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Too much to lose? Why OnlyFans fails to censor its explicit content

Dr Elena Martellozzo and Paula Bradbury of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) warn about the impact of OnlyFans’ decision to keep allowing users to post nude content

OnlyFans, a subscription-based social media platform where users can sell and/or purchase original softcore or X-rated content, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for restricting its sexually explicit content and, a few days later, for changing its mind.

Created by a London based company, this controversial content-sharing platform allows creators to share paywalled or subscriber-only content. This model has earned the company billions from its more than 120 million users, by applying a 20% fee for the created content. This has been financially advantageous to both the company and the creators, with the top 1% of creators earning six figure sums per year.

Whilst OnlyFans initially took an ‘anything can be uploaded’ approach to user content, on 19 August, in response to concerns of banking partners and payment processors about potentially illegal content, the platform decided to restrict the availability of its sexually explicit content. People would still be able to post nude content on the site, but this would have to be in line with OnlyFans’ policies. However, just a few days later, the decision to restrict the availability of sexually explicit content was overruled following widespread backlash from its users. In a response, OnlyFans defended the decision noting that it “is short-term good news for sex workers reliant on the platform.”

However, what does this mean for the platform’s responsibility to protect users?

Exploitation of children

Over the last few years, concerns have been raised about the sexual exploitation of individuals using OnlyFans after revelations that some under 18s, particularly girls, have been circumnavigating the age verification measures and setting up their own accounts to upload explicit images of themselves in exchange for money or gifts. Experts working in child protection are concerned that sites such as OnlyFans may be used by adults who are interested in targeting those who appear significantly younger than the rest of content creators. As we have previously argued, whilst the site might have changed sex work forever by creating a safe environment for sex workers to engage with their clients, it has also opened up a new arena for inexperienced and naive young people who are tempted by the financial rewards, yet not subject to the usual legal protections for under 18s.

It is indeed a dangerous temptation. The law in the UK is very clear: it states that to be able to sell or distribute explicit content the creator must be 18 or over. Yet there is currently no legal requirement for online platforms to monitor explicit content that might have been generated by underage users. This suggests that both the underage person creating the content and the person that buys it could face criminal liability.

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Adults are not risk-free

There are also a number of harms and risks posed to adults who join the site as content creators. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, one female content creator, Camilla L, reported making over a million dollars a year but has, as a consequence, been greatly affected by stalkers who send her messages reporting their observations of her movements, causing her to move home and live constantly in fear. The platform creates the risk of cyberstalking, yet is not doing anything to address this.

OnlyFans has being used by ex-intimate perpetrators of stalking to sell images of their victims – a practice known as image-based abuse (IBA). IBA occurs when an intimate image or video is shared without the consent of the person pictured and stalking advocacy agencies have reported a significant increase in the rise of this form of crime. This further highlights how important it is that OnlyFans becomes a true partner to its creators and protects all users from abuse and non-consensual posts.      

The debate over ‘explicit’ content

These risks contributed to the pressure on OnlyFans that led to the short-lived ban on explicit content. But it is also critical to reflect on the potential risks of pushing content creators away from this site, into possibly darker and less regulated corners of cyberspace, and therefore important to consider the potential benefits of a platform which provides a safer, more visible and regulated environment for sex workers.

The key is doing more to protect users

OnlyFans’ decision not to ‘explicitly’ change, however, appears to be purely financial. This focus also overlooks the importance of doing more to protect its users, such as more effectively regulating or preventing minors from accessing the site; tracking down and stopping sex perpetrators, and protecting all users from abuse and non-consensual posts. This view was supported by Honza Cervenka, an English lawyer representing victims of discrimination, harassment and non-consensual pornography, who told us that OnlyFans has yet to “properly and diligently check that all content on the page is legitimate and consensual. The reason for this is because it is simply too laborious, expensive and eats up into their profit margins”.    

While the company claims to be evaluating more than 300,000 media files a day and has more than 500 agents involved in compliance and moderation to flag content, artificial intelligence is not always reliable for detecting all types of harmful material. As argued by Professor Aiken, ‘cybersecurity does not protect what is to be human‘. If OnlyFans would train experts to ensure that moderation is carried out successfully, it could allow for creators to continue to produce content in a safer environment.

The steps that OnlyFans has taken so far to protect its users have been unsatisfactory, to say the least. In May 2019, the platform introduced a new account verification process whereby the creator must provide a ‘selfie’ along with their ID on the image to prove their identity. However, this proved to be a futile system, as underage users have been able to use adult ID’s to create fake accounts.

More robust action is needed, and the UK government indicated that one of the aims of the 2017 Digital Economy Act was precisely “to have robust age verification controls in place to prevent children and young people under 18 from accessing pornographic material”. However, the long-awaited Online Safety Bill has left us somewhat disillusioned, as an effective and trusted method of age assurance has yet to be mandated to prevent under 18s from accessing sites like OnlyFans, which permit them to sell and access explicit images and puts them at risk of exploitation. So why wait any longer to build the digital environment they deserve?

This blog was originally published by Media@LSE.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Elena has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena. Elena’s research includes online stalking, exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse. Elena has emerged as a leading researcher and global voice in the field of child protection, victimology, policing and cybercrime. She is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. Elena has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) and Bahrain (2016) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury is a Criminology Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher within the School of Law at Middlesex University, exploring the appropriateness of current policy and practice relating to adolescent sexual offending and sexual behaviour between peers. She is passionate about researching online sexual offending behaviour and child abuse.

Paula is an active member of the CATS team engaging in multiple research pathways to combat child sexual abuse both online and offline as a mixed methods researcher proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and project management. She is also the National Child Sexual Abuse Lead for Victim Support, serving as a project manager developing online support content for adult survivors or child sexual abuse. 

Twitter: @PB_Cybercrime

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No more tick boxes…

Despite a blizzard of initiatives, inequalities in NHS promotion remain, writes Roger Kline

Even for those who have perfected the art of looking the other way, the last set of data NHS recruitment and promotion date was a shocker.

It was 1.61 times more likely that a White shortlisted candidate will be appointed rather than a candidate of Black and Minority Ethnic heritage who was good enough to be shortlisted.  Nationally, it is twice as likely that BME staff will not believe that there are equal opportunities for career progression and promotion as White staff. These gaps in experience have not improved since 2016 despite a blizzard of initiatives within individual employers and innumerable presentations about “changing culture”.

There has been some improvement. Boards are more diverse and there are significantly more middle and senior managers of BME heritage. But there is near universal acceptance across NHS leaderships that the pace of change is simply too slow.

I have lost count of the number of times I have had BME staff describe to me how they have watched White colleagues – whom they had welcomed, inducted, supported and helped to train – get promoted over them again and again. I have lost count of the number of time I’ve been told how “stretch opportunities” (such as acting up, secondments, and involvement in significant projects) which are the key to career progression have been filled by a tap on the shoulder followed by promotion. I have read many dozen Action Plans on Race Equality which are generally full of good intentions but were never going to make much difference not least because they could not answer the one simple but crucial question we ask of other interventions.

Crucially, the authors of such Action Plans were generally unable to explain why they had confidence that what they were proposing had a reasonable likelihood of achieving the goals their Plan outlined

The death of George Floyd and the evidence of deep workforce discrimination that Covid 19 has highlighted, seems to have prompted large numbers of NHS Boards (but certainly not all) to agree that they cannot carry on doing the same things and expect different results.

The NHS People Plan for 2020-21 states that

employers, in partnership with staff representatives, should overhaul recruitment and promotion practices……… this should include creating accountability for outcomes, agreeing diversity targets, and addressing bias in systems and processes. It must be supported by training and leadership about why this is a priority for our people and, by extension, patients. Divergence from these new processes should be the exception”

But if that is going to happen we need more than good intentions. Progress will require leaders at every level willing to reflect on their own biases, assumptions, stereotypes and behaviours. It will require leaders to understand what sorts of interventions might work better and why. The search for one-off “silver bullets” such as diverse panels or diversity training must end. We should certainly call out Boards for failing to “move the dial” but we must also be able to demonstrate what might work better and explain why. We need an evidence-based strategy underpinned by both honesty about where we are and a credible theory of change to move us on.

That must include being driven by what research says will mitigate bias in recruitment at every stage – the job description, how it is advertised, appraisals, shortlisting, assessment, interview and ‘onboarding.”

“No More Tick Boxes” is the first attempt to review the evidence on how to make recruitment and career progression fairer. It summarises the research and sets out a framework that aims to establish a methodology to guide those seeking more effective strategies.

It sets out, heavily referenced, key steps organisations must take is they are to redress the current patterns of discrimination and waste of talent.

Firstly, without understanding what needs to improve, failure beckons. That means Boards need a “problem sensing” approach not a “comfort seeking” one with granular attention to data and listening to lived experience.

Secondly, we have to accept that the dominant HR paradigm on recruitment and career progression has failed. It has relied on a trinity of policies, procedures and training whose stated purpose is to set fair standards and make it safe and effective for staff to challenge unfair decisions. But research makes clear this is a flawed model, not just for recruitment and career progression but in other respects too – whether to promote the safe raising of concerns, prevent bullying and harassment or stop unfair disciplinary action. It is not just that it hasn’t worked, it was never going to.

Policies and procedures rely on individuals being brave or foolish enough to raise concerns when the evidence is that this rarely works and may well make things worse. Ask yourself: how many people in your own organisation who challenged an appointment or raised a bullying grievance won and were then thanked for doing so?

As for diversity training, a very large research project into workplace diversity by Kalev and Dobbin found “The most effective [diversity] practices are those that establish organisational responsibility: affirmative action plans, diversity staff and diversity task forces. ……Least effective are programs for taming managerial bias through education and feedback.” It does not mean training should be abandoned –like unconscious bias training it can certainly improve cognitive understanding. But it does mean we should stop assuming that in isolation it could decisively change decision making. It will not.

As innumerable researchers have discovered, when people are watched, have to account for their acts and omissions, and there are consequences for inaction their behaviour changes and so do outcomes. Accountability is key. Accountability can take many forms and evidence strongly suggests it is an essential element of improving fair recruitment and career progression practice. It may take the form of:

  • Accountability nudges;
  • Accountability for individual decisions such as panel decisions or appraisals;
  • Data driven accountability such as through an “explain or comply” approach which scrutinises patterns of decision-making across an organisation or parts of it.

These three approaches, especially in tandem, are far more effective than relying in individuals to challenge specific decisions retrospectively or hoping training will prevent bias. An “explain or comply” approach does not equate to an organisational mugging. It asks department and divisional leaders to explain disproportionate outcomes for staff with protected characteristics. Unless there is a satisfactory explanation (possible but unlikely) they are expected to engage with colleagues (including HR and OD) to change their processes and improve outcomes. This makes this no different to how any other KPI should be approached.

Thirdly, the organisation’s focus should be on removing bias from systems and processes, rather than relying on removing bias in human beings. We need to remove or mitigate the numerous ways in which bias affects decision making at every stage of recruitment, development, promotion and support once employed. That means replacing the frequently sloppy recruitment processes in the NHS and elsewhere with an evidenced approach to creating a post; identifying essential criteria; advertising; shortlisting; appointment methods; scoring and decision making; and onboarding.

For example, that means a small number of key competencies underpinned by the evidence of what makes for effective, inclusive, compassionate staff since they are the ones who in an inclusive environment will be the most effective staff as well as the best leaders. That means shortlisting and interviewing that is well structured, with a clear success profile and a clear scoring matrix alongside other assessment methods such as situational judgement tests which research suggests have both good predictive and equality outcomes. And that requires granular attention to how to mitigate bias.  This should be done alongside effective positive action and appraisals as part of a talent management process.

Fourthly, research is clear: leaders (at every level), who understand and reject discrimination can make a fundamental difference to sustainable outcomes on diversity. They need to model the behaviours they expect of others, understand the importance of diversity and inclusion, listen with attention and hold themselves and others to account on the outcomes of their interventions and strategy. To be able to do this effectively, leaders need to understand their own biases, stereotypes and assumptions, accept challenge and gain insight into how they need to change personally in order to do this.

Fifthly, most Equality Action Plans still emphasise positive action not institutional change – a ‘deficit model’ – focusing on helping the staff who are discriminated against rather than the institutional practices that discriminate. Yet whilst encouragement and support are important for under-represented staff groups, without changing institutional blockages and biases they will have limited impact

Sixth, ensure transparency and positive action in relation to ‘stretch developments’. The NHS has adopted the 70:20:10 model of staff development, which suggests that stretch developments and their consolidation are the most important drivers of career progression. So acting up posts, secondments, and involvement in project teams should never be filled informally, and access should be monitored and, where appropriate, filled preferentially through positive action for under-represented groups to help level the playing field. And where disproportionate access exists an “explain or comply” approach should be mandatory.

Seventh, for diversity to be sustainable and make a difference to staff experience and patient care, inclusion – not just improved representation – is essential. Whether specific interventions (including those rated as more effective) are actually effective depends on the extent to which teams feel psychologically safe, difference is welcomed, and all staff are listened to and valued. Without inclusion, staff from under-represented and disadvantaged groups will be less engaged, become outsiders be held to a higher standard than other staff, and be at risk of higher turnover –with adverse impact on organisational effectiveness and patient care and safety.

Eighth, a “command and control” approach, in which front line managers are simply told what to do, won’t work. It will lead to pushback unless senior leaders are seen to model the behaviours they expect of others, take time to discuss the new strategy and the evidence behind it, and why it will make the services provided to patients and users better. It will backfire unless serious effort is put into improving inclusive behaviours so that new joiners, of whatever background are welcomed into a safe environment where their difference is seen as an asset. Inclusive recruitment needs to be seen as a crucial part of service improvement, not simply a matter of compliance

Finally, this approach, strongly underpinned by research evidence, requires trade unions as well as HR directors to move away from relying on individual casework driven by complaints, towards proactive and preventative work to embed accountability and interventions backed by evidence. It means welcoming the renewed interest in social justice, but demands that we move on from just talking about the need for “culture change” towards understanding and acting on the evidence of what is most likely to work.

The existing approach to recruitment and career progression has sometimes felt like trying to navigate the London Underground with a map of the Paris Metro – we were never going to get where we wanted to. There are signs that this different approach set out in this review is gaining some traction. But the window of opportunity will start to close unless we start to change at pace whilst recognising change is complex and will take time.

No more tick boxes: a review of the evidence on how to make recruitment and career progression fairer was published on Thursday 16 September by NHS East of England

Editors Picks Social commentary

Continuing controversies around wearing headscarves and face-veils

Professor Erica Howard, School of Law at MDX, discusses the recent bans on wearing face-veils and headscarves and how this could lead to a further separation of cultures rather than a bringing together.

Bans on face covering veils are proliferating across Europe; France, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria and Denmark ban the wearing of face-covering clothing in all public spaces, while the Netherlands prohibits this in certain places, such as schools, hospitals, public transport and government buildings. Some other countries have introduced regional or municipal bans. Recently, in a referendum in Switzerland, the majority (although only just: 51.2%) has voted for a ban on face-covering as well.

European bans and laws

In some European countries, the wearing of headscarves is prohibited for employees in public employment (and sometimes beyond). For example, in France, government employees, including teachers in state schools, are prohibited from wearing any religious clothing or symbols, which include Muslim headscarves, at work. A similar ban exists in some states in Germany.

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Following a French law in 2004, school pupils in primary and secondary schools are prohibited from wearing ostentatious signs or dress by which they openly manifest a religious affiliation. This means that girls are usually not allowed to wear a Islamic headscarf to school. A law in Austria which banned ‘ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head’ in primary schools, adopted in 2019, was struck down by the Austrian Constitutional Court because it was aimed at Islamic headscarves (the government had made clear that head coverings worn by Sikh boys or Jewish skull caps were not covered by the law) and violated the right to freedom of religion.

Introducing the Anti-separatism law

On 12 April 2021, the French Upper House voted with an almost two-third majority (208 votes against 109) for the bill to strengthen the principles of the Republic or, as it is referred to, the  ‘anti-separatism law’. The bill aims at tackling terrorism. However, the bill also bans the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public for everyone under 18, the wearing of ‘burkinis’ in public pools and the wearing of headscarves for everyone accompanying children on school trips. The adoption in the Upper House does not mean that these bans will indeed become law, but it does show the feelings of the majority in this house against this. The law seems to suggests that minority ways (and particularly, Muslim minority ways) are conducive to terrorism.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in SAS v France, did not find that the French ban on covering the face in public places (often referred to as the ‘burqa ban’, which shows the target is the face-covering veils worn by Muslim women) violated the wearer’s right to freedom of religion because it accepted that the ban was necessary to ensure ‘respect for the minimum set of values of an open and democratic society’.

The French Government had argued that the face plays an important role in human interaction and that the effect of concealing one’s face in public places is to break social ties and to manifest a refusal of the principle of “living together” (le “vivre ensemble”). The Court accepted that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by France as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which makes living together easier.

The principles of civility and sociability were also mentioned In the debates in the Belgian Parliament on the law banning face-covering in all public spaces. It was explained that these principles mean that the visibility of someone’s face forms the basis for – even minimal – communication between members of society and that the identity of an individual is expressed in their face. Therefore, covering the face is a barrier to normal communications in everyday society. After the law in Belgium was adopted, it was also challenged before the European Court of Human Rights, which followed its own judgment in S.A.S. v France and held the ban justified for the same reasons [1].

COVID-19 and face masks

What this suggests, first of all, is that human interaction is not possible when people cannot see each other’s faces. This can be countered by the fact that much communication in present day society takes place via telephones and texts where people do not see each other’s faces, but communicate without problems. It has also been brought into perspective even more starkly during the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the compulsory wearing of face masks in many countries.

If communication with people wearing face masks is possible, why is it not possible with people wearing a face covering veil? What is the difference? The pandemic has shown the hypocrisy of the argument that the face needs to be uncovered for proper communication in a modern society.  People wear face masks in face-to-face encounters and manage to communicate perfectly well. This hypocrisy becomes even clearer when one considers that, in France, where the wearing of face-masks is compulsory, the face-covering veil is still prohibited [2]. So a woman can simultaneously be fined for not wearing a face mask and for wearing a face-covering veil.

Second, not all judges in SAS v France agreed with the majority, and the dissenters pointed out that there is no right to enter into contact with other people, in public places, against their will. If there was, there would have to be a corresponding obligation to do so and this would be a violation of the human right to respect for private life, which includes a right not to communicate or enter into contact with others.

Adding to Islamophobia

In many countries, including in France, adoption of laws against the wearing of face-covering in public places, although all are drafted in neutral language, were often accompanied by Islamophobia and growing feelings against Islam and Muslims (for France for example). Part of this is the fear of people retreating from ‘living together’, of separating from the society in which they live. The wearing of the headscarf or face-veil is seen as a sign of failed integration of migrants, which means that these groups are marginalised, alienated and excluded and this raises fears of groups being radicalised, which in turn might lead to political extremism and terrorist activities. This clearly links with both the aim and the name of the French anti-separatism act.

Another aspect of this fear is that the wearing of these headscarves and face-veils is also seen as a sign of both an unwillingness and an inability to integrate and to take part in society. Headscarves and face-veils set the wearer apart from other people and this leads to the creation of separate communities, thus furthering social and cultural division, which can also lead to radicalisation.

However, this unwillingness and inability to integrate is not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, rather than preventing the retreat from life in society, the legal prohibition on face-covering in public spaces could have the opposite effect in that it stops women, who wear face-veils for religious reasons, from leaving the house at all and from taking part in society. And, a similar argument can be used against bans on the wearing of headscarves by school pupils; this might stop pupils from going to school at all and thus would prevent them from getting an education.

Another effect of the bans on the wearing of headscarves and face-veils is that these bans, because they clearly target Muslims, could lead to a further strengthening of the Muslim identity and an increase in the polarisation between Muslims and others in society. This in turn could exacerbate social divisions and actually achieve the opposite of ‘living together’ or ‘anti-separatism’ by increasing segregation, radicalisation and terrorism.

Majority over the minority

All this indicates that the ‘living together’ or the recognition of ‘the minimum requirements of life in society’ argument can also, and more convincingly, be used against banning the wearing of headscarves and face-veils.  Moreover, if this argument is taken to its full conclusion, it could mean that any minority practice which makes the majority population uncomfortable could be banned.

This could be as Brems suggests, clearing Roma people from the streets because the majority of people in a country do not like to socially interact with Roma; or, accepting prohibitions on ‘homosexual propaganda’ as a choice of Russian society because this makes many Russians uncomfortable.

Ultimately, this would mean that the majority could dictate what the minority can or cannot wear; in case of the French anti-separatism act this would mean that Muslim women in France cannot wear headscarves or burkinis because the majority does not like to see this.

[1] Case of Dakir v. Belgium and Affair Belcacemi et Oussar c. Belgique

[2] The Washington Post: “France mandates masks to control the coronavirus. Burqas remain banned” and Article19: “Coronavirus: Rules illustrate “bad law” on face coverings”

Editors Picks Social commentary

The illusion of justice: Mothers, IPVA and the family courts

Mia Scally (Forensic Psychology PHD student at MDX) outlines 4 of the 6 main myths affecting mothers and children in family court getting their voice heard and justice served.

I’m a lecturer in forensic psychology and forensic criminology in the Criminology and Sociology department and as part of my PhD in Forensic Psychology (supervised by Dr Miranda Horvath and Professor Joanna Adler), I have been exploring survivor experiences of the family courts when it comes to child contact [1].

Over the course of three qualitative studies (including accounts from 72 women and 17 professionals), six distinct myths [2] and challenges have been identified, four of which will be discussed as part of this blog. It is suggested that these myths are believed by professionals operating within the child contact system, resulting in disastrous consequences for both mothers and their children.

Whilst research from the USA highlights similar myths and destructive beliefs, this blog seeks to outline these myths, the evidence base disproving them, and the dangers of accepting these myths as reality from the perspective of survivors in England and Wales.

Whilst the recent legislation (Domestic Abuse Act, 2021) has taken steps to protect women from Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse (IPVA), it cannot rewrite an individual’s beliefs. This is important to note when it comes to the family courts due to the amount of discretion held by Judges, whether this is intended or not.

For example, fact finding hearings (to ascertain whether IPVA has taken place and examine the evidence) are only ordered if the Judge feels that the findings would impact the outcome of the case. Therefore if an individual believes that IPVA does not impact a child, or that the conflict is relationship based, the IPVA might not be considered as part of the case at all.

Further examples include not giving women the time to discuss the impact of the IPVA on them and their children (because IPVA is viewed as being directed towards a partner and not experienced by the whole family), viewing women as vengeful and therefore being biased towards fathers (e.g. being identified as implacably hostile), the list goes on.

So here we examine four of the six myths that place women and children in danger, and that have potentially contributed to the deaths of 56 children at the hands of fathers known by authorities to have been abusive.

It’s relationship conflict

Women in the study discussed how IPVA was viewed as a conflict between two parents, notably conflict that had little to do with the children involved.

There was no understanding of what domestic violence is about, absolutely none, and they just think it’s to do with the relationship between the two of you and you’re an equal part of that relationship and actually, it’s not like that at all.

Meredith [3], Survivor

In reality, as Meredith alludes to, IPVA is about power and control, with fathers doing anything necessary to maintain this power and control – including using the children to harm the mother (also voiced by professionals taking part in this study). It is not a balanced argument between two people. It is not a ‘difficult divorce’ but a harmful and dangerous power imbalance.

Despite this, professionals were described as unaware of what IPVA entails, with Elena (Survivor) disclosing how a solicitor told her, despite acknowledging her partner as abusive, “it would be better for my ex to have unsupervised as he is at no risk to my children”.

Interlinked with this myth, is the belief that IPVA consists of explosive bouts of uncontrolled anger. Another myth.

Anger is expressive

IPVA consists of instrumental aggression. In other words, it’s goal orientated. The main goal being to maintain the control in the relationship. Abusive fathers do not ‘lose their temper’ in frustration. This is why men that abuse their partners attend behaviour change courses that are specific to IPVA and not general anger management courses. That is a different kind of anger, and placing men that are abusive on an anger management course can be particularly dangerous.

Despite this, women in the study explained how their partner’s anger would be explained away as being upset over the situation, or frustration at not being able to see the children.

Even when he was seeing them and he was really just spending all his time shouting at me, the professionals would say, ‘oh it’s just the sight of you makes him really cross.

Meredith (Survivor)

Some described how this ‘burst of anger’ was viewed as separate to the case. Carry (Survivor) explains “One Judge seemed to believe he was simply upset at separation therefore lashed out at me – but this should not impact on contact”.

The notion here is that IPVA has no impact on the children, or that the children are unaffected by their father screaming at their mother (the evidence suggests otherwise). IPVA has an impact on everyone in the household, resulting in adverse consequences for mothers AND children.

Woman in black and white looking worried

It’s a parenting problem

Federica (Survivor) extends the discussion of parenting, explaining that the family courts view both parents as ineffective once abuse has been disclosed. In fact, Federica was ordered to attend a parenting programme alongside her partner, despite the children describing their mother as their support system and Federica doing everything in her power to protect and empower her children. The joke? Only Federica attended the programme. Her partner didn’t feel the need. The consequences? Zero. This is not uncommon and is highlighted by Refuge as an ‘inappropriate response to domestic abuse’.

Some researchers question the ability of abusive fathers to effectively parent at all if the abusive behaviour is not addressed, something echoed by professionals taking part in this study:

And she was told exactly that in court; ‘well I know he was abusive towards you but that doesn’t make him a bad father’. It does. In my personal opinion, it does. If someone went to prison for assault on another human being you wouldn’t let them come out and look after your children.

Maria (Professional)

Many of the women in the study would agree with this parenting inefficacy, describing the fathers as ‘throwing tantrums’ when they don’t get their own way, manipulating children and/or being particularly authoritarian – but with no clear rules that anyone can follow.

The women in the study felt that the courts didn’t acknowledge the IPVA but suggested that the two parents were unable to parent effectively and that dealing with this would resolve the issue.

But IPVA goes beyond a parenting issue. It is not a lack of communication, or understanding how to implement boundaries. And requiring mothers to attend a parenting programme when there is no evidence to suggest that they are the problem is the wrong message to be sending.

As Julia, a professional participant from the study noted, “A lot of the pressure of the work that we ask them to do is situations that they’ve not put themselves in, they’ve been put in, and now we’re asking them to do the work to keep their children safe, it’s a catch 22.” .

What a charming man!

Part of the issue here (beyond not understanding the dynamics of IPVA and the impact it has) may be the way that abusive men present themselves to others, and professionals being subject to the ‘charm’ of an abuser. What Enander (2010) describes as fathers switching from Jekyll to Hyde.

Enander describes survivors as detailing their partners as having two sides; the side that is charming, sociable and smart and the side that is aggressive, manipulative and controlling. Survivors describe their partner as being able to switch from one to the other with great ease, although it is Dr Jekyll (the charming side) that is displayed to others, making the possibility of Mr Hyde seem unbelievable. Morena (Survivor) states, “out in public you would think he was/is the man/father of the year”.

The emotional work of leaving such a ‘perfect’ illusion can be a challenge in itself but having to convince others that Mr Hyde exists can be a case of life or death when it comes to children and contact arrangements. Again, suggesting a lack of knowledge when it comes to abusive men, Meredith (Survivor) describes how difficult it was to be believed, ultimately having to wait for everyone involved to see the behaviour that she had been disclosing since the beginning.

This included Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), Judges, and other professionals involved in the system:

It was really horrible that they had to wait and see what he would, you know. They had to see for themselves, to experience it for themselves, that, I think, was really awful.

The end result? Mother’s feel punished, revictimized and powerless. In short, abused by the system that is supposed to protect them and their children.

I feel trapped by this horrible person and he seems to get sanctioned by the legal system to do so!

Soraya (Survivor)

Where do we go from here?

For more updates about this PhD, or to find out more, please get in touch.

[1] See previous blog post for a reflection of my own personal experiences researching this topic.

[2] Please note – parental alienation is not considered as part of this blog, but the evidence base shows a clear bias in the family courts towards fathers when it comes to this. In reality, the term derives from a lack of evidence and the notion that mothers alienate children from their fathers in the context of IPVA is a recognised fallacy. If you want to read more about this, please see the work of Meier, and Barnett.

[3] Names of survivors and professionals have been changed throughout to preserve anonymity.

Editors Picks Social commentary

Is there a link between whistleblowing and autism?

David Lewis, Professor of Employment Law and Head of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, and Helen Evans, former whistleblower at Oxfam with a diagnosis of ASC discuss the benefits of further researching the links between whistleblowing characteristics and those with ASC.

Further research is needed to investigate the link between whistleblowing and autism [1]. Historically, researchers have examined the personality characteristics associated with whistleblowers but a more specific question raised recently is whether workers with diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) might be particularly valuable to organisations that are keen to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance.

As a result, we are calling for empirical research to further investigate the link between autism and whistleblowing, and how organisations can support whistleblowers with ASC.

What are Autistic Spectrum Conditions?

There are a range of definitions of autism. According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), “autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction. Autism is a spectrum disorder.”  Similarly, the Autism Awareness Centre defines autism as “a lifelong, non-progressive neurological disorder” and the National Autistic Society refers to autism as “a lifelong developmental disability”.

A more neutral description would be that the autistic spectrum consists of a range of neurological developmental conditions that are part of the wider notion of neurodiversity. Instead of regarding variations in sociability, learning, mood and attention as pathological disorders, neurodiversity is consistent with a social model of these conditions which focuses on societal barriers to inclusion. Indeed, the great attraction of using the word neurodiversity is that treats ASC as a normal human variation.  

Key strengths associated with autism can include a strong sense of right and wrong, determination and conviction in their ideas and beliefs, honesty, loyalty and logical thinking. ASC is also associated with difficulties in social interaction, non–verbal communication as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns.

Unsurprisingly, people with ASC who have impaired language and intelligence are less likely to be in jobs. It is estimated that 1.1% of people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum, however, according to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of autistic people are in full-time employment and 43% have said they have left or lost a job because of their condition.

Rather than focus on the general issue of employability of people with ASC, we looked at the particular contribution autistic people could make as workers in an organisation that is keen to identify wrongdoing and take remedial action. As Transparency International persuasively argue, the business case for whistleblowing is a powerful one. Thus, in theory, persons willing and able to speak up effectively should be in great demand.

What is whistleblowing?

The most widely used definition of whistleblowing is “the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to affect action”.  

One of the reasons this definition is not reflected in national legislation is that it refers to matters that are clearly open to wide interpretation. What one person regards as immoral or illegitimate practices may be different to the views of another. The two main reasons why people do not report wrongdoing is that they do not believe that remedial action will be taken and/or that the person raising a concern will suffer retaliation. 

However, researchers have suggested that people with ASC focus more on the outcomes of situations than the intentions of the persons in those situations. Indeed, one reason why those with ASC might be more likely to become whistleblowers is because they may rigidly believe that if something bad happens there will or should be consequences. They may refuse to acknowledge or accept the existence of organisational and other barriers which might prevent rectification of proven wrongdoing.

Autistic people may also be unable to predict accurately what other people may be thinking or feeling and have difficulties reading non-verbal communications. As a result, they may fail to pick up on or chose to ignore the social cues which suggest that reprisals might be suffered even when raising concerns is formally encouraged at the workplace. Alternatively, those with ASC may be well aware of the social consequences, including the possibility or retaliation, but simply not care about them.

Potential issues for Whistleblowers with ASC (WASCs)

The law does not require whistleblowers to conduct their own investigations in order to obtain proof but statutory protection requires workers to have reasonable grounds to believe that wrongdoing will occur, is occurring or has occurred.  

Unfortunately, this can create a risky Catch 22 situation – without investigating there may be no grounds on which to hold a reasonable belief but by investigating a worker may be guilty of misconduct because that is not within their remit.

Nevertheless, a WASC who is convinced that wrongdoing is taking place may be less deterred by this dilemma and choose to take whatever steps are felt necessary to find supporting evidence. If WASC’s put themselves at greater risk of being accused of misconduct, there is an argument that employers should have proper support mechanisms in place for them.

Indeed, a WASC who is keen to pursue a matter might be less likely than others to be deterred by the need to complete detailed forms or follow the templates used by providers of whistleblowing ‘hotlines’. If dissatisfied with the internal response – being ignored or perhaps a decision not to investigate or take remedial action – a WASC’s discomfort with disorder may mean that they are more willing than most people to appeal up the management hierarchy.

WASC’s may raise it repeatedly until it is addressed ‘their’ way, making them more liable to be disciplined for inappropriate behaviour. In a number of cases the courts have drawn a distinction between the disclosure of information about wrongdoing and the manner in which it is made. 

In practice, the particular words used in raising a concern may be important. For example, allegations of  fraud are not likely to be welcomed by managers but explaining that clients are being overcharged may well be better received. WASC’s may look to use the media even though such involvement is likely to be resented by organisations and could result in reprisals.

Disclosures to the media are unlikely to attract legal protection under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (and could give rise to claims against them for breach of confidence). WASC’s may be aware but less influenced by such considerations.


From a wider perspective, there are clear financial benefits to society if talented but previously excluded people are integrated into the workforce.

We have hypothesized that the characteristics commonly associated with ASC might make people with ASC more likely than people with a predominant neurotype to be effective whistleblowers and, as such, are a particular asset to organisations that are keen to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance. 

We believe that hiring people with ASC can bring tangible economic and other benefits to an organisation. We are therefore calling for empirical research to be carried out to explore the following key questions:

  1. Do whistleblowers demonstrate common characteristic traits that are expressed in ways that differ to the population in general?
  2. If there are common characteristics demonstrated by whistleblowers that differ to the population in general, how do these correlate with common characteristic traits to be found in people with autism spectrum condition? 
  3. What additional needs might a whistleblower with autism spectrum condition have compared to a whistleblower without this condition in order to be effective at raising concerns and how can this inform reporting arrangements?

[1] This contribution is based on a discussion paper entitled “Autistic employees as whistleblowers: are employers ignoring potentially valuable assets? This is available via the Middlesex University e-repository.

Editors Picks Social commentary

Working backwards with No. 10

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School. In this blog he responds to the employment section of the controversial recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

First, the pre-determined conclusion

The Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report is part of a political project mapped out some time ago.

In 2017, Munira Mirza, the (now) head of the No 10 Policy Unit, who commissioned the Sewell Commission) dismissed the concept of institutional racism claiming “a lot of people in politics thinks it’s a good idea to exaggerate the problem of racism”.

In 2019, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, said ”too much ground had been ceded to the Left on issues of identity […] We need to reassert the value of individual and character above the particular type of group you might happen to be a member of […] I think there’s been too much identity politics in Britain”.

Nine months ago, Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, having claimed (falsely as the subsequent leaks confirmed) that the Fenton Review on COVID-19 did not make recommendations, then “hit back at claims ‘systemic injustice’ is the reason ethnic minorities are more likely to die from coronavirus in England.”

Their collective views individualise the challenge to inequality, undermine collective challenge and institutional interventions. The idea of institutional discrimination is denied, whatever the data may show. There is an emphasis on individual effort rather than collective challenge, underpinned by the assertion (contrary to the evidence) that we live in a meritocracy where all may equally, irrespective of identity, rise to the top.

One crucial obstacle to this view of social policy is the MacPherson Report (1988) which analysed discriminatory practices within the Metropolitan Police in a manner applicable across all public services as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.

One purpose of the 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report is to undermine that insight and instead counter pose individual effort to collective change.

In reaching its pre-determined conclusion it plays fast and loose with both data and research.

…Now, the evidence

Take the section on public sector (especially NHS) employment; there is no sense that the conclusions either flow from the assembled evidence or are a coherent whole.


Whilst the Commission attributes evidence of race discrimination to individual cases not to a pattern of structural discrimination, several of the Commission’s proposals (some of which are helpful) appear to acknowledge that there are indeed patterns of discrimination not just the individual instances the report argues are the norm.


The authors appear to have neither interrogated the very large NHS database on workforce and staff survey metrics, nor discussed their proposals with those leading the NHS work on workforce race equality including the Workforce Race Equality Standard.

The NHS database conclusively demonstrates that patterns of race discrimination do exist in NHS recruitment, promotion, development, discipline and bullying, and that they are so systematic and sustained that it is difficult not to conclude that Macpherson’s definition applies to the NHS.

Indeed the Commission itself appears to come close to accepting that institutional race discrimination as defined by MacPherson exists when it accepts that “Human beings tend to discriminate, even when unintended” (p.122) and that “it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists”.


The authors suggests that the lived experience of racial bias is a matter of “perception”. The Occupational Preferences report (p.120) they commissioned found that respondents felt:

  • Being a manager is a risky choice
  • Feedback to become a manager is poor.

It is hard to know why this section is included at all. The sample is small (n=116), not representative (“an uneven distribution for gender, White and ethnic minority groups, and full and part-time employees”), and the conclusions are hardly new.

The refusal to accept that bias is a real and dynamic factor is repeated (p.123) where, discussing recruitment, the report states, “there is a perception that people at the top tend to have affinity bias, appointing people in their own image.”  

The Commission’s conclusion is that, “there are simple HR activities which can address these perceptions”. There is not even a hint in the report as to what the “simple HR activities” are that can address these “perceptions”.

That may be because these are not “perceptions” but are grounded in the widespread lived experience of BME managers across the NHS. In fact, the bias experienced is not ethereal but grounded in systematic discrimination at work.

There is a body of research showing how Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) managers are held to a higher standard and that feedback to BME staff (including appraisals) is systematically poor. Those systematic and sustained processes are what needs to change but “simple HR activities” that deny those processes exist won’t achieve that.


The report (p.121) unwisely launches an assault on the gold standard social audit research conducted in both the UK and the USA. Their results, replicated on several occasions by different researchers in different contexts, demonstrate that when identical job applications are submitted with one ‘English’ sounding name and one ‘foreign’ sounding name, this results in much greater likelihood of applicants being shortlisted if their name sounds ‘English’.

Such findings strongly suggest systematic racial bias, not the odd example of racism.


The report (p.125) states

“Most researchers remain sceptical about the impact of unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity specialists. Research by Kalev and Dobbin, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that mandatory diversity and inclusion measures have not always been successful.

Quotas have been slipped in to this sentence but it is not clear why, as they are not advocated by the NHS and are unlawful in the UK.

Targets are not unlawful, but are quite different. They are used across many aspects of employment (including by the UK Government) and there is a body of evidence demonstrating that whether they are called targets or goals, they can be effective, depending on how they are used.

The report is rightly sceptical of the impact of unconscious bias training (UBT) on decision making and it is true that too often employers have treated UBT as a silver bullet to tackle discrimination. However, as the report rightly accepts such training can play a role in improving the cognitive understanding of bias:

“[…] the Commission recognises the place of such practices (diversity and unconscious bias training) in the journey to promote diverse and inclusive work environments.”

The Commission rightly then states:

“[…] that diversity and eliminating disparities requires impactful organisational redesign and training that leads to truly inclusive environments.”

And on p.125:

“Organisations can be (re)designed to change behaviour, and therefore outcomes.”

It then muddies the argument by providing a rather random list of such measures which are of varying effectiveness and completely fails to include those measures that research highlights are essential such as debiasing processes and inserting effective accountability.

It states:

“This indicates ‘nudge’-style procedures (such as name-blind CVs, transparent performance metrics, family friendly policies, proactive mentoring and networking procedures) are more useful than methods that overtly discriminate against some groups, for example quotas.”

It raises again the straw argument of quotas. Its statement that, “research by Kalev and Dobbin, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that mandatory diversity and inclusion measures have not always been successful” is, of course, true. There is no magic wand.

However, Kalev and Dobbin are strongly in favour of accountability (both internally and externally) and provide evidence as to why, not just nudges. Indeed the Commission’s recommendation on the CQC role seems to suggest the Commission agrees.


The report notes (p.116) that ethnicity pay gaps are relatively small at NHS senior manager level and very between different BME groups and white staff and concludes:

“Such a picture is not consistent with a pattern one might expect of systemic discrimination, although undoubtedly, there will be cases of discrimination and bias in what is the largest employer in the country.”

This appears to be the only evidence in the entire report produced in support of the claim that there is no “systematic discrimination” in the NHS.

This conclusion ignores the rather obvious question about why the proportion of senior managers from BME backgrounds has been (and still is) so much lower than the proportion of senior managers from White backgrounds. It ignores the detailed data showing that currently across all grades it is 1.61 times more likely that White staff will be appointed once shortlisted compared to BME staff, and that there is a steep ethnicity gradient in which the proportion of BME staff declines as the grade gets higher.

For example, 27.5% of Band 5 Agenda for Change staff are from BME heritage but this drops at senior manager level to 10.5% (Band 8C) and 8.0% (Band 8D), something not mentioned in the report.


The Report counter-poses cognitive bias to demographic bias. It states:

“Greater emphasis should be placed on diversity of thought and perspective around a board table which is not associated with anyone’s race or ethnicity.”

This feels like a polite version of Dominic Cummings’ claim that people “talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity.’ They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity’ […] What [we need] is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity”.

In fact we need both cognitive and demographic diversity since, as Scott Page (2017) and others demonstrate, they are not alternatives but very significantly overlap.


The employment section of the Commission report demonstrates the danger of reaching conclusions and then looking for evidence to support them.

It will not assist the work to reduce racism in public sector employment and risks doing the exact opposite unless rebuffed.


Crafting resilience: The practices of making in the COVID-19 lockdown

MDX Post-doctoral research fellow Dr Zahra Hussain analyses the experiences of craftswomen in South Asia during lockdown, part of the Culture and Conflict project at the LSE-based Gender, Justice and Security hub.

The COVID-19 pandemic, resultant lockdowns, and associated issues have affected industries across the globe. Along with other sectors, high street retail has incurred major losses. Informal businesses like craftspeople, especially in the Global South, have remained under-reported, however. In this piece, as part of the ‘Culture and Conflict’ project in the transformation and empowerment stream of the Gender Justice and Security hub based at London School of Economics, I seek to explore the experiences of craftswomen in South Asia in the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown (May and June 2020).

A Kalasha woman wearing beaded necklaces which is a significant part of their everyday apparel. During lockdown, they continued to make these necklaces for themselves.

Understanding how lockdown affects craftwomen’s practice of making

The project conducted an online survey to understand how lockdown affects craftwomen’s practice of making, and where craftswomen place “craft-making” in an uncertain future. In this piece, I particularly focus on the ways in which resilience can be traced and articulated from the responses of 148 craftswomen across South Asia. 

“It was a sudden full stop. We had to stay back home and be safe. It was hard to earn a living. Such an unexpected situation..”  Anoma Angunawala, Kalapuraya, Kandy, Central Province, Sri Lanka

The word ‘resilience’ is an elastic term that has been deployed and adapted by various disciplines in complex ways over the past twenty years. The concept of resilience underpins the science of disaster governance and global disaster policy, extending to two major frameworks for managing disasters and crises on a global level: the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters (HFA) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR). Discussion on resilience is relevant both in terms of its assessment as a top-down project or a bottom-up approach, and around understanding how life is held together in conditions of crisis and fragility.

In ‘The Resilient Subject’ (2012), Dr Kay Aranda and health scholar colleagues propose three categories of resilience: resilience found, resilience made, and resilience unfinished. Resilience found is understood as an inert or inherent capacity of individuals or systems. Resilience made involves practices of engagement with environment and society, with the implication that resilience is cultivated through certain practices. Resilience unfinished corresponds with the idea of a constant struggle to become resilient in the face of an uncertain future. Using these distinctions, indigenous knowledge is a resource practised and cultivated over centuries, in a continuous process of evolution and adaptation.

Findings from the survey

To understand the position of craftswomen within the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, I see Aranda et al’s three kinds of resilience overlapping and occurring simultaneously. The overlapping of different senses of resilience can be seen as a process in crafting – a forward movement in experimentation as people use their skills, materials, and techniques to engage with the context. It involves their ability to make decisions for themselves and adapt their practices to live on in challenging times. 

A variety of factors contributed to the challenges faced by craftswomen in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Approximately 87% of respondents reported curtailment in their ability to sell their craft products, as described by Neelum from Daulatkhel in Swat, Pakistan: “The lockdown will most definitely affect my ability to sell my crafts because the markets are closed and there are no customers.” A craftswoman from Peshawar, Pakistan said “I take orders from individuals both for stitching and fabric painting, but due to the lockdown I am unable to reach out to people for orders. There is less work. Before the lockdown I used to stitch 5 suits daily, but now I am only doing 2 to 3 suits and sometimes there are no orders.”

Some women have analysed the market itself. Haseeba in Saidu Sharif, Swat observed, “Businesses are not doing well and people are careful with their money. They only buy what is necessary”. Some anticipate how the situation will develop with the closure of markets: “If the lockdown continues into winter, it will be very difficult to sell our products because the markets would remain closed and people will not venture out of their homes due to fear of the disease” (Saira, Odigram, Swat). Craftswomen from Sri Lanka (mainly Kandy) highlighted the decrease in tourism as a major factor for reduced sales because they primarily target visitors to their city. In Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown further restricted their already constrained movement and mobility. Saira Tabassum from Bufliaz in the region’s Poonch district explains: “there is no wonder that corona has affected the whole world. But it has affected people of Jammu and Kashmir more than usual. We were out of transport facilities, prices were hiking, raw material was triple the usual price”. Evidently, therefore, multiple factors have affected the production and sale of craft products. 

Exploring the importance of craft-making for women and giving insight into their resilience

Within this context, a few survey questions were targeted at understanding how craft-making practice was affected by the pandemic: to explore the importance of craft-making for women and give insight into their resilience, in the sense of coping with and making do in the challenging environment. The survey indicated that the activity of craft-making is mainly learned at home from mothers or grandmothers. For more than half of respondents, craft-making is an activity done throughout the year, and for some every day, intrinsic to their daily life. It has been noted that practices of everyday life contribute to identity formation and play an integral role in maintaining sense of self, cohesion, and belonging. As one respondent explained, “we are very worried due to the pandemic, hence to take our mind off this, we sit together at home and do knitting. We share the worries and it gives us peace of mind”. 

Another woman from Laspur Valley, KPK, Northern Pakistan explained how she grew up with craft-making around her, so it reminds her of being with her family. She described her time in lockdown as “a time to bond with my cousins and aunts” as they sat together carpet-making. However, it is important to note that the ability to work on crafts has only been afforded to those based at home; those working in factories or vocational centres have been unable to continue with their crafts. 

Around 34% of craftswomen surveyed said that they keep themselves engaged in order to not think about the pandemic, 29% said that they do not feel like craft-making due to the pandemic, and 16% indicated that they are making more craft than usual. Yasmeen from Bhoosakhel, Charsaddah noted that: “since everything is closed, I don’t go out and nobody comes to my house, therefore I have a lot of time on my hands and I use that time to make khaadi these days. In fact, I have produced more cloth than I usually do”. Zaitun from Kabul explained that she does not make any crafts as there are no exhibitions to sell them at, while Mikai from Kalash said “I was very scared plus I had a lot of products left that needed to sell before I could make any more”.  Bibi Kobra from Kandahar explains how the closure of the bazaar put an end to her craft business of Khamak dozi, so she does not feel like making any more crafts. 

These different ways of coping with the pandemic suggest that some craftswomen who continue to work may be deemed resilient, whilst others who stop working may not be considered so resilient. However, deeper analysis tells a different story. The survey responses are inconsistent, but in each case craftswomen have used whatever is at hand (time or material) in ways that make sense to them to respond to the challenges they face. For example, in the absence of orders, some craftswomen were keen to use the situation to try something new, such as preparing wedding dresses for people in the neighbourhood. One said: “I kept doing my work because I was hopeful for the business once the lockdown is lifted, although it has reduced drastically but I managed to complete and get a few orders” (Shamim, Multan). 

Craftmaking proved a welcome distraction in a dire situation

For some, craftmaking proved a welcome distraction in a dire situation: “Due to lockdown my husband has lost his job and I am worried about our financial conditions such as rent, grocery, school fees etc. The only way I can forget my problems is by finding a distraction which I find in craft-making”, said Aliya from Charsadda). Others were careful about how many products they made during this time: “if I make too many goods, I might not be able to sell them therefore I don’t feel like making anything” (Hifza, Odigram – Swat). Another added that “lockdown is seriously affecting our business of craft-making. So much has accumulated that we are fearful it might not sell and fetch a good price hence the motivation to make more crafts has died and we don’t feel like doing anything” (Haseeba, Saidu Sharif – Swat). The decision to not make crafts is based not only on the careful assessment of the market value for products, but also on feelings of fear, anticipation, and motivation. Whilst craft-making proves to be a positive distraction for some craftswomen, for others an increasing stock of craft products in their house is stressful and thus best avoided. Here, Aranda et al’s three categories of resilience can be traced in women’s ability to take informed decisions for continuing or discontinuing craft-making based on their analysis for tackling uncertain conditions. 

These insights show resilience is not a stable or fixed condition: it is made and unmade, punctuated as women navigate new terrain. These challenges are multiple, both material (availability and access to raw materials and market) and immaterial (emotional: fear, anxiety or hope), and so resilience is exercised in different ways. Though a stable sense of resilience cannot be derived from these responses, a possibility is ever present – discerned through the different ways in which craftswomen continue to deal with the pandemic.

‘Resilience unfinished’ refers to the continued efforts of craftswomen to assess the situation and retrofit actions to adapt to it.  I propose that any intervention (from outside, the State, NGOs or otherwise) must be channelled to explore different avenues and markets that enable the practice of crafting to live on. Crucially, it must live on in ways that allow craftswomen to craft a desirable future for themselves. The craftswomen surveyed described feelings of being locked in, stuck in an unfavourable situation, and unable to foresee the future. To strengthen their resilience is to ensure the movement of their craft products in times of lockdown and limited mobility. This requires identifying the bottlenecks in this process and exploring ways of relieving these so that the process can continue with minimal disruption. 

One way of doing this could be to explore digital means of connection and access to market. Digital platforms are a useful resource that craftswomen will require proper training for. Training in this sector will not only allow women to remain in touch with the market, but also to learn to document and photograph their crafts. This can be introduced in areas that have internet access via cellular service. However, digital platforms require a proper digital infrastructure that can be made available to those living in remote towns and mountain areas where internet accessibility is an issue. In this case, the government sector has to play its part in providing the required infrastructure for the craft communities to tackle challenges posed by limited accessibility to physical and digital markets.  More than anything, this pandemic has created space for us to reflect on ways our interventions can strengthen the resilience of craftswomen in times of restricted mobility, be it during pandemics, conflicts or disasters.

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Social commentary

Online child sexual abuse during COVID-19. What do the experts say?

Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor and Criminologist at MDX, presents some of the key issues that were raised during the UKCIS webinar by high-level experts from research, policy and practice.

The risk to children of online sexual abuse, alongside other forms of online harm, is likely to have increased as a result of isolation measures, with children being educated and spending more time online.

Whilst we do not know the true impact of COVID-19, and the harm inflicted to children by offenders during lockdown, it is recognised that it’s an increasing problem and, as a result, needs to be addressed.

The online event was organised by the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group (UKCIS) and supported by the Marie Collins Foundation, the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) from Middlesex University and the University of East London’s Institute for Connected Communities (ICC) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Children online

It’s important to acknowledge that there are enormous benefits for children from being online. In fact, it is only through acknowledging those benefits that “we can better understand the potential for harm to children and seek to mitigate risk through robust research and through safeguarding policy and practice,” said Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the ICC at the University of East London.

Little boy viewed from the back as he looks at a laptop set up in front of him

Supporting this ethos, Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) and a Research Director at NatCen Social Research, said that “understanding offending, victimisation and the impact of child sexual exploitation and abuse on wider society is important in forging the best preventative measures moving forward.”

What’s being done to prevent this?

A number of vital changes are taking place in the digital environment to protect children and young people. Early this year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted  General Comment 25, which now extends children rights to the digital environment.

Furthermore, in the UK, the Online Harms Legislation  is due to be passed imminently, which places responsibility on companies for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups. This is the opportunity for companies and cyber safety technologies to step in and provide protection to its users.

In January 2021, the Home Secretary published the Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, which sets out the government’s vision for preventing, tackling and responding to child sexual abuse in all its forms, whether it’s committed in person or online, in families or communities, in the UK or overseas.

The aims of the strategy were set out clearly at the webinar by Victoria Jepson, Head of Strategy, International and Knowledge in the tackling exploitation and abuse unit at the home office.  Jepson claimed: “We have also made commitments around providing victims and survivors, with the support needed to rebuild their lives.”

Clearly a lot of work is taking place in this area, not only to support victims and survivors but also to prevent young people from further victimisation.

Has online abuse become the norm for digital children?

Dr Jo Bryce, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, presented some of the findings from De-Shame, a project co-financed by the European Union. Bryce argued that whilst the internet plays an essential role in their lives, for many young people, online sexual harassment, unfortunately, is embedded in their digital lives and to some extent normalised and too often not reported to an adult.

Projects such as De-Shame are vital bringing voices of children to the surface. As Tink Palmer, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation pointed out: “It is difficult for children to report what has happened to them.” There is evidence to suggest that often children fear the consequences of reporting such as being prohibited by their parents to access their devices and being online.

Dr Victoria Baines, a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University, highlighted the importance of utilising evidenced based data, as some sources are unreliable and do not provide “the true picture” of whether online grooming has increased in the UK due to COVID-19.  Baines argued: “We are assuming that being online is an inherently risky business, that more time online increases the risk of children, and as a consequence of spending more time online during lockdown, grooming in the UK has increased.” Whilst there has been an increase of online child sexual abuse, we cannot yet establish whether this increase is because of the lockdown.

Child sexual abuse is on the rise, offline and online

Talking about the increase of online child sexual abuse, more generally, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations, offered frontline reports of the problem and presented some very strong evidence stating how “in 30 years we’ve moved from 7,000 to 17 million CSA images”. It was also highlighted that more than 850 offenders are being apprehended a month, and that more than 1000 children have been safeguarded each month through coordinated activity led by professionals like Mr Bailey.

Little girl with head in hand as she scrolls through an iPad while sitting at a table

This webinar highlights that online child sexual abuse is a crime that is not going to reduce any time soon.  In her closing comments, Mary Aiken, Professor of Forensic Cyberpsychology in the Department of Law and Criminology at the University of East London, argued: “Online CSA is a big data problem in terms of variety, velocity and volume of this content and we will need artificial intelligence solutions to tackle the problem.”

There is some good news, Aiken claims: “There is a thriving emerging online safety technology sector in the UK.” However, cyber security focuses on protecting data, networks and systems and not what it is to be human, online. Therefore, events such as this webinar bring together experts working in the field of child protection to present the research evidence and the reliable data needed to fully understand this complex phenomenon. 

Some of the evidence, advice and recommendations presented in this webinar cannot be ignored. The fact that more than 700 hundred people registered for this event demonstrates that people are willing to be involved in this subject, want to learn good practice, raise awareness and contribute to the online safety of children and young people.

 Indeed, we need to work together to create a safer cyber space for us all, but specifically for those young people whose lives are digital by default.

The UKCIS Evidence Group provides expert advice to the UKCIS Board and reviews key research in the Internet safety area. They produce a research highlights series which summarises research findings.

About the author

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.

Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Health & wellbeing

A tale of two metrics

Roger Kline, Research Fellow at our Business School, discusses the two main findings from the 2020 NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard report.

The 2020 NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) report is out.

There has been a sustained and significant closing of the gap between the treatment of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) staff and White staff in disciplinary action. The progress on disciplinary treatment, however, is in sharp contrast with the standstill around recruitment and career progression.

Black nurse in green scrubs, face mask and blue gloves holding a clipboard of papers

What are the key findings?

Firstly, a growing number of Trusts have adopted a simple accountability nudge which aims to interrupt bias by requiring line managers to explain to a very senior manager, prior to any disciplinary investigation being started, why a formal disciplinary investigation is the only way of addressing an alleged concern.

Secondly, the parallel moves towards a just and learning culture (rather than blame) in a growing minority of Trusts (pioneered by Mersey Care) have led to a similar accountability nudge emphasising early informal intervention.  

It is a pity that neither of these interventions were prompted by any national initiative but in combination they seem to be working as research suggested, possibly compounded by some form of “Hawthorne” effect.

There may be some managerial attempts to do “workarounds” on the accountability nudge but there is no evidence this is on a large scale. These two approaches together save a large amount of management time, benefit wider culture change, and stop much unnecessary disciplinary action.

Comparing the numbers

In the last four years, the total number of NHS staff in England entering the disciplinary process has dropped from by 28.2% from 15,711, to 11,278 in 2020.

In the same period the relative likelihood of BME staff entering the disciplinary process has substantially closed from 1.56 to 1.16.

What explains this dramatic change when the other key WRES metric on recruitment actually got worse 2016-2020?

Table: Staff entering the disciplinary process 2020

Total White staffWhite staff entering the formal disciplinary processWhite staff likely entering the formal disciplinary processTotal BME staffBME staff entering the formal disciplinary processBME staff likely entering the formal disciplinary processRelatively likely BME staff compared to White staff

A comparison of how tackling these two metrics has been undertaken is telling. Whilst there has been some limited progress in the diversity of very senior posts, the standstill over the last two years amongst middle and lower grades reflects the failure to apply research evidence to the challenge.

By contrast, in 2016, I suggested that the NHS needed to change how we approach incidents that might normally lead to formal disciplinary investigations. The suggestions was to use the almost forgotten NHS Incident Decision Tree and combine the research evidence about the reasons for the disproportionate disciplining of BME staff in the NHS to create a new approach to “incidents”. The Incident Decision Tree was a simple but sophisticated means of asking four questions about an individual involved in a patient safety incident with a view to deciding if suspension was appropriate. 

This is not a new problem

Research commissioned in 2008 by NHS Employers highlighted the disproportionate disciplinary action against BME staff and subsequent evidence showed the discriminatory patterns of discipline involving midwives in London.

In 2017, the very significant variation between NHS Trusts as to the likelihood of White and BME staff being disciplined or suspended was noted and an accountability nudge was again advocated to interrupt bias and focus on learning not blame.

The NPSA Incident tree guidance argued:

“We know from research carried out in the NHS and in other industries that system failures are often the root cause of safety incidents. Despite this, where a serious patient safety incident occurs in the NHS, the most common response is to formally suspend the staff involved from duty and then deal with them according to disciplinary procedures. This route can be unfair to employees and divert managers from identifying contributory systems failures. Suspension of key employees can also diminish trusts‘ ability to provide high-quality patient care.”

I know of no evidence that greater levels of disciplinary investigation and action in healthcare lead to improved care. No one knows how much NHS time and energy is wasted on unnecessary disciplinary investigations, suspensions, hearings, and appeals, but it is a lot.

What’s the cost?

In 2018, Duncan Lewis and I estimated a typical bullying case cost employers around £40,000 (management time, sickness leave costs, cover, early retirement, replacement costs) excluding legal costs and the cost of professional regulator referrals and it is likely that is the figure for disciplinary cases is similar.

The biggest cost of all is the impact on patient care.

Unnecessary disciplinary investigations and hearings risk creating an environment where the response to a mistake or sub-standard behaviour is not “how do we prevent it happening again” but “who is to blame.”

The steep authority gradients in much of the NHS as a whole, and within individual occupations, exacerbate the problem. An environment of blame, allied to a steep authority gradient is toxic for patient care and safety.

None of this means that there will never be a need for NHS disciplinary investigations or indeed suspensions or sanctions. But in too many organisations moving to a formal investigation had become the default position without there being proper consideration as to whether that is necessary.

In researching the causes of disproportionate disciplinary action in the NHS against BME staff, Archibong and Darr (2010) found in their report NHS Employers that:

“….line managers found it difficult to deal with issues relating to disciplinaries and there were often inconsistencies in the application of disciplinary policies. It was acknowledged that the informal stage of the disciplinary process was critical in sorting out minor issues and that some managers were hindered in this process by a lack of confidence in applying informal strategies with BME staff. It was perceived that managers were more likely to discipline BME staff over insignificant matters and that disciplinary concerns involving staff from minority ethnic backgrounds were not always considered to have been dealt with fairly and equitably by human resources managers.”    

More recently we explored some of these issues again. Once a disciplinary investigation commences, it is very distressing for the member of staff concerned even if they are cleared of any allegation; it is very time-consuming for managers and HR; it can be demoralising for colleagues if they think the processes are unfair; and can run the risk of reinforcing blame, not a learning culture.  

Investigations can easily lead to “tunnel vision”, where the determination to find fault will inevitably eventually unearth some shortcoming, as it would with any member of staff. Bias is pervasive in workplace investigations, and this is especially true when the alleged “suspect” is of BME origin.

The data is good news for staff and patients

This different approach will not prevent the need, sometimes, for disciplinary investigations and sanctions. But the benefits are clear.

It is time to pay similar attention to identifying and implementing evidence based interventions to end race discrimination in NHS recruitment and career progression. That is surely the next big challenge for the NHS.

Less rhetoric, more practical action rooted in mitigating bias through accountability. That’s what research strongly suggests will work and it is good news that the revamped WRES team are focussed on that.

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Cash for kink: the online risky sexual behaviour by young women during COVID pandemic

Dr Elena Martellozzo and Paula Bradbury of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies examine the impact OnlyFans has had on young women during the coronavirus pandemic.

The existence of OnlyFans predates the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown of 2020, but its popularity and notoriety increased significantly over the last year. OnlyFans came to our attention through celebrity endorsements, other social media platforms, and apps. Notably, there was also the BBC Three documentary entitled Nudes4Sale.

This British investigative documentary revealed how thousands of people across the world – including celebrities, ordinary members of the public and, more concerningly, teenagers – are making a healthy profit from selling self-generated sexual content for cash through the platform OnlyFans. On OnlyFans you earn money by gaining member subscriptions and by generating content that people want to pay for. The girls featured in the documentary reported to be earning as much as £35,000 in a single month. We now know that potential earning figures go way beyond this.

A woman wearing a t-shirt looking at a laptop. Photo cropped so the woman's head is no visible

But these kinds of successes are unique, and only experienced by the few – leaving a significant number vulnerable to a darker side of OnlyFans, and the manipulative and predatory behaviours of individuals that operate within it.

With a fast-growing subscription of more than 200,000 new members every 24 hours, it’s easy to see how enthusiastic endorsements by the likes of Beyoncé and Cardi B make OnlyFans an attractive site for young women.

What the endorsements don’t show, though, is that OnlyFans is a fiercely competitive market where young women fall into a cycle: they are compelled to raise their game by sharing more and more of their bodies, and perform sexual acts requested by subscribers to maintain their interest, increase their popularity and earn more money.

The women in the Nudes4Sale documentary had all received messages from subscribers asking them to participate in offline sex acts. One of the girls interviewed in the documentary, Lauren, admitted that she received messages offering £5,000 for sex. While Lauren can afford to say no, many less successful young women – potentially young teenage girls – cannot. And so, they’re lured into danger with the promise of money.

And during a pandemic, having an income is more crucial than ever.

“It’s impossible to say precisely how lockdown is impacting our behaviour and what the side effects will be”, said Anne Marie Tomchak, in her recent piece in Glamour,  “but there are already indications that more nudes are being requested and sent during this time as people increase their digital interactions while staying at home, and OnlyFans reports a spike in activity.”

OnlyFans sparked a global media response to rising concerns of adolescent online risk-taking, and the legal ramifications of creating, distributing and possessing sexual images of a minor – laws which children themselves are no less impervious to.

A 2020 report published by the IWF revealed that they have identified a 44% increase (of all intercepted content) in the number of self-generated indecent images produced by children, of which the most prolific age group is girls between 11 and 13.

COVID-19 and child protection

The COVID-19 global pandemic has not only revealed our vulnerabilities to biological viral threats, but also to our ability to protect our children online.

In the midst of lockdown, COVID-19 has facilitated a greater opportunity for digital immersion. While the internet opens up a plethora of positive opportunities for individual growth and self-acceptance, there is also the potential for great harm to be caused against the most vulnerable in our communities; children and young people.

Immature cognitive development and reduced capacity to self-regulate has left children at risk from criminal accountability, sexual predators, and the dark side of the online sex industry (Naezer, 2018). With the easy opportunity to view pornography and violent content at the click of a button, there’s also the easy opportunity to produce it, and sell it to those with a sexual predilection in children (IWF, 2020).

In 2021, the online marketplace for sharing sexual images for cash is no longer dominated by the sex industry and adult sex workers. It is a phenomenon that goes beyond regulation, and is being dominated by teenagers as purveyors for their self-production of nude, semi-nude, on-demand kink images and videos for online clients.

Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said:  “We are concerned that there are risks to be associated with user-generated explicit abuse content sites, such as Only Fans, which are worthy of substantive academic focus. This relates to children being readily able to access inappropriate and sexually explicit content, both on the site itself but also as a result of user generated content being posted as ‘trailers’ to social networks.”

What can parents do?

We would encourage all parents to familiarise themselves with social media, particularly those platforms which are popular with young people. Don’t assume that your teen will not visit sites such as OnlyFans.

Parents need to be aware that social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are the most commonly used platforms for sex offenders to target and groom children, at a rate of 37% of recorded cases for Instagram alone (NSPCC, 2020).

Tiktok has aggressively responded to the high volume of Onlyfans members who prolifically use their platform to advertise links to their accounts and content by introducing stricter community guidelines, but as the authors have seen, a large volume falls beneath the radar which includes sexually explicit information about sex acts, fetishes and violence. Many Onlyfans members simply create a new account once removed.

If you discover that your child is actively engaging with such sites, don’t make them feel guilty. It’s not your child’s fault. Children often visit such sites through peer pressure, general curiosity or simply by accident. However, do prevent them from accessing it in future. It may not make you a popular parent, but it’s what needs to be done to keep your child safe, online and offline. We recommend the following:

  • If you don’t have a filter on your child’s laptop or home computer already, make sure you get one as soon as you can
  • Browse your teen’s tracking history. If you see OnlyFans on there, that’s a red flag
  • Scan your credit card for any charges that look like they may be from OnlyFans
  • If you suspect your teen has been on the site, have an honest discussion with them about online safety
  • Talk to your teen, in general, about the damaging effects of pornography
  • Make sure your child understands that they never know who they’re talking to online, and that by sharing personal information they’re putting themselves at risk.

Martellozzo et al (2020) found that stumbling across inappropriate content can have significant adverse impacts for children and young people. This includes distorting their view of sex and relationships, and potentially having a desensitising effect for some young people.

Online pornography is increasingly widely identified as an influence on children’s and young people’s sexual lives (Crabbe & Flood, 2021) . Whether we like or not, pornography is recognised as an important part of young people’s sexual socialisation and deserves to be addressed with young people. The existence of sites such as OnlyFans should be included in the discussions.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena, and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.

Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004), Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury is a Criminology Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher within the School of Law at Middlesex University, exploring the appropriateness of current policy and practice relating to adolescent sexual offending and sexual behaviour between peers. She is passionate about researching online sexual offending behaviour and child abuse.

Paula is an active member of the CATS team engaging in multiple research pathways to combat child sexual abuse both online and offline as a mixed methods researcher proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and project management. She is also the National Child Sexual Abuse Lead for Victim Support, serving as a project manager developing online support content for adult survivors or child sexual abuse. 

Twitter: @PB_Cybercrime