Stuart Hall, who was accused of rape and pled guilty to indecent assault, receiving his MBE in 2012. Photo: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on sexual violence: This is not the "persecution of old men". This is the prosecution of rapists, and we should applaud it

It’s not just about Jimmy Savile, or Stuart Hall, or the BBC, or the Socialist Workers’ Party, or two American high-schoolers crying in court, or three young women chained in a basement in Ohio, or one dead girl in a hospital in Delhi. After too long, pe

There’s nothing more embarrassing than watching bigotry flopping around trying to save itself while the tide of history retreats down the beach. Yet another week has passed in which high-profile politicians and entertainers are all over the papers being fingered for rape and sexual violence.

One of the victims of Stuart Hall, who had a long record of assaulting teenage girls, told ITN how Hall attacked her at the hotel where she worked: “He grabbed hold of me and he started kissing me and then he tried to force himself on me. I struggled, I tried to push him away, and it was only the fact that there was someone walking along the corridor . . . that he stopped and I managed to get away.” Some people are asking, with an air of annoyance, as if they were tired of all the fuss: how many more revelations will there be

The question is chillingly rhetorical. We know, really, that the answer is many, many more. This isn’t just about ten, or forty or a hundred dodgy individuals. We have moved beyond the point where we can decently speak about outliers when it comes to systemic tolerance of sexual violence. It’s not just about Jimmy Savile, or Stuart Hall, or the BBC, or the Socialist Workers’ Party, or two American high-schoolers crying in court, or three young women chained in a basement in Ohio, or one dead girl in a hospital in Delhi. Over the past year, an enormous, global cultural shift has begun to take place around issues of consent, rape and violence against women, and it’s a cultural shift for which our institutions are clearly vastly underprepared. 

Some members of those institutions have responded with panicked self-justification. We didn’t know, we thought it was allowed, we weren’t there, we  didn’t see, they’re all lying sluts anyway and they should stop whinging and playing the victim. Take lawyer Barbara Hewson, who claimed in Spiked that the real problem is that child protection agencies are trying to profit from changing definitions of victimhood, and the real victims are the “old men” who are being unfairly scapegoated for a bit of jolly dressing-room lechery. I do not “support the persecution of old men”, as Hewson manipulatively puts it, but I absolutely support the prosecution of rapists, and you should, too.

Hewson’s article is part of a series of defences of high-profile rape defendants published at Spiked, a once-interesting magazine reduced to a sad, attention-seeking faux-leftist cult on a mission to whip up controversy by making libertarian reactionaries feel good about sexism. Its editor, Brendan O’Neill, is possibly the closest thing the British Left has to a professional rape apologist, and has no qualms about monetising misogyny in his Telegraph blog. I’m ashamed to admit that I once brought him a cup of coffee as an intern. 

It’s always annoying arguing with Spiked. You know that that’s just what they want you to do, because they’re vicious trolls who seem to believe that compunction is something only the little people have. Hewson’s piece, however, in which she calls for the lowering of the age of consent and the imposition of a time-limit on rape complaints so that we can retroactively exonerate all of our dubious cultural heroes, has struck a nerve. 

Hewson is far from only one to plead for tolerance on behalf of the intolerable. Men like Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile lived in a different time, their detractors claim, a time when shoving your fists with impunity up the skirt of any passing schoolgirl was just the present you got for being born with a set of testicles. Said detractors often speak of this time with the same kitschy nostalgia usually reserved for the Village Green, toasted teacakes and casual racism: life was just easier back then, for some of us at least. Elderly rapists and abusers didn’t know what they were doing at the time, so how can they be blamed? 

This defence, which is rather insulting to the significant and growing number of males who absolutely do respect women enough not to shove their hands and penises inside them without asking, is also wheeled out on behalf of the many men, young and old, who are suddenly being exposed as rapists and abusers despite never having heard of Jimmy Savile. "They didn’t know they were doing anything wrong." 

It’s the same defence used last month when two American high-schoolers in Steubenville, Ohio were convicted of raping an unconscious girl over several hours and capturing the evidence on cameraphones: these poor young men didn’t know they were committing a crime. Now their futures are ruined. Perhaps the girl in question should have kept her mouth shut? Perhaps all the countless thousands of victims of rape and abuse should do the same, now and for ever? Perhaps we should remember who the real victims are in this situation: grown men and their guilty erections, mercilessly victimised by wanton teenagers who continue to have the brazen temerity to actually exist in the world as more than acquiescent fuck-holes.

The fact that these men felt they were doing nothing wrong is precisely the problem. The fact that for generations, men of all ages have felt able to use and abuse the bodies of women and children for their own entertainment is the problem, and the fact that our culture legitimises this approach is a bigger problem. 

For centuries, men in positions of power were untouchable, while women and children were anything but. One simply could not call a man like Jimmy Savile or Stuart Hall to account for his actions and expect to be taken seriously. One could not accuse a popular football player of rape and expect justice.  These things went on, but they went on in silence, with the complicity and of quiet armies of flunkies and facilitators.

The reason that these "old men" are being prosecuted – sorry, "persecuted" – right now is simple. They are being prosecuted because their victims are finally coming forward, and their victims are finally coming forward because society has reached a tipping point when it comes to rape culture. 

Rape culture, for those who still require an explanation, is the cultural tolerance of rape and sexual assault. It’s the idea that people who are raped must have in some way provoked it, and I know from experience that it can take years for victims to understand that it is men’s responsibility not to rape. It's an old prejudice, embedded in our institutions, in our police forces and judiciary systems, in political parties and in public organisations like the BBC. It also infects the tabloid and broadsheet press, who have changed their tune in recent weeks only because the process of consciousness-raising is panic-inducing, and there’s nothing the media loves more than a good panic. 

Right now, though, things are changing, and men and boys and those who love and respect men and boys are going to have to shift the way they think about rape, abuse and harrassment – fast. The most important attitude change is going to take place not among abusers, but among the far larger contingent who simply stand by and let it happen. Among the people who have been taught, or learned from hard experience, that these things are simply part of the tissue of power in this society, perhaps not strictly moral, but not worth taking the risk of speaking out about. They’re only women, after all, and they were probably asking for it.

For many, many generations, women and children were told: don't let yourself get raped, and if you do, for god's sake don't whinge about it. Don't act like a slut. Don't let your guard down. Don’t ever assume for a second that you have the same right as a man to exist in public or private space without fear of assault and humiliation. That message is slowly, finally, starting to change, so that instead, we’re telling men and boys: do not rape. Do not grope, assault, bully or hurt women, children or anyone over whom you have temporary power. Doing so will no longer increase your social status. If you do it anyway, you will find yourself publicly shamed and possibly up on criminal charges. This is the age of the internet, and nobody forgets.

Confronting structural violence is intensely painful. It’s like squeezing out an enormous splinter you hadn’t realised was there. The pain comes, in large part, from the understanding that you yourself might be implicated by virtue of easy ignorance; that you yourself might have stood by while evil went on; that people you know and trust and respect might very well have done terrible things simply because they thought they were allowed to. Questioning the morality of slave-owning was, until comparatively recently in human history, a minority position. It would be crass and simplistic to equate rape culture with slavery even if there weren’t complex historical links between the two. There is one important similarity, however, and that’s in the reaction when dominant, oppressive cultures finally wake up to the idea that evil on an immense scale has been taking place right in front of them. 

Sometimes that reaction is shocked disbelief, frantic apology, self-blame; more often it is angry, even violent. There is no rage, after all, quite like the desperate rage of those who refuse to acknowledge their own bigotry. 

This is going to hurt, I’m afraid. An enormous, panic-inducing cultural change is underway, and before it is over, more men and boys will be accused of and prosecuted for rape and assault. We will see more beloved cultural icons contaminated by revelations past transgressions, more young men who thought it was alright to taking advantage of their female friends slapped with convictions that will follow them around forever. 

We are going to have to face up to the idea that men and boys we know and respect, men and boys who may be decent, ordinary citizens, friends and relatives and colleagues and bosses, have been complicit in a culture that sees women as less than human and hurts and humiliates them with impunity. It’s not just a handful of monsters. Rape culture has pushed itself into every part of our society, and if we truly want to change it, we will have to look at ourselves and those we love in a new and painful way. This is something we are going to have to sit with, and accept, and not shrink from, because right now we all need to decide what side of history we want to be on. 

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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue