Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Sexual double standards are not the preserve of conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

I'm quite willing to believe that "cultural attitudes" underlay the apparent belief of members of the Asian criminal gang that young white girls, many of whom were or had been in care, were "easy meat" for their predatory sexual behaviour.

After all, such cultural attitudes are hardly confined to those with family connections in Pakistan.  They even seem to have been prevalent at the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided back in 2008 that a girl who had come forward to describe being raped would not make a credible witness.  If traditionally-minded Asians are indeed liable to believe that  children like her are of less account than their own overprotected daughters it must be asked how they came by such ideas.  Perhaps they have been reading the Daily Mail's frequent and lurid accounts of the Hogarthian decadence with which a high proportion of this nation's teenage girls supposedly conduct themselves.

A Guardian editorial yesterday helpfully explained that "the force that shaped it [the sexual abuse] was not the ethnicity of the abusers but the poor, chaotic family lives of the victims."  Thus was the blame seemlessly (and perhaps unconsciously) transferred from the perpetrators. Poor and chaotic family lives may have rendered the victims vulnerable to the blandishments of these criminal gangs but it does not explain why they were raped. The only force that shaped the abuse was the behaviour of the abusers.

And it didn't take long, last night, for the BBC's "flagship" Question Time to degenerate into a veritable orgy of slut-shaming. Peter Oborne, a Telegraph journalist who has written extensively against Islamophobia, was the worst offender.  "What does it tell us about what's happened to our society," he wondered, "that we have 12 year old girls, 13 year old girls, who are happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone?" He later elaborated that the girls had shown themselves "ready to surrender their innocence for a bag of crisps".  

The implication is clear: the problem is with young girls, well below the age of consent, who (allegedly willingly) "surrender their innocence", rather than with the men who take. "Society" is to blame for allowing this to happen. The perpetrators, presumably, just couldn't help themselves, like children in a sweetshop. And Oborne's language of "beauty" and "innocence", with its nauseating fetishisation of female purity, seemed to embody precisely those "cultural attitudes" towards women that are assumed to characterise conservative Muslim communities. 

A man in the audience who appeared to be a bishop then chipped in with the suggestion that 13 year-old girls "go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place".  He later withdrew the obvious imputation that they were "asking for it", but it's striking how naturally the thought had come to his mind. As it came to the mind of Caroline Spelman that the solution lay in giving girls (it's always girls, isn't it?) "the right values... to keep themselves safe."

It would be naive to suppose that many of the girls who found themselves at the mercy of these gangs didn't already have "issues".  A high proportion came from broken homes and had been in the care system.  It's undeniable that such children are more likely than average to become involved in crime or drugs, to become pregnant at an early age, to end up homeless or engaged in street prostitution.  But that only makes it more important not to make them complicit in their own degradation.

It's not so many years ago that it was standard practice for underage prostitutes to be regarded by the police and justice system as criminals rather than as victims.  It's only a couple of weeks ago that a rape victim was named on Twitter by fans of the footballer convicted of assaulting her.  The charge being levelled against her, effectively, was one of having "loose morals".  No-one invoked the alien "cultural norms" of football supporters to explain such attitudes, as did David Starkey in response to the Asian grooming gangs, or saw it as evidence that the education system had failed adequately to convey the "history of feminism" in these islands.  

The trial that ended this week in Liverpool was not the first, and won't be the last, to feature predominantly Pakistani-British gangs preying sexually upon mainly white girls from troubled backgrounds.  There are, no doubt, special features at work in these cases: two that spring to mind are the sexual frustration experienced by young men from strict, patriarchal families and the "biraderi" system of male mutual support which might easily be debased into one of passing around young girls for sex.  But the sexual double standards, the valuation of women based on their actual or presumed availability, the writing off of girls from difficult backgrounds as "white trash": such attitudes are far from being the preserve of those from conservatively-minded ethnic minorities.

BNP members protest outside Liverpool Crown Court, 9 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State