Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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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 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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Chapter 2: Other Boys

Chapter 1: Starman.

Between Top of the Pops clips and Mum’s wicker basket of cassettes, most of the music I heard as a child was decades old. Somehow or other, I was still exposed to Steps. Unlike the Spice Girls, whose records remain catchy even if tasteless, they’re impossible to appreciate now except ironically – but the nineties were a decade without irony, so their videos were inescapable. Watching the dark-haired male band member, dance-proficient but somehow obviously out of place, was how I first sensed the awkwardness of straight men.

Not that I could have said so at the time. Most straights, at least until they meet someone like me, don’t see straightness as something they need a word for, or straight as something they are just as the rest of us are other things. Only in the adult years since I’ve been out have family started to see themselves as having orientations of their own; for many, the definitive identity is just ‘not gay’. Even after I learnt about people who were, I had no corresponding label for other boys – how they, like the man in Steps, appeared to have been starched on the inside. Even then, it wasn’t something I was.

Once ‘gay’ meant anything, it meant people unlike me or anyone I knew. At school, I grasped it was embarrassing and could be caught in the sports field by sitting one end of a graffitied boulder. I grasped too from words scrawled in silver marker there that the girl version was ‘lesbian’: months after I caught sight of Ziggy Stardust Britain’s first series of Big Brother aired, and I was able to correct Mum’s jargon when she told me Anna Nolan, the guitar-playing ex-nun who came second, was ‘one of the people who we call gay’. Many such failed attempts at positivity would follow, but her opinions always came and went.

Mum was wary of homosexuals as she more often called them, making the first half rhyme with ‘promo’ as if forcing her mouth around something unsavoury. An arch-backed Mick Jagger walk I tried on at the age of nine was discouraged as ‘the way some men who are ho-mo-sexual walk’, and I was warned of vague but ominous results if they should see me. In the novel she’d set out to write a few years earlier, ‘Carl, a sadistic homosexual’ threatened the female protagonist’s young son, and I was told to stay away from Eric, a clerk at the local video shop she said had asked to see contents of a young boy’s trousers since he was ‘a homosexual’.

There were other times. Mum taught me AIDS ‘came from the gay community’ and that ‘the easiest way to get AIDS [was] to have sex with a bisexual man’. (By the time I’d grown up, to my annoyance, she’d forgotten bisexual men existed.) ‘I just get worried when you start fancying men’ she commented when, aiming to describe her view of him, I called Richard E. Grant sexy. ‘I didn’t know I was homophobic’, she later said, ‘till I discovered Graham Norton.’ ‘I don’t like gays’, she added. From my late teens she would present herself as a gay ally, but I was never quite convinced.

Where all this came from, I can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, I think she meant it when she claimed to be supportive; she was simply never all that good at having a consistent outlook. Doubtless the background bigotry of a life that had started in the forties played its part. On top of that, I’ve wondered if her desire for a heterosexual son arose from fears of proving right Freudian clichés – or rather, late Thatcherite ones – about the spawn of single mothers. Nor can I ignore the god she turned to in that hour of need, or at least the fans of his whom she fell in with in the pews.

How they met initially I don’t recall, but between the ages of roughly five and eleven, lifts were provided when we needed transportation by a woman called Gill Linder. Though they never attended the same church, Gill – whose farmhouse was lined wall to wall with her own religious art, an exsanguinating Jesus displayed over the guest bed – was for much of this time one of my mother’s closest friends. I’m almost certain some of the homophobia she spewed was parroted from their relationship, as was her then-staunch belief in Satan’s presence in our home. (I was once told, and earnestly believed, that he’d possessed me.)

Somewhat more charmingly, her charismatic congregation at the time was headed by a pastor named McDonald, whose impassioned wife Lynda I’m told railed wildly against gay people, oral sex and presumably all forms of eros not involving semen entering a vagina. (If menopause came as a relief for them, it never showed.) The Allens, another fiftysomething couple in that very married church, left town while I was in primary school, and it was only in my twenties I discovered Mike had ‘struggled’ with feelings for other men.

Whoever the homosexuals were who all these people talked about so much, Eric aside, they were dark, distant and mysterious creatures. I could no more be gay than any of the other boys. All the same, I liked not being like them.

Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex.

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Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich

Reference to all kinds of transphobia, be warned, ensues immediately.

Overture

We are angry with ourselves’, Suzanne Moore of New Humanist and other zines wrote this time last year of women, ‘for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ The article, on female rage, was well received barring this line; friends recommending the piece bristled at it, if only as a caveat. They had cause to: so idolised are the bodies of trans women that hundreds are murdered yearly in Brazil, among them 39-year-old nightlife figure Madona, pelted with paving bricks until her skull fractured.

Moore might have copped to misjudging a punchline. Who hasn’t? Instead she aired on Twitter her ‘issues with trans anything’, accusing trans women of ‘fucking lopping bits of your body’ and ‘using “intersectionality” to shut down debate’, adding ‘People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.’

Julie Burchill, long time colleague and friend of Moore, promptly championed her in the Observer, declaring her in a piece titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ to have been ‘driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’. ‘A gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write’, Burchill continued, ‘looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.’ The two of them, she declared, were in a ‘stand-off with the trannies’ (‘they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims’), ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.

The ensuing storm, in which the Observer withdrew the article, apologising, raged through the British press and global blogosphere. (Zinnia Jones’ partner Heather McNamara had this to say.) Days later, Soho Skeptics hosted Moore in a debate about press freedom. I arrived a quarter of an hour late, but despite the then-ongoing furore heard no mention of the issue – save Moore’s offhand quip at one point, ‘I can’t say anything.’ Laughter followed.

Elsewhere in her article, Burchill had written:

I must say that my only experience of the trans lobby thus far was hearing about the vile way they have persecuted another of my friends, the veteran women’s rights and anti-domestic violence activist Julie Bindel, picketing events where she is speaking about such minor issues as the rape of children and the trafficking of women just because she refuses to accept that their relationship with their phantom limb is the most pressing problem that women – real and imagined – are facing right now.

Bindel, whose columns on transgender themes have earned her infamy, seems as obsessed as Moore and Burchill with trans women’s nether regions, describing them in 2004 as ‘men disposing of their genitals’. (This is, needless to say, inaccurate in every possible sense. Vaginoplasty, which doesn’t discard the penis, is expensive, inaccessible and often withheld from those who want it. Many don’t.) Transitional surgery, she insists despite all this, ‘is the modern equivalent of aversion therapy for homosexuals’, thrust globally on unwilling gays and lesbians as it is in Iran to keep everyone suitably straight.

Regarding what’s wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. It ignores:

  • the persistent denial of trans men and women’s gender, including by Bindel herself.
  • the unwillingness of countless health authorities to provide surgery or offer it at all.
  • the fact anyone might want it.
  • that seeking it is typically done after lengthy thought.
  • that not everyone transitioning does want surgery.
  • that those who do don’t always want normative-looking outcomes, or vaginoplasty specifically.
  • that not everyone trans, seeking surgery or not, identifies binarily as male or female.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, any more gender-conforming than cis people.
  • that those who do aren’t, as a rule, heterosexual.

Like Burchill and Moore, Bindel is talking bollocks. No one with even surface-level knowledge here, and mine’s not hugely better, could think she had more to contribute than hot, poisonous air. Understandable, then, that hackles rose when Soho Skeptics – the group that hosted Moore months earlier – announced her as a speaker last September.

‘The Battle Over Gender’

‘Insults, threats and abuse have been hurled between trans activists and radical feminists for the past few years’, read their blurb promoting the event, chaired by Gia Milinovich with Bindel and trans panellists Adrian Dalton and Bethany Black. ‘Neither side is innocent.’

These statements and the title suggest equivalence, like clashes between the world’s Bindels, Burchills or Moores and trans communities were arbitrary fiascos with no victim or aggressor – like trans users on the business end of their abuse, however intemperate their response, were just as much at fault. The Bindelites claim, as Piers Morgan did this month, to be under attack, but their viewpoint rests on demonstrable falsehoods. They’re as qualified to hold forth on (trans) gender as Ken Ham is to address a conference of geologists, and Ham, despite his manifold shortcomings, hasn’t victimised his targets nearly as much.

The meeting, it appears, was devised in response to anger at Suzanne Moore. ‘One female writer’ whom she knew, Milinovich wrote in October, ‘got attacked for inadvertently saying things that offended people’ – no name is given, but Moore’s is a likely guess. ‘After [an] explosion of anger, I decided it might be interesting to have a public discussion about it. When I started to think about the panel discussion at Soho Skeptics, I was very clear that I wanted it to be a calm discussion . . . My aim [there] was to show that everyone is an emotional, passionate, genuine and sometimes flawed human being… i.e. “normal”. It was intended as bridge building and a night for everyone to learn. All positive, good intentions.’

You’d conclude from this Milinovich, established in the skeptic scene, linked to Bindel apparently through Moore and with views not far flung from the former’s (see below), was the architect of the event – conflicting, seemingly, with Soho Skeptics convenor Martin Robbins’ statements that ‘trans people [were] in a key role’, ‘in charge’ and ‘helped organise and select people’, and ‘Bindel was there because the trans people on the panel [Dalton and Black] wanted it’. The Pod Delusion’s audio upload also described it as being ‘put together by Gia Milinovich’, who comments therein, ‘I thought, oh my God, I have got to have this woman on the panel.’

Clarity would help, but it’s easy in any case to see why giving her equal – or any – time made Twitter’s so called “trans cabal” irate. Their very existence, trans women’s especially, is in Bindel’s eyes oppressive, mutilatory and wrong, a stance whose premises have been thoroughly tanked but which she broadcasts through global media.

Milinovich and Robbins balked when critics mauled them for debating trans people’s right to such existence – as if the only obstacles to it were outright demands for killing. Milinovich, specifically, cites my tweet to that effect, one from a storm of users’, in a blog post, handle and avatar blurred out. (What for, the original being public and a Google search away, I still can’t tell.) Both have insisted the meeting wasn’t ‘a debate’; accurate but beside the point. ‘Debate’ was a verb in the tweets at hand, slamming the academic examination of trans identities’ validity and legitimisation of Bindel’s concoctions.


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Defining terms

Milinovich is taking heat at present for insisting, since this event, on the adroitness of terms like ‘female biology’, arguing implicitly that feminism should devote itself to this by using sex-based definitions of ‘women’s bodies’, and explicitly that abortion access and vulval/clitoral genital mutilation are by definition ‘female’ issues due to the relevant anatomy. ‘Because I accept the scientific definition of Biological Sex’, she states in a blog post from last Thursday, ‘I am apparently transphobic.’

‘During the [Battle Over Gender] panel,’ she wrote back in October in a post making similar arguments, ‘I tried to use the words Male and Female when talking about sex and Woman and Man when talking about gender.’ There’s already a contradiction here: if ‘woman’ is a term of identity and not anatomy, Milinovich shouldn’t refer (as she does here) to ‘women’s bodies’ as physically distinct. Regardless, here’s what she said on introducing the event.

‘Sex’: we all know what it is, but I’m talking biology, so what sex are you? This is ‘male’ and ‘female’ (so, ‘male’ has XY chromosomes and ‘female’, XX chromosomes), so I’ve gone to a book called Developmental Biology, Sixth Edition – this is for a definition. They’re talking about mammals, and I think it’s important we always remember that we’re mammals, and not something special even though we think we are. A male mammal has a penis, seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female mammal has a vagina, cervix, uterus, oviducts and mammary glands. In many mammal species, each sex has a specific size, vocal cartilage and musculature. So we’re talking biology when we use the word ‘sex’. We’re talking biology.

Another word is ‘gender’. Quite often these two words are conflated, so I’ve gone to the World Health Organisation for a definition of this. The World Health Organisation says gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. So in our society, traditionally and stereotypically, women wear a dress . . . and have long hair and men wear trousers and have short hair. Men go out to work and earn loads of money and women stay home, and are deeply fulfilled by looking after their children. (Can you see my cynicism coming in here?) If women work, they obviously will earn less than men. Women are caring and empathic, men are rational and they’re leaders. Women can’t do maths and men can.

Now, all of these things including the maths are social constructions. If you look at different cultures, you will see different things. Now, it’s really easy to understand this when you think about clothing, right? There’s no place in the brain that makes a female innately want to wear a dress or have long hair. Or there’s no place in a male brain that they innately want to wear trousers and have short hair. So that’s quite understandable, you know – we know that these are social constructions. It’s a little bit more difficult for some people to understand that things like personality traits or maths ability and things like that are social constructions, and they differ in different cultures. Very simply, you can think of gender as masculine and feminine, and all of the stereotypes.

Does anyone find any of those two definitions controversial? Anyone?

Yes.

For a start, neither of these defines ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Milinovich states ‘sex’ to mean anatomical ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’, and ‘gender’ to mean ‘roles . . . society considers appropriate for men and women’ – but doesn’t define manhood or womanhood itself.

What we have is confused and inconsistent use of several definitions.

What is consistent is her stance ‘that Biological Sex is A Real Thing and Gender is Culture’; that ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexes, with ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, prediscursively exist like hydrogen or Pluto. The thought, whatever the views she draws from it, has been seconded in British skepticism’s blogosphere, amid insistence ‘discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia.’ It’s wrong: the claim gender’s between our ears and sex between our legs is one long since unravelled by better thinkers than me.

A framework, not a fact

In her monologue above, Milinovich actually gives four criteria (by my count) for male/female sex determination.

  • Chromosomes: ‘[A] male has XY chromosomes and female, XX’.
  • Penis/vagina: ‘A male mammal has a penis . . . a female mammal has a vagina’.
  • Other sex organs: ‘A male mammal has . . . seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female has a . . . cervix, uterus, oviducts’.
  • Secondary sex characteristics: ‘size, vocal cartilage and musculature’, ‘a female mammal has . . . mammary glands’, a male facial hair, etc.

A longer, fuller list could look like this:

  • Chromosomes (XX/XY)
  • Penis/vagina
  • Gonads (testes/ovaries)
  • Other sex organs: seminal vesicle, prostate gland/oviducts, Skene’s gland, cervix, uterus
  • Secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, greater height and breadth, deeper voice/wider hips, breasts, etc.
  • Gametes: sperm production/menstruation
  • Hormone levels: high testosterone, low oestrogen/high oestrogen, low testosterone

Milinovich runs those traits she does name together, suggesting a male necessarily has XY chromosomes and a penis and a prostate gland and seminal vesicles and a distinct build and a deeper voice (her blog adds sperm production to this list) – that biological maleness requires all ‘male’ features to be present. Especially with others in the mix like those above, this co-presence is far from reliable.

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here – sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features – height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples – are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example – suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men – deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way – not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing – we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?

Sex is a framework, not a fact – a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.

The status of Pluto isn’t one on which the wellbeing of millions rests. We get to choose how we frame things, bodies included. If Milinovich can’t see why many people who’ve had lengthy fights to validate their gender feel attacked when told the (fe)maleness assigned to them at birth can’t be cast off, for once I’m unsure what to say. If that’s not cause enough to modify her model, surely coherence is?

‘If you want to reclassify Males and Females, and redefine Vaginas and Penises’, she tells her critics, ‘then you’re going to have to [do so] in over 5,000 different species of animals from Mammalia on down. So… good luck with that.’ Far be it from science ever to revise its thoughts or language, but in any case, her attitude to the latter doesn’t, in my view, hold water.

Sex is derived from gender

It’s just as ambitious trying to untether ‘male/female’ from ‘man/woman’, as Milinovich declares is necessary. When she writes in her October post of ‘two male comedians [and] one female writer’, she fails at this herself. It’s difficult to blame her: broadly, these terms just are synonymous.

Zoologists didn’t coin ‘male’ or ‘female’. The argument above, and her caution to ‘remember that we’re mammals’, suggest these designations fell to us from neighbours (or ancestors) in the animal kingdom. The reality is the reverse: said designations operated for humans millennia before we studied sex – chromosomes, internal organs, gametes, hormones – or exported that study to other species.

The ‘we’ here is a specific one. The models of sex that ruled till recently, for which Milinovich argues, grew up in gender-binary cultures. Had societies of more than men and women written the papers that inform popular thought – if views of anatomy today were based on theirs – would they have spoken of ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies? Would we, now?

It should be clear we’re trying, through the model of male/female sex, to describe bodies in pre-existing terms. If, as was traditionally thought and seems to be the Bindel-Milinovich view, gender evolved to regulate sexed bodies, why does it account so badly for them? Why, if it evolved to correspond with anatomic traits, are some ‘ambiguous’ – inexplicable, that is, in terms of it? Why intersex, but no orthodox ‘intergender’ to match?

‘Yes’, says Milinovich, ‘I know about intersex conditions’ – then leaves it there. She seems not to consider themes that follow logically:

  • why one anomaly makes someone intersex, another, just unusual.
  • whether if ‘intersex’ is taxing to define, sex might be too.
  • how the sex dyad, if less descriptive than once thought, became ubiquitous.
  • that the a priori (fe)maleness of body traits might be debatable.
  • why some, again, are sexed more strictly than others.

Milinovich’s stance and statements shift demonstrably. The impression I can’t help being left with is that her output, more certain of itself than it is well-informed, fits most definitions of ‘splaining’. If her goal is a feminism of ‘female’ (in her terms) anatomy, I’m further struck, she makes no obvious mention of how trans men might be included – suggesting, conceivably, that it is to her a movement for those marked physically and socially as female: that is, cis women.

The entire concept of “sex”’, to quote the Tranarchism blog, ‘is simply a way of attaching something social – gender – to bodies.’ The addendum, lastly, is quotable and appropriate:

The most sensible way to look at the question of sex now is this: a male body is a body belonging to a male – that is someone who identifies as male. A female body is a body belonging to a female – that is, someone who identifies as female. Genderqueer bodies belong to folks who are genderqueer, androgynous bodies belong to androgynes, and so forth, and so on.

Coda

Any number of thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

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No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV

Not many know gay marriage is a legacy of AIDS. Attempts by same-sex couples at the turn of the nineties to have partnerships legally recognised – in Denmark, New York, Hawaii – were prompted, in the words of the New York Times, by an epidemic that ‘brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to many people’s minds’. The argument gained ground, in fact, that pushing institutions of monogamy would stem the flow of HIV. ‘[I]n the wake of AIDS’, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New Republic, it would ‘qualify as a genuine public health measure. Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.’

On calling gay marriage reactionary and citing this in evidence, I’ve been accused of gravedigging – unearthing arguments now twenty-five years old and foisting them anachronistically on current debates, regardless of historical context. But Sullivan’s logic never went away: it’s led to his acknowledgement in U.S. media as the contemporary gay agenda’s author, and is visible today all over moves for marriage reform.

‘LGBT history will be made’, the Advocate reported only yesterday, ‘on January 1, 2014, when a same-sex wedding takes place atop the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s float during the 125th Rose Parade[.]

‘The wedding between Aubrey Loots and Danny Leclair, both gay men from Los Angeles, will be a first for the Rose Parade. The couple’s display of their love and commitment to one another invokes the parade’s 2014 theme, “Dreams Come True,” as well as the theme of the AHF’s float entry, “Love is the Best Protection,” which aims to celebrate same-sex marriage and the role it can play in helping to reduce new HIV infections among gay men. The Foundation’s float will be designed to resemble a wedding cake, with each couple tying the knot atop the float as living cake-toppers.’

Setting aside this terrifying image, suggesting as it does some hideous gay version of the Hunger Games – ‘the best protection’? Really?

‘Love’ doesn’t equal the promise of monogamy; to say so is in the first place a fool’s errand, and an unkind one at that. But neither protects against transmission anyway. How have Catholic doctrines of sex within marriage worked out in countries with HIV-AIDS epidemics? How did chastity work out for those infected by a loved and trusted partner? How did vilifying ‘promiscuity among some homosexuals’, painting AIDS as the fruit of sexual immorality, work out for Catholic Sullivan himself, found posting Craigslist ads in 2001 for unprotected anal sex with ‘other HIV-positive men’? If he couldn’t practise what he preached, why take for granted lesser mortals will?

That spouses play around, with or without permission, isn’t news. Expecting they won’t amounts to abstinence-based disease prevention, which the AHF need only turn on the news to see in action. If not out of deeply conservative sexual ethics, why expect us all to swear monogamy anyway, when prophylactics infinitely more effective exist? Public health is guarded best by public measures, not the pretence of private virtue – in this case, access to condoms, sex education and healthcare and funds for medical research. And are those who do want to make vows prevented by not having them state-recognised? Does monogamy’s achievability depend somehow on access to a civil register?

In a Telegraph column this May that replicated almost exactly Sullivan’s original case, claiming ‘marriage acts as a “commitment device”, encouraging fidelity and discouraging high-risk behaviour’, David Skelton tacked on perhaps the most bizarre argument yet: that ‘[b]y making clear that gay people are fully equal members of society, equal marriage could also help to reduce the level of alienation felt by some young gay people’ – thus, presumably, quash their pursuit of risky activities as a contrived form of self-harm.

Neil Giuliano of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation claimed much the same in the Huffington Post a month later, writing ‘When we promote and permit intolerance through bans on same-sex marriage, we enable and encourage feelings of marginalization, depression and isolation among gay people – particularly LGBT youth. As a result, things like substance use, alcohol consumption, and sexual risk taking increase. And we cannot ignore the data: these activities lead to more cases of HIV.

‘On the flip side, when we promote tolerance through marriage equality, we bring people in from the margins, we help them to feel more affirmed and connected, and risk taking decreases. When this happens, HIV infection rates also decrease.’

What data does Giuliano cite so ostentatiously? A study from 2009 at Emory University suggesting, in his words and its authors’, that constitutional bans on gay marriage in U.S. states ‘raise the infection rate by four cases per 100,000 people’. Without, admittedly, having viewed the paper in detail, the nationwide infection rate according to Wikipedia is 0.6 percent, meaning the rise in question would push numbers from 600 per 100,000 to – wait for it – 604.

A fringe subculture of deliberate infection does exist, but the impression’s hard to avoid that Skelton and Giuliano are reaching opportunistically for any way to praise gay marriage, no matter how baseless or co-optative. According to government figures from 2010, UK diagnoses more than doubled between 1995 and 2009. This period saw Britain’s age of consent equalised, Section 28 scrapped and civil partnerships introduced, greater media visibility for LGBT people and falls in the prevalence of homophobic attitudes, all uncontroversially steps toward ‘bring[ing] people in from the margins’. If none of them stifled HIV transmission, why would marriage reform today? Persuading oneself it’ll solve a slew of other problems is a nice way of making the workload appear smaller while taking no material action.

We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t. Things that may actually help aren’t just condoms and clean needles, sex ed, med research and so on, vital as those are; they’re housing, healthcare and community support for those who fall into sex work, self-harm, drug use or homelessness, services Britain’s government cuts to the bone while commending itself for legalising gay.

A gay rights lobby that applauds it and others like it is one thing – but claiming cynically while doing so that marriage holds the key to HIV prevention is a fiction adding insult to infection.

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‘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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Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth

When Margaret Thatcher died this April, ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ reached number two on the UK singles chart. Campaigns on social networks all but swept the song to the top spot, but the BBC, citing concerns of propriety, offense and taste, refused to play the song in its official countdown. Instead, a five second clip was shown in a news item. The socialist left and liberal right, of course, bristled at this while conservatives applauded, but the real joke was on Thatcher: her Cold War rhetoric sold us the notion high capitalism enfranchised us – that purchasing power was people power, and property-owning democracy the only kind. Could there be a better rebuttal? To send a message, Britons spent tens of thousands downloading the song, embodying the commerce-as-democracy narrative, but in an instant, Britain’s state media defused their action.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron, recently praised for his Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s signing gay marriage into law, has cultivated an image cuddlier by far than Thatcher’s. On personal approval ratings, he is easily his party’s greatest asset, and marketed himself from his leadership’s outset as ‘a modern, compassionate conservative’, declaring in his first conference speech that marriage means something ‘whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man’. This isn’t the Tory Party of Section 28, the law that banned ‘public promotion of homosexuality‘ – and subsequently, Conservative support among LGBTs rose from 11 percent at the 2010 election to 30 percent at the end of last year. Yet Cameron is at least a Thatcherite. Inflicting spending cuts unrivalled since World War Two, his government makes hers look virtually left wing. His early statement, ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’ was pitched to distance him from her, but reified in fact her central axiom that aiding the poor or homeless lay outside government’s purview. In 2011, he even promised us the ‘new presumption’ all public services would by default be at least part-privatised.

That the Daily Telegraph column in which he wrote this glossed private takeovers as ‘diversity’, liberal byword for LGBT inclusion, says much of Cameron: he’s a man for whom, like Thatcher, all logic returns to that of the market. In the ninety minutes following Barack Obama’s statement, ‘Same-sex couples should be able to get married’, a million dollars went to his re-election campaign, and as a media executive before his time in parliament (who, only two years prior to his leadership, voted to keep Section 28), it’s conceivable the PM’s ‘pro-gay’ stances are more about profit than principle – I believe, though, that deep Thatcherite impulses drive them. His earliest support for civil partnerships came in the context of an argument the nation needed more marriage and less divorce; it’s no surprise he wishes to give married couples tax breaks, because for him, marital and family ‘commitment’ means personal responsibility – an alternative, that is, to public provision. Cameron’s political rhetoric, too, blames ‘family breakdown’ on overindulgent spending, slashing welfare to keep husbands and wives together. Behind the PM’s love of gay marriage, and marriage in general, hangs this bleak backdrop.

When he said he supported gay marriage due to, and not despite, being a Conservative, he wasn’t lying; as it did for Andrew Sullivan before him, gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?

Read the rest at {Young}ist.