Thursday 28 November 2013

London Slaves, and a Slavish Press?


Deep apologies, but I can’t keep away from the London Slaves story. It seems that because Austria had women hidden in basements by an incestuous and brutal father, and Cleveland had abducted women in a suburban house chained to the wall by a sexual sadist, London did not want to be left out, and was ready to believe any story about women slaves. The story as it came out had some very odd characteristics from the very beginning. The account was that the women had seen a charity spokesperson on TV and then phoned them up. There were “negotiations” and then the women walked out of the house. This immediately revealed that the women in question had been allowed to watch television, had access to a phone, and were able to choose a time to walk out of the house. Despite these discrepant facts, much of the Press, TV and Police followed the slavery version of events, hook, line and sinker. Even the Home Secretary, Theresa May, talked about “slavery being all around us”. Slaves, slaves, slaves, everywhere.

Prof Graham Scambler at UCL has been studying the sociology of London prostitutes. He has interviewed them, and followed a chain of recommendations such that these sex working women confided in him about their lives. In a nutshell, his view is that the number of London prostitutes who are “trafficked” is very small. The archetypal prostitute is a part-time worker building up capital, sometimes studying for a degree, with a fairly clear game plan and in control of what she is doing. There are a minority for whom the whole thing is an act of rebellion. He feels his work has had no impact on the general press narrative that sex workers are trafficked.

Although the BBC went along with the slaves account, within about a week other parts of the press soon dug up the real story. This whole farrago was a bust up in a former Maoist cult, which had attracted some gullible and troubled followers, some of whom stayed on to the bitter end. It appears that they had put their trust in a charismatic braggard who then manipulated and abused them. It appears to be so. The couple have not told their side of the story yet. Indeed, the women who fled the house haven’t been interviewed by the Police yet. They have been waiting for experts to pronounce as to when this can be done. As previously discussed, the story should have been kept in the can till the evidence had been collected. Currently, the press has identified everyone in this disturbed household, and even shown their photos, without pixilation this time. We have family backgrounds for most of them: a couple in the leadership role, a Malaysian woman, and Northern Ireland woman, and the daughter of a former disciple who fell out of a window and died in 1997. There is a story coming out every day.

It appears that the “London Slaves” story could have been characterised as: “Bust up in loony left cult”. I am a bit new to the task of creating headlines, but others are “Maoist cult in new schism” and “Communist Extremists destroy themselves”. My own version would be: “Some vulnerable children reject their families and their comfortable backgrounds and fall for a more rebellious father figure, probably because of personality frailties and adolescent fantasies and vulnerabilities which we don’t yet understand fully”. As you can see, headline writing is still a new skill for me.

How good is our understanding of cult membership? Rejecting one’s family is, in one sense, part of growing up in the West. Children leave home at 18 and do their own thing, sort of. That is, they establish their own sex lives, and drinking lives, and thinking lives, but come back for support, love, fragments of advice, and sometimes money. At times of crisis they rush back, recoup, and then get the hell out again. London has an additional element, in that high property prices mean that children often come back from college for the early years of their career, until they have sufficient income and savings to establish their own households. In other parts of the world, living with your family is what you do much of the time. Three generations may share a house in Far Eastern societies. Western ways are different, and thereby hangs a tale. Family structures are a little looser. Jobs are got on merit, not on clan. No-one has to exert themselves finding a job for a cousin. Western children have to make their own way, in competition with citizens from all over the world. It does not mean that there are no family connections, simply that there are fewer strings pulled, and they are furtive, not a cultural requirement. A child can flourish, and a few can perish.

Some researchers have put forward the view that anyone can enter a cult, because they join organisations which have features that attract them, and then the organisation takes them over. I have difficulty with that purely contextual explanation, because the attrition rate for cult members is very high. Most members leave, once they work out the organisers are scoundrels, and want them for their money, their labour, or for sex. Look at any account of cults and you find many who drift away, with no more attachment than one commonly gives to a fitness class. Something entrances those who stay: a challenge, a sense of belonging, a thorough rejection of their former live that goes deeper than we can easily understand. There could be a prior vulnerabilities of a psychiatric sort, but the picture is not clear. Most cult leaders are men, and domination of one sort or another is a common feature. You already know the pattern: the leader has a story which explains how the evil forces have done whatever they are supposed to have done to you, and so a defence has to be organised, a safe church established, a retreat from the corruption/cruelty/vacuity of society, and together with other new trusted friends you build a new and better society. Then it begins to go wrong, and a culprit is found, and they are ejected. Then disciples begin to inform on each other, and the whole enterprise turns sour.

Note that the account I have given could also have a good outcome. You might form a religious cult, head West, find a good place to farm, and live happily ever after, being pleased to have escaped from England. Some cults become denominations, some denominations become churches, some churches become nations.

Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. Communism Doesn't Work (Again)

  2. The obvious cults that headed west seem to have done so out of frustration about their lack of success at imposing themselves on their countrymen. It's a pity that maoists didn't head east.

  3. As the story decomposes from "slavery" to "cult", without the principals having been interviewed, my guess is that it will further decompose into "authoritarian household". I agree that evidence-based reporting would be a good idea.

    1. It decomposed to "commune" before disappearing.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. The press response went from hysteria to indifference in two weeks. This is the only report of their trial I could find:

  4. What's up, Doc? Who has an incentive to present a loony-left story as a slavery story? It can't just be the press. Conspiracy or the customary cock-up by a police force whose reputation dwindles by the week?

  5. well yes, although "female slaves rescued from shocking nightmare" or some such similar nonsense makes for far better copy than "the People's Front of Brixton 's membership shrinks yet further". I think simple sensationalism explains the silliness surrounding this case better than conspiracy. It's quite interesting, however, that it neatly coincided with the passage of a thoroughly authoritarian Modern Slavery Bill that seems largely designed to crack down on the sex industry, under the guise of fighting largely (as you note) non-existent trafficking.

  6. Silliness is usually the explanation for silly stories, even outside the August silly season, but the speed with which a particular slanted interpretation was seized upon still surprises me.