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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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”