The letters continue: Erasure, misrepresentation and Orwellian doublespeak

To the signatories of the letter Gender is all too relevant in violence statistics.

First let me thank you for the opportunity to continue this important conversation. It is clear your letter in the Guardian today is a reaction to the one signed by myself and 30 others last week, however it would be wrong to call it a response, as you do not appear to have addressed or even understood any of the issues our letter raised, preferring to criticise us on a variety of points which our letter simply did not make.

Allow me to be more specific.

Your correspondents call on the director of public prosecutions to “affirm [her] commitment to eliminating intimate violence against human beings of any gender” and criticise the Crown Prosecution Service’s presentation of statistics in its annual violence against women and girls report for being so explicitly gendered (Letters, 2 July).

We did not criticise the CPS report for being so explicitly gendered. We would expect a report entitled “Violence Against Women and Girls, crime report” to be explicitly gendered. Nor did we condemn the CPS for producing a report with that subject and title.

We criticised the CPS report for being dishonest and misleading in including crimes against at least 13,154 (known) boys and men in a report entitled ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ while going to some lengths to entirely obscure the experiences of male victims.

It is established fact that these crimes are massively disproportionately committed against women and girls (female genital mutilation exclusively so) and that they are related to women’s broader inequality with men. Your correspondents claim without citation that “one in six of all victims” are male. This is disputed, and certainly does not apply equally to all the forms of abuse in the CPS report.

The figure of 1 in 6 did not require citation as it comes from the CPS report itself and the accompanying data tables. Where gender was recorded, 16% of victims of the crimes described in the report were men and boys. This is most certainly not disputed, the statistics are in Table 8 of the performance information here.

Furthermore, it is also critical that we retain gender in our naming and analysis of these crimes because of the gender of the perpetrators, whom your correspondents do not mention at all.

We did not mention it because we had no dispute with how the CPS report covered the gender of the perpetrators. The report explained quite clearly that around 94% of offenders of these crimes within the criminal justice system were male and 6% female. We accept this, and had no reason to raise it in our letter.

In searching for recognition and then for justice and support for male survivors of abuse, it is a grave mistake to suggest taking gender out of the naming and analysis, and neutralising these crimes into Orwellian “intimate abuse”. A failure to name and call out the abuse of power in these crimes is what kept them invisible for so long.

At no point in our letter did we suggest taking gender out of the analysis. On the contrary, we clearly expressed that male victims have their own gender-specific issues, such as those relating to social expectations of a ‘real man.’ Nor are gender issues neutralised by the phrase ‘intimate abuse’ or ‘intimate violence’ – this term has always been used by many public bodies including the Office of National Statistics, to describe crimes such as domestic violence and abuse – for example, see here, the chapter “Intimate Personal Violence and Serious Sexual Assault.”

You describe this phrase as “Orwellian.” I would suggest what is truly Orwellian is for the experiences of many thousands of violated men and boys to be described with the phrase ‘violence against women and girls.’ War is peace; freedom is slavery; boys are girls. What is truly Orwellian is for the CPS to highlight the conviction of Fr Francis Paul Cullen as an example of their success in prosecuting crimes against women and girls, when the large majority of his victims were boys, and for the gender of those victims to be entirely “taken out of the analysis” by descriptions of his victims only in gender-neutral terms as “young people.”

I would add that it is this type of erasure of male victims – even when the statistics and facts are right before our eyes – which has done so much to keep those crimes invisible for so long, a tragedy which your letter appears to strive to continue.

I do not speak today on behalf of the other signatories to our letter, only for myself, but I for one do not believe in taking gender out of the analysis of sexual and intimate offences. I believe gender issues are crucial to understanding why so many such crimes occur, and what kind of support is needed by victims. What I cannot accept is a cruel and misleading approach which focusses entirely on the gender of victims when they are women and girls and entirely ignores and erases gender when the victims are men and boys, or worse, when the experiences of those men and boys are subsumed into descriptions of violence against women and girls.

I finish on a note of genuine sadness. In our own letter we were very careful to honestly declare our full commitment to supporting all efforts to end violence against women and girls. Many of the signatories to our letter work with female survivors alongside men and boys, and are only too aware of the issues. But even though your response begins by noting our call for the CPS and other bodies to affirm their commitment to recognising and supporting male victims of intimate violence and abuse, in your response you could not even bring yourselves to offer a single equivalent word of support or compassion for the countless thousands of men and boys who are raped, abused, beaten and molested every year. I would add that, despite contacting them directly, we have as yet had no contact from the CPS or any other body that so much as acknowledges the existence of male victims, far less affirming support for their needs.

The male victims I know and support, and those engaged professionally by many of my co-signatories, often report feeling worthless and ignored, as if no one cares about what happened to them in the past or what will happen to them now and in the future. How tragic that your letter may well serve to confirm their darkest suspicions.

Why is the CPS erasing the experience of thousands of abuse victims?

The report by the Crown Prosecution Service, published yesterday, has an unequivocal title: “Violence Against Women and Girls, crime report 2014-15.”

One might reasonably presume from this that the report details statistics for crimes of violence committed against women and girls. Indeed, that presumption appears to have been made by pretty much every journalist who covered the story. The Independent, for example, reported that “107,104 people were prosecuted for violence against women in 2014-15.”

This is quite simply not true. In the very first paragraph of the executive summary, the authors explain that the report is ‘an analysis of the key prosecution issues in each Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) strand – domestic abuse, rape, sexual offences, stalking, harassment, forced marriage, honour based violence, female genital mutilation, child abuse, human trafficking, prostitution and pornography.’ [Read more…]

The fifty boys who were abused, exploited and raped, and how nobody gives a damn

I’m sure this week you will have read the horrifying details drawn from the serious case review by Oxfordshire Council.

The Guardian reported it like this.

“Professionals blamed Oxfordshire girls for their sexual abuse, report finds”

The Mirror: “Oxfordshire child abuse: 373 girls may have been victims of ‘indescribably awful’ sex exploitation”

The Express: ‘Police force is ashamed’ Up to 373 girls may have been sex abuse victims in Oxfordshire

Daily Mail “Hundreds of girls may have been sexually exploited after authorities repeatedly failed to tackle grooming gangs”

I had BBC radio on for much of the day on Tuesday, and every news bulletins carried updates on the hundreds of girls who had been abused in Oxford.

The story was prominent and consistent across every newspaper, every broadcaster, every news website. Hundreds of girls had been horribly abused, and horribly let down by the authorities.

There was one exception. Someone at the BBC local news site in Oxfordshire was actually doing his or her job.
“Of the 373 cases, the council said about 50 victims were boys.”

The rest of the media (with the exception of the Mirror who carried the fact in a follow-up report) entirely ignored this detail. Almost one in seven of the child abuse victims in Oxford has been almost completely expunged from history, like inconvenient faces in Stalin’s photo album.

This is an appalling, shameful failure by the media. Imagine for one moment that you are one of those desperate young men who was victimised by grooming gangs, raped, abused, exploited, and who had the courage to recount your experiences to investigators, authorities or police. Then you open a newspaper or turn on the radio or television to be told that you do not exist. Your abuse did not happen. What message would you take from that except that nobody gives a damn about you?

Compounding that horror, there are countless thousands, even millions of male survivors of child sexual abuse who are now accustomed to being marginalised, sidelined and ignored by authorities and the media. Their invisibility becomes a vicious circle – when people think of victims of sexual abuse they do not think of boys, so when policies are designed to prevent abuse or help survivors they are not designed with boys in mind, which simply feeds the belief that such survivors do not exist.

This is not the first time I have blogged about abused boys being simply made to vanish, but I think it may be the most egregious, appalling instance I have ever encountered. My heart, my love and my utmost admiration goes out to the 320 girls who were so grievously exploited and horribly failed, and to the 50 boys who were treated likewise, but are now not even afforded the dignity of acknowledgement.

It is days like this which make me ashamed to be a journalist.

Yes, Joseph Harker, white society really is implicated in sexual abuse

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?

and

“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.