Saturday, 25 May 2013

Sex education, young people and talking about, erm, p0rn

So I’m going to stick my head above the parapet here and write about pornography and young women, in light of the report published yesterday that found young people need better protecting from the impact of porn – particularly the flavour that is violent and degrading.

This article is only going to focus on young women and the impact – not on other issues around porn such as worker’s rights, violence in the industry etc. Another day, perhaps!

I want to share then, in this post, what I have learnt about porn and its impact, as a feminist activist for many years, and why I think it is important we have a grown up, non-ideological conversation about it.

A few months ago, I went to a secondary school to talk to young women about feminism. The girls were about 15 years-old. There were 30 of them, and they each had prepared a question to ask me and my colleague. I was surprised at how many of the questions were about pornography.

Compared to when I was a teen, and the boys stuck a page 3/lad’s mag picture on his exercise books or art folders, porn was part of these girls’ lives. Some of them might have been ok with this. But the overwhelming sense was that porn was everywhere, and they didn’t have much of a say in whether they wanted to see it – it was just there. There was also a sense that the sex you see in porn was what girls should want, when in fact – and bearing in mind I was in a school and so had to be very careful about how we talked about sex – the girls weren’t sure about what they were seeing. Talking to them as politely as we could about consent, respect, pleasure and women’s desires was very revealing. Here were young women who were surrounded by a smorgasbord of sexual imagery whether they wanted to be or not, who hadn’t really had conversations before about what they wanted from sex and sexuality, or even how a conversation about what they wanted was important to have. All the imagery and film that made up their sexual landscape was filtered through male wanting, and male expectations.

I share this story because I have seen a lot on Twitter about how criticism of porn is to deny young women’s sexuality, sexual curiosity and desire. But from speaking to young women, I have very real concerns that instead, exposure to porn is having that very effect. Of course some teen girls will enjoy watching porn but for a lot of young women, a world where a man anally rapes a woman and then orally rapes her is pretty confusing. To me, sexuality and sexual curiosity should be about exploring your body, what you want and what you like. When everything you see and hear about sex is telling you that women’s consent, desire, pleasure and safety isn’t important, then it can be very confusing to know that as a woman, you have an absolute right to these things. And, of course, it’s very confusing to boys who are growing up, perhaps with feminist mothers, seeing imagery that tells them that women don’t have a right to these things. If no one is telling you otherwise, how are you going to know that women’s sexuality might differ to the ones on the video?

I know that a lot of women who have gone into schools have had very similar experiences to this and that confusion about porn and sexuality is a theme repeated in school visits by feminists.

There’s the argument for creating ethical, feminist friendly, female friendly porn. But I don’t think we can ignore that for a lot of young women, their first exposure to porn is the violent stuff. And let’s not kid ourselves that there is a hell of a lot of deeply hurtful, painful and violent porn out there. I would argue as well that in some of the more gonzo stuff you simply do not know if there’s consent. This isn’t about BDSM either – which is consensual and agreed. This is about filmed simulated rape or filmed real rape that teaches young women that their right to consent and pleasure is secondary to what the man wants.

To me, the porn argument isn’t ideological. I don’t think we can take a theoretical position which says Ms X denies young women’s sexuality or Ms Y is ignoring the harm porn does. I absolutely believe we have to listen to girls. If a girl tells us that porn is a-ok and she loves it and it’s really helped her explore her sexuality then that is her reality. And if a girl tells us that she finds it confusing, that her partner pressures her into doing things she doesn’t want to do, then we have to listen to her too. And we have to find a way to make it safe for girls to explore their very natural sexuality, free from coercion or violence or the expectation that she should do things she doesn’t want to do. It’s simply not fair on girls to use them as a theoretical example in a discussion that has raged since the 60s. We have to start by listening to young women and supporting them.

One of the problems I see is that young women are growing up surrounded by pornography but with no alternative narrative about sex. And this is why the second report out this week, by EVAW on sex education, is so important. If the porn narrative is accompanied by one that teaches girls and boys about consent and respect, about how violence and coercion is not ok and how women’s pleasure and desire is ok too, then at least girls would have more of a voice to say what they do and don’t like. If we were teaching our young people about consent and respect, then they would have an opportunity to learn that in mutual and respectful sexual relationships, they don’t have to agree to do something they don’t like, and no one should pressure you into doing something you don’t like.

I don’t think we can put our heads in the sand around young people and violent porn. There are cases where porn has been used to groom girls and where girls have been coerced into doing what they don’t want to do because their partner has seen it in porn and therefore believes the coercion is ok. Speak to any rape crisis centre and they will tell you that story again and again. Sexting, non-consensual sharing of explicit images, filming rapes and attacks on mobile phones, taking explicit images of unconscious women  – these are all news stories from recent months and it’s not hard to see how they reflect the world of porn. Porn is telling young people that women’s voices and women’s sexuality are secondary to male desire. Not only is that simply not fair, it can quite clearly have serious consequences.

Again, I don’t think this is about ideology. I think this is about girls’ lived experience and listening to those experiences and respecting them. It’s about hearing what girls are telling us.

Another area where I am concerned about porn is the idea of sex and money. I read a tweet yesterday that said porn is a healthy aid to masturbation. Of course, that is what essentially porn is intended for – duh! But alarm bells ring for me when we link a natural, completely normal human activity that we almost all do with a massive capitalist money making venture. Again, this isn’t to deny that some women and men do find porn a useful aid, but isn’t there something odd in the message that you need to pay or at least contribute to big business in order to enjoy your body? Isn't there something strange in telling us that we need a money-making scheme to help us enjoy sex? And there is big money in porn, most of which doesn't go to the actors and a lot of which goes to men in suits.

The flagrant capitalism of porn is something that rarely gets mentioned and because I am a socialist at heart but not an expert in the theory I don’t feel well placed to comment on it. I just have a strong feeling that anything trying to make cash out of human sexuality and human desires is a fairly capitalist venture. It’s one of the issues around waxing too. Waxing – which is straight out of a pornified idea of women’s bodies – basically tells young women that in order to look sexy and therefore feel sexy, they need to spend money. The idea is sold to us that we can’t be truly sexual unless we buy a product, and that not buying into that product means you’re a prude or non-sexy. But people have been figuring out how to have enjoyable pleasurable sex or to masturbate since time began – why all of a sudden do we need to spend money to do so? It’s weird.

Anyway, that’s a tangent.

Fundamentally, I think we need to have an honest and grown up conversation about the impact of porn on young people. To me, the heart of the conversation has to be about hearing young women, really hearing them, and respecting their experiences of this new world we live in where porn is part of their reality. It’s about listening to why this might be pleasurable to them as well as listening as to why it might be harmful and confusing. It’s about complementing or – in some cases – replacing the porn narrative with proper, feminist sex education that respects women’s sexuality and centres consent and respect. It’s time to stop talking over young women, to stop using them as symbols, and start hearing what they’re trying to tell us.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Status? Nah, I just fancy you

The last few times I’ve read comments under feminist articles on CIF and the New Statesman, I’ve seen the misogynistic old chestnut raise its hoary head again that women choose sexual partners based on social status whereas men choose sexual partners based on whether they think they’re hot. I can’t remember where I read these comments now, which is annoying. But I promise you they exist.

I am so tired of this really stupid and – yes – misogynistic and homophobic and biphobic argument (hmm, Word not recognising biphobic as a real word. Bad biphobic Microsoft!).

Firstly, I think it is vital to understand that it is completely fine for a woman to choose a partner based on status. Some women won’t and that’s ok too. Is there anyone in the whole wide world that is attracted to the same qualities as someone else? We don’t know and cannot assume what leads to one person choosing to be with another. Not all women fancy Brad Pitt, and not all men lust after Angelina Jolie. Just as I will go on to argue that it’s ok for a woman to find the physicality of a partner attractive, it’s also ok to find the status of that person the key definer of what’s attractive about them. But what we must understand, and what is problematic about the view that women choose a male partner because of status, is that this is not the only thing women can, do and should find attractive. To argue, as some do, that women are only after status is to ignore and silence the multiplicities of women’s sexuality in a way that is offensive and, potentially, dangerous.

Anyway. I’ll focus on the homophobia and biphobia first. Basically, the argument that women as a homogenous group who choose to partner with high status men (and by high status these comments tend to mean “choosing a mate” who has money and can provide for a family) renders gay and bi women invisible. It’s making a generalisation that all women want one man who can provide for them and their children. As we all know, not all women want a man. Not all women – straight, gay or bi – want to have children. It frustrates me that this trope of what women supposedly want is so heteronormative and focused on an old-fashioned idea of what men and women are and what men and women do. It’s lazy and it’s offensive. 

The homophobia and biphobia overlaps with the sexism of this idea too. 

Whereas our culture allows and accepts the idea that men fancy their sexual partners, the myth that women choose their partners based on socio-economic reasons suggests the opposite for us. It completely ignores and devalues the idea that women might feel sexual desire, that we might choose to have sex with someone simply because we think that person is hot. I think this is what we mean when we say the gaze is male. We are comfortable with the idea that men might be visually attracted to a partner in a way that we are not for women. It’s why we say that ‘men are visual’ and women are ‘about feelings’. Again, women can be all about the feelings but we can also be about the visual too. And sometimes we can be both. Or we can be about the visual, feelings, senses, status and everything in between all at once. No woman is the same, no human sexuality is the same. How can we pretend we all find the same element attractive based on our chromosomes? It’s absurd.

This whole trope is, to me, based on an old and sexist fear of female sexuality. From Jezebel and Potiphar’s wife, to witch hunts and slut shaming, the idea that women feel sexual desire for another person has been criticised, repressed and used to persecute ‘wayward’ women down the centuries. Millenia even. The idea that a woman might just simply see another person of whatever gender and fancy them, feel desire, agree consent and go to bed with that person is used to judge women in a way that it has never been used to judge men. It’s the whole, he’s a stud, she’s a slut thing. 

Of course we all know that women fancy other people. Of course we do. But because the gaze is male, the idea of a woman gazing at a man is seen as somehow subversive. Far easier to say that women choose partner based on credit card size than allow us to have our own autonomous, subjective sexuality. 

This idea that women are interested in just one thing suggests that women aren’t allowed to feel that undefinable, unintelligible spark of meeting someone and knowing, just knowing, that you want them. It filters women’s wanting through a prism of what society thinks women should want – security – and what society thinks men should want – sex. But individual men and woman want so many different and varied things – for themselves and for their relationships. Not only is it offensive to women, but it’s hugely offensive to men to suggest otherwise. So why do we do it?

Further, it presents sex as a bargaining tool as opposed to something a woman might engage in because she wants to. It suggests that for women, sex is something they give in exchange for security and status rather than something they want, desire, consent to or take pleasure in. This clearly has dangerous implications to what we mean by consent. It also silences women’s bodies – saying that women can’t feel desire without material ulterior motives. 

Sexuality and attraction isn’t something that can be put into boxes labelled ‘men like looking at women who look like X’ and ‘women like to know that a man is respected in society’. Human sexuality is, as Shakespeare would say, a many splendored thing. It really bothers me that misogyny, homophobia and biphobia still conspire together to silence women’s desires in order to maintain a single minded and potentially repressive impression of what women might or might not want. 

It’s important to understand as well that when online commenters write that women are only attracted to status, they are usually doing so to slag us off. It’s generally within the context that women are selfish and shallow, that we just want men to buy us stuff and, most importantly, are not interested in men like them. So not only is it, perhaps unintentionally, misogynistic by refusing to recognise that women have varied and interesting and valid sexualities, it’s also intentionally misogynistic in that it suggests women just want to gold dig. 

Finally I would argue that in a world where poverty has a female face and where women are frequently left holding the baby and never see a penny from their ex-partner, no woman can be or should be judged for choosing a partner based on status and security. 

I want this offensive trope to end. I want a world where women’s sexuality and desire isn’t silenced and where we no longer make ridiculous, single statements about what women and men want from sex. We’re all too different, human sexuality is too varied, for you ever to look like anything but a ignorant numpty on the internet when you say women choose men based on status, when they truth is we might just really fancy someone. 

Scapegoating single mums on benefits and unpaid child maintenance

In Laurie Penny’s article on CIF yesterday about the crisis in masculinity, she writes about the scapegoating of single mothers on benefits by those who prefer to blame women instead of focusing on issues around male unemployment, disenfranchisement, violence etc. In the article, she writes:

There is no creature more loathed and misunderstood in modern Britain than the single mother on benefits. She is blamed both for the financial crisis and for the attendant collapse in men's self-esteem. The academic Geoff Dench was among those who attacked her, complaining that "the taxes of working men pay for [single mothers'] benefits". The taxes of working women, presumably, are spent on shoes and lipstick.

This article was published online on the same day as a data blog analysing the DWP’s publication of child maintenance payments and their subsequent claim that most non-resident parents are paying maintenance – a claim that is strongly refuted by charities, including Gingerbread. 

The DWP claims that ‘81% of maintenance cases were being paid’. However, this number is potentially misleading as the DWP ‘define a parent as ‘compliant’ and a CSA arrangement as ‘effective’ if any proportion of any maintenance payment is made.’

What this means is that a non-resident payment can pay 1p for one month in a quarter towards their child’s maintenance and still be considered ‘compliant’ and ‘effective’ by the DWP. This leads to some seriously fudged statistics – as you can see. 

The article goes on to explain that in March 2012 only 58% of non-resident parents paid their child maintenance in full, 21% paid part and 16% were ‘not paying’. In June 2012 the numbers were 60%, 20% and 15%. However, Gingerbread believes that even this 58% figure might be misleading, ‘as the DWP definition shows, it includes all maintenance direct payments and assumes that these were paid in full’. 

Quoted in the Guardian data blog, Gingerbread Chief Exec Fiona Weir said:

The DWP itself predicts that as more families set up direct payments, once the new child maintenance service starts charging to collect, only one in four (28%) of these arrangements will be paid in full and on time. The department cannot therefore claim to believe that all existing direct pay arrangements are compliant, and it seems extraordinary that it would continue to over-claim in this way.

I’ll get to my point soon but it’s important to understand the numbers. 

Moving on to the Gingerbread website, the charity believes that unpaid child maintenance soared by £25 million to £3.87 billion in the last quarter of 2012. According to Gingerbread:

The new statistics show that the proportion of parents paying child maintenance has declined for the second quarter in succession [5]. This is despite a generous definition of ‘paying maintenance’ used by the CSA, in which a parent is counted as ‘paying maintenance’ if at least one payment, of any amount, has been made in the last three months.

Not only has unpaid child maintenance jumped, today’s statistics also show that in the last nine months the Child Support Agency has taken less enforcement action against parents who don’t pay – this can include deductions from earnings and sums taken from bank accounts

So, what does this have to do with the original quote taken from Laurie Penny’s article?

As Laurie points out, single mothers on benefits are the scapegoats for so many of society’s problems. They’re blamed for everything, from a crisis in masculinity, to the benefits bill. Unlike the married mums the Tories are so desperate to woo back into the home, single mums are told to get back to work – regardless of the costs of childcare. And yet, whenever the finger of blame is pointed at single mums, it is pointed away from the other person that really matters. The dad. 

Of course there are thousands and thousands of dads who are awesome and who want to spend time with their children and who support their children yet for whatever reason, the relationship between parents didn’t work. 

But as the stats from the DWP and Gingerbread clearly tell us, there are also lots of dads who are simply not there. They might not be there emotionally or practically, and they’re certainly not there financially. 

When Geoff Dench grouches that working men’s taxes are paying single mums’ benefits, does he not consider that single parent families could be £3.87 billion better off if their exes paid the money that is owed to their children? (I should qualify here that obviously not all non-resident parents are mothers and 8% of single parents are dads

Whenever we talk about single parenthood, three issues are generally raised. The first is that single mums on benefits are responsible for the crisis in masculinity. The second is court bias towards mothers – a bias that has been shown not to exist. The bias is towards the primary caregiver and in a patriarchal capitalist society with unequal parental leave and a belief that women are naturally nurturing, that tends to be mothers. 

The third is the very rare cases where a woman divorcing a very wealthy man agrees a large maintenance payment. The fact that these stories become news shows how rare they are and is perhaps best typified by Heather Mills and Paul McCartney. 

But I have long believed that the real issue, the true scandal, is the huge amount of money not paid in child maintenance. It is a scandal that thousands of men clearly feel they should take no responsibility for the financial welfare of their child (I focus on financial here because it is perfectly possible that a father still sees his child without paying maintenance). It is shocking that across the UK billions of pounds are denied to mothers trying to bring up their children. And, of course, this lack of income can then contribute to poverty (of course not all single parents are poor) and then single mothers on benefits are blamed for that poverty. Let’s not forget either that these billions of pounds are not for helping single parents to live a life of riley, but to feed, clothe and care for children. 

Put simply, it’s cruel. We blame those single mums living in poverty for all societal ills. We blame them for their own poverty. And yet we don’t look to the fathers that refuse to support their child. I don’t want to play a blame game but it’s surreal that we don’t seem to blame them for anything. 

Single mums are painted as feckless and lazy – even though they’re raising a child or children alone, with shrinking support from the state and often without support from their ex. They are the ones who stayed but we portray them as irresponsible. Isn’t there something very wrong with that picture?

I am not advocating here for all men to have access to their child. There are often good reasons on the mother’s side if the father is never seen again – for example survivors of domestic abuse. This isn’t about women raising children on their own away from the father but about the way society talks about single mums. 

What I want is more recognition that £3.87 billion of child maintenance is not paid by non-resident parents, the majority of whom are men. I want more people to understand that this is scandalous. And I want an end to a blame game that scapegoats single mothers on benefits and ignores the responsibility of absent fathers who have an obligation to financially support their children and who are left to get away with not meeting their responsibility. 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Rape avoidance advice on Facebook just upholds rape culture

TW: rape and sexual assault, abduction, victim-blaming

Has anyone else seen this thing going around Facebook called ‘through a rapist’s eyes’?

It’s basically a list of so-called safety tips for women to ‘help’ us avoid getting raped – and as a result is a load of victim-blaming bullshit that is incredibly dangerous. 

I’m not going to re-produce the whole horrible mess here, as I think it would be irresponsible to do so. However, to give it a little bit of context, this viral document purports to report conversations from convicted rapists about the women they target and how, if you want to ‘avoid’ being raped, you should avoid the kind of behaviour they describe. To quote: 

"THROUGH A RAPIST'S EYES" (PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ THIS. It may save a life.) Click Share Button to share it on your Wall.


Through a rapist's eyes! A group of rapists and date rapists in prison were interviewed on what they look for in a potential victim and here are some interesting facts:

The rest of the article plays it pretty fast and loose with the word ‘facts’ in a way that is at best, naively irresponsible and, at worst, worryingly dangerous. 

You can see just how bad it is from one of the first pieces of ‘advice’ that informs women that attackers target women with long hair. Mind-bogglingly, the writer claims that ‘women with short hair are not common targets’. This is so offensive, so silencing and so blatantly stupid. It’s offensive to say that women should change their hair to avoid rape. And it’s wrong to suggest that short hair can somehow ‘protect’ you from being attacked. More, it is silencing of survivors and perpetuates the myth that only a certain type of woman is a victim or survivor of rape. 

The ‘facts’ continue – ranging from how women should dress and conduct themselves on the street (don’t look through your bag on the street – vulnerable!) to the dangerous and silencing suggestion that ‘most attackers’ will abduct women from grocery stores, parking lots and public toilets. 

There is of course no mention that the majority of women know their attackers. In fact – and this is a real fact by the way as opposed to a viral fact – 97% of callers to Rape Crisis knew their assailant prior to the attack. 2005 research by Kelly backs up the claim the majority of perpetrators are known to their victim. 

The advice in this viral is dangerous. It tells women that we can and must take action to reduce our risk of rape as if rape is some kind of natural hazard that just happens. It doesn't consider the truth that the only thing that causes rape is the rapist. This advice expects women to put our lives, our personalities and our freedom of movement on hold in order to not get raped. All the advice demands that women don’t do X, don’t do Y – none of it talks about the fact that rapists shouldn’t rape. 

It isn’t right to tell women not to go food shopping, not to answer our phone in the street, not to wear our hair in a certain way so we won’t get raped. Not just because instructing anyone to not live their lives because of fear isn’t ok, but because none of these things actually cause rape. Grocery stores and hairstyles don’t cause rape. There is nothing that women do or don’t do that causes rape. The only thing that causes rape is a man choosing to rape. 

The advice gets worse. It encourages women to put up a fight if we’re attacked, to convince rapists you’re – and I quote – ‘not worth the effort’.

This is perhaps, in a whole shitstorm of dangerous so-called advice, the most dangerous of all. Which is saying something.

The idea that women should fight back if they are attacked completely ignores how women – in fact all people – respond differently to threats. The first important point to emphasise is that fighting back might not be safe course of action. Physically fighting back might lead to an escalation of violence. 

The second important point is how it’s a common myth that when attacked, everyone will respond with ‘fight’. But many people respond with ‘freeze’ – and this is a completely valid and normal response to danger. To say that there is a correct way to behave – i.e. to fight – is to silence the experiences of women and, fundamentally, fuels a victim-blaming culture. 

The CWASU website explains it better than I can: 

"If women really want to, they can always say no"
Many women do indeed say no, but rapists do not listen. Some resist physically, try to get away - some of these women do manage to prevent further assault, others suffer greater injury. Other women are terrified and they freeze. Each of these responses should make it very clear to the man that the woman is not freely consenting to, or desiring sex. If a man is determined to have sex, and there is no easy way to escape, it is hard to imagine what difference saying no would make.

"To be raped is the worst thing that can happen - so you would resist to the utmost"

Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.

Telling women that there is only one correct way to respond to being attacked is to say that if women don’t respond that way, then they are somehow at fault. The insistence that women would and should always fight back can lead to women blaming themselves for not fighting hard enough. It also gives space for the patriarchal culture to then try and say that if the woman didn’t behave in a certain, ‘correct’ way then no rape happened – leading to a low conviction rate and a society which harasses alleged victims. I talk about this at length in my interview with screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo so I won’t rehash all of it here.  

This viral teaches women to live in fear – always looking over our shoulders. It is about policing women’s behaviour – telling women where we can and can’t be, what we can and can’t do. It has no respect for our bodily autonomy, our right to freedom of movement and our right to live free from fear and violence. And by creating a climate of fear, it silences the indisputable fact that most rapists aren’t bogeymen hiding in alleys. 

The advice on this viral Facebook list is victim-blaming. It tells women that we should police our own behaviour to ‘avoid’ rape and abduction. It then tells women a ‘correct’ way to respond to an attack – even though there is no correct way to respond. To say there is leads to women blaming ourselves for not ‘doing more’ to stop the attack. This victim-blaming is part of a rape culture that denies women justice and focuses all of the responsibility to end rape on to women. 

It is not up to women to stop rape. It’s horrible to understand that there is nothing we can do to stop rape. It’s comforting, in a strange way, to believe that if we cut our hair and never go grocery shopping we will somehow be safe. That if we just follow the rules, we’ll be ok. But it’s not true. A woman could follow every rule on this viral and still be attacked. She could fight back and still not see her attacker convicted. And part of the reason why that could happen is because of advice like this – advice that absolves the rapist, creates reasons to blame women and tells women that we have to take responsibility for the actions of men who choose to rape. 

Even if a woman never left her house and lived on her own and did everything this viral tells her to do, it won’t reduce the incidents of rape – simply because this advice won’t stop a rapist attacking someone else. So long as the advice, the guidance, and the hectoring, patronising, patriarchal tone focuses on women’s behaviour then it will never stop rape because it will never be directed at the cause of rape. And that cause is rapists, not women. 

The only person responsible for rape is the rapist. They are the ones who choose, consciously choose, to commit a violent crime. And one way to stop some men making that choice is to end rape culture, which is propped up by this viral.

I don’t know what motivates men (and it is men) to create these advice lists. In my kinder moments, I can believe they are doing it because they honestly, mistakenly and naively believe it will help keep women safe. But really, it’s so easy to tell women what to do and what not to do, it requires no effort to prop up a victim-blaming rape culture that doesn’t actually care about stopping rape. What would be really helpful, really radical and really make a difference would be to improve justice for rape survivors and stop rapists from raping. 

Telling women not to go grocery shopping will never achieve that. Talking and educating men and boys – as well as women and girls – about bodily autonomy, respect and consent – that might. 

The CWASU website is a really valuable resource on victim-blaming, rape culture and proper facts. /

Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999 

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Stuart Hall case should put to rest the debate on anonymity for rape defendants

Having strenuously protested his innocence just three months ago, veteran BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall yesterday admitted he sexually abused girls – one of whom was as young as nine.  The CPS described him as an ‘opportunistic predator’ who abused girls over two decades. Having dismissed the complaints against him as ‘malicious and pernicious’, Stuart Hall has now pleaded guilty to 14 counts of indecent assault. 

As the list of celebrities accused of rape and sexual assault gets longer – and more and more survivors are given the confidence that now, after years of being silenced they will be listened to and believed – the argument about anonymity for rape defendants has risen its ugly head again. 

But the Hall case shows more than ever just how vital it is that we continue to name men accused of rape and sexual assault. Because it is this naming that can give survivors and victims the confidence to come forward. 

In Hall’s case, the police and CPS have been vocal in their argument for naming defendants. They have explained how naming Hall helped lead to his guilty admission. As survivors recognised that they were not alone, that he had attacked others, the police were able to gather the evidence they needed to charge and eventually prosecute. The victims did not know one another, and their accounts of the assault were strikingly similar. Without naming Hall, the police might not have learnt this and might not have had the evidence to charge - a charge that led to the guilty plea. 

Perhaps not naming Hall would have still led to this. But it is highly unlikely. With little forensic evidence, naming Hall meant that more victims and survivors felt able to go to the police, who were then able to see patterns in Hall’s behaviour and actions towards his victims – building up the evidence that was needed to charge him. 

We see the same pattern over and over again. Serial rapist John Worboys is a key example in how naming a defendant helped lead to his conviction. After he was named, it became impossible for the police to ignore the weight, the sheer amount, of women coming forward to name him as their rapist. Naming leads to evidence which helps lead to convictions. 

Some argue that if we name the accused we should name the alleged victim. But why? Naming the victim isn’t going to help lead to convictions, it’s not going to help secure justice for rape survivors. People cry ‘false accusations’ but if a woman is charged with that specific crime, then of course she will be named as she will be a defendant herself. The case of Ched Evans shows what can happen when you name the survivor. His victim was victimised all over again when she was subjected to horrific abuse to the point that she had to change her name and flee her home. How can we have ended up in a situation where some treat rapists with more sympathy and respect than their victims?

When criticising the policy of naming defendants, I think people confuse two different issues. The first is the legal issue and the indisputable, mounting, continuing evidence that naming helps convict rapists. The second is media behaviour.

The cheerleaders for anonymity seem to believe that our priority should be to protect the reputations of allegedly violent men, not to collect the evidence to convict. To me, this is part of the rape culture that leads to the sympathetic reporting of even convicted rapists that we saw in Steubenville and, to an extent, with Hall. Suddenly we’re expected to feel pity or sorrow for men who have shown no empathy to their victims because of the way they may be treated in the media.

Whenever I write about this issue, people raise the cases where men have been tried in the media – a ‘trial’ that has ruined their lives. Interestingly, when I write about this issue, people use examples where men have been falsely accused of murder in the press - but no one appears to be asking for anonymity for murder suspects. They instead seem to believe rape is a special case. 

But the fact that the media convict people in their pages and often seem to tread a very narrow line between reporting and contempt of court is not a reason to end the policy of naming defendants. It is too important a policy, too important in bringing justice to victims and survivors, to be dropped because the press behave intrusively. Press behaviour is an issue for the press. If they harass and taunt and wrongly convict men in their pages then that is not the fault of a sensible law that helps bring justice to rape victims. If the press break the law, then that should be dealt with appropriately. It won’t be dealt with by doing away with another law. 

The treatment of named defendants in the press is an issue for the press. It should not be used as an excuse to end a vital and important policy in ensuring justice for rape survivors. In the Stuart Hall case, naming the defendant led to him admitting his offences – something his victims have waited decades to see. The result of the Hall case proves once more just why it is so important to name defendants to empower women and girls to come forward and provide evidence needed to convict. Put simply, bad behaviour in some sections of the media is not a reason to deny women and girls up and down the UK justice.