, and the clients were as mixed in personality and behaviour as any other segment of the population.

They practised scrupulous sexual hygiene. It’s not how promiscuous you are that makes you dangerous as a sexual partner; it’s how blithe and careless you are in your behaviour. Again, in some ways sex working is not much different from some other sexual relationships, and may in certain respects be a lot safer. I realise that some working girls, if desperate for cash, will have sex without using condoms – but again, this is far from universal.

The fact that there are often dangers involved in sex working, and that many sex workers are desperate, exploited, abused or under-age, doesn’t strike me as a reason for generalising or discriminating in a negative way. Many sex workers themselves insist that these are valid reasons for legalising their profession. Legalised brothels, monitored for safety and hygiene, would do much to protect sex workers from exploitation, and both the workers and their clients from infection. Sex workers are still often afraid to approach the police when they have serious reason to, for fear of arrest and prosecution. Stigmatising or legislating against prostitution tends to drive it underground, where it’s far more dangerous.

Martha’s letter shows that even near its best, prostitution is a pretty exploitative profession. And even many of Martha’s clients were probably under the mistaken impression that they were paying her for the pleasure she gave them, and not the maids and others who fed off her. But then, look at the way that bankers exploit their staff and customers, and sex working suddenly doesn’t seem that different. The banks (who caused the financial crisis) and corporations who make billions in profits and don’t even pay their taxes; MPs who effectively commit benefit fraud through their expenses (our taxes); multi-millionaire government ministers who keep getting richer while cutting vital welfare and services… The Murdochs! It’s the way things are now (capitalism is parasitic almost by definition), and it seems to me unfair to single out just this one profession.

On the other hand, at its worst this one profession involves abuse of a terrible kind. I’m not sure if trafficking and slavery are continuing to get more common or not, but certainly it’s worse than most exploitative practices you’d expect to meet in everyday life. Perhaps it’s because of these terrible practices, that while Mr Dalton correctly (if slightly sweepingly) refers to prostitution as exploitation, the examples he gives are of the worst kind: sexual slavery, trafficking and paedophilia. Yet my friend Martha says that these crimes are ‘not prostitution’ – they are simply heinous crimes. They bear little relation to the profession she used to work in – unless it’s in the same sense that a brain tumour is like a mild headache. We would not call an Eastern European au pair who is kept as a slave a nanny or a cleaner, even though she does many of the same things as a nanny or a cleaner. She is simply a slave.

Perhaps it’s just a question of semantics. Yet I feel that labelling and wording are important when making generalising statements about a particular group within society.

Personally, I think that sex working fulfils a widespread need. I’m sure that many clients are purely casual or thoughtless in their behaviour, and some can be abusive too. But many people (not necessarily men, either!) find it difficult if not impossible to have a sex life without paying for it – whether because of loneliness, lack of confidence, lack of opportunity or even disability. Having spent the first decade of my adult life without a girlfriend or even a one night stand for comfort, I can’t say I blame them. Some people have strong moral views against prostitution, but I would not like to judge either the sex workers or their clients, certainly not without knowing their personal reasons.

Is it ‘sad’, as Mr Dalton says, that the clients of sex workers choose to obtain sexual satisfaction in this way? Yes, maybe, although the reasons for being a client must be at least as varied as the reasons for being a prostitute. Perhaps, not being able to have sex at all is even sadder – you’d have to ask the person concerned. But of course, not many clients would come forward to answer the question, because the stigma is so severe.

As for the difference between sex shops and brothels, I think Mr Dalton over-emphasises it. He says in his letter that the new local sex shop is morally okay but a brothel wouldn’t be. But pornography can be highly exploitative in many of the ways that prostitution can. I wouldn’t have a problem with the presence of a legalised brothel in my town; after all, I expect sex is sold here anyway, just like anywhere else! We can’t prevent prostitution; not for nothing is it dubbed the world’s ‘oldest profession’! What we can do is make it safer and less exploitative – for as many people as we can. In a civilised society, surely people’s safety, health and well-being should be the most important concern?

Legalising brothels would also mean that clients would know they could go to legalised establishments without fear of harming anyone or having anything to do with that appalling kind of slavery. I’m sure that many of them must care just as much as anyone about the injustice and cruelty that has been on the increase in recent years, and would not want to contribute to it. Legalising brothels would not protect everyone, but it would be a huge step in the right direction. Sadly, unlike in some other countries, governments in Britain have so far placed a Victorian ‘morality’ above common sense, decency and the safety of all concerned. We can only hope that things will change for the better in the future.

I know that Mr Dalton is not prejudiced in the way I mean here, but it seems that there are already far too many groups in our society who are stigmatised and generalised about: from Muslims, travellers and asylum seekers to the disabled - and even foxes! To state the obvious, sex workers and their clients are as much a varied mix of people as the rest of us. Yes, there can be appalling abuse and exploitation involved, and because of this we need to make the profession as safe and out-in-the-open as we can. But I believe it’s also true that, even now, the oldest profession can often be less sensational and much less sordid than many people believe. 

Postscript: A follower of this blog has sent me the link to this story, about a call from a (female) New South Wales MP to decriminalise sex working and provide government funding for the disabled to hire sex workers This is the sort of humane response to sex working - and also the disabled - that is a breath of fresh air to me. As far as I know, the state of Victoria has already legalised brothels. In the current political climate though, I can't see either of these measures happening in Britain!