Your Daily Dose of Rape Culture

I think that I need to take out a subscription to the London Review of Books.  I had a year's free subscription up until a few months ago, courtesy of Dan Hartland, but I neglected to renew it.  At the time it didn't feel as if the fact that 95% of the magazine's content is smart, erudite, and well written was quite enough to justify spending the money, especially when there's so much else to read for free, but today I'm reminded of the, perversely enough, more appealing fact that the other 5% of LRB articles are just as smart, just as erudite, and just as well-written, but also batshit insane.  Previous standouts include pieces like Judith Butler's "Who Owns Kafka?" (March 3rd, 2011), in which Butler piles one unconvincing, flawed argument over another for why Israel shouldn't take possession of the papers of Franz Kafka, instead of just coming out and saying that it's because of the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and Jenny Turner's "As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes" (December 15th, 2011), in which Turner claims to be dismantling modern British feminism and yet gives barely any concrete examples of the movement past the 1970s.  Andrew O'Hagan adds to that list today with "Light Entertainment," from the November 8th issue, in which he discusses the Jimmy Savile scandal.

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.


One point he missed out was that with consensual gay sex illegal, non-consensual sex with social and age inferiors who could be trusted not to be believed, was actually safer.
One point he missed out was that with consensual gay sex illegal, non-consensual sex with social and age inferiors who could be trusted not to be believed, was actually safer.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scandibaby said…
Ms. Nussbaum, as always your comments are cogent and spot-on! We do have a rape culture which is "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" tolerated. Recent revelations about the activities of Sandusky, rapists who are tolerated but the victims further victimized at Amherst, and the coverup of the Boy Scouts of America pedophiliac activites are just the tip of the iceberg I'm afraid. I agree with you that pedophilia is easier for the perpetrator because young children do not have the confidence or physical strength to fight off the rapist. It's been shown again and again that men will stick it in anything, including light sockets, vacuum cleaner hoses, sheep, and rubber dolls.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this; an interesting post, and you really put your finger on some of the things that bothered me about the original article.

One thing I did want to mention, though, was on your statement that: What's missing from O'Hagan's scheme is, of course, consent.

I felt, reading the article, that part of what O'Hagan was trying to get at with his talk about the sexual revolution was the idea that younger people were sexualising themselves, as well as being sexualised by the wider culture. While obviously it makes sense to try and protect young people with the "age of consent", it's a largely arbitrary figure; it varies from country to country, historically the age of consent for homosexual relationships has been higher than that for heterosexual relationships, etc. While in our understanding in the UK, a child of fourteen is under the age of consent, and not therefore able to give meaningful consent to having sex with anyone, it's legal in Austria, Portugal, and much of the Balkans (to look only at Europe); in the atmosphere of the sexual revolution, I think it's possible that in the 1960s the age of consent might have been perceived differently.

Explicitly in the article, various people are quoted in the article saying that girls were "willingly" going up to Savile's hotel room, that the boys were choosing to spend time with Joe Orton, or whoever - these are clearly situations where social pressure, and expectations of sexual favours for preferential treatment may apply, but I think that there's at least a recognition there that consent is an applicable factor. The issue here may be partly about the ability of an individual of 14, 15, 16 to consent.

Having said all of that, I don't want to justify what was done, or the cover-ups, or (as Farah Mendlesohn points out) the careful choice of victims in many of these cases. These people who used their positions of power to use other people for sex - that's wrong, it's always wrong, and I wish it didn't happen.
Gavin Burrows said…
This is an interesting piece. Not having read the original article I don't want to comment too much, but...

”Most pedophiles, I believe, rape children because children are easier to rape than adults.”

...seems to me to pretty much hit it on the head. The scary thing is how blindingly obvious that statement is, yet how few people are saying it. Britain seems to have periodic paedo-scares, all of which coalesce around the idea there are a few, known sickos out there and if we watch them all the time our kids will be safe. Pretty much any expert on the subject will say this is pretty much the worst thing we could do for our kids' safety.

”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.”

British myself, it seems to me that our culture is a conformist one very keen to pretend otherwise. So 'eccentrics' have a totemic force on our maps, we fetishize them as proof of how individualised and tolerant of difference we are, even as we throw stones at the windows of the 'weirdos' who live on our own streets.

There was an interesting episode of the comedy quiz show 'Have I Got News For You' recently, on which Saville had previously been a guest. A transcript had gone round the internet showing how the other panellists had torn into him for his repellant actions. The panellists pointed out this transcript had actually been a complete fabrication, they'd all heard the rumours about him but hadn't brought the subject up for lack of hard evidence.

It seemed a microcosm of how history is now being rewritten, how the archetypal British eccentric was being morphed into the weirdo you throw stones at. Britain is at war with Jimmy Saville, Britain was always at war with Jimmy Saville.
Matt Hilliard said…
"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."

I agree with your broader points about culture, but here it sounds like you are saying here that it is normal for teachers and parents to molest children. I don't see how this could be true without twisting the word "normal" far beyond what it is supposed to mean. I would say instead that it's normal to hear about someone molesting a child. It's pretty well-established at this point that mass media causes us to overestimate the prevalence of certain kinds of crime.

wychwood, pedophilia is traditionally defined as an interest in prepubescent children. The age of consent is socially constructed but puberty is, well, less so. The "sickness" model of pedophilia is based on that traditional definition. What Abigail calls the "second, more pernicious" kind of pedophilia could probably be defined as occupying the space between puberty and the age of consent. Using the same word for both crimes is problematic since as Abigail notes they aren't really very similar and require different responses.
Gareth said…
Have to agree with Matt here. Being sexually attracted to prepubescent children is a mental disorder. Being sexually attracted to people past puberty, but not considered adults, is just human nature. We might have a strong taboo against acting on the attraction, but the attraction itself can't be any kind of disease or insanity. The problem is that in modern culture acknowledging something as a socially constructed taboo implies that breaking it is liberating and progressive. When in reality lots of socially constructed taboos are just fine, including "don't have sex with teenagers".
Andrew Stevens said…
Important to note that genuine pedophiles (as distinct from ephebophiles) are usually very gentle with their victims. On average, pedophiles have significantly less white matter in their brains, are much more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous, are significantly worse in cognitive function, and are shorter on average than other men. All of these biological markers would tend to point to a biological origin for pedophilia.

Jimmy Savile, like Roman Polanski and many others, is simply a predator. There was probably nothing wrong with him except morally. Pedophiles deserve our pity (particularly if they struggle with it all their lives and never act on it, as a great many of them do); Savile deserves our oppobrium.

They're trying to say that when a man shows an interest in a woman, he puts himself out there, and if the woman doesn't reciprocate that interest, they're worried that the woman will misconstrue the pass as something "creepy." The big fear that looms in their mind is that a statement as innocuous as "you look nice today" might bring a blush of appreciation from one person, while it might bring a look of disgust and a call to HR from another

Yeah, I get that this what a lot of men think, but that's not a defense of the men who try to argue against sexual harassment laws - it's precisely the problem I'm talking about. It indicates someone who is so steeped in male privilege that they are genuinely blind to what sexual harassment actually is. I don't know anyone who has made a call to HR over a single compliment. I do, however, know a woman who finally made a call to HR when the superior she refused to sleep with tried to get her fired, then had to call them again when that same man (who, because the VP liked him, wasn't fired after the first incident, merely told off) took to walking past her office several times a day.

So while you're right that it's a good idea, if you're not sure whether something you want to say will come off as creepy, simply not to say it, that doesn't solve the underlying problem, which is that a lot of men are so blind to the realities of what women have to deal with every day that they become part of the problem whether they mean to or not.


I think getting hung up on the age of consent is counterproductive - it's a necessary measure for combating the sexual exploitation of young people, but by no means a sufficient one, and like all lines in the sand its arbitrariness can be harmful as well as helpful. It's easy enough to imagine a seventeen year old who is ready to have sex and a nineteen year old who isn't, and the age of the older partner also makes a difference, defining the power differential involved - a seventeen year old having sex with a twenty year old is a less offputting concept than a nineteen year old having sex with a forty year old.

But I think that in fixing on this issue O'Hagan obscures a lot of more serious questions, such as how the power differential between the BBC presenters and their prey affected the latter's ability to make a meaningful choice to have sex with the former, and how the culture at the time (and even today) taught girls, in particular, to be available to men, and that when a powerful, famous man old enough to be your father tried to have sex with you, you were supposed to feel honored. Note that in at least one of the cases where the young partners are described as willing, we're also told that they believed they were going to get jobs and a chance at fame out of the relationship, but that all the adults around them knew they were just being used for sex.
Matt (and also Gareth and Andrew):

it sounds like you are saying here that it is normal for teachers and parents to molest children. I don't see how this could be true without twisting the word "normal" far beyond what it is supposed to mean.

No, what I was trying to say was that stories about such abuses are quite common, and that if every one of the abusers involved is mentally ill, then it starts to become meaningless to call that illness abnormal, since it occurs so frequently.

I take the point that you, Gareth, and Andrew are making about the difference between having sex with pre-pubescent children and having sex with children who are sexually mature but not emotionally mature. But I'm not sure that the distinction you're drawing, in which the former is a psychiatric disorder and the latter is a moral disorder, is as clear-cut as you think. Especially when it comes to girls, our society on the one hand encourages them to perform sexuality at a shockingly young age, and on the other hand has for decades been moving the standard of beauty for adult women closer to the childlike. Your average model or starlet is skinny, and has hardly any breasts or hips - she may be a grown woman but she's trying to look twelve. Andrew mentions Roman Polanski, but his victim was either twelve or thirteen - she may have been technically pubescent, but there's no way she was sexually mature, and yet it wasn't just Polansky who viewed her as a fully sexual creature, but the press that covered his trial.

Again, I think that the key issue here is consent, and more importantly, treating a potential sexual partner as a person rather than a thing to be acted on. The question shouldn't be "is it wrong to be attracted to this person"? It should be "does this person freely and meaningfully consent to have sex with me"?
This is a very powerful piece of writing, Abigail; I didn't react as negatively to the original O'Hagan piece as you, but you make a raft of excellent points about it. It's not exactly a defence of O'Hagan, but there is one element of taken-as-read British culture behind what he writes, which perhaps isn't as obvious as all that to a non-Brit, but which Gavin B. (rather brilliantly) nails in his comment, upthread:

"British myself, it seems to me that our culture is a conformist one very keen to pretend otherwise. So 'eccentrics' have a totemic force on our maps, we fetishize them as proof of how individualised and tolerant of difference we are, even as we throw stones at the windows of the 'weirdos' who live on our own streets."

This is spot-on; and gains resonance from the deep roots that sexual puritanism and distaste have in British culture more generally -- the sense, still palpable even today amongst many Brits, that it's having sex at all that is the deviance; and that once you take that step, all sorts of vices anglaises are as it were inevitable.

Your point about consent is impossible to argue against: of course that's the central issue here. I do think there's a wrinkle, though: many of the young girls we're taking about didn't consent to sex with Savile, and a good number were too young to consent to it in any case. But all of them 'consented' (as it were) to getting close to celebrity, to hanging out with pops stars and the adjuncts of pop stars, people off the telly and the like. The thing was that this happened in a culture that folded the former into the latter -- that wanting to be near the magic people who recorded pop songs and the people presented them on the telly was taken, without the matter being thought-through very clearly, as the same thing as wanting to have sex with these people. There's a residuum of that, even today, I think. The members of Rock Band A who had sex with underage girls are not being arrested and tried for it this year; but the secondary tier of the rock industry, DJs and the like, are. The rock stars are untouchable, because 'we' don't want to tarnish our love of 'Stairway to Heaven' (or whatever it might be).

Which leads me on to another thing that has struck me hard about the current horrible business: class. Savile has become, in short order, a folk devil (and with good cause). John Peel, another dead radio presenter and DJ who used his position to have sex with young girls, has not become a folk devil. Revelations about Peel surfaced a few weeks ago, but the media in the UK have concentrated all their ire against Savile instead. Why? Is it that Savile was working class, and widely loved by a largely working class audience (not any more, of course), where Peel was middle class and the darling of the Radio 4 Saturday Morning listening tribes?
Andrew Stevens said…
Your average model or starlet is skinny, and has hardly any breasts or hips - she may be a grown woman but she's trying to look twelve.

Fashion models, yes. I think you will find that starlets have better figures than that. It is a capital mistake to think that men find fashion models attractive. Heterosexual men don't generally find fashion models attractive nor are fashion models meant to appeal to them. (Men are not the ones who will be buying the clothes.) Bikini models are the ones who break out into big-time popularity - the ones who pose in Sports Illustrated. Kate Upton cannot be accused of having hardly any breasts or hips.

Now, of course, not all men (nor all predators) are heterosexual or have "typical" tastes, but it's a serious error to think that heterosexual men are, in general, attracted to women who look like teenage boys.
Anonymous said…
Savile's an easy target because 1. he's dead, so he's no longer subject to the UK's extremely restrictive libel laws (as far as I know) and 2. he's something of the Ultimate Pervert, in that he went for almost any target that couldn't properly consent--not just boys and girls, but boys and girls who were sick and handicapped, and according to rumor, even the dead. He's a real bogeyman.

It's interesting as it's a sort of dark mirror to the economic model where the more fortunate are expected to voluntarily share their resources with those with less, out of the goodness of their hearts, as opposed to having the dirty old state compel that money out of them, etc. People like Savile and Jerry Sandusky were lionized as examples of the generous person who gave back even when he didn't have to. They were community heroes for their volunteerism--and now that volunteerism turns out to have been a front for sex crimes. They used their generosity as a way to buy silence from people who otherwise would have spoken up. It's the dark side of relying on charity.

On a totally unrelated note, I think that sexual abuse of children may not be more common now than it was in the past--I think it's more likely to be reported, and therefore seems more common. It's the same issue as with rape, where in the past victims were more easily shamed into silence, and so there were fewer rapes reported.
Andrew Stevens said…
Just to drive this in, by the way. Take a look at a copy of Playboy or a porn film. Those women are meant to appeal to heterosexual men. What do you find? Surgically enhanced breasts.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
IamTooch said…
Turn it one click farther to the right, Bryan: as beta males negotiating the power structure of our society, they're nervous about anyone else gaining power, because they see it as a zero-sum game. Alpha males don't care, because they are so secure in their power and ego they don't acknowledge anyone else's. But everyone else is anxious because they feel (rightly or wrongly) that any gain in another's autonomy is a loss of their ability to get their needs met. And while we have started tearing down the old structure where men get their needs met by taking what they want and women put up with it, we haven't finished inventing a new structure that's based on mutuality, with codes everyone understands.

None of this applies to Jimmy, pedophiles, and rapists. They don't care about others' needs, or they delude themselves into thinking their victims' needs are aligned with their own. But very few people are monsters: the rest are just trying to get itches scratched, including the desires for sex, intimacy, or even just a little flirtatious fun. And flirting to boost YOUR ego is selfish if it comes at the expense of the recipient's comfort, so...make sure it goes both ways, or don't do it.
Gavin Burrows said…
Magpiewhotypes said:

”They used their generosity as a way to buy silence from people who otherwise would have spoken up. It's the dark side of relying on charity.”

Well, exactly! It's just like the old days where your livelihood was contingent on the largesse of the Lord of the Manor, so you weren't likely to object if he dragged your daughter off.

Matt Hilliard said:

”It's pretty well-established at this point that mass media causes us to overestimate the prevalence of certain kinds of crime.”

True. But in the case of child abuse, there's a twist. Like a magician misdirecting an audience, we're supposed to obsess over rare cases of 'stranger danger' and miss the places where child abuse is more likely to occur.

An old boss of mine doubled as a Boy Scout Leader in his evenings. He told me parents were rushing to sign their kids up for the Scouts, as they saw it as an organised activity where “we know they'll be safe”, rather than them playing out in the street. And, as he said himself, by any statistics you care to look at the kids were actually in more danger in the 'organised activity' than out on the street.

Saville certainly deserves condemnation. But the feeding frenzy over all this, with the media competing to come up with more and more salacious allegations, is misdirection.

After Adams Roberts Project has said such positive things about some of my comments, I feel a little reluctant to question some of his. But anyway...

While I find class theories generally make a pretty good Swiss Army knife when talking about culture, I'm not sure about this distinction between Saville and John Peel really works. Peel's actions might be somewhat less than savoury but I'm not sure they were on the same scale or degree as Saville's, and were mostly confined to the hippie era when everybody seems to have been (for want of a better term) at it. However, I am a lifelong Peel fan so perhaps I'm just being blinkered here.

More importantly...

”the sense, still palpable even today amongst many Brits, that it's having sex at all that is the deviance”

It's partly because Saville was yesterday's cultural totem (and consequently all too easily turned into today's scapegoat), but this seems to me a little one-dimensional and a whole lot of out-of-date. From the Nineties on there's been an immense sexualisation of British culture, such as the 'raunch' look in women's fashion, the prevalence of lads' mags and so on. The landscape has changed in quite a literal sense.

I'm pretty much uninterested in the moral panics about this. I don't care in the slightest if young people drink and shag each other more than they used to, it's their business rather than mine. But culture is often very much a barometer that swings from one extreme to another and (often) back again. And I'm not convinced there's much actual sexual liberation going on in a lad's mag, more those repressed puritan drives finally erupting and being transformed into a commodity.

I tend to think of it like this. In the Fifties, good girls didn't have sex before marriage, and slags slept around. By the Seventies it had flipped and the women who didn't sleep around were now 'uptight,' repressed and frumpy. Then from the Nineties on the women who didn't sleep around were still frumpy, but the ones who did were still slags. There still doesn't seem to be much sign of the idea that what you do with your own body should be your own affair. And the longer we go on like that the more we'll need folk devils like Jimmy Saville to distract us.
Gareth said…
I'd never heard of Jimmy Saville before the scandal, but the mention of eccentricity reminds me of Michael Jackson. One of the more sympathetic comments about him was that he was so weird that he actually could share a bed with a child without any sexual motivations. I think it's a significant difference between Britain and America that he was never considered a charming eccentric by anyone. His supporters thought of him as a compassionate philanthropist. To everyone else, he was either a simple pedophile or innocent but severely disturbed, incapable of interacting appropriately with children.
Andrew Stevens said…
And, as he said himself, by any statistics you care to look at the kids were actually in more danger in the 'organised activity' than out on the street.

This is a common misunderstanding of statistics. It's like the old "X% of accidents happen in the home" or whatever. Since people are typically spending X+Y% of their time in the home, it doesn't at all mean that one doesn't have to worry about accidents when outside, but should be fearful of walking around their house.

Similarly with strangers versus people you know. Of course, people who the child knows are more likely to be the culprit in such cases. Who else has the opportunity? The statistics do not at all imply that the child is safer on the street and it's highly unlikely that he would be.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Stevens said…
Bryan, to be fair, humans don't naturally think correctly about such things. They have to be trained to. The most famous example is:

"Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement."

When a random group of people were asked this, 90% selected option 2. But obviously option 1 is more probable than option 2, since in all cases where option 2 is true, option 1 is true as well. I once had a friend who was an actuarial professor who remarked to me that he asked this question of an actuarial class and he was surprised when they all got it right, but he quickly realized that this was because they'd been trained to think in terms of probability and statistics. Most people think associatively, though, because that's instinctive.

You could not convince me that being out in the rain is more dangerous than skydiving, even if you had statistics showing me that more people die from lightning strikes than from skydiving. Very few people skydive.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavin Burrows said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavin Burrows said…
With the greatest respect to Andrew and Bryan, I'm not sure either of you have really picked up on my point here!

I was not claiming that playing in the street has statistically been proven a safe thing to do, so the best thing for parents is to leave their kids there while they vanish off down the pub. Which is what your accidents-at-home analogy would be an answer to. (Though even there traffic would be a greater danger than anything else. There are more cars around than there are Freddie Starrs.)

The ensuing examples of where statistics can be misread, however interesting in themselves, don't seem particularly germane to what we're talking about.

I was saying that parents tend to have a fear of strangers and a faith in institutions which is baseless, and almost certainly counter-productive. Trainspotters tend to go where the trains are, comic fans to comic shops. Similarly, paedophiles are more likely to go where concentrations of children are, and where they're bounced into having an interaction with them.

While this fear almost certainly has widespread social causes and is not just something stirred up by the media, it quite definitely does get stirred up by the media. Suspect others. Trust us instead. Perhaps the most infamous example in Britain was the 'Named Shamed' News of the World headline, issued in the midst of paedo-panic witch hunts, which did a great deal to turn a bad situation into a worse one.
Adam Roberts said…
Gavin: "After Adams Roberts Project has said such positive things about some of my comments, I feel a little reluctant to question some of his. But anyway..."

But anyway you're going to disagree with my point that middle-class John Peel has been let off lightly by the press, by letting him off lightly yourself?

"Peel's actions ... were mostly confined to the hippie era when everybody seems to have been (for want of a better term) at it."

Really? Sexually abusing kids is kind-of OK if 'everybody is at it'? You don't think that's exactly what Savile thought in the 70s? Dude, are you serious?
Andrew Stevens said…
Gavin, I was going to object to your being overly paranoid of "institutions," but then I read a bit more about the Savile scandal and I withdraw the objection, though I think you're probably overstating it. But I'd need good solid statistics to know for sure.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavin Burrows said…
"Sexually abusing kids is kind-of OK if 'everybody is at it'? '

Well obviously not! But in your quote above you've cut out the more important point I made, that "I'm not sure they were on the same scale or degree as Savile's." The point that Savile only seems to have stopped at the point he died, that seemed to underline the point, but was scarcely my main point. Obviously if more serious allegations against Peel come out and are corroborated, that will be a different matter.

"We were just digressing a little there."

Fair enough!
Anonymous said…
The problem with the "oh it was a different culture" argument going around is it doesn't apply for Savile. Panorama did a documentary, "What The BBC Knew"*, in which:

a) People from the time say Savile was investigated around the 70s or so, because the rumours were bothering people. Nothing was found out at the time but if it's culturally 'fine', you aren't going to bother looking.

b) People from the time saying they heard the rumours and didn't believe them, and wish they'd known the truth. One ex-presenter recounts being told by Savile that he'd had sex with a girl: "I thought he was joking", and he sounds genuinely upset that he'd missed it. No "different time" excuse from there.

c) Paul Gambaccini says he did know and was horrified at the time. He didn't report it because - and he thinks we'll be sympathetic here, which I doubt anyone is - he was a junior DJ and Savile was his senior, they might not have believed him. That still means that, back in the day, you could report this.

d) Savile's victims from hospitals and approved schools are interviewed, and they make it clear they were vulnerable and, in the case of Broadmoor and the approved school, nobody was going to believe them. If having sex with underage girls is fine, why is he going after people who nobody will believe?

e) Some victims were boys. Homosexual acts between consenting men was illegal in England & Wales until 1968, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland until fucking 1982, and many people still considered it abhorrent (some still do). Nobody can seriously claim that sex with underage boys would've been shrugged off at the time.

Which makes it worse, because this was horrible even in The Old Days and it still happened because people weren't paying attention or deliberately turned a blind eye for stupid reasons.

* The BBC investigating and reporting on the BBC is one of those things that must look bizarre abroad

- Charles RB
Anonymous said…
re Peel, he admitted he had sex with fans without 'asking for ID' and it's come out that he had an affair with a fifteen year old when he was thirty, when she says she was "insecure and impressionable". So that is something illegal and abhorrent, that would be a big story at any other time.

Savile's a lot worse though: more victims, more vulnerable victims, and it's a man who was a children's entertainer and famous for his charity work. It's the "bigger" scandal if you're a commercial paper. (It's also Savile who got covered up, so you get two stories in one!)

- Charles RB
Adam Roberts said…
I'm ducking out of this discussion for the following reason: a woman writes a powerful blogpost about the recent Savile case, and the culture it exposes, making one central, essential, unarguable point (it's about consent). Into the comments for said post pile a bunch of argumentative, pushy men -- I include myself in that (and I can't know the gender of wychwood, so I may be over-stating the gender split) who jostle and bicker and try to claim the high ground for their particular perspective. This, looked at overall, makes me uncomfortable; and since I'm part of the problem (on this thread) I'm removing myself. It's a question, I think, of overall tone here -- in the comments, I mean.
Gavin Burrows said…
I can't think of one single post here which has gone against Abigail's contention that the underlying issue is consent. (A few tried to probe male hostility to feminism, but they made clear they weren't condoning that hostility.) The only issue I have with it is that it is an issue, and isn't considered something blindingly obvious.

Personally I read her piece slightly differently, that simply labelling Savile a "sicko" whose behaviour was aberrant and inexplicable masks the roots it has in our dominant culture. Savile didn't come out of nowhere, he was born and bred. It's an argument which rests on the concept of consent, but isn't about it per se.

Also, I'd also have to say I didn't read Abigail's own comments thinking they read like someone being pushed around by "argumentative, pushy men."
Anonymous said…
If my posts have been pushy, I apologise

- Charles RB
Anonymous said…
Brava, Abigail!

I find your point about the conflation of rape of children and homosexuality particularly on point, because this is not only an ongoing confusion, but a political point being used with great ability and intent to restrict the rights of LGBT people.

The issue, as you point out so ably, is consent and the reframing you describe is desperately needed.
Foxessa said…
We were in London when the Saville thing started breaking in the media. As many of our friends there are part of the pop culture, art culture and particularly ye olden days of the British pop music thing of the 60's and 70's -- these guys said, "That's what the pop music world was in those days -- totally preying on girls and boys, and for a lot of those guys, the gender really did not matter."

Love, C.
r smith said…
Bryan M. White and a couple of others already suggested the dangers in drawing a conclusion based upon the frequency of sexual assault (or sexually perverse) stories one has consumed in the media. So perhaps we should be careful about statements like "It seems far more likely to me that in most cases, pedophilia isn't an individual disorder, but a social one..." I'd suggest you provide some authoritative sociological citation with such an assertion. You are right that consent is the crux of the issue, but your piece errs (I think) in leaning away from the other unavoidable factor: personal responsibility. The corollary here is murder. Yes we have a culture of violence, and there's no doubt that that culture influences people, but no responsible and judicious person would blame "society" because a man beat his wife or girlfriend to death. The consensus on this is far from unanimous, which is why we should stick to asking the questions for now instead of drawing foregone conclusions.

And while there are many men who obviously are, my sex (male) as a whole is not as oblivious to the plight of women and their daily struggles as you have concluded. Cogent criticism of sexual harassment laws lies in the inherent fear of abuse of power, especially when considering that most often the only evidence that exists for such an accusation is one's word against another's. Perhaps, Abigail, you do "get that this is what a lot of men think," but you also seem to be dismissing Bryan's perspective with that very statement, making the assumption that he (we) will never "get" what you think or feel or experience because we're rendered oblivious (through only partial fault of our own, you assert) by our "male privilege." When was the last time you turned on your TV set and saw a program that DIDN'T portray a man as a pathetic, hormone-driven loser who ought to worship women? I almost can't even watch the program The Big Bang Theory any longer, as the Leonard-Penny and Howard/Bernadette relationships are a perfect example of this. This perception of men riddles our media, and doesn't do our inevitable conflict any favors.

I DO know someone who made a call to HR over a single compliment, and I know that this could just as easily have been over office politics as it could be real harassment. I've also known a case of real harassment, and saw the sordid affair play out. So I recognize the difference. This doesn't mean I can't point out the dangers of relying on he said/she said in a court of law, dangers that are every bit as dire (this culture STILL champions innocence until guilt is reasonably proven, thankfully) as the very real and widespread influences of chauvinism and patriarchy.

I acknowledge that you say "a lot of men," and not ALL men, but the same could be asserted about the dismissal women have of men. A good study of this is a superlative book I have to recommend for everyone here who hasn't read it, which is Shaunti Feldhahn's THE MALE FACTOR. A rare attempt to diffuse what has become a gender war instead of a conflict, it's well worth your time.
I've been remiss in addressing what's been going on in this comment thread, mainly because I was hoping that it had already died its own death. Since that's clearly not the case, I'm going to have to address how toxic the comments here have become, which, coupled with my silence so far, might make it seem as if I'm singling greyfoot out. That's very much not the case. As Adam has pointed out, this thread has been characterized by the bugbears of discussions of rape culture almost from its start - derailing (bringing up false accusations of rape during a discussion of rape culture is a little like bringing up Holocaust denial during a discussion of the Holocaust - the tangential connection masks the fact that you've changed the subject - except that somehow hardly anyone ever does the latter, whereas the former happens almost inevitably), nitpicking, and mansplaining (instead of arguing with Adam over which one of you has greater insight into my state of mind, Gavin, maybe it would have been better to simply ask me about it?). The reason I haven't said anything so far is that in my experience doing so rarely makes things better, as the people whose bad behavior has been pointed out are usually too occupied in justifying themselves to amend it. I'm hopeful that that won't happen here.

So, greyfoot: your point that in addressing the enormous role that social conditioning plays in normalizing, minimizing, and legitimizing rape and sexual abuse I am ignoring "personal responsibility" is a straw man so enormous that it is practically a fire hazard. In fact, you're reversing the argument I've made, that the current conversation about rape focuses on individual responsibility - on boogyman pedophiles - to the exclusion of all other considerations, and thus not only fails to curb the pernicious social factors that teach men that they may treat others' bodies as their own property, but even intensifies them.

But then, I'm not surprised that your argument boils down to "I agree with what you're saying, but have you considered the complete opposite?" because having made that point, and a brief sop to the importance of consent (the actual subject of my post, I'll remind you) what you spend most of your comment dealing with is your feeling that I've been unfair to the male gender. I'll repeat: in response to a post about rape, sexual abuse, and rape culture, the most important thing you found to discuss was the question of whether I was being fair to men.

This is, of course, sadly typical - in almost any discussion of rape culture it will inevitably become necessary to reassure some of the men participating that, of course, we're not talking about you, you're OK. Aside from being annoying, what this does is provide the "bad" men with protection - if your first response to any discussion of rape culture is defensiveness and the attempt to hijack the conversation so that it becomes about your own hurt feelings, you've basically created a safe space for men who are predators.

Again, greyfoot, you're far from the only offender on this thread - you're merely the one who made it clear to me that I couldn't stay silent about what was going on here any longer, and I apologize for not making the norms of conversation clear a lot sooner, which might have forestalled your comment. However, if the impulse you're feeling right now is to explain and excuse yourself, you might want to consider that that is the next step in a process that I have witnessed more than once, so that what started out as a conversation about rape culture and became a conversation about reassuring men that they are OK, becomes a conversation about whether it was right to point out to these men that they were derailing the conversation, and whether the people pointing this fact out were being rude when they did so. I'm not inclined to let that stage play out on my blog.
Gavin Burrows said…
”instead of arguing with Adam over which one of you has greater insight into my state of mind, Gavin, maybe it would have been better to simply ask me about it?”

Abigail, I have to say I made it quite clear I was talking about my reading of your post. I used virtually those words. If I misread it then I will stand corrected. If I've severely misread it I'll apologise. But you'll need to tell me how I've misread it.

And I've absolutely no idea what your “state of mind” is, so I don't see where that's coming from. I only know what you write here.

My immediate reaction to Adam's post was that he was walshing out on an important subject. Kind of saying “of course only women can really understand this stuff, so all the guys need to shut down now.” It may be easier for women, but I can't see that's any reason why men shouldn't try. Some of the comments since then have in my opinion gone more into 'hurt guy' territory, which perhaps retrospectively strengthens his argument. But I was responding when I did.
r smith said…
I apologize if hackles were raised, even if it was inevitable.


My comment exists in two parts; the first addressing your initial post, Abigail, and then addressing your comment following Bryan's. I'll accept your apology about the comments, since you didn't just let the discussion derail, but also perpetuated it in your response to Bryan. The second part of my comment--which you CHOSE to conclude was the most important part--was a response to the comment that was uncharacteristically (of you) dismissive. I couldn't let that slide, as much as I really wanted to.

Now, the ACTUAL important portion of my comment is something you've still failed to refute. I wasn't trying at all to steer the issue away from all other social factors; I was pointing out that you had put yourself in a precarious position by excluding a factor that is unavoidable--and therefore not a straw man at all. You're speaking about behavior that is criminal, and you use legal terms like "consent," "rape" and "assault." These are concepts that have dire, immediate repercussions for those involved, and can't be relegated purely to academic musings on what/where our culture has become. I wasn't "reversing" or "intensifying" anything. Asking questions about sociological conclusions that were not based on All important factors doesn't make one an enabler.

But I understand. Whenever people disagree on a social hot button issue like this one, dismissing the opposition (in a "typical" fashion) is an easy flub.
Well, I can only assume that neither one of you read my comment, or at least not all the way to the end. How else to explain the fact that in response to my clearly stating that I would not tolerate the conversation in this thread being even further derailed by justifications of your behavior, you responded by trying to do just that?

I think I've made it very clear that I consider your behavior unacceptable. Your options at this stage include either apologizing - by which I mean a real apology, not "I'm sorry if you took offense" - or leaving the thread. They do not include arguing with me over whether your behavior was indeed unacceptable. They most certainly do not include arguing with me while continuing in the same unacceptable behavior.

Or, to put it more simply, when someone tells you "don't do X because it'll make you look like a dick," doing X in the expectation that it'll make everything better is probably not a wise course of action.
Gavin Burrows said…
I did read all your comments. I also went back and re-read my own comments. Ironically, I wrote what I did with the feeling Adam was making assumptions about your position. But on reading them back I'd have to agree they are ill-conceived, and I should probably have said something better-considered or nothing at all.

Please accept my apologies for any offence caused, or any suggestion I'm able to speak on behalf of someone else. That was not my intention.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thank you, Bryan, for once again demonstrating that in a conversation about the rape of women, what's truly important is the possibility that someone, somewhere, has said something marginally offensive towards men!

Thank you also for presuming that you know what I think, and what I should do, better than I do!

Finally, thank you for the passive-aggressive way in which you dismiss my inevitable negative reaction to your comment before it's even happened as "yelling"! It's not as if language like that has been used to dismiss women's arguments as "angry" or "hysterical" since at least the internet's inception! Oh wait, it totally has! Congratulations on being a part of that!

I couldn't possibly have made it any clearer that a comment along these lines would be not only unwelcome, but deeply offensive. I know that that's the case because you make it very clear that you realize how unwelcome and offensive your comment is. And yet you posted it anyway. Given that - given how little respect you would have to feel for me in order to do something like that - it seems a little futile to say this, but here goes: do not, under any circumstances, no matter what you want to say, no matter how urgent it feels for you to say it, no matter how convinced you are that this next comment will make everything better and convince me of your rightness, do not comment here again.
Bryan White said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
You're right, Bryan, it was massively inappropriate for you to post this comment.

I happen to agree with you that the kind of language you were objecting to normalizes bad behavior by men, but that wasn't your original objection, was it? You were concerned that it was "bashing" men, and apparently convinced that I "knew" this as well. Your comment, as I've already pointed out, was the epitome of derailing, dismissive behavior.

I'm very sorry for you and your wife's experiences. They don't, however, justify your behavior towards me. I laid out very clear rules about what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and you chose to ignore them because you decided that your wishes were more important than mine, even on my own website. Nothing about that says respect.

I'm now closing comments on this thread, because it's become depressingly obvious that many of the people responding here can't be trusted to behave. I can't quite express how dispiriting an experience this has been, and how disappointed it has left me in my own readers.

Popular posts from this blog

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Somehow, It Got Worse

Recent Movie: The Batman

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Now With an Asterisk