A blog looking at the prevalence of child abuse in our society and how it relates to rape culture.
TRIGGER WARNING FOR CHILD ABUSE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT.
Recently, it has emerged that “beloved” children's entertainer Jimmy Saville was a paedophile and a rapist. This followed the revelation that the BBC had pulled a Panorama show exposing his crimes in favour of a glowing tribute following his death.
The case itself, but in particular the reactions to it, have prompted some thoughts which I will attempt to pull together here. Namely, that paedophiles are not demons waiting in the dark to snatch our children, but most often protected by the rape culture that prevails in our society. I will also discuss how the apparent universal disgust at child abuse which often manifests in media frenzy and vigilantism, feeds into this same culture rather than being a counterpoint to it.
The blogger Polite Ire succinctly defines rape culture for us here:
Rape culture is more than a society in which the physical act of rape is evident. Rape culture is a culture in which it is a societal norm for women to be objectified, for the fear of rape to be ever present, and where it is accepted that it is not possible to conceive of a society in which rape does not exist.
At the root of all this is patriarchy, wherein men are presumed simultaneously to be the only gender with sexual agency and unable to control their urges. Hence the presumption that women are “asking for it” if they dress a certain way being alongside a denial that women can choose to have sex with one person but not another, or even choose to have sex with someone at one point but not at another.
To be on the receiving end of harassment or abuse is thus a weakness of the victim rather than the fault of the attacker1. Such a victim-blaming can, as hard as it may be to contemplate, even be seen when we talk about the sexual abuse of children. Children are warned not to talk to or accept sweets from strangers precisely out of a fear that such actions could invite abuse. And this, again, is because we live in a society where the fear of such is ever present.
Another good example of rape culture connected to paedophilia is talk of “sexualising” children. The basic argument being that children, specifically girls, are allowed to dress and act “grown up” too fast. This not only exposes them to sex and sexuality before they are ready for it, but even invites child abuse.
The idea that dressing girls in “sexy” clothes leaves them open to sexual assault is just more victim blaming – the “asking for it” argument transferred to children and adolescents. But, more than that, it is built on the perverse assumption that being “grown up” for a female means nothing more than being an object of sexual desire. A girl may be made of sugar and spice and all things nice, but a woman is apparently just something a man puts his penis in. Do we really want to turn female children into cock receptacles before their time?
I put this as bluntly as I have with the deliberate intention of shocking. We should be shocked by societal attitudes to women, especially as implied through our attitude to girls.
But, the objection will no doubt come, all of this is just born of a desire to protect children. I have no doubt that it is, just as there may be good intentions when a man tells a woman how to dress or not to walk home alone in the dark. But the intentions are framed within rape culture, where we cannot contemplate that the risk of sexual assault might ever not be present, let alone how to get to that point. Thus, the onus is on the victims not to fall prey to abusers rather than on the perpetrators not to abuse.
Here be monsters
Another parallel between adult rape culture and child abuse is the attempt to project the perpetrators as an external “other.” The stranger waiting in the alley. The stranger driving past the school gates and offering streets. The stranger, as a general figure of fear.
In reality, 85% of rapists are men known to their victims. Fewer than 10% of abused children are abused by people unknown to them. Which is the very point of a rape culture: sexual assailants have not wandered in from the mist to commit their crimes. They are friends, relatives, trusted associates. The caricature of the stranger in the dark is a collective denial of the reality of sexual abuse.
Two recent and high profile examples illustrate this perfectly, as well as offering an insight into where child abuse fits into the broader picture of rape culture.
First, the case that provoked this blog – Jimmy Saville. Since the stories of his actions came to light, it has emerged that his behaviour was “an open secret” at the BBC.
As Six Music DJ Liz Kershaw told The Independent:
"The rumours were there; the jokes were there. It was an open secret," she told Radio 4's Today programme. "Round Radio 1, everyone joked about Jimmy Savile and young girls. The main jokes were about his adventures on the Radio 1 Roadshow. It was massive then."
She added: "When I walked into Radio 1, it was a culture I have never encountered before. I have always said it was like walking into a rugby club locker room, and it was very intimidating for a young woman."
"There was one presenter who routinely groped me. I would be sitting in the studio with my headphones on, my back to the studio door, live on air, and couldn't hear a thing except what was in my headphones, and then I'd find these wandering hands up my jumper, fondling my breasts," she said.
"I couldn't say anything. I couldn't even explain because I was broadcasting to the nation. When I complained to somebody, they were incredulous and said 'Don't you like it? Are you a lesbian?' "
This illustrates that the BBC was home to a broader culture of sexual harassment. But it clearly shows that the abuse of children was part of that. Everyone knew to some degree, from those who would tell jokes with a nudge and a wink to the employee whose job was allegedly to “procure” girls for the paedophile.
The second example I would use is the recent Rochdale grooming case. This case was perhaps the most high profile case of so-called “Muslim paedophile grooming” that became a cause celebré for the far-right, with eleven men being convicted of grooming and sexually assaulting young girls. However, precisely because of the tensions it created, it offered up almost perfect examples of both sides of the coin when it comes to rape culture and paedophilia.
Within the Asian and Muslim community2, there has been widespread denial that the cases highlighted represent a trend or a problem. Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of The Ramadhan Foundation, argued that this was "a significant problem for the British Pakistani community" and community leaders were "burying their heads" over the issue.
That attitude will in part, of course, be down to the attention of the far-right. The trials have seen riots and vandalism as well as large demonstrations by the BNP, EDL et al. But even without this tension, the denial would always be there, as I argued above.
Shafiq tells us that the perpetrators “think that white teenage girls are worthless and can be abused without a second thought.” The use of “white” as a descriptor illustrates how this particular issue has been exacerbated by the divisions created from state policies on multiculturalism. But, in the broader sense, an attitude that girls can be abused without thought – especially if they dress provocatively – is hardly unique to this community. Misogyny and objectification, arguably more overt and ever-present in certain cultures than others, creates the rape culture within which paedophiles operate.
On the other side of this issue, fascists have argued vigorously and continually that this is an indictment of Islam and of Muslim culture. But, of course, they ignore the issue closer to home. Some groups have responded to revelations of paedophiles in the EDL and other fascist groups by continually reaffirming their opposition to all paedophiles. I have no doubt that this is true for most but it doesn't change the fact that they have raised this3 purely for political expediency.
Within their own culture, we find the far-right dominated by patriarchy and sexism. They have atrocious attitudes to rape. Women in their movement are "angels" who "stand behind their men" whilst opposition women are "dogs" and "slags." They are obsessed with masculinity and being "real men4." Concern over sexual abuse is also boiled down to “ethnics” going after “our girls,” in other words a question of racism and possession of females.
But this is hardly unique to the fascists, as the same angles have been taken by the mainstream media. Here, demonising Muslims as a culture of paedophiles and rapists is just an extreme form of externalising the issue so that nobody has to face up to the questions of rape culture and patriarchy.
Challenging the trend
The above is an attempt to articulate thoughts provoked by recent revelations in the media. In discussing paedophilia and attitudes to it, there are whole swathes of territory I have avoided, and deliberately so. From paedophilia as a pathology, through arguments over whether rehabilitation is possible to why rushing to gather a lynch mob is not a helpful reaction5 these issues would make articles in themselves.
Returning to the main subject, it is difficult to draw any satisfying conclusions. Particularly since there is no easy answer – rape culture cannot be abolished overnight, but equally these issues need tackling even whilst it prevails. However, one thing that should be simple enough for all of us is a refusal to bury our heads.
The Jimmy Saville case will not be the only place where abuse is an open secret. The Rochdale case will not be the only example of a community burying their heads. The EDL are not the only ones shouting about external abusers whilst perpetuating misogyny. The point is to recognise it, to challenge it, and to be willing to dig a little deeper. Otherwise, we find ourselves complicit. And when we do that, it becomes ever harder to imagine a society in which the rape of children (or anyone else) does not exist.
- 1. As an aside, it is interesting to note that this is particularly obvious in reactions to male-on-male rape. It is often the subject of jokes and derision – such as the famous “squeal like a pig” line from deliverance – precisely because by succumbing to sexual assault a man has been defeated and robbed of his “male” qualities.
- 2. I have dealt with the implications of the case as it relates to official state policies of multiculturalism here, so I will only be touching on that in this post since I have a broader point.
- 3. Not to mention other things like questions of women's rights under Islam
- 4. With apologies for the link to an NF blog, the first paragraph of this post is a particularly laughable example of this.
- 5. Instances of why include the paediatrician whose house was vandalised over a misinterpretation of her job title and boy who was detained for questioning, but subsequently released, in the James Bulger murder case whose family had to flee the city.