The importance of stigma

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

Exciting news from Durham University, which is helping its students to become ‘sex workers’. This noble institution is offering two courses in the various forms of harlotry. My only concern is that at present they do not actually offer an academic qualification in these subjects — at the very least an undergraduate degree in, say, Practical Whoring. Perhaps followed by an MA in Deconstructing the Topless Hand-Shandy1897-1913. Such courses would probably result in more lucrative career opportunities than many of the more traditional subjects which students pay through the nose to study. I am attending a dinner at Durham University next month and fervently hope that some of the ambitious young ladies on these courses will be in attendance.

The university has reacted to the inevitably outraged press coverage by insisting that it is not encouraging students to enter the sex industry, merely helping them to do so more safely. I would therefore expect similar courses are in the pipeline — on how to shoplift safely, for example. The university authorities have also said that they wish to ‘destigmatise’ those people they call sex workers. It is my contention that prostitutes, rent boys, escort girls and so on are stigmatised because their trade is filthy, immoral, exploitative, illegal and spiritually demeaning for everyone involved. I think it would be useful, then, for us as a society to continue to stigmatise whoring and suspect that for most normal people that stigma will not abate, as the university for some reason wishes.

A good thing too. Very little annoys left-liberals more than stigma occasioned by judgmental morality (what other kind of morality is there?). So for the past 40 or 50 years those busy little monkeys in the fields of sociology, psychology and politics have been attacking stigma with machetes wherever they can find it; almost always to our general detriment.

Most obviously, the stigma once associated with divorce has been all but expunged, and the consequence is that we have much, much more divorce, with all the anguish, bitterness and economic deprivation which almost always follows, not to mention the huge damage inflicted on the children. Similarly there is no longer a stigma attendant upon ‘living in sin’, and so people do it with happiness and impunity and would think it hilarious that anybody should cavil.

And yet in the case of both divorce and unmarried parents, the stigma — devolved from Christian teaching — existed primarily to protect the children. And now that protection has gone. Children born to unmarried cohabitees are likely to see their parents separate much earlier than if they had been married, and separation damages a child’s education and future life chances.

For decades we have been lectured about the need to remove the stigma from single parenthood and so we have many, many more single parents, at enormous cost to the taxpayer. Every longitudinal study I have seen — by which I mean studies which examine actual outcomes — shows that children brought up by a lone parent tend to get worse grades in school, are more prone to addiction, far less likely to secure high-earning occupations and rather more likely to end up in prison or with serious mental health issues. The stigma against single parent-hood, in other words, was beneficial to our society and potent in dissuading the young from making that particular life choice.

Then there is mental illness. Once again we are warned not to stigmatise people who are a bit doolally and certainly not refer to them as a bit doolally. The grammar of mental illness is now very rigorously policed. The result has been a veritable explosion in mental health afflictions, especially within schools which now consider themselves, rather than the parents, the guardians of each student’s mental health. In a sense, some over-diagnosed conditions, including stress, anxiety and depression, have become desirable afflictions for young teenagers, marking them out as being ‘exceptional’, much as is being pansexual or wishing to transition. Except it isn’t exceptional any more; it has almost become the norm.

We have also been instructed not to attach stigma to more serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia. Being scared of a schizophrenic, we are told, is simply wrong. The academic Dr Peter Morrall addressed this issue in a paper written in 2002, entitled ‘Madness, Murder and Media’: ‘I argue here that the media is not simply engaging in yet another a “moral panic” by highlighting “mad murders”, but reflecting justifiable anxiety about the perceived danger from mentally disordered people in the community and the apparent ineptitude of mental health services and personnel.’

The most recent — and most ludicrous — manifestation of stigma-banning is of course ‘fat-shaming’ or ‘body-shaming’: a dreadful thing which we should never, ever do. The state of being a sweating, wheezing, gargantuan lard-bucket, you see, is not a question of personal irresponsibility and thus a matter for guilt and shame; that weightiness has been imposed on the individual by nameless external agents.

As a consequence, 40 per cent of kids in London and more than 36 per cent of British adults are classified as overweight. The reason they are overweight is that they eat too much and get too little exercise. It is the individual’s fault, not the fault of multinational food companies or — even more ridiculously — poverty. I wonder what the rate of obesity would be if there was a bit more vindictive and pointed fat-shaming around?

What Durham University and the rest of them get wrong is that stigma is not arbitrary, but a function of social cohesiveness. It works.

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