What actresses eat, Herman's gaffes and why I’m turning into Batman

My column from the latest <em>New Statesman</em> magazine.

Feminism has been such a success that I seldom have cause to think about why it's so necessary. Sure, there is the occasional reminder - it was the 61st Miss World in London on 6 November, because women's opinions are much more interesting if they're wearing an evening gown - but I have a job, a vote and the choice of when and if to have children. I'm part of the luckiest generation of British women ever to have lived.

In the past few days, however, I've had a pretty revealing glimpse of a place where casual sexism and just plain woman-hating still exists: internet comment threads. On 3 November, I published a post on the New Statesman website in which nine female bloggers described the kind of threats they routinely face in comments and emails, and on other websites.

Every flavour of low-grade yuckiness was there - you're ugly, you're fat, no man would want you, no one cares what you think - but there was also a large slice of something much more sinister. The feminist activist Kate Smurthwaite was told that someone should rip her tongue out "of her suckhole". Cath Elliott, a freelance writer, was told she was "too ugly to rape". The London Evening Standard columnist Rosamund Urwin heard that she deserved to have her fingers cut off. And, in a catalogue of threats of sexual violence, Caroline Farrow, a religious blogger and former vicar's wife, said she was often informed that "people would deign to have sex with me either out of pity or to teach me a lesson". Occasionally, writers reported receiving emails with their personal details included, or photos taken from Facebook.

The blog post had a huge response, with dozens of women getting in touch to say they had faced much the same kind of comments - and dozens of men saying they had no idea the problem was so widespread. My worry is that such relentless, remorseless abuse is discouraging a generation of women from writing on the web. One established female columnist agreed that she might have given up early in her career, had she faced similar abuse.

It's nice that people are talking about this, but what next? I hope that all the women who had been suffering in silence now realise they aren't alone. I hope website bosses will ask themselves if they want to host this stuff. And I hope that the police will take such threats more seriously. Petra Davis, who used to blog about sex, told me: "When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material." Oh, and on a personal note, I wish that any man who thinks we're all whining little flowers would post an article under a female pseudonym. It would be an education.

Share alike

There is one subject on which my opinion sharply diverges from that of my editor. It's Twitter, which he worries is eroding our attention spans, but which I love unequivocally (admittedly, I was never that good at concentrating to start with). One of the reasons that the blog I wrote gathered such attention was that it was shared on the microblogging site by a host of people - journalists, celebrity tweeters, activists. Since then I've heard from women (and men) as far away as Australia and the US.

Twitter, unlike many internet forums, has a culture of using your real identity, and is therefore much more civil than the online badlands. Is it too much to suggest that all internet comments must be made under your real name?

Not eating Bree

There's a fascinating phrase in the Hollywood publicist's lexicon: DIPE, or "documented instances of public eating". It involves getting whippet-thin actresses who normally get by on smelling a celery stick to order cheeseburgers, gallons of Coke and two slices of chocolate cake when they're interviewed by journalists. The resulting article then breathlessly reports this, noting their "naturally fast metabolism".

It stands to reason that not every actress or model can have such miraculous biochemistry, and every so often someone gives the game away. In 2008, Desperate Housewives' Marcia Cross blurted: "Not eating is a constant struggle. It's like they pay me not to eat. It's a living hell." Now, a Victoria's Secret lingerie "Angel", Adriana Lima, has revealed the astounding discipline needed for a career prancing around in skimpies: twice-daily workouts for three weeks before a show and no solids - just protein shakes - for nine days. Lima says that she normally drinks a gallon of water a day, but 12 hours before going on the catwalk, she will stop entirely: "so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that". One fashion editor describes the regime as being like that of a long-distance runner, although I imagine they're allowed to eat solids.

Pizza his mind

Who could fail to be fascinated by Herman Cain, the pizza impresario-turned-Republican presidential front-runner? Allegations of sexual harassment could yet derail him but until now he's been unstoppable in spite of a string of gaffes, including the suggestion the Chinese have "indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capabilities" (indeed they did, Herman: in the 1960s). My favourite Cain utterance was when he was asked how he would deal with the kind of "gotcha" questions that stumped Sarah Palin. Simple, said Cain: "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know?" You can't argue with that. I have a terrifying feeling that the US has found its own Boris Johnson.

Batman and Susan

In between playing Batman: Arkham City on my XBox 360, I note that Susan Greenfield, the baroness, neuroscientist and former head of the Royal Institution, has been talking about video games. Having earlier ascertained, apparently without the need for pesky peer-reviewed research, that Facebook is melting children's brains, she also believes that games could lead players to "lose their identities".

I'd like to give you my thoughts on whether that is likely - and whether it's advisable for scientists to float unsupported ideas from a position of authority - but I'm afraid I've got to save Gotham City from the Joker.

You can follow Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.