The Children’s Commissioner & the BBC take on child sexual abuse

I am never slow to blog when mainstream political bodies and media let us down with sloppy reports or journalism. It seems only fair to pay credit when things are done well.

Late last night, BBC2 broadcast The Truth About Child Sex Abuse, hosted by Professor Tanya Byron. The programme incorporated a lot of the findings of the new report from the office of the Children’s Commissioner, Protecting Children From Harm [pdf].

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Why I am done arguing about International Men’s Day

There is a lot of confusion around International Men’s Day, starting with what it is. Nobody seems quite sure. Is it an event? A celebration? An awareness day? An occasion? I can clear that one up straight away. In practice it is none of those things. International Men’s Day is an argument. [Read more…]

When aversion to victim-blaming becomes a danger

Whatever solutions there may be to reduce sexual violence in society, as a general rule* they do not and should not involve persuading potential victims to change their behaviour.

There are two broad reasons why. The first is factual and criminological, that there is very little evidence that there is any significant relationship between how (usually) women dress, where they go, what they do, how they behave and the prevalence of sexual assault. If there is, it tends to be that the more socially and sexually confident and assertive women are as a gender, the more independent of mind and behaviour they become, the safer they are from sexual assault. The best statistics we have are from the US (and there is no reason to believe the picture in the UK is any different) and they show that over the past 40 years or so, as the social, economic and sexual liberation of women continued apace, rates of rape and sexual violence tumbled. While statistics are impossible to attain, no serious observer would doubt that in countries where women are actively oppressed to the point of being shrouded in burqas and imprisoned in the home, rape is endemic.

The second reason is political, or ideological. Throughout human history, society has used the risk and the fear of rape and sexual assault as a powerful mechanism to control women’s behaviour, to police their independence, sexuality and free expression, to demand that they remain dependent upon male protectors, male chaperones and male power. So one important front in the battle for women’s liberation over those same 40 years or so has been to step out from that shadow of fear, and that has required the development of alternative (and more effective) solutions to reducing the risk of sexual assault than persuading women to hide away.

Now, I know that many of my readers will look at the paragraphs above and snort in derision. Frankly I don’t care right now, I’m not interested in debating them today. They are there to (hopefully) explain in broad and simplistic terms why most feminists are strongly opposed to campaigns against sexual violence that focus on the behaviour of the victim rather than the attacker, and they also explain why, on this front, I think those feminists are right. You don’t have to agree, just accept that those are the arguments involved.

While I am broadly on board with the feminist consensus in this area, there is a limit to those principles, and I think it was badly breached in the column by Laura Bates in the Guardian today. Laura takes a handful of recent instances where the police have issued warnings to women, and asks: “Why do the police still tell women that they should avoid getting raped?”

The five examples she lists have something in common. Every instance referred to specific sexual offenders whose modus operandi was to attack strange women on their own in public places. Four of the five warnings were in the immediate aftermath of attacks. The fifth involved an exceptionally dangerous sadistic sex offender who had escaped from prison and was believed to be at large in Manchester (he has since been recaptured I am relieved to say.)

Sex offenders who attack strangers in public are actually exceptionally rare, as a proportion of all rapists and abusers. But they do exist. And when they are active, they will often attack several times in a short period of time in the same area using the same methods. It would be an appalling dereliction of duty were the police not to warn the public that such an offender were operating in a specific area, and that a specific section of the population (in this case lone women) were particularly at risk.

The types of warning issued in these circumstances are profoundly different to the more generalized “WOMEN! KNOW YOUR PLACE AND DON’T GET RAPED” type of posters and billboards which do, sadly still sometimes appear. However many police forces are moving on quickly. Greater Manchester Police, condemned by Laura Bates in the article for telling women to take care until Millman had been recaptured, do in fact run an exemplary awareness campaign on sexual violence, developed in conjunction with local campaigners and charities including Rape Crisis and our friends at Survivors Manchester. It concerns me that police may start to disengage from campaigners around sexual violence if they feel that they are being criticised and attacked just for doing their job of trying to keep the public safe.

It is patently obvious that a central core of Laura’s argument is simply untrue. She asks:  “How absurd would it seem if we were to apply similar logic to any other crime?”

The answer is, not remotely absurd. Here are some examples gleaned from literally two minutes on Google news search today:

Police urge public to consider some “simple steps” to combat burglaries in the darker nights. He advised that lights on timers are changed and that residents leave radios on while out for the evening. 

Police warn of risk of cyber crime 

Police warn public to avoid fake dating sites 

Thames Valley Police is urging residents to be vigilant of fake lottery scams and is warning people not to respond to any communications claiming they have won a lottery, sweepstake or prize draw.

A SPATE of garden burglaries has prompted police to warn people to be on their guard in Llanelli… Police officers have carried out a mass leaflet drop warning the public to take extra precautions. 

It is also the case that where there is a specific and heightened risk to other groups of people, the police will behave identically. Here’s a report of police teaming up with LGBT campaigners to warn men cruising on Clapham Common that they were at heightened risk.

Regular readers will know it is not like me to leap to the defence of the police. Just on this occasion, we need to give them a break. I entirely understand the need to avoid victim blaming and to ensure responsibility for rape remains squarely with rapists. That cannot involve obstructing the police from attempting to protect people from specific and immediate dangers.


* When I say sexual violence will not be reduced by persuading potential victims to change their behaviour, that is not necessarily entirely true. There is (albeit inconclusive) evidence that coaching people to be assertive and alert to risks through such initiatives as “resistance programmes” can reduce people’s susceptibility to assault. There is also some evidence to believe that sexual offenders deliberately target those who appear vulnerable and submissive. This evidence should not be considered heretical or dangerous, it needs to be debated and investigated further, in my opinion. But it is also far removed from the traditional behaviour policing of “don’t wear a short skirt, don’t get drunk, don’t be a flirt…” etc which normally permeates these debates.

Sex on Trial: Is This Rape? What BBC3 got wrong and got right.

Based purely on the advance advertising, I was full of trepidation about Sex On Trial: Is This Rape?  – the latest documentary in BBC3’s Breaking the Mould series on gender issues. In the end there were more than a few moments when I felt every fear was about to be confirmed. Anything that turns a realistic alleged rape scenario into drama-tainment-cum-phone-in game show is already walking a very high wire above a sea of sensationalism and exploitation. [Read more…]

Why I stand with Bahar Mustafa, with Julie Bindel, with Jane Fae, with Maryam Namazie and even with bloody Milo

Bahar Mustafa, responsible for developing and enforcing safe spaces to avert harassment and discrimination at Goldsmith University, is arrested under a law designed to prevent harassment and discrimination. for comments made during an argument about her advocacy of safe spaces to protect people from harassment and discrimination. This woman of colour had commited the (seemingly) criminal offence of tweeting the phrase #killallwhitemen.

Meanwhile another feminist woman of colour, my FTB colleague Maryam Namazie is invited then banned then unbanned then reinvited to speak at Warwick students union, the fiasco created by disagreement as to whether her feminist, socialist, secular, anti-fundamentalist views might incite religious hatred or Islamophobia and create an unsafe space for Muslim students. [Read more…]

Biopower: Joining the dots from sexual violence to genital mutilation

My current dead-tree companion is Amalendu Misra’s new book The Landscape of Silence: Sexual Violence Against Men in War. it is a fine, scholarly work that documents the gruesome extent of sexual violation of men and boys through history, but mostly in current and recent conflicts, from the Congo and the Balkans to Latin America and Abu Ghraib. More importantly Misra, a senior policics lecturer at the University of Lancaster, attempts to contextualise, theorise and (as is the current academic fashion) ‘problematise’ the phenomenon.

A key question in this area is why warring parties so often resort to sexualised torture, abuse and mutilation when objectively speaking, it would be much more quick and simple to put a bullet in the head of their victim? One central answer to that question, Misra suggests, is Foucault’s concept of biopower. [Read more…]

Why Corbyn’s silent National Anthem does actually matter

The idiocy of the British media over the past few days has been hysterical, in both senses. It is rather ironic that after all the dire warnings about Jeremy Corbyn taking us back to the eighties, it has actually been the media doing that, recreating a ridiculous moral panic over Michael Foot’s choice of coat at the Cenotaph with all the enthusiasm and attention to detail of a chapter of the Sealed Knot. This is so like living through 1982 again that I am contemplating popping down to the bookies and putting a tenner on Renée and Renato to be Christmas number one.

Like most on the left, I have spent the past 12 hours or so laughing and shaking my head at the silliness of it all. However last night, as I laid my head on my pillow and turned out the lights, it suddenly occurred to me that I was wrong. This is not just Hanna-Barbera silliness, Corbyn declining to move his lips along to the National Anthem does actually matter. It is important. It is deeply symbolic. Just not in the way that everyone from the Sun to the BBC is insisting. [Read more…]