Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dave Lee Travis and the response to sexual assault

Sexual assault is a crime. 

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, in recent days, I’ve found myself having to remind myself of this, and remind others of it too. 

Sexual assault is a crime. It is a crime to grab a woman’s arse or crotch. It is a crime to grope a woman’s tits. It is against the law to violate another person’s autonomy. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke. It’s not ‘just a laugh’ and ‘boys will be boys’. It is a crime. 

I feel I have to remind people of this because in the days following Dave Lee Travis’ conviction for indecent assault, there has been the usual flurry of people trying to minimise what he did, and what others like him did. They’ve tried once again to paint sexual assault as something that just ‘used to happen in the 60s/70s/80s’ (even though we now know that he was still assaulting women in the last few years - as Camilla Long’s excellent article illustrates). When that defence has failed, they’ve tried to act as though it’s not that bad for men to violate women’s boundaries, for men to treat your body as public property. 

That’s what sexual assault is, by the way. It is a deliberate choice by another person to violate your personal boundaries and to treat your body as their property - to treat your body as though it doesn’t belong to you. 

So why are so many people so determined to minimise this crime? Why are so many people determined to pretend that it isn't that bad? Why are people so invested - as one tweeter was this morning - in telling women to stop moaning and instead concern themselves with ‘real issues’? Why, when I tweeted about my own experience of sexual assault, did I receive the patronising response, ‘there there dear!’? 

I’ve got two suggestions. Firstly, I believe it is because of the oft-repeated refrain from the last couple of years:

If that’s a crime, then you’d have to lock up most of the male population!

In another instance that proves that anti feminist men have much less respect for men than most feminists, I believe that most of the male population are able to go about their lives without grabbing women’s body parts. I don’t think violating women’s bodies is something that blokes innately or naturally do. It is a deliberate crime that one person commits against another. So you wouldn’t have to lock up most the male population. (#notallmen !!!)

But if every sexual assault: if every grab; if every act of intimidation; if every flash; if every public wank on to a woman’s body without her consent; if every tongue forced down a throat without consent; if every rape - if all of these crimes were reported, and convicted, then there would be many, many more men in prison. When you consider there are over 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year. And that around 80,000 of those are rapes. And of those rapes only 15% are reported. And of that 15%, only 6% are convicted. 

Imagine for a moment, if every one of those sexual assaults and rapes were reported, and every victim was believed, and every perpetrator was convicted. We can’t, can we? We can’t conceive such a thing - if every time a man has groped or grabbed us he was arrested, and charged, and convicted. 

And the reason we can’t imagine it is because as women we have been taught for so long that these every day violations of our bodily autonomy are just things we are meant to put up with. From the age of 16, 14, 12, 10, 8…we are told not to make a fuss. We are told it’s just a bit of a joke. Boys will be boys. We’re told ‘not to make a fuss over nothing’. We’re told it’s just what happens to you when you are a girl or a woman, in public space. We’re not told that anything we can be done about it. We walk away, feeling sad, and frightened, and ashamed, and embarrassed. And he, the person who has made you feel this way, walks away feeling free. 

When I flick through my own main experiences of sexual assault assault, there are at least four offences of DLT proportions and worse. And those are just the four I remember. The general litany of flashings and gropings are too commonplace, too blurry, to really recall individually. I didn’t report a single one of them. I didn’t even report when my hair was set on fire. 

‘Don’t make a fuss. ‘Boys will be boys’. ‘What do you expect?’

Thankfully, in the case of DLT, women did stand up. They called the assaults what they were. They named the crime. And how do we, collectively, as society respond? By talking about how awful it is for him to have to go through this. By talking about how the assaults aren’t that bad. By telling women, once again, that they should just put up with it, and keep quiet. 

I’ve long observed how as a society, we have a dissonance in our approach towards violence against women. I have written about this before, in terms of our reaction to violent celebrity men.

We all agree that of course, violence against women is wrong. We all nod our heads vehemently and agree that rape is an abhorrent crime. And then we do our best to try and minimise violence against women. When we are confronted with rape, we find ways to blame the victim. When we are confronted with domestic abuse, we ask why she stayed. And when sexual assaults like DLT’s are revealed, we shake our heads and muse publicly about whether it’s actually that bad, whether being groped is actually that distressing.

(It is, by the way. Being a victim of sexual assault is deeply unpleasant. In my experience it has meant feeling grubby, and embarrassed, and ashamed. It has made me feel anxious in public spaces. It has been a constant reminder that under patriarchy, I am not entitled to believe that my body is my own, and that there will always be men willing to remind me of this.)

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that the reason we do this, the reason we condemn violence against women on the one hand, and excuse and minimise it on the next, is because the reality of male violence against women and girls is just too awful to confront. So we find ways to avoid confronting it. And the best way to avoid confronting male violence, is to focus our attention on women’s behaviour. 

So now I want you to confront the reality of male violence against women in the UK. Think about it for a moment. Think about how in the UK, there are 500,000 sexual assaults every year. 80,000 rapes every year. That’s around 1500 rapes a week. 1.2 million women every year experience domestic abuse. 2 women a week are being killed by their male partners or exes. 

Think about how,  at the same time this is happening, the government cuts are closing down the services that tackle male violence, and pick up the pieces left by male violence. 

It’s a lot easier to find ways to blame the victim, to ask questions of the victim, and to pretend that the crimes committed against women are not that bad. It’s a lot easier to do that then to confront the extent of male violence against women, to take action to prevent it, and to invest money in supporting the women who experience it. 

It’s a lot easier to tell women that the assaults committed against us aren’t that bad, than to ask why nearly half a million men feel confident that they can grope, grab and assault women and get away with it. 

I think there’s another reason why so many men in the last few days have huffed and puffed and tried to pretend that there’s not much wrong with what DLT did. 

And that’s because they are guilty of the same crime. But unlike DLT, and in common with the vast majority of men who grope, grab, flash, wank on, beat, and rape women, they got away with it. 

DLT’s conviction has reminded those men that what they did is a crime. And now they’re running scared they won’t be able to get away with it again. 

Fancy buying a book or two?

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue
The Boys on the Bus 

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