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26 February 2016

The Rotherham abuse scandal shows us that too much power still lies in the wrong hands

While the institutions that abuse victims have to deal with remain corrupt, remote and male-dominated, justice will always be hard to come by.

By Sarah Ditum

Here is the problem: the problem is power. Too much of it lies in the wrong hands, used to the wrong ends – male hands, used to serve male ends against female bodies. To challenge power you need to use power, which means women have to engage with powerful institutions when wrongs are done to us. Powerful institutions are made up of powerful men, and men, it turns out, are not always that concerned about preventing or punishing the abuse of women and girls. A man attacks you, you go to the police; the police force is over 70 per cent male (almost 80 per cent in senior ranks). Are the men there going to help you?

This week, six people were found guilty in relation to the grooming, rape and prostitution of girls in Rotherham. The Times first covered these abuses after one of the victims – who was given the pseudonym “Becky” – approached them, having despaired of being listened to by the police. She was 14 when Arshid Hussain began exploiting her. He was ten years her senior. The police would recover her when she ran away with him, but never identified the manifest violence in a 24-year-old man’s relationship with a child: “They failed even to question him,” said the QC for the prosecution. “No one in authority took the obvious step of locking him up.”

The jury heard that corrupt police helped to protect the offenders – and participated in offences. “One officer had sex with under-age girls, passed drugs to the sex-grooming gang and tipped them off when colleagues were searching for missing children,” the Times reported. “Another helped to broker a deal in which one [defendant] returned an abused girl to police after receiving an assurance that he ‘wouldn’t get done’.” No wonder Becky felt the press was her best bet after all this betrayal.

The horrors of the police failings in Rotherham echo the earlier scandal of the Metropolitan Police’s Sapphire Unit. This was supposed to specialise in rape investigations. Instead, it lost vital evidence, faked statements and pressured women to withdraw their allegations in order to enhance its detection rates. Junior officers said that their bosses saw car crime as a bigger priority. (So much for the allegedly commonsense advice that women should think of our bodies like parked vehicles and practice rape avoidance by keeping our metaphorical doors locked and our “covetable goods” out of sight. Even if we thought of ourselves as cars, the police apparently considered us less.)

There’s a line of criticism that says feminists should never expect the law and order implements of the state to provide justice for women. What might appear to be a fundamentally uncontroversial claim – that violence against women is a crime, and crime should be punished – is decried as “carceral feminism” (a specifically American analysis, but one that is increasingly applied to UK contexts). It’s easy to see the merit in this criticism when you know how the police can put already-victimised women and girls through the magnifying horrors of incompetence, disbelief and collusion. The police fail victims, and any perpetrator who is convicted ends up in a prison system that is itself a failure – overcrowded, violent (there is a suicide in prison every four days) and with a disastrous recidivism rate.

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Radical withdrawal from all engagement with criminal justice on behalf of women is one option in response to all this. However, it is not a very good option. In practice, it would make male violence against women uniquely free from sanction – the “carceral feminism” critique, obviously enough, only applies to those crimes which come under the purview of feminism. Once again, car thieves would go to prison and rapists would go free. How, precisely, this serves women is difficult to envisage, but it does fit in very neatly with the gendered expectation that women should disregard our own comfort in order to tend to that of men, including men who hurt us.

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Feminism has always had a robust analysis of law and order. Andrea Dworkin was sexually assaulted by the police – in her work with Catherine Mackinnon, she attempted to write legislation that would serve women. Reclaim the Night was a response to the botched Ripper investigation in Leeds, where the police appeared to empathise more with the killer than with the women he terrorised and murdered. Women are endemically denied justice. It does not follow from that fact, however, that we should never pursue justice.

Justice has many dimensions, but it includes: being listened to and believed in a place where your words have weight, such as a court; knowing that the state’s treatment of the perpetrator will prevent, rather than propagate, further violence; but also, knowing that the person who injured you has received a reasonable punishment for inflicting the injury.

This is what Becky and the other Rotherham victims received, finally, this week. They received it because this time, the police, the CPS and the court all did their jobs.

“Ten, twenty years ago the offending was there to be investigated and prosecuted,” said Detective Chief Inspector Martin Tate, who headed up the investigation that led to the conviction of Hussain and his co-defendants. “At times it was in front of our eyes but we didn’t see it. I deeply regret that so many young victims were let down. […] We’re a different brand of police officer in 2016 with a completely different understanding of grooming and of the needs of vulnerable children. We want to listen and we’re taking every opportunity to bring offenders to justice.”

These are excellent words, although we can only declare them a new dawn if we never see another case like Rotherham. We need the police to work for women and girls, and we need more women working in the force to make that happen. We need a penal system that doesn’t spit out perpetrators even more broken than they were when they went in. And all of this is worth working for, because giving up on justice can never be an option for feminists.