Savile, in case you haven't heard of him, was a beloved and famously kooky children and teen's show presenter at the BBC for more than fifty years who died a year ago. Last month an ITV exposé revealed to the public what many in the British entertainment world had known for decades--that Savile had used his fame and access to children to sleep with hundreds of teenage girls, and that the BBC was active in both enabling this behavior and quashing rumors of Savile's activities, including, in 2011, killing a Newsnight story about them. O'Hagan's piece about this scandal is by no means without its merits. He puts Savile, and the BBC culture that enabled him, in their historical context by discussing other, less well-known sexual predators who like Savile used their role as presenters of children's entertainment to prowl for victims, and gives a fascinating glimpse into the less savory aspects of the history of an institution that has had such a profound worldwide effect. He also takes a somewhat jaundiced view of the hysteria that has followed in the wake of the Savile revelations, making what is to my mind the most important argument in his article when he points out that the same tabloid culture eager to excoriate Savile for exploiting children, and whose fanning of the public outcry over him is motivated for the most part by the desire to sell papers, is not above such exploitation itself--he gives the self-evident example of Milly Dowler, the murdered teen whose phone was hacked by News of the World journalists--fetishizing both innocence and its loss.
For all these well taken points, however, the further I read into "Light Entertainment," the creepier I found it, for reasons that it's taken me a while to articulate. The best analogy I can make is the conversation you inevitably end up having with your male colleague about sexual harassment. He objects to laws protecting against it because, he says, how will men ever be able to make a pass at women? You stand there trying to swallow your bile while struggling to wrap your brain around a mindset that sees these two acts as existing on the same spectrum, much less being easily confused for one another. There's a similarly perverse mindset at the core of "Light Entertainment," and it comes to infect the entire essay. O'Hagan tries to make the point that it was not just the BBC brass, but British culture as a whole, that was complicit in enabling Savile's behavior and suppressing the news of it for so long. Savile was loved, he argues, because he was weird and transgressive, and now that that weirdness has been revealed in all its true horror the public is turning on Savile rather than examining its own role in elevating him.
But it is our belief system. And now it is part of the same system to blame Savile. He's dead, anyway. Let's blame him for all the things he obviously was, and blame him for a host of other things we don't understand, such as how we love freaks and how we select and protect people who are 'eccentric' in order to feed our need for disorder. We'll blame him for that too and say we never knew there would be any victims, when, in fact, we depend on there being victims. Savile just wouldn't have been worth so much to us without his capacity to hurt. He was loved for being so rich and so generous and for loving his mother, the Duchess. And no one said, not out loud: 'What's wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?' He was an entertainer and that's thought to be special. A more honest society brings its victims to the Colosseum and cheers. We agreed to find it OK when our most famous comedians were clearly not OK.To me, this seems like a shaky argument that O'Hagan doesn't do nearly enough to support, but it's likely that I'm missing a lot of cultural context here, having grown up in the wrong place and the wrong time for Jimmy Savile's name to mean anything to me but the sexual predator he was revealed as a month ago. O'Hagan's "we" doesn't include me, so it's possible that he's describing a national mood that is as self-evident to him as it will be to his British readers. It's the conflation of weirdness and sexual predation, however, that is giving me pause. It's one thing to say that a public figure--particularly one who was at the height of his popularity thirty or forty years ago--can more or less flaunt his fondness for having sex with young girls and have everyone around him dismiss it as "just Jimmy being Jimmy," until one day a critical mass builds up and suddenly everyone realizes that this is not, and has never been, OK. It's quite another thing to suggest that because someone is weird and off the wall, we shouldn't be surprised when they turn out to have been raping kids. And yet throughout "Light Entertainment," O'Hagan repeatedly suggests that the transgressive and the abusive are correlated, maybe even interchangeable.
O'Hagan's argument is that the BBC of the 50s, 60s, and 70s attracted and fostered people who deviated from the norm, and that the public loved these figures for that deviation--which could take forms that would today be considered either innocuous or criminal. He makes much of the fact that in the culture surrounding the BBC, especially in the 60s and 70s, having sex with children as young as 14 was considered "perfectly natural," part and parcel of the cutlure of sexual permissiveness that emerged in these decades, and quotes Joan Bakewell, a BBC journalist and presenter, who says that "You just can't get into the culture of what it was like, transfer our sensibilities backwards from today. It would be like asking Victorian factory owners to explain why they sent children up chimneys." The implication, obviously, is that especially during the turbulent days of the sexual revolution, drawing the line between good transgression and bad transgression was difficult, maybe impossible, and, by inference, that our own standards of where that line runs are as arbitrary and socially constructed as they were then--"nowadays," O'Hagan writes, "there is an unmistakable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults." What's sad is that one can almost sense O'Hagan straining against the terms that he himself has chosen. When he writes that the BBC's light entertainment department was "of interest to brilliant deviants," and then explains that by "deviant" he means "anybody who wasn't in a monogamous heterosexual marriage that produced children," he lumps together the promiscuous, the adulterous, the childless-by-choice, homosexuals, and pedophiles, and then hastens to draw distinctions between them that, under his own chosen scheme, can't exist. His frame of reference leaves him in a bind. He doesn't want to seem like he's minimizing sexual abuse--mainly, I truly believe, because he genuinely doesn't think it ought to be minimized--so near the end of the review he comes out with the almost pious statement that "People can like children in the wrong way. And there no doubt is a wrong way." What he's eliding over is the fact that his own choice of terms has made distinguishing between the right and wrong way all but impossible.
What's missing from O'Hagan's scheme is, of course, consent. Without it, his entire conception of how sexual power and politics work is completely fucked up. Or, to put it another way, his entire conception of how sexual power and politics work is so completely rooted in rape culture that he can't even see the ocean he's swimming in. Without consent, it's perfectly possible to do as O'Hagan has done, and treat rape and abuse as extreme cases of sex. His notion of sex is hierarchical, something that one person does to another. Even his definitions of good and bad sex are bound up in hierarchies--the sexual revolution, as he describes it, was "the strange dance of the permissive with the banned." Permitted by who? Banned by who? Surely the germane question is what people have chosen to do, and how free and meaningful their choice was? Once you add consent to the equation, once you stop treating sex as something that can be done to someone (and it should come as no surprise that the people doing the doing are male and powerful), and start treating it as something that people--people who are capable of giving meaningful consent--do together, all of the category errors that O'Hagan struggles with in "Light Entertainment" disappear. The difference between liking children in the wrong and right way is the difference between treating them as receptacles for your lust, and treating them like human beings with their own rights and desires. The monstrous sensibilities that Joan Bakewell insists we can neither understand nor judge are revealed for what they always were--the patriarchal assumption that there is a class of men, of which the BBC elite was definitely a part, who are permitted to have their way with women, children, and low status men. That these latter groups exist, in fact, for the former's gratification. What's changed between now and then isn't some ineffable shift in sexual mores. It's our growing--though by no means complete--unwillingness to participate in this fucked up, exploitative, rape-friendly system.
But of course, O'Hagan can't bring consent into his discussion, because in order to do so, he would have to take his eyes off the perpetrators who are his main subjects, and talk about the victims--a word that he sneers at as a favorite of pedophile-happy tabloid culture. The voices of the victims are almost entirely absent in "Light Entertainment," and this too is entirely in keeping with how rape culture frames the discussion of rape and abuse, making it about the rapists, and failing even to consider that the victims might have some light to shed on the issue. And yet, on those rare occasions when O'Hagan lets the victims' voices come through, they not only become the most magnetic aspect of his essay, but put the lie to some of the assumptions he's made about the culture surrounding Savile's abuses. Quoting from Dan Davies's unpublished biography of Savile about the complaints lodged against Savile by girls from an "approved school" (the British term for reform school), O'Hagan reveals that "Among the former Duncroft girls to have come forward, one has said she was put in the isolation unit for 'two or three days' after loudly protesting when Savile groped her in a caravan on the school grounds. 'For years we tried to report him,' another confided to me. 'We even had a mass breakout to Staines police station.'" It's a heartbreaking passage, but surely it also suggests that the tolerance and complicity that O'Hagan identifies in a public charmed by Savile's transgressiveness were not without their limits. People did see what he was doing for what it was. They did scream bloody murder. The problem--as it often is in a patriarchy--was that the people complaining were the powerless, and that no one in power was listening.
There is one point on which O'Hagan and I are in complete agreement, though unsurprisingly for very different reasons--we both think that pedophile hysteria, as expressed in British tabloids or in shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is out of proportion and dangerous. For all his disdain for tabloids, O'Hagan mirrors their view on pedophiles, as sick individuals whose perverted desires are innate and uncontrollable, though for him this condition also elicits pity--"when you see Gilbert Harding crying about his impossible self, you may feel very sorry. You may feel, as many people who liked Lionel Gamlin felt, that these were talented people whose paedophilia constituted a difficulty for them as well as for others." I'm wiling to believe that there are some individuals like this, who genuinely feel an unstoppable compulsion to rape children. But I also live in a world in which it seems that every week another teacher is arrested for interfering with their students, or another parent or guardian is revealed to have been using the child in their care as a sex toy. If all of these people are sick in the way that O'Hagan and British tabloids seem to believe, then their sickness is the new normal, and the word "deviant" loses all meaning. It seems far more likely to me that in most cases, pedophilia isn't an individual disorder, but a social one, the product of a culture that teaches men to desire power and control, to fear women's ownership of their sexuality, and to fetishize innocence and weakness. Most of all, it's the product of a culture that teaches men that they are entitled to other people's bodies. Most pedophiles, I believe, rape children because children are easier to rape than adults. The tabloid hysteria over pedophiles, which turns them into boogeymen, does nothing to combat this second, more pernicious form of pedophilia--in fact, it may reinforce it, since tabloids also perpetuate the victim-blaming, slut-shaming mentality in which so many pedophiles are steeped. But neither do articles like O'Hagan's, which pretend to offer an even-tempered, rational alternative to this hysteria while echoing the same perception of sex as something divorced from consent, do anything to bring about a solution. Both are products of rape culture, and both are part of the problem.