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17 March 2016

How we think about women and shame

As a woman gets older, she is made to feel ashamed for her sexuality – something that enables the likes of Jason Lawrance, rapist, to prey upon her.

By Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Consider this: a woman opens a cupboard door and a jar of coffee falls out, smashing on the floor. She gets out a dustpan and brush and carefully cleans up the mess. A man doing the same thing and subject to the same misfortune turns around and demands to know “who put that there?” This, I was reliably informed by a doctor I used to work with, illustrates the basic difference between men and women, meaning that women are more likely to accept responsibility and take on a burden of guilt. Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to take the view that whatever it was that just happened they are in no way responsible although somebody else probably is.

It’s a gender thing and broadly down to the way girls and boys have been brought up and the way in which parents’ expectations and experiences influence the way they prepare their child for adult life. The fact that when I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, any suggestion of a dirty kitchen or loose morals in a woman was heavily larded with the word “shame” – as opposed to men who (baffling to my eight-year-old self) seemed to be slapped on the back and applauded – makes it a generational thing too. For example, I see little evidence of the same kind of role assignment in the way my grandchildren are being brought up and that, I have to tell you, is a relief.

That “jar of coffee” illustration came to mind when I began thinking about Jason Lawrance, his career (and subsequent life sentence) as the “ rapist”. Or more accurately, it came to mind when I began thinking about the women he had raped and assaulted. I thought about how he committed six attacks over five years and it was only when the seventh rape was reported to the police that he was caught. That means that six women suffered a violent sexual assault and then picked themselves up and got on with life, or what passes for it after an experience like that. They got out the dustpan and brush and tidied up, posting a subconscious “nothing to see here” sign while they did it.

The other thing that struck me was the age of his victims. Lawrance targeted older women – the youngest was 40 and the oldest 56. Women who, like me, grew up in an era of rampant woman-shaming. OK, he himself is a 50-year old man but in my own experience of internet dating, a middle-aged man is more usually looking for a partner at least ten years younger than himself. Read a few profiles and you’ll see what I mean. It’s entirely understandable, although unfortunate for my age group in that our happy hunting ground is considerably reduced, both in quantity and quality. When I dabbled with dating again in my 50s I discovered that I was catnip to octogenarians but considered too old for my own age group.

Yes, age is largely irrelevant and one might argue that the size of a prospective partner’s bank balance is more significant than the size of his… but on the other hand what does that amount to if not a kind of paid employment? Deciding that none of this held much personal appeal I discreetly withdrew from the market, although I have friends who, having decided that they would much rather be with someone than not, have pressed on and found if not The One then someone who is at least tolerable. This desire to find another beating heart to share one’s life with lies at the complicated root of why Lawrance was so successful.

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In almost every article I read, Lawrance’s victims are referred to as “lonely and vulnerable”, two words very commonly associated with women in this age group. Interestingly, “lonely and vulnerable” only seems to be a state that occurs in men who are over 70. A sign of the times we live in – loneliness is an acknowledged epidemic and it affects men and women of all ages, but it’s quite a hard thing to admit to because loneliness suggests some kind of failure and we don’t like failure.

Loneliness in the modern world is something we conceal, ashamed of being that other modern thing – needy. To add to the conundrum, “lonely and vulnerable” seems to be taking the place of that other older-woman stereotype, the man-eater (or “cougar”), typically played in sitcoms with lip-smacking relish by someone like Yootha Joyce in a nylon negligee. Those of us old enough to remember the trope wince at the thought of going down that route. It’s undignified and desperate. And that’s another of those “older woman words” right there – desperate.

Middle age is a peculiar time for a woman, sex-wise, especially when everything we see is telling us how to preserve dewy youth and “fight” age. It’s confusing to be told to look young all the time or to have failed (that word again) in the appearance-obsessed eyes of the world – a point that is underlined every day in the way women are held up in the media, picked apart and perceived imperfections broadcast for public ridicule. If we allow it, middle age can be a time of acceptance, serenity even. Personally, I find all the exhortations to meddle with nature extremely tiresome and I am not prepared to embark on the next 30 years of my life with a tightly-run schedule of expensive surgical maintenance because 60 is the new 30, or whatever.

However, that self-knowledge took a good deal of concentrated thought and midnight floor-pacing before I arrived at it. It’s only when I venture out – and especially when I venture out in London – that I start to feel a bit “other”. But broadly I’m happy because I live in my own bubble and give zero fucks – a bit like a teenager. That’s the thing with middle age: it’s not altogether dissimilar to adolescence in terms of existential angst and many of those feelings are linked to how we look and the fact that our looks are fading is undeniably painful, even if we weren’t all that exceptional or bothered about them to begin with.

Finding ourselves alone in middle age can provoke an overwhelming desire to be needed and desired. To be frank about my own feelings on turning 50, they were that this might be my last chance to not be alone in old age, although now I am alone I find I rather like it. A good deal of this (wouldn’t you know it) is down to our old frenemy hormones, but either way, one woman’s “lonely and vulnerable” is another woman’s “last bite at the cherry”. Both impulses put us at risk and both carry the unwelcome baggage of shame and embarrassment.

“Shame” and “embarrassment” are another two words I read and heard a lot with regard to Lawrance’s victims, presumably because they did not want to be thought of as the type of woman who would use an internet dating website. For a middle-aged woman this is still considered not quite the done thing and people generally remain squeamish about the thought of us having any kind of sex life. I think this falls under the heading of “embarrassment” because there is, in truth, nothing wrong with it at all – as long as you follow the rules for ensuring your personal safety, something internet dating sites stress again and again.

It all falls down in two senses: firstly, when we are embarrassed to admit that in doing it we’re admitting to being lonely (and therefore failing at life) and secondly, when we allow ourselves to be pressured into something. The second one is particularly difficult for women of my generation, who were brought up to please and make sure everyone else is happy, often at the expense of our own wishes. Jason Lawrance was skilful in manipulating all these factors. Whether he did it consciously or unconsciously I’m not sure, but I prefer to think the latter, which makes him dangerous but not clever.

Lawrance persuaded the second of his victims to put him up overnight in her home. She agreed as long as he slept on the sofa downstairs, which seems entirely reasonable, especially as her 18-year-old son was in the house. She woke up to find Lawrance in her room and intent on one thing only. Calling out to her son for help stopped the attack. This brave woman reported Lawrance to the police in 2013 and they arrested him, but he was later released without charge on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”, presumably because she had allowed him to stay in her home and I assume, she had no bruises. She also reported him to, who did precisely nothing. Most of the women Lawrance attacked reported him to the website but neither of his two profiles were taken down because they say they were unable to prove what the women were telling them.

I’m frankly surprised that we still cling to the out-dated notion that a raped woman must have physical manifestations of what’s happened to her. As if the psychological damage isn’t enough we have to prove that we have fought bravely for our honour. How many of us have found ourselves in a position that could potentially turn nasty and allowed sex to happen to avoid that? How many rape victims have just let him get on with it in the hope that they wouldn’t be killed or that the battering would be less? Rape is often a silent act of intense and controlled violence. The suggestion that sex without evidence of violent attack must be consensual is offensive and ridiculous.

And that brings me back to “shame”, defined in my dictionary as “a painful feeling due to consciousness of guilt”.  Guilt for what, that you are somehow responsible for what happened to you? It’s worth remembering that rape as an offence was only defined under specific criteria in the 1956 Sexual Offences Act. The clause concerning it included the words “without consent”. The Act itself was a helpful step on the road to obtaining proper justice for women but the “without consent” part of it has proved problematic, especially given that women are still often not believed when they have the courage to report it. The truth of this has been demonstrated beyond all doubt over recent months, not just in the Lawrance case, but also in Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale, and with numerous professional footballers and public figures. The list of women and girls who have been failed is endless.

This thing “shame”, this thing women have hard-wired into their thinking in so many ways is the reason men like Lawrance get away with what they do. Had his victim in 2013 been believed he might have been stopped there and another five women (that we know of – there is speculation that he attacked many more) would have been spared. Shame about owning up to our own weaknesses, to enjoying sex when we no longer have a porn-star body, if we ever did. Shame that we allowed this thing to happen to us, and disbelief that it did. It’s the same old story, one that begins once upon a time we decided we must change the way women who have suffered violence – sexual or not – are treated. A lot has changed for the better but the overriding principle remains: they must be listened to and believed. 

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