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Savile: Denialism and the "grooming the nation" delusion

The myth that Savile "groomed the nation" is pure denialism - pretending that the problem isn’t about us but some other group.

The gates to BBC Television Centre
To blame the BBC is to pretend this is a problem for "some other group", not us. Photograph: Getty Images

There’s a horrible myth about Savile, and though it changes depending on the person you speak to, the damaging substance of it remains the same. It is the myth that some clearly delineated group bears responsibility for Jimmy Savile, perhaps the BBC if you lean right, or some vague "establishment" if you’re on the left. It is the myth that the public were helpless bystanders in the relentless fifty-year tragedy of Savile’s celebrity life. It is the myth of our victimhood, and it is the warm blanket we curl under for comfort because we don’t want to see the cold, dark reality that surrounds us.

One of the most unsettling things about the whole affair is that we can watch so much of it on Youtube. Savile’s behaviour toward young women wasn’t just confined to sleazy bedrooms. It happened in studios, in front of audiences and directors. It was recorded by cameramen and beamed into millions of homes across Britain, where people watched it, saw nothing untoward, and got up to make a cup of tea. On the evidence of his TV appearances alone, Savile should have been about as welcome in a children’s ward as an IUD in a penis. And yet there he was.

On page six of the Yewtree Report (pdf), the authors remark that, “It is now clear that Savile was hiding in plain sight.” An alternative phrasing might be that everybody was watching, and nobody did anything. “For a variety of reasons the vast majority of his victims did not feel they could speak out, and it’s apparent that some of the small number who did had their accounts dismissed by those in authority including parents and carers.” That’s okay though, because this all happened back in the Seventies, and things were different then. The police weren’t as capable, and attitudes have moved on. Times have changed, and Savile was a product of his era: he couldn’t do what he did today.  

Except that he did. Reports of offences at Leeds General Infirmary continue to 1995. At the BBC, they stretch to as recently as 2006, and the most recent allegation dates to 2009. Age and diminishing opportunities may have reduced the rate of his offending, but he was still apparently able to get away with it. That shouldn’t surprise us at all, because so do tens of thousands of others, every single year. The sum of Savile’s crimes is barely even significant against the number of similar cases that will have occurred in 2013 so far. Why? Because we continue to allow a rape culture to exist, a culture that enables – and at times encourages - sexual violence against women and children.

In the last year alone I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of female friends and acquaintances who were sexually harassed or assaulted. Few speak out publicly; fearing that doing so will cause trouble and make their lives worse. In virtually every case their experiences remain private, and the perpetrators remain at large. I’m utterly sick of it, of seeing it happen and being unable to do a thing to protect people I care about. And it’s relentless, as shown by an utterly heart-wrenching blog post by Louise Jones last week, in which the young writer describes in brutal detail no less than four sexual assaults she had experienced.

What happened to Louise, and to so many of my friends, happens to 400,000 women in Britain each year. I can’t even imagine that many people. If you typed all those names out, one every two seconds, it would take five-and-a-half working weeks of eight hour days to get through them all, and by the time you finished there would be another forty-odd thousand names to add to your Sisyphean list.

The reality is that sexual violence, in its broadest sense, is so blatant and widespread in Britain that mainstream media can openly take part in it without anyone raising an eyelid. In 2012, Prince Harry, the Duchess of Cambridge and the actress Anne Hathaway were all victims of deeply grim acts, in which sexually explicit photographs were leaked without their consent, and sold to editors who gleefully paid for them and published them, taunting their victims in the process. There was no possible public interest at work – there are very few reasons we need to see Prince Harry’s cock short of the presence of a swastika tattoo.  

The Sunday Sport were forced to print a grovelling apology last year after publishing an "upskirt" photograph wrongly identified as Holly Willoughby, but to my knowledge nobody asked who the women pictured was, or asked to see signed consent forms. If I took upskirt photographs of women without their consent I would expect to be arrested; yet grimy little perverts with telephoto lenses are free to do this, newspapers are apparently free to publish the results, and the public buy copies by the 100,000.

Few would call these episodes rape, but it was something uncomfortably similar, with the same dynamic at work – the wanton use of power over women and men for no reason other than to force them to reveal their bodies to leering gangs of men and women.

And our reaction to all this? We tell women to cover up, to stop drinking, to stay indoors at night, to withdraw from the world, to “stay home, keep their legs closed and their eyes lowered”. We continue to say this even though the evidence we have tells us that this advice is complete and utter horseshit. Most victims of sexual assault aren’t attacked by horny strangers in alleyways while wearing skimpy clothing: the crime takes place whatever they wear, it is premeditated, it is perpetrated by somebody they know, it is an act of physical violence and domination rather than lust, often in a "safe" place, often in their own home.

That is why the myth that Jimmy Savile “groomed the nation” is so wrong, and so damaging. It is pure denialism, pretending that the problem isn’t about us but some other group – the BBC, the establishment, whoever. Just like the misguided cartoon in Private Eye’s latest edition which describes "gang-rape style" as the product of "medieval misogyny and third-world lawlessness". Just as rape myths try to put at least some of the blame for rape on victims, pretending that "improving" the behaviour of women would make a blind bit of difference to the 400,000.

But this isn’t about people from "third-world" cultures or medieval times, it isn’t about the BBC or celebrity culture, and it isn’t about women needing to change their behaviour. It’s about men, in twenty-first century Britain, who keep assaulting and raping women on an industrial scale, and it’s about the society that raises those men to do it, but still won't take responsibility for the consequences.

Day after day, night after night, on trains and in buses, our colleagues, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and lovers, half of the people we care about in the world, are under attack. And we the public sit, and we stare, and we do nothing but tell ourselves over and over again that it isn’t really about us.