The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “alcohol”

Living in the real world

I worry about the society we live in, the world we live in.  I’m currently reading about wilful blindness (blog/book review to follow another day) and it seems such a pertinent explanation for so much of what I see going on around me.

The illness age

We live in an age where increasingly we see the medicalisation of everything.  For example, can there be such a thing as an obesity epidemic?  The word ‘epidemic’ implies a medical illness or condition but is obesity itself an illness?  Might crisis not be a better word?  The medical model terminology can be seen increasingly applied to refer to other ‘problems’ such as alcohol dependency (eg reports on the recent tragic death of Charles Kennedy).  This is a relatively new trend in terminology but is it right?  Drugs, alcohol, food (especially fats and sugars), cigarettes, they all have addictive qualities.  So do a whole range of other things from adrenaline fuelled exercise to video gaming.  Are they illnesses?  I don’t think so, not in the traditional sense of discrete illnesses such as cancer, or diabetes, etc.  The danger in defining obesity and addictions as discrete illnesses is the effect that has on the approach to treatment, rather than trying to effect change.  It’s way more complicated than that.

We are learning more and more about how the brain functions and it seems that the problems, at an individual human level, stem from the way in which the brain works.  The brain is fundamentally lazy.  It likes to take the easy way out.  It likes repetition.  It likes habit.  In the very old days, these repetitions, going for the familiar and safe options, were life-saving and sustaining for primitive communities.  But its this very protective mechanism that makes giving up smoking so hard – if you normally light up after a meal the amygdala in the brain sends out signals to keep doing so immediately after every meal.  Next thing you know you have a lit cigarette in your hand.  The brain doesn’t like discomfort; it doesn’t like those painful thoughts.  Alcohol, drugs and even video games are a great way to block out painful thoughts and harsh reality.  Good for the brain’s comfort zone.  We think of these as emotional or mental health problems to start with but then there are the physical effects.  Just like other drugs, sugar floods the body with immediate ‘highs’, new energy, and feel good factors.

We know all these things (and too many more to mention here).  So why don’t we do something about all the crises we are facing in society?  A suggested answer is that we live in a society that is sick with the effects of greed.  Capitalism and the consumerism needed to keep it going are fuelled by greed and power.  Governments are influenced by the needs of big business.  Corporations are managed on the concept of financial growth.  Being a shareholder is an attractive way of earning money without working for it, there is a growth in pyramid selling (we don’t call it that any more but it still works the same way – I sell you something and get a little commission, get you to sell it to more people and get a little commission from every sale you make, and so it goes on, an easy way to make money, but only really if you are an early adopter).

Wake up calls

All those ‘illnesses’, from obesity to alcohol, drug and cigarette dependency, are fuelled by the values of a society that puts profit before people, that puts puts rights and freedom over support and protection.  But so many of those rights and freedoms are built on lies – compare how the cigarette companies knew for years about the cancer risks of smoking but concealed and denied the evidence.  The New Statesman brought out a book in the early 1980’s about the danger of sugar in the diet (Swallow It Whole by Hannah Wright) but it is only now, more than 30 years later, the message is getting louder.

Taking a line from The Matrix “you know there’s something wrong with the world”, a short True Activist video tells us to wake up.  It’s only one of an increasing tide of cries to pay attention, to put the iPhone down and look at the people and world around us, but I like this one because it’s not just about environmentalist issues, health issues, poverty issues.  It’s generic and it’s generically we need to wake up.  We need to pass up on the willful blindness.  Social work academics have been crying out against managerialism for years, but social workers have accused academics of living in ivory towers instead of the real world.  I did.

There have always been voices telling us to wake up.  George Orwell’s Animal Farm was always seen as a critique of communism, but it’s message can be applied equally to today’s effects of consumerism.  His 1984 Big Brother warning is increasingly ringing true in ways he could hardly have imagined.

Social workers are on the front line of dealing with the social crises that face our societies – obesity, poverty, the impact of welfare benefits sanctions, to name just a few.  David Cameron has called for there to be more use of social work skills and less theory.  But what are skills unless they are underpinned by knowledge (and experience)?  The College of Social Work is being closed.  The GSCC was closed in favour of Health registration through the HCPC.  Politically social work has been subsumed into education. The professional standing of social work has been subject to duplicitous moves – the introduction of the social work degree is now being undermined by threats to the university teaching of social work.

The academics’ cries for the re-politicisation of social work have been getting louder – or is it that only that I am noticing it more.  But as we face more austerity, more cuts to the vulnerable, more pressure on the bottom to support the top, I am seeing signs that the tide is turning.  Social workers are beginning to stand up and be counted.  We as a society may have just voted for another five years of Tory austerity (but that was perhaps more to do with lack of confidence in Labour’s ability to do any better) but more voices are clamouring to be heard in the face of society’s health and social crises.  If we each, one by one, try to speak up, to make a difference in our society, not just our individual work, the effect will be cumulative.   We can but try, the alternative is unthinkable.

Confusion all round?

I got some stick a couple of months back around some conversations I had relating to the change.org campaign to have removed from the internet a poster from the 2007 NHS Know Your Limits campaign designed to raise awareness of the risks of alcohol.  The poster in question states that one in three reported rapes happen when the victim is drunk.  Change.org’s objection to the poster was that it perpetuated the ‘victim blaming’ culture in our society today.  I saw the poster as the NHS trying to give the message that we should take more responsibility around our actions and especially around our use of alcohol, rather than blaming the victim.  I said so in a blog (linked below) entitled Know Your Responsibilities.

But the conversations I had at the time (I was accused of trotting out all the usual excuses, that still blame the victim) led me to ask myself some questions: had I got it wrong, was I a part of perpetuating the victim blaming culture?  Since then I’ve gone out of my way to consider the issue again, I’ve followed various news reports where accusations of victim blaming have been made.

One of the most recent in the news is the case of Archie Reed (20) who went out on a drinking night out with his friend, who happened to be female.  They were both 19 at the time.  They both got very drunk, he missed the train home and she offered to let him stay at her place overnight.  Of that we can be reasonably sure.  CCTV showed them holding hands and hugging.  Other aspects of evidence can only be known to the individuals involved.  Did he offer to sleep on the floor and she insist they slept together in her single bed?  Did she rub herself provocatively against him in bed?  Did he take off her pyjama bottoms while she was asleep? It’s her word against his.  Whatever, he admitted making sexual advances towards her having ‘misread the signs’ of her kissing him and inviting him to sleep in her bed and stopped when he realised his mistake.  He had sexually assaulted her without her express permission to have sex.

The reporting of this case got messed up with the fact that he was an ex-public schoolboy and mishandling of the prosecution and presentation of evidence by the CPS, the latter causing the judge to order the jury to acquit him of rape.

In the middle of all this Drinkaware published research (by ICM) that found a third of young women had been sexually molested during a night out drinking and that a fifth had been unsurprised by it.  One in ten young men had had to deal with some kind of unwelcomed sexual attention.  Two thirds of young women said unwanted sexual attention spoils a good night out, 69% felt disgust, 56% felt anger, 39% felt fear.  That’s a lot of emotional fallout from an apparently good night out.

Two quotes worth repeating here: Retired judge Mary Jane Mowat (66) said it is not right to rape or take advantage of a drunken woman, but also anticipated criticism when she said that ‘rape conviction statistics will not improve until young women stop getting so drunk’.  Daily Mail columnist, Amanda Platell (57), stated “young women must start establishing clear boundaries – and that means realising drunkenly kissing, hugging and inviting a man into your bed might be misinterpreted as an invitation to sex”.

I can’t help thinking their views are less about victim blaming than about generational differences.  Like me, those women would have grown up in a generation when sex outside marriage was still considered risque, when a young woman inviting a young man to sleep in her bed with her really was an invitation to have sex.  Back then young people got drunk at the weekends but not to the extent of the ‘drinking culture’ today.  Back then if a young woman was found to be pregnant outside of marriage both got the blame and were expected to take responsibility for the consequences.  Which brings me back to my original blog – Know Your Responsibilities.

It’s human nature.  Young men DO want sex.  Young women WILL give out mixed signals.  Young men WILL read the signals according to their map of the world (“I want sex”).  Throw in some alcohol and the confusion escalates.  We DO live in a culture that promotes women as sexual beings, even more than ever before.  Young women WILL be traumatised by unwelcomed sexual acts that may well affect them for the rest of their lives – they were in the youth of Mary Mowat and Amanda Platell, and their mothers and grandmothers and generations of women before them.  Young men WILL be accused of making inappropriate sexual advances and their lives will be disrupted and possibly altered forever by those accusations.

We DON’T live in a fair society.  We DO live in a society that expects rights.  We DON’T live in a society that accepts responsibility.  But that’s what it needs.  Men and women are both victims of the rise in the social drinking culture that is prevalent today.  I will go one step further than Mowat and Platell: both young women and young men should take more responsibility to protect themselves from their own vulnerabilities.  And if that means saying that the culture around drinking and alcohol are to blame then that is the message that should be promoted.

And then we can get on with dealing with the problem of the objectification of women in the media and so many spheres of society.

 

The Meandering Social Worker

The old 2006 UK NHS Know Your Limits Campaign to raise awareness of the risks of drinking (alcohol) is popping up in emails and social media news-feeds again thanks to a petition started by change.org to get one particular campaign poster removed in all its formats.  The offending poster is the one that states that one in three reported rapes happen when the victim is drunk.  The objection to this poster is that it implies that rape is therefore the fault of the victim and not consistent with more recent NHS advice that “a sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator”.  Among those supporting the campaign is the NUS (National Union of Students) who state that the “only way to stop rapes is to stop rapists”.

I remember the original NHS campaign: it was designed to shock and the rape poster was just one of many shocking adverts…

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Don’t just blame the boys

Hot on the heels of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber the boys of One Direction have hit the headlines with shocking tales of smoking drugs, adult relationships and erotic pictures, and using the ‘n-word’, chased by a phalanx of angry parents wanting to protect the innocence of their ‘tweenagers’ and crying that with all the wealth that comes from their fame and popularity should come responsibility. The same cries that went up about Miley and Justin.

But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Are the boys to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans? Dare I answer both yes and no to both parts of that question?

In 2010 they were fresh faced teenagers at the start of a meteoric career in the entertainment industry. I find it hard to believe that none of them had experimented or come into contact with, or at least thought about, smoking, drinking, drugs or sex by that age, as innocent as they looked on X-Factor. It’s not for nothing fathers of teenage girls fear teenage boys, remembering their own youthful obsessions and intentions.

But four years have passed and today these boys have turned into young men in their early 20’s. Developmentally they are coming to the end of their adolescent years: years we know are about experimentation, breaking away from parental controls, testing new ideas and finding what will become your own adult identity. The influences that caused them and their peers to think about or try drugs, alcohol, smoking and sex four years ago have not gone away. At their age a proportion of their peers will be at university themselves experimenting with relationships, alcohol and drugs to varying degrees. The only difference is that the boys of One Direction have a lot more money to indulge in these activities than their peers.

Like it or not, their behaviour is within the bounds of normal for their age. That’s not to let them off the hook regarding their behaviour. It would be nice to think that in return for the fame and adulation, not to mention the money, they have received the boys of One Direction would feel a sense of responsibility towards their young fans. But although one of the learning curves in adolescence and early adulthood is in making decisions and taking responsibility for your choices, to be aware of the impact of your actions in the wider world, it’s a lesson that’s usually learned by experimentation and making mistakes!

I can fully appreciate the concerns of parents on the influences on their young children, their role is after all to protect and nurture these young lives. But is it realistic to throw all the blame at the boys of One Direction for being a bad influence?

Take a moment instead to look at how five hormonally and developmentally normal young men in their early 20’s have found themselves living in a time warp that presents them to the world as if they were still slightly naive 16 or 17 year olds.

What about the responsibility of the image makers behind stars such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber and One Direction, artificially presenting young adults in an unnatural way. They take fresh faced youngsters, vulnerable in their youth, enthusiasm and idealism, and straightjacket them in the appearance of delayed development because it makes more money for everyone. And they have been doing it is as long as at least the history of movies: Shirley Temple and Judy Garland from the pre-war years, the Disney girls Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus alongside other child stars such as Macaulay Culkin, who is still referred to as a “former child star” at the age of 33. But the pop music industry has not been immune either. I personally recall my teenage discovery that the squeaky-clean non-smoking members of the 1970’s band “The Sweet” were smoking and taking drugs. It was an early lesson as I realised their whole image had been a media creation; including their music which was chosen for its commercial properties designed to draw the pounds from the pockets of their teen fan base rather than the “heavy metal” they reverted to when their earlier contract ended. The parents of today’s “tweenagers” no doubt have their own memories of bands or singers whose real lives behind the scenes turned out different to the media spin. There’s no reason to think it will be any different today.

So, are the boys of One Direction to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans?

They are doing a job (entertainment) and they get well paid for it. They have a responsibility to do that job well and ‘earn’ their income. They have a responsibility to themselves to complete their normal development, grow up and take care of themselves.

Ideally they should have some thought for their young fans but there are many others they share that responsibility with: the lion’s share of responsibility and the blame for misleading the public should go to the management companies behind the bands, the ones who decide on the public image and promote it. Their decisions affect first the vulnerable young starlets who have a talent and are dazzled by the prospect of fame, tying them into contracts at a time in their lives when they should be breaking free and developing their own identity. They know their young starlets will ‘grow up’ and that the straightjacket can’t last. It’s happened so many times before that they already know that the young fans will be disappointed and hurt when the truth cracks through the media spin (aka lies). The high income may be relatively short term, four years so far in the case of One Direction, but it must be worth it. They know that One Direction (and others) will get over this: maybe they will apologise enough to seem contrite and keep the machine turning perhaps with a more grown up audience, maybe they’ll split and go on to separate careers. Either way, the public will forget and move on to love the next squeaky clean star(s) they are presented with. Which leads to the final area of responsibility.

As members of the public and parents we also have a responsibility for the young fans. Cyrus, Bieber and One Direction are not a modern phenomenon. But as a society we have short memories and don’t seem to learn the lessons; each time another young star breaks free of the commercially profitable straightjacket many react with shock and horror as if we too believed the media image. We should know better. And we should be telling those behind the deceit that their practices are unacceptable.

References

Further information on all the stars mentioned can be easily found with a simple internet search. Similarly there is also plenty of evidence online regarding brain development in late teens and early twenties, some of which can be found in the following links:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2012/08/29/the-neuroscience-of-twenty-somethings/
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390443713704577601532208760746?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10000872396390443713704577601532208760746.html
http://www.edinformatics.com/news/teenage_brains.htm
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110922134617.htm

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