Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name - not to mention nerdiness - I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.

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Chapter 8: Biology

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

I have mixed feelings about biology, and today Mr Frew’s lesson has dragged on.

It’s fifth period, so I’m zipping books away for the walk home when Stephen Hodgson approaches, asking if some girl interests me.

Nope, I sigh.

Why, he asks – because of who she’s going out with?

Nope.

Because of who I’m going out with?

Nope.

‘Because you’re gay?’ asks Stephen, turning to wild theories as the classroom empties.

‘Yes’, I shrug.

‘Really?’

‘Mm.’

I head out.

Chapter 9: Attention.

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Chapter 7: Stranger Danger

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

I’d most likely be straight today had Jonathan been a girl. He never could have been, of course – the friendship where things started out between us categorically male, and girls don’t often assault boys – but the fact my flesh responded to his touch even as my mind fled makes me think it would have done to anyone’s. It’s not widely admitted sexual assault can be arousing, but many victims will quietly acknowledge among themselves that that’s part of the violation. At any rate, I don’t think I’m alone in having coped over the years by allowing memories of mine to be erotic.

I was stretched out on the living room sofa a few weeks later when being gay came to me. Eyes shut, brain replaying Jonathan’s words, palm moving over denim jeans, it seemed the natural explanation if his actions or their reenactment made things throb. It didn’t bother me, and was more an oh than anything, but neither did I ask myself whether a girl might have the same effect. I couldn’t have been less attracted to him, but instead of sussing hard-ons were about nerve endings, I assumed the way Jonathan’s fingers turned me on must involve him being a boy, and boys became my sexual focus.

Dial-up modems were still widespread in 2004. Their distinctive electronic rasp was the sound of discovery: home from school in the late afternoon, for evenings and into the night I sat at Mum’s bedroom table googling ‘gay teenagers’ on an HP computer. Avoiding reels of porn, which were a later destination, I found informative websites, advice columns, forums for queer youth and chatrooms. Reclusive, twelve and with no reason to go out, I spent whole weekends on these sites, and not just because of how long it took them to load.

You might be reading this with apprehension, and initially I was apprehensive. As much as anyone today, I’d been told the Internet was a dark, twisted place, not least for children – the home of perverts, deviants and strangers who’d handed sweets out in playgrounds before MSN arrived. In fact, living online saved me. It was where I made my very first queer friendships, mocked Fred Phelps, learnt about the real ins and outs of sex and listened to coming out stories. The net was somewhere I felt uniquely safe: I decided I never wanted to leave, and I haven’t.

Now and then, an unsettling message appeared; I clicked Block and that was that. There’d been no block button when Jonathan sat next to me in German class – indeed, it was our school’s insistence on shielding pupils from unseemly talk of sex that made what happened possible. Unlike in meatspace, no one could do anything to me online that I didn’t want them to. Even away from public forums, my contacts – Floridan Sean, Canadian Chris, Matt in New Zealand, Logan in one of America’s Birminghams – were half a planet away and confined to speaking via onscreen text. It’s hard to imagine a less vulnerable form of communication. Research on sexual violence shows the stranger-predator to be a bogeyman: usually, as I’d been unlucky enough to find out, the culprit is someone known to us.

As we spent whole nights discussing bullying and Buffy, trading mp3s and occasional selfies, it turned out some of my online friends – one or two in their mid-twenties – did think I was cute. It’s hard not making this sound powerfully creepy, but I don’t believe it was ever sinister. These people were part of large and interweaving web communities, some of them with popular LiveJournals, and we’d spoken now and then by webcam with the same platonic ease friends at school had: they were real people as clearly to me as my blogging colleagues now, and when a couple fessed up guiltily to wishing I was older, it was with the shy apologism of a best friend admitting a light crush. It had occurred to me they were cute too, and while nothing beyond affection ever came of it, hearing they felt the same of me was on the whole affirming. In contrast to what I’d been through with someone my own age, it wasn’t predatory at all, but healing.

I won’t speak to others’ experience or make grand points. I’m not even sure what I’m even saying about mine, but mentioning it seems important.

Chapter 8: Biology.

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Chapter 6: The Age of Consent

Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits.

Rage is the simplest response to Jonathan, and for a while it was mine. As we fell over the years into non-overlapping peer groups, connected only by fragile silence, it subsided to be replaced with disdain. He left school at 16 without ever coming out, shaved legs and a gaggle of female friends declaring for him what he couldn’t, and is now a hairdresser; I resented, I think, that someone who had the balls to snatch at mine was so pathetically timid about what made his own dick hard. Assaulting me was the most audacity he ever managed, and a chapter in this book’s all he’ll ever be – the truth is, he no longer matters enough to hate.

My anger hasn’t mellowed, but it has found better targets. I’ve made Jonathan a villain as compellingly satanic as he was when I was twelve, so it’s only natural reader-responses have focused on him. (Was he punished? Does he know I’ve written of him? What was his real name?) But there are better things to ask about, because what he did was just one gory detail in a much bigger picture.

I’d be lying if I said I that in my early teens, I never casually groped anyone the way straight boys, joking at least ostensibly, groped me – not a calculated or sadistic touch like Jonathan’s had been, but still uninvited and unwelcome. I’m positive they did as much or worse to the girls in our year, believing honestly – as for a time, I did - that this was just how flirting worked. Jonathan was special only in that he knew what he was doing, and even then, he’d seen encroaching physically as an acceptable come-on while we were friends.

If he took harassment to an extreme, it’s partly because none of us knew what sexual assault was to begin with. Nothing about the theory of consent or practice of not touching-without-asking came up in what sex ed we’d had. Biology made it all about how mums and dads made babies, and Mrs Swainson, who spent at least the first third of each French lesson discussing being head of PSHE, was too beside herself about having the job to do it properly. (If she had, I might have recognised lines like ‘I know you love it’ and ‘That means you like it’ from my own experience for what they were.) In my final years at Keswick School, I learnt about female pupils boys there had assaulted, convinced what they were doing was fine. Even as this unsettles me, I find it unsurprising.

Violence of that sort wasn’t discussed except clandestinely by those who knew the girls; I’ve no idea how much went on that I didn’t hear of. My assault could never have been dealt with formally, since that would have meant discussing it, and talking about sex attacks as real – queer sex attacks at that – would have been as out of keeping with the ethos of respectability that held sway as high heels and untucked shirts. (At that stage, of course, I’d have been terrified to mention being anything except straight to a teacher in the first place.)

Jonathan was just one product of that place, which prided itself on clinging to a long-dead age of values and traditions. Its own included homophobia and prudishness, and so it could never have weathered an age of consent.

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

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Chapter 5: Friends with Benefits

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

Jonathan’s surname was next to mine on the register, so we met at the beginning of Year 7 when seating plans put us together. That I don’t retain much memory of our friendship shows it was the kind eleven year olds form when they have to, determined in my case and I suspect in his to bond with peers after an isolated time at primary school. We probably first spoke in physics when one of us needed a pen, after which, since I was brighter and more attentive, I offered help and shared my answers with him.

Both of us were sore thumbs. Beside being clever and unpalatably desperate to prove it, with clothes that didn’t fit and a nasal voice, I’d inherited my parents’ foreign name and home counties accent, sounding unlike almost anybody else. (As soon as I found out it made me posh that I said Alexander as in ‘half’, I’d dropped the second part of my first name.) Jonathan, for his part, spoke like a hairdresser and sang like Whitney Houston – so although he was built not unlike our year group’s rugby players, he would never have passed.

When we hung about at lunch (you had to hang about with someone), walking around the netball courts, those were the boys we attempted to avoid. I hadn’t felt attraction in any sense, adult or adolescent, at that stage, but gay was still something other people were and not that I could be. Somehow it clicked immediately that Jonathan was one of those people. When I’d used femme to provoke in infant school it had been self-assured, but his camp had an uncomfortable quality, smarmy, laboured and affected as if to state something unspeakable.

There were times when he more or less said it, in fact, though discreetly and only to me. I am _ay, he wrote once inside his homework planner, one letter obscured, tilting the book toward my gaze in history; ‘It is a he’, he said on another occasion of his crush once I’d fessed up to having none. ‘It’s you’, he added.

I wasn’t hostile toward gay people – since only other people were, it was just obvious to me I wasn’t. I assumed it would be just as obvious to him, though I had to deal him so on my twelfth birthday when he pinned me to the floor, hips locked together after ogling a muscle-bound film star. I’d been just as ill at ease on one of our earlier sleepovers when he’d asked to see my dick, although it didn’t stop me letting him under my quilt.

I can’t remember what it was specifically that made me stop wanting to be Jonathan’s friend. Partly I’m sure, it was that even though we never talked about it, he couldn’t take no for an answer when it came to us being anything more; partly that I preferred being alone to spending time with someone so much less intelligent than me; partly my snobbery. (His family, while better off than mine, watched Pop Idol and ate takeaways.) I’m sure, too, that the homophobia of other boys played a part – with which, half bowing to pressure and half trying to create some distance, I’m sorry to say I joined in at times. When finally I said insistently that I no longer liked him, he shouted as I walked away that a lonely life awaited me.

 

In the year that followed, Jonathan made me regret both ditching him, as he put it, and siding with the boys who teased him. At the start the animosity was was mutual – I made fun of him, refused to speak to him in class (alphabetic seating meant we still sat together) and berated him for not paying attention – but he quickly became creative.

In the lessons where he sat to my right, he would swing his elbow against mine over and over so my work became illegible, buried under a web of skewed lines where my arm had been knocked, pen still touching page. Red patches formed where he hit me, arms and face, with plastic rulers. He would coat his fingers, whose wider-than-long nails I distinctly remember, in his own saliva and smear it onto mine, into my ears or on one occasion into my mouth; the latter made me retch and sob, and Jonathan enjoyed this greatly.

He passed notes describing me in the most colourfully violent language he could manage, grabbed the lunch from my hand and cast it into the dustbin; opened my rucksack as I walked, so worksheets and folders fell out across the corridor; took it from me and dropped it from a storey-high wall. He kicked me regularly in the small of the back, at times refusing to walk ahead of me so as to keep doing so, used his weight to knock me into the corridor wall and once – when in games class, I swatted at him with a tennis racquet’s catgut centre – grinned, excited, before hitting me so hard with the aluminium edge of his that a blue-black swelling formed round my left eye socket and remained there for a week.

Among Jonathan’s favourite techniques, one more form of the encroaching physicality I knew from being his friend, was sliding over into my chair and forcing me to occupy only half of it. This was especially effective when I sat against the wall, since it meant I had nothing to do but sit with one hip on my seat, legs twisted on top of one another, and on a coach trip to Austria where he sat next to me I spent the best part of 36 sleepless hours in this position.

As the Easter break approached midway through Year 8 it was agreed I’d move into a different class, limiting Jonathan’s access to me severely. He didn’t respond well to learning this.

 

In Miss Pattinson’s absence, Robert Ingles, whose love of a homophobic god I’ve yet to discover, is taking the last lesson of the term – German, fifth period, Friday. Work’s been set, routine attempts at getting the supply teacher off track have failed and the room has settled into idle chatter. It’s not loud, but it’s loud enough that although we’re sat in the front row, he can’t hear anything Jonathan and I say.

Nor does he notice I’m hemmed in against the window. Jonathan takes up the right hand half of my chair, forcing me to sit on my right hip, crushed into space that I don’t have. His left leg is wound under my right knee, holding it with constricting force against his right so that I’m unable to move. ‘You’re not stronger than me’, he tells me without needing to when I attempt it.

If Mr Ingles glanced upward, he might only see a pupil leaning in to compare answers with a friend; wouldn’t see that even as I try to shift away, Jonathan’s thigh is glued to mine. Certainly in such close quarters and with blazers hanging between and behind, no one makes out his hand as it snakes in between my kneecaps, making its way up my leg.

This has taken perhaps ten or fifteen minutes – long enough for me to register surprise I can still feel my thigh as well as sickness. Every inch of me is retreating, spine twisted to provide as much distance as I can manage, but Jonathan moves off only in intervals, touching repeatedly and slowly so I don’t get used to it. ‘Just say you like me’, he offers, ‘and I’ll stop.’

Mouth dry, face hot and red, throat fighting a lump, I splutter that he turns my stomach – that he’ll never force me to like him, no matter how much hitting, crushing or groping. ‘I might as well try’ he sings back, and adds that mentioning the latter means I like it. Back his arm goes, confident now and expelling whatever air I still have left for speech. ‘I know you love it’, he tells me.

When after that his hand moves to my groin and he asks me if I’m hard, there’s nothing I can do but choke. (Since a body is a body, I am, and he knows it.) When he asks, excited, how I’ll react if he undoes the zip there, there’s nothing I can do but sob, and so he does. Fighting metal teeth and buttons, stubby fingers work their way inside, find what they’re looking for and go to work.

I’m still not sure, ten years later, if the fierce, instinctive rush that makes me force his arm away is a first orgasm. Whatever it is, it’s enough that Jonathan doesn’t resist my weak effort – he knows this is victory and I’m humiliated. ‘Oh look’, he remarks audibly to me once the bell rings, though I’ve managed to rearrange things. ‘Your flies are undone. Wonder why.’

I still hear Jonathan cat-calling my name from across the sports fields as I walk to the gate – still feel the urge to break, to weep, though at my body seems devoid of any sort of fluid. (In one sense, this is fortunate.) For my lift home, I sit polite and make small talk. It’s only when I get in through the door, alone, that I let myself snap, hurling keys across the living room in a single raw scream-gasp.

In some ways I’ve lived past this. In others I haven’t. But one thought remains that sickens me.

This was my first sexual experience.

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

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Hunger games: food, money and how I grew up feeling fat

Twice in my life, I’ve been a bit rotund. Both times, it was a common enough experience. At eleven I gorged on pizza, chocolate bars and caramel ice creams, more available at secondary school than in our previously welfare-dependent house, and stayed a slightly tubby teenager till added height changed my proportions, though it may be that having never quite eaten enough before, I was only gaining puppy fat I already should have. A decade on, I snacked my way through Oxford finals, spurning regular meals and comfort-eating. I’ve never been what you’d call fat, but nor during these periods was I slim.

My exam weight has now mostly been shed, more through abstinence than effort: since June, I’ve had no student loan to blow on cake. (No one expects a sweet tooth in someone as sour as me. You’d be surprised.) The poverty diet, as I’ve fondly come to call it, reached its logical extreme this week.

In January I moved back to Berlin, the place I started blogging, and managed to lose my debit card in transit – my bank, amusingly, has since located it in the Philippines. After ringing up immediately to cancel it, I had to change my address with them for a replacement to be sent out, and phoned again when this was done to order one. Presumably since I reported losing my card twice, the bank managed to cancel both the old and new ones. The latter’s last days of use ran out this weekend, and until another has arrived on Friday, I can make no withdrawals, either to pay the rent or to buy food.

Crash diets are a bad way to lose weight: the body responds to starvation by stockpiling fat. That said, and while these fasts have always been involuntary for me, I’ve found that I can make some use of them. As I wrote in December, I can go days without meals since as a child I had to now and again, but for this exact reason I’m prone to binges. I crave food for the joy of eating more than the benefit of being full, and forced restraint takes my mind off using it as a diversion. I’d be lying, too, if I said some part of me doesn’t enjoy the thinner-than-usual body in the mirror when food is off the menu. I’ve no doubt this is unhealthy.

‘Now that I have begun to celebrate lost inches,’ Ben Blanchard of the Pathfinders Project writes, ‘I am fearful that I might develop an eating disorder when left to my own devices as a busy academic back in the states. Until then, I am focusing on not focusing on it, and refuse to give my mind footholds to climb on to an obsession.’ Ben documents a weight loss far more dramatic than any I’ve undergone or needed, but the thought still resonates. What if I cared about this too much?

From the time my eleven year old self became conscious of his slight tubbiness, I’ve never felt quite thin enough – while my body’s undeniably changed shape at several points, I’ve yet entirely to throw off the sense of being overweight.

Hindsight and data tell me this instinct is ludicrous. In television footage from 2012, when I was 20 and the thinnest I remember being, I look like a string bean. In the next year, I didn’t just get fatter for exams but had a late and quite unnecessary growth spurt – between that October and last June, I went from 6’2” to 6’4” and developed relative breadth for the first time. (Before that, I’d had shoulders drag queens would kill for.) If you’d hugged me while the relevant footage was being shot, you’d have sustained a paper cut. So why, at the time, did I feel fat?

I go back further, through pictures of me at eighteen and sixteen. None exist between about twelve and fifteen, because I wouldn’t allow them; school photographs were lost on the way home. Even after my height first rocketed, I didn’t think of myself as slim, but seemingly I was. I’d always been tall for my age anyway, particularly in the leg, and like Ben (if for different reasons) struggled to buy trousers – for adequate length, I’ve often had to wear ones for much bigger waists than mine, and wonder now if it affected how I saw myself. I’m more given to blame parents and P.E. teachers in the end.

Losing my finals weight, combined with the broader frame I got concurrently, has given me a body I quite like. I’m no more toned or skinny than I was two years ago – less so, in fact – but the casing seems for the first time to tie up with the software. The issue, I conclude, is interior: the way I felt about my shape had little to do with what it actually was. Perhaps my mind matured just as my body did. It seems a question of framing either way.

Nowadays I prepare most of my own meals, kept slightly on the paunchy side by love of starchy foods (pasta, pizza, potatoes) and baking. This has provoked in me a strange desire to become healthy – to exercise, eat better and get out more. I’m not sure exactly what will happen here, but whatever does will be gradual, done because want to do it rather than feel a need. I never had impulses like this when I felt overweight. They’ve come to me as I’ve found satisfaction with how I look, and I don’t think that’s by chance.

‘Mild paedophilia’: Richard Dawkins’ molestation comments in depth

NB: contains personal reference to molestation/abuse, statements trivialising them.

Camp Dawkins have been after me since this morning, claiming that post misrepresented him, took what he said out of context or misunderstood his point.

I don’t think any of this holds, and I’m conscious too that I’ve heard clarifications from him before. When he told Rebecca Watson to shut up since FGM and stoning exist, people replied that didn’t mean nothing should upset her; he clarified – actually arguing something quite different – that he meant since Elevator Guy didn’t physically assault her, she had no reason to think ‘coffee’ meant ‘sex’. When he tweeted ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though’, the tweet (and his general commentary about Islam) were criticised; he clarified, in a lengthy, wilfully ignorant, defensive screed, what he actually meant.

This isn’t fair play. Dawkins is a professional communicator and globally read writer: his job is to say to things clearly, from the off. For a long time, in fact, he was paid specifically to teach ‘the Public Understanding of Science’: when many in the press, the public and his own community read his comments on sensitive matters (ones far less complex or mysterious than science facts he’s explained with ease) and reach certain conclusions, he and his acolytes don’t get to write them off simply as mass misapprehensions. Being apprehended right the first time round is well within his skill set; the onus should not be on the rest of us correctly to divine his intent.

This being said, I do want to be fair, and it’s true my prior post makes only so much reference to the context of his comments. With that in mind, I’m going to scour through the interview in which he makes them to the Times, published by RDFRS, and give my thoughts precisely on what he says.

The following is the passage from the article which deals with the issues at hand. I’ve cut the introductory paragraphs and extract from his book which follows, since I don’t think they’re relevant, but you can view them at the source.

Let’s begin.

Dawkins is fascinated by the way today’s transgressions might have been viewed differently not long ago. For instance, as a junior academic he went to the University of California at Berkeley for two years in the late Sixties, which gave him a ringside seat at the Summer of Love. He relates one vivid memory in his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder:

“I was walking along Telegraph Avenue, axis of Berkeley’s beads-incense-and-marijuana culture. A young man was walking ahead of me, dressed in the insignia of the flower-power generation. Every time a young woman passed him, walking in the opposite direction, he would reach out and tweak one of her breasts. Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

Which side is Dawkins coming down on here? On the face of it, the one which says deems this unacceptable: ‘impossible to believe’ has a distinct ring of outraged shock, and the next sentence (below) claims – while paraphrased from unknown comments – that he’s glad this wouldn’t now be allowed. (So he presumes, at any rate: five minutes browsing @EverydaySexism‘s feed might stop it seeming such a clear thing of the past.)

On the other hand, isn’t there a subtle romanticism to this account? In the heady days of incense, flower power and marijuana, ‘tweak[ing] one of her breasts’ sounds rather harmless, almost sweet – is that how the women in question would describe it? Instead of ‘tweaking’, as in a consensual sexual setting, might we not refer to ‘groping’, ‘assaulting’, ‘uninvited touching’? Something about ‘crying, “Harassment!”‘, too, feels hyperbolic, conjuring imagery of hysterical, overemotional women exaggerating infractions against them. This could just be my imagination – I’m not totally sure it isn’t – and it’s possible his comments in the past are biasing my reading here – but one could also say ‘informing’. Dawkins is talking here about a teacher’s assaults not being all that bad, notoriously told Rebecca Watson what happened to her wasn’t all that bad, and has a record of pointed innuendo toward anti-harassment rules. This colours my reading, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t.

He says he’s pleased how things have changed on the harassment front in the past 40 years. But on other occasions when that shifting moral zeitgeist rears its head – as boys, including him, are molested or beaten at his various boarding schools, for instance – he fails to be outraged. One master at his public school, Oundle, he writes, “was prone to fall in love with the prettier boys. He never, as far as we knew, went any further than to put an arm around them in class and make suggestive remarks, but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes.”

‘Nowadays’ – here, again, a flavour of reactionary nostalgia which typifies the red top press as much as pitchfork-wielding fears of paedophilia. (British tabloids, for readers overseas, have certain ever-present bogeymen: political correctness, one; standards of health and safety, another; child protection measures, likewise.) Never mind police: intimate touching and sexualised remarks from teachers in positions of trust do constitute harassment and abuse, just as they would among adults. What of it if this teacher ‘never went any further’? Children’s bodies are their own, just like anyone else’s, whether or not further infractions followed. Consequences for the man involved would have been fair and appropriate, not ‘terrible’ – that word describes his conduct, in my view, much more than any repercussions from police.

Is he guilty of rationalising bad stuff just because it’s past? “I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

My earlier comments on this passage stand:

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

One further question, though: if 18th century racism, 1940s child abuse or 1960s street harassment took place each in ‘another era’, what brought those eras to an end? It wasn’t some naturalistic progression of human ethics on its own, it was that people present objected. Slaves who revolted in the 1800s objected to racism; policymakers in the 20th century objected to corporal punishment in schools; women’s liberation objected to assault and harassment. These movements weren’t ahead of their time, they were of their time: clearly we can judge these transgressions by modern standards, since in part we inherit those standards from those who fought them in the past.

The mention of paedophilia inevitably brings us to the recent run of arrests of old white men accused of child sex abuse, starting with Jimmy Savile. Has the moral zeitgeist been shifting at their expense? “I think we should acknowledge it. That’s one point… But the other point is that because the most notorious cases of paedophilia involve rape and even murder, and because we attach the label ‘paedophilia’ to the same things when they’re just mild touching up, we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.”

Let’s not talk, for a start, about paedophiles; let’s talk about molestation. Actions, not desires, have ethical value, and discussion here needs to be about consent (or absence thereof), exploitation and abuse – not sexual feelings stigmatised as sick and evil just because.

It’s certainly true some kinds of molestation and abuse are worse than others. There’s an ethical spectrum, sure – but we can still draw discreet lines to mark out parts of a spectrum; even with infinite shades of grey, we can still mark the range between ’80% grey’ and black. Any sexual contact with anyone lacking consent, and any exploitation of anyone who can’t consent, means assault and abuse. This is the bracket that counts: that some within it are worse than others matters not at all in ruling who abuses and who doesn’t, who deserves our condemnation (however much of it) and who doesn’t.

So is there a risk of a metaphorical lynching of well-known people as soon as they’re accused? “I think there is a risk of that.”

Lynchings were when white people hanged and/or burned black people to death. Let’s not make this a metaphor for talking about sex abuse.

With regard to content, see my most on rape, reputations and reasonable suspicion. Although not written about adults and children, much of its commentary – on our response to accusations, specifically, and the fear of smearing those accused – applies here too. Importantly however, Dawkins’ concern is not based solely on allegations being unproven: even if someone is a molester, he seems to say, we shouldn’t tar them too heavily, since some are far worse than others. That is not the point: the point is that consent and autonomy matter, be their violation benign or sadistic.

What about the child sex abuse scandals that have led to anguished soul-searching and multibillion-dollar payouts in various outposts of Christianity? “Same thing,” he says. “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

There’s little to be said here that I haven’t said above – except one thing. No, Richard: priests who rape, assault and abuse and church bodies that protect them are not victims – of shifting standards or anything else. The only victims here are their victims. But if they were the victims of those standards, they would be your victims – casualties of everyone who holds (like me, most atheists and previously you) that churches’ standards are their truest relics. Be consistent.

In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”. The Oundle incidents don’t seem to have bothered him. The prep school one did, but he still can’t bring himself to condemn it, partly because the kind of comparison his adult mind deploys is with the mass murders carried out by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. “Without condoning what was done, at least try to put on the goggles of the period and see it through those eyes,” he says. “I find it much harder to put on those goggles where we’re talking about the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times. It’s hard to think of that and to forgive using modern standards in the same way as it might be for the schoolmaster who touched me up but didn’t actually do me any physical violence.”

I’ve seen recourse to non-violence like this elsewhere from Dawkins, when he insisted Elevator Guy did nothing wrong because his conduct involved ‘just words’ and not a physical attack. The relevant ‘nocturnal visits’, while we don’t know details, sound for one thing very much like attempted rapes (or else assaults which might easily have led to rape) – that, and in any case the fact they needed ‘fending off’, makes them violent. Regardless, though: boundaries of consent and bodily autonomy exist, and matter, whether or not violence is carried out.

None of this is to say Dawkins must feel traumatised by what was done to him – people can feel how they want about what happens to them, dealing with it how they want, and this is more true of serious transgressions rather than less. But what he’s said isn’t just that.

Calling molestation ‘mild’, proffering only tepid condemnation, asking abusers not be lumped together – as if not raping or killing, and not doing ‘lasting damage’ made some of them excusable – is not a personal statement of feeling, it’s a generalised prescription about how we treat assault. The extent of emotional harm done doesn’t affect whether something, groping specifically, constitutes assault and abuse. Personal feeling doesn’t matter here: standards of consent and autonomy do.

These, through his statements on molestation, are what Dawkins threatens – what, ultimately, he surrenders. Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog, has called on him via petition to retract them. I recommend you sign.

See also: Greta’s round-up of posts on this.

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