Sunday, 24 November 2013

The invisible handcuffs

The headline word is 'slavery' and it's much in the news at the moment. The latest victims, three adult women who lived in an ordinary house in South London, but in such conditions of compulsion and exclusion from ordinary life that they were prisoners, is simply one of a growing list of dreadful examples. The full details of that case are not yet known, and may not be known for a long time. Not before the ladies concerned are ready to speak. You can imagine how difficult that will be for them.

Let's hope that the police, and the staff of whatever refuge they are now in, can successfully hold off all the news agencies hungry for a sensational story. But short of keeping these unfortunate women hidden in another kind of detention, albeit a benevolent one, I doubt if they will be able to. That section of the news industry which is forever seeking a 'public-interest story' will never let them be. And let's face it, this is a story that many members of the public will take an interest in, and would like to read about, and hope that enterprising reporters will find a way of getting at these ladies, or subverting their carers. The kind of folk who like to hear about sex slaves and bondage, and abuse generally. And not people whose high-minded mission in life is to put a stop to all kinds of exploitation, rehabilitate the victims, and lobby for appropriate punishments for the offenders.

It's a complex social problem made harder in this instance by the fact that the arrested parties are not British nationals, and there will be scope for anti-immigration zealots to point the finger. You know: this is what immigrants do; it's disgusting; let's stop it by deporting the whole lot. Except that it wouldn't stop. You shouldn't in any case export a problem that needs a solution here and now.

The notion that treating people like slaves is something that only foreigners stoop to is false. Anyone can do it. It just takes a dominating person with the skill and inclination to exploit a dependency. It may start with offering something that another person will care passionately about, and then, with that other person ensnared, exerting total control without conscience or scruple. An awful lot of situations fit into that framework.

For instance, the charismatic leader who establishes a colony of idealistic people who are willing to obey his instructions (it's most often a 'he'). Think of religious cults, whose founder and leader insists on obedience to a particular creed that he has invented. But it might equally be a politically-motivated movement. These situations involve a person or clique at the top, and idealistic adherents who are inspired to surrender their free will, conform to rules, and serve without thought of rebellion. There is a collective sense within the group that the outside world is insane and hostile. Each member of the special group becomes united with the rest against the outside, and made to feel that any personal initiative - however small or innocent - is deviant behaviour, a crime against the group, a flouting of the leader's stern wisdom, and therefore to be justly punished without concession or compromise. Constant pressure to listen and accept saps the will to do anything else. Thus free-thinking is made psychologically difficult, and organising an escape from such a situation may be impossible.

Any situation in which some kind of dependency develops might turn into a horrible nightmare for someone.

It's not hard to imagine ordinary homes where one family member calls the tune, and achieves complete ascendency over the others. Who has never known a couple who live unhappily together, one 'wearing the trousers' and telling the other what to do, what to think, and how to live their life? Just how do you really stand up to a relentless domestic bully who has a stranglehold on home, food, and comfort, and would be a vindictive enemy if ever crossed? How can you actually leave? Supposing you'd like to, but there's not just you in the household. There are others whom you care about, possibly even a pet, and the threat is there that if you show defiance, if you ever slip out and walk away from it all, then they will suffer. The same, if you go shopping and do not return. So that, in effect, they are are hostages for your obedience and good behaviour. I don't think it at all far-fetched to suppose that all over the country there are households in which, over the years, a heavy-handed master-servant relationship has developed. And that some of these relationships will become so uncaring and exploitative that it amounts to life-destroying slavery.

I am not at all surprised to hear about these appalling stories of control and degradation. And I don't think it's a problem for cities only, or a problem confined to a specific age-group or ethnic origin. Nor a thing of the past, unthinkable in a modern society. I think it is simply the dark side of human nature, a constant tendency to cruel and outrageous behaviour, unquellable, always likely to get out of hand. It needs to be countered with awareness, alertness, recognition, and a willingness to challenge and report. We all need to be social workers.


  1. There is so much sin in the world......wonder why?

    Shirley Anne x

  2. The techniques of coercion are many and not all are overt.
    Some bullying is subtle with no need for implied violence. No one is ever arrested for playing mind-games; that effectively hold others hostage and force them to live their lives in shame or its friend resentment. Those handcuffs are quite real, and yes quite invisible.
    Sadly, no one suggests that sort of manipulation is sinful.


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