Rolling Stone and UVA: How sensationalism has betrayed survivors of sexual violence

As things stand, we know virtually nothing about allegations of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. We know that there are now sufficient doubts about the accuracy of the original Rolling Stone cover story that the magazine editor has effectively retracted it. This does not mean, as some are now claiming, that the entire allegation was a hoax, a lie or a fiction. It is by no means certain that the woman known only as Jackie was not, in fact raped, either in the exact manner she described or with key divergences in detail. All we know is that there is an as yet unconfirmed report of a gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and that the Rolling Stone editorial staff have made a quite egregious, unforgivable lapse in journalistic standards and ethics, one which is likely to leave lasting, perhaps permanent damage to their reputation as a magazine and, much more worryingly, serious damage to the credibility of survivors of sexual violence.

All of this is already being picked over and picked apart in forensic detail. Before that process gets too entrenched, I want to point out one key detail that should inform our understanding of this case and, more significantly, our understanding of how this case reflects every other allegation or report of rape and sexual assault. [Read more…]

Can we stomp on this rape myth now?

A news report in the Guardian today gives extensive airspace to Women Against Rape (WAR), a maverick feminist organisation which (despite its name) seems to devote vastly more time to campaigning on behalf of false accusers than against sexual assault, flavoured with the occasional bizarre foray into defending a fugitive alleged rapist.

Dramatically, the headline screams:

109 women prosecuted for false rape claims in five years

[Read more…]

Yes, we do need to talk about male violence

I was asked to contribute a piece to the series 100 Voices For Men which is being run by Inside Man in the run-up to International Men’s Day. You can read the original here, and there are loads and loads of interesting posts from right across the spectrum of the men’s sector.

But since this was firmly on HetPat territory, I thought I’d also repost here.

 

There is an exchange that plays out in the media on pretty much a daily basis. The moves have become so familiar we can see them performed almost as a ritual dance. In the aftermath of some tragic, violent incident – whether a mass shooting, a domestic homicide or a shocking sexual assault – a commentator with liberal or feminist leanings will describe the incident as an example of ‘male violence’ and, therefore, not just an isolated incident but part of a systematic pattern involving hundreds, thousands, millions of related incidents across the world each day.

There follows a storm of comments, social media updates and blogs as detractors – primarily but not exclusively male – throw up their digitised hands in horror and disgust. This is nothing to do with me! I’ve never killed anyone! Why are you blaming an entire gender for the crime of an individual?

The defensive reactions may be understandable, but are largely based on a misunderstanding. Saying that men have a problem with violence does not mean that all men are violent, any more than saying Britain has a problem with obesity means that all Britons are fat. In both examples, it means the phenomenon causes immense social harm and individual suffering, and occurs at levels far above those we should be willing to tolerate in a civilised society.

What about female perpetrators?  

Yes, women can also be violent, especially towards intimate partners and family members. However in recent years the men’s sector as a whole (and I include myself in that) has often become so fixated on demonstrating and documenting the extent of male victimisation at the hands of women that we may have lost sight of the bigger picture.

According to the UN’s estimates, there were more than 450,000 homicides globally last year. Not only were 95% of the killers male, so too were 80% of the victims. In England and Wales, 800,000 adult men were injured in a violent attack in 2013 and around three quarters of perpetrators were not their female partners, but other men. On the other side of the coin, around 37,000 men are in prison today as a consequence of their own violent behaviour. To deny or turn our eyes from the extent of men’s violence is to turn our backs on one of the most pressing and severe social and health issues facing men and boys across the world today.

Only once we acknowledge the scale of men’s violence can we begin to ask why it occurs. I suspect many people are uncomfortable with the suggestion that there is something inherently violent to masculinity. What we might instead call ‘male culture’ colours our attitudes to work and to leisure, to lifestyles and relationships, even to how we communicate and interact. That culture has too often included attitudes towards violence that are directly implicated in too much death and injury.

Are men conditioned to be violent? 

How many of us grew up believing that to be a man demanded that we be ‘tough’ and ‘hard,’ or in other words to be willing to endure and inflict violence? Such traits don’t always come easy, and too many boys still have them literally beaten into us by peers or, tragically, parents and other adults. Research has consistently shown that where formal or informal physical punishment is used, boys are beaten more regularly and more forcefully than girls.

At the same time, psychologists have long known the rough recipe for a violent adult. According to one study by MurrayStraus, a child who grows up in a family where the adults are violent to each other is almost three times as likely to display violent behaviour as others. Another study found that a child subjected to physical abuse who also witnesses violent behaviour at first hand is between five and nine times as likely to become an abusive adult. It is true that not all violent adults lived through an especially violent childhood, and absolutely vital to understand that many, many people who experienced violence and abuse in childhood will never harm anyone in turn. Neither fact, however, should obscure the truth that violent adults – by which we most commonly mean violent men – are not born, they are made.

Nor does male violence exist in isolation from other male-specific issues. Only once we acknowledge and face up to the reality of male violence can we begin to unpick the complex relationship between men’s emotional isolation and unaddressed mental health needs, our tendency to self-medicate or escape into excessive alcohol and drug use and from there, the intimate link between intoxication and violent behaviour.

No I am not being anti-male 

It is not anti-man or misandrist to acknowledge that our society brutalises men and boys to a sufficient degree that some will become brutes. On the contrary, I would argue the misandrist position is to claim that men’s violence is an inescapable law of nature, some relic of evolution or neurobiology. Testosterone does not breed violence, violence breeds violence, and the evidence, I am happy to say, is all around us. Current levels of violent crime remain distressing, but are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago. The vast majority of men are not violent and the numbers who are get smaller all the time.

As mentioned above, 800,000 men were wounded in violent attacks last year, but the same statistic in 1994/5 was 2.4 million. Domestic violence, as estimated by the Crime Survey of England and Wales, has dropped 78% over the same time frame. The same story is playing out across the developed world. Nor is it just the effect of increased prison populations keeping violent offenders out of harm’s way. The number of children and young people entering the criminal justice system (ie being caught for the first time) is at its lowest since records began. Meanwhile the fastest growing section of the prison population over the past few years has been the over 65s.

The explanations for this phenomenal social change are hotly debated by criminologists but one thing is for sure, male biology has not evolved in a couple of decades. It is likely there are a variety of social and even environmental factors involved, I would suggest that it is no coincidence that the least violent generation of young men in living memory is the first to have been raised in the era of the rights of the child, in schools and homes that have increasingly eschewed violent punishments, with anti-bullying policies and where the social acceptability of violence of all sorts has been challenged and rejected as never before.

There is little doubt that men today are less violent, less aggressive, less militaristic than we have been at any time in living memory but there is still a long way to go. The journey will be driven not just by policy and politics but by the desire of all women, children and men to live in a safer, more peaceful world and the principal beneficiaries will be men ourselves.

The internet has drawn back the curtains on the human soul

In the news so far this week: In Australia, a man is convicted of attempting to commission the sexual abuse of a computer-generated virtual avatar called ‘Sweetie’ that was pretending to be a 10-year-old Filipino girl. In Westminster, the justice secretary declares that internet trolls are “poisoning our national life” and announces proposals that will quadruple maximum prison sentences for online abuse to two years. The National Crime Agency announces that many child sex offenders will escape punishment as the authorities flounder against the tide of 50,000 individuals regularly accessing child abuse images online in the UK alone. Meanwhile in Middlesbrough, a man is convicted of possessing illegal images of children – his collection of Japanese Manga-style hentai cartoons.

Just two decades after Sir Tim Berners-Lee unleashed his gift to the world, the web has brought us many wonders. It has also drawn back the curtains on the human soul in ways that might make even the most hardened cynic blanch. Oscar Wilde famously wrote that if you give a man a mask he shall tell you the truth. The internet has taught us that if you give a man (or indeed a woman) a mask, he or she may well threaten to rape and kill you.

Grayling’s proposals smack of kneejerk populism. It seems highly unlikely that someone prepared to risk a six month prison sentence for the sake of an abusive tweet would be deterred by the longer maximum term. Within that, the vagueness of the ministers attack on trolls should be considered deeply worrying. Threats of violence, harassment and stalking are criminal offences irrespective of the medium, and rightly so, but the law on malicious communications goes far wider.

A measure of the media hysteria around internet trolls can be taken in the tragic case of the so-called McCann troll. Brenda Leyland took her own life a few days after being “outed” by Sky News as a Twitter troll, an allegation that was repeated unthinkingly by virtually every journalist and commentator in the aftermath. And yet the archive of Leyland’s tweets revealed that she had never sent abuse directly to the McCann family, had never harassed anyone, had never threatened anyone. She was branded a troll for holding and expressing strong opinions about a prominent news story. It should worry us deeply that our government are hurling around unspecified threats to jail more trolls when the working definition of a troll includes people sharing unpopular opinions.

It used to be considered a cornerstone of justice that you can punish people for doing bad things, but not for being bad people. The internet is changing that. Throughout human history, our hate-filled or hateful thoughts, our strange and dangerous opinions, our sexual peccadilloes and perversions would remain safely locked in, shared perhaps with only a handful of close friends or intimate partners, if at all. Even professional writers and creative artists would have their output filtered through editors, publishers and agents.

Now our wildest fantasies can be projected to the world at the click of a button. Our erotic flights of fancy involving our favourite pop stars can find millions of readers (and lucrative book deals.) The most sick and sadistic urges, from incest to cannibalism, can find solace, justification, occasionally even realisation in like minds and accomplices.

Our political and legislative framework is playing a desperate game of catch-up, and losing. Two of this week’s stories may offer a guide to where the limits of criminality should lie. The paedophiles ensnared in the ‘Sweetie’ sting appear to have been trying to solicit the sexual abuse of real children. Had they not been caught, it is reasonable to presume they might have victimised real children instead. That makes them dangerous offenders and they deserve no pity or mercy.

In contrast, the man convicted in Middlesbrough appears to have had tastes and interests that were entirely restricted to line-drawn cartoons. While this should not necessarily be a defence, it is important to note also that the type of hentai anime he collected is freely available on virtually every mainstream pornography website and widely and openly shared on social networks like Tumblr. Whether or not we share the judge’s view that such images are “repulsive” it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which anyone, anywhere could be harmed by this man’s behaviour.

Of all this week’s news, perhaps the most disturbing is the revelation that the authorities are so overwhelmed by the extent of online offences involving the exploitation and abuse of children that they will not be able to prosecute all offenders. Perhaps one small first step might be to avoid wasting time and resources on protecting imaginary victims.

Chris Grayling can ignore prison rape. Hundreds of victims have no such luxury

 

Today the Howard League published their long-awaited briefing on coercive sex in prisons, despite the best efforts of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to block their work.

It’s an important document which covers well the difficulties of research in this area, noting the difficulties in gathering reliable data at the best of times, but especially under a political regime which is brutally uncooperative. It does not shy away from the difficulties in categorising and defining coercive and abusive sexual activities, noting that as well as violent assaults, prisons are rife with subtle coercion, including prisoners choosing or being obliged to perform sexual acts to pay off debts, for protection or in exchange for tobacco.

Another important (and sadly very topical) point noted is that MoJ statistics do not record any data on sexual assaults or abusive acts committed against prisoners by staff, despite evidence from the US to suggest that this can be relatively commonplace and despite gutwrenching testimony of appalling sexual abuse by staff at young offenders institutions in particular.  [Read more…]

The flesh is weak: On the Erection Equals Consent rape myth

Rape myths take many forms, and male victims have their own myths to bust.

CONTENT NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS BRIEF BUT GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Whenever an article appears about the sexual abuse of men and boys – especially abuse perpetrated by women – you can almost guarantee that a comment will appear saying something like: ‘well he couldn’t have been that unwilling if he got a boner.’

It is an incredibly damaging and harmful myth, for at least five reasons which I shall detail later in this post, but first let me do my best to convince doubters that it really is a myth. [Read more…]

Quick update on CDC sexual victimisation stats

Regular readers will be well aware of the sexual victimisation statistics – the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. This is (to the best of my knowledge) the world’s second largest sexual victimisation survey after the sexual violence modules in the Crime Survey of England and Wales. However it has the advantage of asking some specific questions that CSEW does not. [Read more…]

Those sharing stolen photos are not acting like Edward Snowden – they are behaving like the NSA

In the 36 hours or so since the stolen intimate photos of movie and music stars began to be published online, I have read some outstandingly stupid justifications and excuses for their distribution.

Most of them are depressingly familiar from other discussions of sexual violation. Typical arguments include that these (mostly) female stars have previously traded on their sexuality, so have forfeited their right to say “no” to any other appropriation of their sexuality; that by allowing private photos to be taken in the first place they were ‘asking for it’ and so have no right to complain if someone takes advantage; or that it is all some deliberate publicity ploy and that they were probably complicit in the leaks – or in other words, they wanted it really.

Amongst all this predictably disingenuous balderdash is one claim that I’ve seen repeatedly on various Reddit threads and by several commentators on this Guardian thread. This argument equates the release of the stars’ private photos to the leaking of the NSA files by Edward Snowden, and suggesting that if one approves of the latter, it is hypocritical to object to the former.

There are many things I could say in response to this, but the most polite and restrained is that it is completely upside down and back to front. [Read more…]

Throwing domestic violence victims to the wolves

 

The Guardian’s front page story yesterday made depressing reading on every score. The impacts of the coalition government’s austerity package have tended to fall disproportionately and viciously upon the most vulnerable, those least able to fend for themselves and kick up a fuss. Few acts look more callous and heartless than turning one’s back on victims of domestic abuse in order to square the annual balance sheet.

Within the sorry litany of bad news, perhaps the most depressing spectacle was witnessing advocates for one group of abuse victims throw another group of abuse victims to the wolves. I refer of course to the journalist Sandra Laville and interviewees from women’s organisations attributing their dire situation to the need to provide services to male victims too.

[Read more…]

Is banning Community Resolution for domestic violence the right move?

The ‘i’ paper today has a dramatic and troubling front page. “Police letting off domestic abusers with a slap on the wrist” it proclaims.

Glossing quickly over the unfortunate irony to the metaphor, the full story is carried in the commuter tabloid’s grown up sibling, the Independent, with a rather more honest title. “Violent partners let off with ‘slap on the wrist’ orders, says Labour.” 

The story heralds a speech today by Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, which will flesh out more details on Labour’s proposed new  legislation that will, among other changes, ban the use of Community Resolution Orders (CROs) in cases of domestic violence. The story is fleshed out with statistics and quotes from Women’s Aid to illustrate and explain that domestic violence is not a trivial crime, it rarely occurs as a one-off, and should therefore be inappropriate for these community settlements. CROs are primarily designed to deal with very minor offences and anti-social behaviour offences by minors.

What is the scale of use of these orders? Well we are told that their use has more than doubled in the past five years [Read more…]