In the Guardian on Monday, Joseph Harker wrote a piece which was met with equal parts disdain and acclaim. It reflected on around 18 months of horrific news of sexual abuse in the UK, which began with a succession of convictions for members of child grooming and rape rings, mostly but not entirely involving British-Asian Muslims. This was followed by the ongoing scandal of sexual crimes and child abuse by an ever-lengthening list of prominent celebrities and public figures, some alleged and under investigation, some admitted, many, of course, involving the TV presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile – now believed to be perhaps the most prolific sex offender ever to have been unmasked, albeit only after his death.
Harker employed thick satire to contrast the ways in which the media and public debate has covered the two different scandals. The first focussed heavily on the culture from which the rapists and abusers were drawn, their ethnicity, their religion in particular. The second focussed on evil individuals doing bad things and their personal criminality or pathology. A couple of typical quotes:
“But after the shock has subsided and we have time to reflect on these revolting crimes, the main question in most reasonable people’s minds must surely be: what is it about white people that makes them do this?
“First, though, we need to find out what’s causing the problem. Is it something to do with white people’s culture?
Harker is quite right to point out the double standards at play in reporting the two scandals, and the racist undertones to much of the reporting of the first. But beyond that, I actually agree with what Joseph Harker says. I don’t mean I agree with his satirically veiled message, I mean I literally agree with the actual words he says – or at least quite a lot of them. Is this problem something to do with white people’s culture? Yes, Joseph, it bloody well is.
Of course it is questionable whether such a thing as ‘white people’s culture’ actually exists. It would be rather more accurate to say ‘white British people’s cultures,’ and even then it would obscure some vast diversity. But exactly the same is true of, say, ‘African-Caribbean culture’ or ‘the British Muslim community,’ though both terms are commonly cited, not least by African-Caribbean people and Muslims. So, for ease of argument, let’s assume we are talking about the full range of the ethnically European, monolinguistically English-speaking, culturally-Christian population or,more simply, the ethnic majority. The phrase ‘white culture’ might be deliberately provocative and problematic, but I think it describes something real. Since Harker has thrust the phrase upon us, I shall continue to use it.
Sexual abuse does not occur in a social vacuum. Yes, the personal psychology, selfish motivations or pathology of the offender are always the primary cause, but the human environment plays a vital role too. Offenders can be encouraged in their behaviour by prevailing social norms which recount that victims are “asking for it” by behaving or dressing in particular ways. That is culture. A default attitude of disbelief towards victims who report assaults allows offenders to continue to attack with impunity – we know that several victims of both Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith attempted to report attacks and were rebuffed by police or other authorities. That is culture. The abusive behaviour of powerful people can be considered as entitlements, not only by offenders themselves but by their colleagues, subordinates and friends. That is culture. When such a prominent commentator as Richard Dawkins says that child sex abuse is less harmful than religious indoctrination, it does indeed trivialise abuse. That is culture. That is my culture. British culture. White culture. Yes, we should have a fucking hard look at ourselves and examine everything we, as a society, might have been doing over the decades to enable, encourage and cover up these types of horrendous acts and what we can do to prevent others.
This, of course, was not what Joseph Harker intended us to take from his article. His point, I’m sure, is that sexual abuse and exploitation happens in all societies, all communities, and of course he is correct. But this misses the point that the nature and circumstances of such crimes can change from one community to the next, as can the social roots which give rise to them. We live in a multicultural society and the attitudes which enable abuse in one culture may not be identical to those in another. The steps which might need to be taken to prevent future abuse in one culture may not be identical to those in another.
Bundling together all cases of child sex abuse as if they are all identical and require blanket solutions is a lazy, ineffective reaction. The problem of domestic incest is not the same problem as child rape tourism to the far East, which is not the same problem as abuse within the Catholic church, which is not the same problem as the exploitative debauchery of rich celebrities, which is not the same problem as child sex grooming rings in impoverished Northern towns. There are similarities of course, but to pretend they are identical glosses over the specific details of each.
Yes, Joseph, white Britain needs to take a deep hard look at our own culture, far beyond condemning the vile acts of individual abusers. And yes, British Muslim communities need to take a deep hard look at their own cultures, far beyond condemning the vile acts of individual abusers. So too does the Catholic church, so too does the British entertainment industry. Further afield, so too does the US college sports culture that enabled the Steubenville scandal, so too does the Indian society that has been so shaken by a succession of horrific rapes and murders. So too does every culture, every community, every society, every nation. None of us should be given a free ride on this score.
I have no problem with the suggestion that white society needs to look at its own culture. I do have a problem with the implication that British Muslim communities do not.