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.