Trigger warning – discussion of rape and child abuse
Yesterday I caught a little bit of Newsnight talking about the Jimmy Savile horror, and they showed a clip of Nick Clegg, asking in disbelief how Saville was able to get away with abusing girls for so long, without it coming out. To quote:
“I just keep asking myself why did this remain buried for so long…There must have been just so many people who knew what was going on in hospitals, the BBC, maybe in the police. The only explanation I can come up with is what we are seeing is the dark side of the culture of celebrity, and actually in this case it wasn't a culture of celebrity it was the cult of celebrity. I get the impression people felt that with all that glitter and shine there can't be a dark side, there can't be a seedy side”
It’s a question many people have been asking over the last week and a half since the revelations came out. It’s a question that has evolved from “why are the women only speaking out now” (answer, they weren’t) to “why did the BBC/police/hospitals/government do nothing?”
Maybe, as Clegg seems to think, it was something to do with the cult of celebrity.
But I think it’s a lot, lot simpler than that.
It’s to do with the fact that when women and girls come forward with allegations of rape and abuse, the default position in a rape culture is to not believe them.
When the revelations first broke, it felt a little bit like screaming into an echo chamber, as commenters on CIF etc. demanded to know why the women were only speaking out now, when Saville was dead.
‘They didn’t!’ we who had bothered to listen to the women shouted back. ‘They told at the time and no-one believed them!’ In fact, in some cases the then girls were punished for “telling lies” about Saville. And once you’ve been called a liar once, and seen the power and respect your abuser commands from everyone, then it would be hard to speak out again, I imagine. It would be hard to go against the huge tide of public opinion, when you know that speaking out again means more punishment, more disbelief. When you’re a child, and no-one believes you, no-one listens, and everyone calls you a liar.
It’s becoming increasingly clear since last week that it was the silence of his victims that Saville counted on. And in this, he is like every other abuser. But he was also counting on a rape culture that doesn’t listen to women and girls. And again, in this way he is like every other abuser.
There’s been a lot of comforting talk about how this culture was just something about the seventies, when we had a ‘Life on Mars’ attitudes towards sexual politics, and harassment and violence simply wasn’t taken seriously. Thanks to our sisters in the Women’s Liberation Movement, our society now at least pays lip service to the idea that violence against women and girls should be taken seriously. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have moved on so much that sexual abuse on this scale could not happen today, that today we’re more enlightened and would listen to girls, and would make sure the violence stopped.
Because a couple of weeks before the Saville story broke, the Guardian gave a comprehensive report on the failings of multiple services to protect girls in Rochdale, where girls as young as 13 were repeatedly raped and abused for profit by a vicious gang of men who hate women. The right wing press tried to push the notion that the gang remained unchallenged for so long because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. But I find this hard to believe. I believe, and the Guardian report reveals, that this was nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with rape culture, where we simply don’t believe girls who come forward to report violence. Suzi, the fifteen year old who was brave enough to tell the police what had happened to her, was deemed ‘unreliable’, and the rape and violence continued for four more years. ‘Unreliable’ is the ‘liar’ branded on Saville’s victims by the authorities back then. Just as Saville was able to get away with it for so long because no one believed the accusations made against him, so the Rochdale gang, the Derby gang, and the hundreds and thousands of rapists that never get caught, were able to get away with it because as a society we simply fail to believe women and girls when they tell us that men are violent towards them.
Even when we do listen to the women, and a rapist is found guilty in a court of law and fails any appeal to have his rape conviction over turned, too many people still don’t really believe the women. The case of Ched Evans earlier this year proves that. With a conviction rate of 6.5% (that rises to a higher number when the case reaches court), proving anyone guilty of rape still seems to be pretty hard, so when someone is found guilty I tend to believe that yes, they’re guilty. But that guilty conviction wasn’t enough for the thousands of men, and some women, that came out in support of Evans. Even when the evidence was there to convict, they still held strong to the idea that the woman was lying, that she was a liar, and he was a wronged hero. So hard it is for our society to accept that men rape, and women tell the truth, that even when there seems to realistically be no other conclusion to draw, the conclusion is still that she lies.
Across the channel, and again we see another case where women are simply not believed when they report the violence committed against them. In the tragic and horrifying case of Nina and Stephanie, who were repeatedly gang raped and terrorised in the Parisian banlieues, they have seen their attackers get away with it. In the case of Nina she was gang raped every day for six months by between 6 and 25 men, who would cue up to abuse her. Her rapists threatened to kill her family if she reported them. But she found the courage to, taking her abusers to court. Unfortunately the French Justice System did not share Nina’s courage, they did not have the courage to believe what the two young women were telling them. They instead chose to believe the men who told the court that the girls wanted it, that they consented, that they were lying. The court acquitted six of the accused, four were given a suspended sentence and one went to jail for one year. One year between 11 men for terrorising and repeatedly raping a 16-year old girl.
Nina and Stephanie now have to live in the banlieues with the men who raped them. The men who threatened them with more and more violence if they ever told.
So when Nick Clegg and his fellow politicians and his fellow commentators wring their hands and ask how, how, HOW did Saville get away with it for SO long, he doesn’t need to look into the past for his answers.
The answer is because in the seventies, eighties, nineties, noughties and today, our society didn't and doesn’t believe women and girls who report rape. The Met are launching their investigation into the Saville case, at the same time as they wrap up the investigation into an officer who repeatedly falsified rape reports because he chose not to believe the women who came to him. That’s how ingrained this culture is.
Until we start believing women and girls, really, really believe them, then we’ll still continue to ask the same question over the next Saville, the next Worboys, the next Huntley, the next gang.
Because to me, living in a rape culture means living in a culture where we find the reality that men rape and abuse women and girls so hard to cope with, so hard to accept, that we will do anything to make it not seem true. And that results in us refusing to listen to women and girls when they tell us that truth.
So, Clegg, and everyone else. Start listening. It’s our refusal to listen that lets abusers get away with it. Stop hand wringing and start listening.
Rape Crisis Number: 0808 802 9999