Victoria Coren-Mitchell and the sin of ambivalence

Charlie was born in 1934, the accidental child of a 15-year-old runaway. She was already drinking heavily and being used as the sexual plaything of a succession of older men. Charlie’s birth certificate listed him as “no name Maddox.” Nobody was ever quite sure who the father was.  As a toddler, his mother once ran out of money while out drinking and sold the boy to a waitress for a pitcher of beer. This was probably considered a joke, until the young woman finished her drink, got up and left her son in the bar. A few days later Charlie’s uncle tracked him down and retrieved him. Aged 5, Charlie’s mother was convicted of robbery and imprisoned for three years, the boy spent the time being passed around a string of uncaring relatives.

Aged 12 and already displaying a range of delinquent behaviours, his mother put Charlie up to be fostered, but no home could be found. A court placed him in an orphanage which he hated. Ten months later he ran away and found his mother. She sent him away. At 13 he was charged with robbing convenience stores and sent to a juvenile detention centre where he was repeatedly raped and physically abused. Three years later he escaped and went on a crime spree before being caught and detained. Despite testing with a high IQ, at age 17 he was illiterate. He spent his twenties in and out of jail for a succession of petty offences including theft and pimping.

Charlie’s one love was music and while in prison he learned to play guitar. In 1967 he moved to San Francisco and began attracting a small following of friends and admirers to form a commune. They were won over by his charisma and enchanted by the radical countercultural beliefs, informed by a hotchpotch of scientology, Satanism and white supremacy. Under Charlie’s instruction, members of the group went on to commit at least two murders before the evening of August 6th 1969, when the gang brutally slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate, young wife of the film director Roman Polanski.

In the roll call of violent criminals of the 20th Century, few have the monstrous status of Charles Manson, and few so deserve it. All accounts of his life, including his own ghostwritten autobiography, portray a wicked, manipulative psychopath who revels in the death and agony of others and who, to this day, shows little sign of remorse or regret for the appalling crimes he committed and inspired. Those same accounts simultaneously explain the pitiably desperate early life experiences that undoubtedly created the monster. Those two interpretations are not incompatible. Anyone who works with the issues of violent crime, in which I include writers and journalists, needs to be able to wrestle with them both simultaneously. They are not balanced on a scale, where the higher one is raised, the lower the other becomes. One of the most idiotic things ever said by a serving Prime Minister was surely the statement by John Major that sometimes we need to “understand a little less, and condemn a little more” as if condemnation was the price to be paid for understanding. It isn’t. It is possible to understand and still condemn.

In yesterday’s Observer, Victoria Coren-Mitchell wrote of the need for nuance in considering cases like Roman Polanski, who in 1977 drugged and anally raped a 13 year old girl, Samantha Geimer. After an immensely complicated, and well-publicised trial process, Polanski jumped the country and has been living in exile ever since. It was immensely disappointing that in making this case, Coren-Mitchell’s own grasp of nuance repeatedly deserted her.

Several other bloggers (and hundreds of commenters) have already picked up on her problematic use of phrases like “had sex with” instead of “raped” and the frankly bizarre suggestion that the issue was complicated by her opinion that “Polanski’s work is filled with beauty and humanity.”   However I think the real problem with her piece is deeper than that. In calling for a nuanced discussion, Mitchell-Coren is attacking a very large and clumsy straw man – the very opposite of a nuanced approach.

Her argument boils down to saying just because Polanski did a terrible thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is a terrible man. Who, seriously, devotes more than a millisecond to pondering this question?  Not many of us now believe that individuals carry an essence of pure evil. We all understand that people are products of their environments and their experiences, and when we as a society decide that individuals should face consequences for their crimes, we are punishing not the person, but the deed.

The anger aimed at Roman Polanski is not rooted in a belief that he is a monster. Monster is as monster does, and that is as true of Polanski as it is of Manson or of any of the innumerable rapists, murderers and violent criminals who fill our jails – the vast majority of whom have similarly distressing and heart-breaking backgrounds and childhoods.  The anger aimed at Polanski is rooted first in the knowledge that he committed a horrible sex crime against a child. Secondly, it is rooted in his absconding from due process and punishment, living a life of luxury. Thirdly it is rooted in the shameful behaviour of the Hollywood and media glitterati who would, it seems, grant a free pass to their own to rape children providing they make pretty movies. By failing to acknowledge or discuss any of this, Mitchell-Coren confuses nuance with ambivalence. There are plenty of aspects to the Polanski case that require nuance and careful thought. That does not mean we need to be ambivalent about the crime, or the man who committed it. In calling for nuance, she fails dismally on her own terms.

Domestic abuse, disability and a great man’s courage

Back in the late seventies, to my prepubescent eyes, Eddie Kidd was quite simply the coolest guy on the planet. The motorcycle stuntman seemed to be a perennial presence on John Craven’s Newsround and Blue Peter, highlighting his latest daredevil leaps over gullies, gorges or strings of double decker buses. While the USA had Evel Knieval, all jumpsuits, rhinestones and Confederate flags, we had Eddie Kidd, a sneering, punky, denim and leather-clad teenager. No contest.

The courage and determination which took Eddie Kidd to stardom stayed with him, even after a horrific accident in 1996 left him with severe physical disabilities and brain damage. Doctors declared that he would never walk again, but five years later he completed the London Marathon. It took him 43 days but he finished it.

It must have taken a similar kind of courage for Kidd to open himself up on his experience as a victim of domestic abuse. In August, his ex-wife was imprisoned for five months for a series of assaults that included kicking, punching and throttling him, accompanied by foul verbal attacks, sometimes in full view of witnesses. Last week Kidd told the Sun on Sunday:

“As a man, any man, to be beaten by your wife is desperately humiliating and, in a way, shameful.  I ended up blaming myself – thinking she had taken too much – or, that it was my fault. I took on so much when I was riding. Then after all the stunts, all the fanfare, I am sat in a chair being beaten by my wife and there is nothing I can do.”

This desperately sad story brings into sharp focus one of the most neglected aspects to domestic violence policy: disability, and especially its interaction with masculinity. Home Office research has found that both men and women with disabilities are around twice as likely to become victims of abuse as their non-disabled equivalents and while disabled women are at greatest risk of all, disabled men are at significantly greater risk than non-disabled women. An analysis of users of a male victims’ helpline in the US revealed that 17.9% of callers were disabled. Other research has found that disabled people are likely to suffer greater trauma and mental ill health as a consequence than other victims of abuse.

To its credit, the domestic violence sector has at least begun to address the very real needs of disabled women, in terms of identifying abuse and providing appropriate interventions. Academic searches bring up swathes of papers, books and chapters on the needs of disabled women at risk. In contrast, when the charity Abused Men in Scotland published a recent systematic review of evidence on male victims’ needs, they were forced to admit: “An extensive search produced no specific literature on disabled men and domestic abuse.”

Numerous studies have suggested that disabled people are less likely to report abuse than others, and that men are less likely to do so than women. It is reasonable to presume that disabled men are uniquely isolated from support. We might hope that health and social care professionals would be attuned to these risks, and yet if one looks at the stated positions of their relevant national bodies, there is cause for concern.

The Royal College of Nurses provides a resource sheet on domestic violence which begins with the words “Increasingly, nurses working in all specialities are expected to respond to women who are experiencing domestic violence.” It continues in that vein for ten pages, mentioning male victims only once, to dismiss their significance. The British Association of Social Work resource section has 28 documents on domestic violence and not one of them addresses the needs of male victims. When the Royal College of General Practitioners launched a new training package on domestic violence, their chair was quoted as saying “this vital work [will] develop the skills and confidence of GPs and transform the lives of many women and children.” NHS London provides an extensive resource site for health professionals on domestic violence which presumes male perpetrators and female victims throughout.

In practice, many individual doctors, nurses, social workers and other frontline care professionals are sensitive and aware of male victims, especially those with disabilities. Victims and their advocates report that sadly, many are not and one might ask for how long their national organisations are going to legitimise that failing. This week NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence closes a major consultation on domestic violence policies across our health services. Let us hope it provides a platform for change to systems and attitudes which currently leave many of the most vulnerable victims neglected, forgotten and at risk.


Nagging: No laughing matter


So runs the headline on The Sun’s front page this morning. It refers to a court judgement in which Julie Griffiths of Staffordshire has been spared jail for breaking the terms of her anti-social behaviour order imposed last December for shouting and screaming at her husband at such volumes that it persistently disturbs the neighbours.

The story goes back to 1999 when she was first served with a noise abatement order. She was fined £500 when she breached it  in 2010. Environmental health officers installed monitoring equipment in a neighbour’s home in July last year.She then breached the noise abatement order 47 times between July 4 and October 22, 2012. Last December magistrates imposed a five-year ASBO after she pleaded guilty to failing to comply with the requirements of the notice. Since then Griffiths, the court heard, has continued to disturb her street with shouting, swearing and slamming doors while berating her husband Norman, 63.

A Daily Mail report, from the time of the Asbo last December, said:

Neighbours yesterday said living next door to Griffiths had ‘been hell.’ One, who did not want to be named, said: ‘Everyone in the street is sick to the back teeth of her. ‘Everyone just feels so sorry for her husband Norman who is the sweetest man you could ever meet.  ‘He must have the patience of a saint.’

According to the Daily Mail today Councillor John Williams, cabinet member for stronger neighbourhoods, said: ‘Ms Griffiths’s neighbours continue to suffer from her dreadful behaviour despite the Anti-Social Behaviour Order but we will do all we can to see that action is taken to stop it happening in future.

Now I can’t be the only person to be rather disturbed by the reporting of this. Her repeated offence is annoying the neighbours, as if they are the primary victims here, The case is being treated identically to someone who insists on playing Metallica CDs at full volume, morning and night. But she is not just making noise. She is, by all accounts, persisting in severe and persistent verbal partner abuse. It would appear to be textbook coercive-controlling abuse, by any of the definitions of domestic violence applied by all agencies,

Now it could well be that her husband has no wish to take any steps himself to change her behaviour or find any kind of protection or relief from her bullying. That is entirely his right, and if he does not want to do anything about it I would not for a moment advocate prosecuting her for domestic abuse or seeking to break up the household.

However I do take exception to the language and vocabulary used to recount the sordid story. Not only does the word ‘nagging’ have an ugly history as a misogynistic slur, it would appear to be grossly inaccurate description of what is happening here. Nagging is when you tell someone to take the bins out, they don’t do it, so you keep at them until they do. Nagging is not yelling, screaming and banging doors so loudly that the council noise abatement team repeatedly prosecute you.

it has taken us a long, long time to lose the euphemisms attached to domestic violence. Police, for the most part, do not dismiss partner assaults as “just a domestic” (or not publicly, at least.)  We no longer talk about an abusive husband as having a “strong hand” or a male victim as a “henpecked husband.”

It’s more than high time that we dropped this particular N-word too.


This is what is crude about circumcision, Lynne Featherstone

When I write about the ritual infant circumcision of boys, I try to avoid lazy and crass comparisons to female genital mutilation. FGM, in the form of clitoridectomy (as commonly practised in countries like Somalia), is a horrific procedure that causes unfathomable pain and trauma at the time it is conducted, followed by lifelong sexual pain and dysfunction. There is no question that the physical impacts and health risks of FGM are genuinely incomparable to those of male circumcision, or to give it a less euphemistic description, ritual male genital mutilation.

So making trite comparisons between FGM and MGM is unhelpful and obscures differences. It is often unhelpful to even hint at comparisons. That is why I was appalled and repulsed by Lynne Featherstone MP, who at the Lib Dem Conference today used the exact inverse analogy to make a rhetorical point.:

“It’s a practice that has been going 4,000 years and, without wishing to be crude about this, quite frankly if it was boys’ willies that were being cut off without anaesthetic it wouldn’t have lasted four minutes, let alone 4,000 years.”

I’m guessing that Featherstone has never sat in a court and listened to testimony describing an untrained practitioner taking a pair of kitchen scissors to the penis of a four-week old boy, without anaesthetic, dabbing it with olive oil and then leaving him to bleed to death. I have. When I read her words, the first image that flooded my mind were those vivid descriptions of the death of Goodluck Caubergs in Manchester last year.

Perhaps Lynne Featherstone has never heard of Angelo Ofori-Mintah  who died in London, aged 28 days, after a Rabbi told his parents to daub his uncongealed wound with Vaseline. He lost three quarters of his blood before he died of cardiac arrest. Perhaps she hasn’t heard of the baby in Bristol who suffered a fractured skull after falling off a table during a home circumcision. She may not know that Manchester children’s hospital treats an average of three babies a month with botched circumcision wounds, she may not know that 45% of babies circumcised at an Islamic school in Oxford suffered medical complications. She may not know that well over 100 baby boys die from complications after circumcision every year in the USA alone. While her eyes are on Somalia, she may have missed the story from South Africa where 30 boys died in one province alone during the “circumcision season”, with another 300 hospitalised with dehydration, gangrene and septic wounds, at least ten of whom had to have their penises amputated.

The truth is that nobody has got a clue what the true global toll of death and injury from male circumcision might be, because global bodies such as the World Health Organisation make no efforts to find out.  With around 30% of the world’s baby boys being circumcised every year, many in countries with minimal medical care, it is likely to be in the tens of thousands at the least.

Yes, the probabilities of mortality or morbidity following female genital mutilation are certainly far higher. However the other side of that coin is that while FGM is prohibited and abhorred in all but a handful of cultures on earth, male circumcision is tolerated and encouraged. Around one in four baby boys born on the planet this year will be subjected to an unnecessary ritual mutilation, the overwhelming proportion of which will be carried out without anaesthetic and not under surgical conditions.

Featherstone said she didn’t want to be “crude” and in that, I suspect she meant by using the word “willies.” Her crudeness is not in her vocabulary, it is in the grossly tasteless indifference and ignorance she shows to the fact that for 4,000 years we have indeed been taking knives to baby boys’ willies, countless numbers have died as a result, innumerable more have suffered botched mutilations, sexual dysfunction, pain and suffering,  and rather than “putting a stop to it in four minutes” we have turned our backs, averted our eyes to the blood, closed our ears to the screams and let it happen.

White Slave Traffic: A Friday 13th guest post by Emma Goldman

Intro: A few years ago, the former sex worker and blogger Maggie McNeill had the idea of making Friday 13th an auspicious date for sex workers and their anti-prohibition allies. She wrote:

“Friday the 13th should be good luck for whores even if it really were bad luck for Christian men.  Now, I’m not really superstitious; I don’t believe that a day can bring either good luck or bad.  But considering that the reasons for fear of this day are so closely related to the reasons our profession is maligned and suppressed, perhaps whores and those who support our rights should make every Friday the Thirteenth a day to speak out in favor of full decriminalization and an end to the institutionalized persecution of prostitutes.”

It’s a compelling invitation, and when I was looking for inspiration as to what I might write, I went back to one or two of my favourite sources. As I was browsing Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays, I quickly realised that much of what needs saying had been said over a hundred years ago, and is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. I couldn’t hope to do any better.

Goldman lived her life alongside sex workers and devoted much of her time to working for their welfare, rights and sexual health, along with sexual freedom for all women and men, including gay men, lesbians and ‘Uranians’ – those we would now call trans, intersex or gender non-conforming. Goldman was continually persecuted and even imprisoned for these efforts, as she was for her anti-capitalist and anti-war anarchism.

As a quick note on Goldman’s beliefs, it is important to note that when she describes prostitution as an “evil” she meant a political evil – an evil of commercial exploitation, not an evil of personal morality. She used the exact same language about factory work and all other forms of purchased labour under capitalism, which she calls “economic prostitution.” She also saw prostitution as an inevitable product of sexual repression, monogamy, religious restriction and the institution of marriage, which she abhorred.

When this essay was first published in Goldman’s own journal Mother Earth, it was seized as obscene material after a complaint from the notorious Christian moralist Anthony Comstock. You can read the full original here, but for now, here are some selected extracts from one of the most powerful arguments for decriminalization ever written.


The White Slave Traffic by Emma Goldman (First published January 1910)

Our reformers have suddenly made a great discovery — the white slave traffic. The papers are full of these “unheard-of conditions,” and lawmakers are already planning a new set of laws to check the horror.

It is significant that whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency, gambling, saloons, etc. And what is the result of such crusades? Gambling is increasing, saloons are doing a lively business through back entrances, prostitution is at its height, and the system of pimps and cadets is but aggravated.

How is it that an institution, known almost to every child, should have been discovered so suddenly? How is it that this evil, known to all sociologists, should now be made such an important issue?

To assume that the recent investigation of the white slave traffic (and, by the way, a very superficial investigation) has discovered anything new, is, to say the least, very foolish. Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has remained to our industrial system, or to economic prostitution.


What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?”

Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.


Moralists are ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race for the sake of some miserable institution which they can not outgrow. As a matter of fact, prostitution is no more a safeguard for the purity of the home than rigid laws are a safeguard against prostitution.


The most amusing side of the question now before the public is the indignation of our “good, respectable people,” especially the various Christian gentlemen, who are always to be found in the front ranks of every crusade. Is it that they are absolutely ignorant of the history of religion, and especially of the Christian religion? Or is it that they hope to blind the present generation to the part played in the past by the Church in relation to prostitution? Whatever their reason, they should be the last to cry out against the unfortunate victims of today, since it is known to every intelligent student that prostitution is of religious origin, maintained and fostered for many centuries, not as a shame, but as a virtue, hailed as such by the Gods themselves.


Until 1894 very little was known in America of the procurer. Then we were attacked by an epidemic of virtue. Vice was to be abolished, the country purified at all cost. The social cancer was therefore driven out of sight, but deeper into the body. Keepers of brothels, as well as their unfortunate victims, were turned over to the tender mercies of the police. The inevitable consequence of exorbitant bribes, and the penitentiary, followed.

While comparatively protected in the brothels, where they represented a certain monetary value, the girls now found themselves on the street, absolutely at the mercy of the graft-greedy police. Desperate, needing protection and longing for affection, these girls naturally proved an easy prey for cadets, themselves the result of the spirit of our commercial age. Thus the cadet system was the direct outgrowth of police persecution, graft, and attempted suppression of prostitution. It were sheer folly to confound this modern phase of the social evil with the causes of the latter.

Mere suppression and barbaric enactments can serve but to embitter, and further degrade, the unfortunate victims of ignorance and stupidity. The latter has reached its highest expression in the proposed law to make humane treatment of prostitutes a crime, punishing any one sheltering a prostitute with five years’ imprisonment and $10,000 fine. Such an attitude merely exposes the terrible lack of understanding of the true causes of prostitution, as a social factor, as well as manifesting the Puritanic spirit of the Scarlet Letter days.

There is not a single modern writer on the subject who does not refer to the utter futility of legislative methods in coping with the issue. Thus Dr. Blaschko finds that governmental suppression and moral crusades accomplish nothing save driving the evil into secret channels, multiplying its dangers to society. Havelock Ellis, the most thorough and humane student of prostitution, proves by a wealth of data that the more stringent the methods of persecution the worse the condition becomes. Among other data we learn that in France, “in 1560, Charles IX. abolished brothels through an edict, but the numbers of prostitutes were only increased, while many new brothels appeared in unsuspected shapes, and were more dangerous. In spite of all such legislation, or because of it, there has been no country in which prostitution has played a more conspicuous part.”

An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Wilful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil as a social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy, and ensure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones — coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.

Anonymity for the accused: reaching for a compromise

In the hours since the acquittal of Michael Le Vell on all counts of child rape and abuse charges, I have, like many others, found myself wrestling with severely unpleasant emotional reactions.

Like all but a handful of observers, I was not in court for the trial. I do not know who the central witness was, or much that is meaningful about her other than that she is a girl, now aged 17. I do not know her relationship to Le Vell, I do not know anything about her personal history or circumstances. I do know that there was evidence provided to the court which could not be reported, lest it compromise the complainant’s anonymity. I can assume that some of the evidence and arguments presented by the defence will have been considered relevant and significant by the jury, other evidence and arguments will not, but I have no way of knowing what each of those might have been. Almost everyone else in the country is in the precise same position as I am.

With that in mind, I have been disgusted and appalled by the innumerable tweets and message-board comments I’ve seen calling for the witness in this trial to be named and shamed, imprisoned for making false allegations or simply abused and insulted by people calling her variations on “a lying little bitch.” In any case like this there is an enormous gulf between proving the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt and confidently stating that the accuser is vindictively deceitful and dishonest. We simply don’t know.

I have also been disgusted and appalled by the innumerable tweets I’ve seen declaring the jury’s decision irrelevant, asserting that there would be no reason for the complainant to bear false witness and that Le Vell is possibly, probably or even (as I’ve seen written) certainly guilty, despite the jury’s verdict.

Inevitably, the case has once again raised the question of anonymity for the accused in rape and sexual abuse trials. The people who have today been asserting Le Vell’s probable guilt, even by the indirect use of the hashtag #ibelieveher, should be aware that they are providing the single strongest argument for the introduction of anonymity I have ever seen. Our judicial system is far, far from perfect and is in many ways in need of reform, but it is the only one we have got, and unless we prefer the justice of the pitchfork and the witchfynder, the single most important principle underpinning it has to be that every one of us is innocent until and unless proven guilty. Why is there a need for anonymity for rape defendants? Because even when someone is acquitted, large numbers of people continue to assert their guilt, and that was vividly proven on Twitter this week. People ask why we don’t make the same demand for murder, armed robbery or other crimes? The answer is primarily because when someone is acquitted on such charges, the rest of us are much, much more likely to accept and believe the verdict.

Now I have got that off my chest, I should explain that I am still not entirely convinced by the arguments for anonymity. The most convincing counter-argument is that when one victim of a serial offender comes forward, it will encourage other victims of the same attacker to do likewise, greatly improving the chances of securing justice and protection for all. This is an important factor which cannot be wished away. However if one begins to look more closely, some space for compromise begins to open up.

One example often used is serial rapist John Worboys, the taxi driver eventually convicted of 12 rapes, but believed to have been responsible for over a hundred more. However (I presume) few if any of his victims knew his name or had particularly good recognition of his face. What they recognised was his precise modus operandi . The key moment in catching him was when media and police eventually described not him, but his method, at which point many more victims approached saying “this is exactly what happened to me too.”

The other examples being quoted this week are Stuart Hall and other alleged or convicted offenders in the Operation Yewtree investigations. Again, these cases are less clear cut than they appear. What has happened in the aftermath of the Savile revelations is that many witnesses have come forward to report being victims of a wide number of offenders who were celebrities and stars in television and pop culture. When it emerged that children (and indeed adults) had been abused by stars of TV and radio, other victims came forward to identify different alleged offenders.  What both Yewtree and Worboys suggest to me is that, at least in some cases, publicising the circumstances and (within reason) details of alleged sexual offences is a much more significant move than naming the offender.

So this is a question where the arguments on both sides, for and against, can be convincing. I’m not sure why the debate must be held on an absolute, all or nothing basis. British law (and I’d imagine similar applies in other countries) holds plenty of provision for reporting restrictions. Under contempt of court laws, judges can demand secrecy in cases of youth offending, family law, blackmail and more. Crucially, the judge also has the power to lift reporting restrictions in many of those cases, if the circumstances require or allow it.

Rape and sexual assault charges happen under many different circumstances. Sometimes police and prosecutors might judge it likely that there are other potential victims at large who could be persuaded to come forward if the alleged attacker is identified. In other cases (particularly familial and domestic abuse) the chances of there being other, as yet unidentified victims would be minuscule. I see no reason why there couldn’t be an assumption of anonymity which could be lifted at any time by the presiding judge, if investigators plead that it offers significant prospects of helping the case.

Whether or not this might have applied to or helped Michael Le Vell, I do not know and shall not speculate.  However I do think that this debate, which at times seems intractable and polarised, might offer more scope for compromise and nuance than is normally allowed.

The startling facts on female sexual aggression

For the past year or so, any time I’ve written about men’s sexual aggression towards women, I could almost guarantee that someone would comment beneath about women’s sexual aggression towards men, usually referencing the US Centre for Disease Control’s Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010.

This huge victim survey made a surprising finding. It suggested that the rates of men being forced to penetrate women over the past year was identical to the rates of women reporting being raped, each 1.1%. Lifetime prevalence of the crimes were 4.8% for men and 17.8% for women. Meanwhile men reporting sex through coercion was 1.5% over the past year (6% lifetime) compared to 2% (13% lifetime) for women.

I’ll be honest that I was, for a long time, extremely dubious about these data. They fly in the face of everything we presume to know about sexual violence. They had to be a rogue result, either the product of some sampling error, a result of differing interpretations of coercion and compulsion by male and female respondents, or some unexplained bug in the methodology.

So I began to do what I always try to do, and find out for myself. For a long time I drew blanks, it seemed there simply was no corroborating evidence. Most of my usual criminology bibles and texts on sexual assault came up bare. Then slowly I began to catch glints of light – a reference in a paper here, a link in a discussion there.  As is the way of research, suddenly the pieces began to tumble out in front of me. What I found astonished me. It turns out the CDC results are not unique or unprecedented. There is a raft of research going back to the 1980s making very similar claims.

I know many readers of this blog will be as sceptical as I was. So I will do something I don’t normally do, and post a whole bunch of academic references, with the relevant findings. You can check them to your heart’s content. Alternatively just skip to the discussion below.


Aizeman & Kelley, 1988 – 14% of men (and 29% of women) reported they had been forced to have intercourse against their will

Anderson 1998 – Survey of 461 women (general population) 43% secured sexual acts by verbal coercion; 36.5% by getting a man intoxicated; threat of force – 27.8%, use of force – 20%;  By threatening a man with a weapon – 8.9%.

Anderson, 1999 – 43% of college women admitted to using verbal or physical pressure to obtain sex

Anderson and Aymami (1993) 28.5% of women reported the use of verbal coercion, 14.7% had coerced a man into sexual activity by getting him intoxicated and 7.1% had threatened or used physical force.

Fiebert & Tucci (1998) – 70% of male college students reported experiencing some type of harassment, pressuring, or coercion by a female

Hannon, Kunetz, Van Laar, & Williams (1996) – 10% of surveyed male college students reported experiencing a completed sexual assault perpetrated by a female intimate partner

Hogben, Byrne & Hamburger (1996) Lifetime prevalence of 24% for women having made a man engage in sexual activity against his will.

Krahe, Waizenhofer & Moller (2003) – 9.3% of women reported having used aggressive strategies to coerce a man into sexual activities.  Exploitation of the man’s incapacitated state: 5.6% Verbal pressure: 3.2%. Physical force: 2%. An additional 5.4% reported attempted acts of sexual aggression

Larimer, Lydum, Anderson and Turner (1999) 20.7% of male respondents had been the recipients of unwanted sexual contact in the year prior to the survey. Verbal pressure was experienced by 7.9%, physical force by 0.6% and intoxication through alcohol or drugs by 3.6%.

Muehlenhard and Cook (1988) 23.8% of male respondents had engaged in unwanted sexual activity as a result of threat or physical force, and 26.8% reported unwanted sexual contact as a result of verbal pressure. For unwanted intercourse, the prevalence rates were 6.5% for physical force and 13.4% for verbal pressure.

O’Sullivan, Byers and Finkelman (1998) Overall incidence of 8% of women reporting sexual aggression for the academic year preceding the survey. Intercourse due to use of threat or physical force 0.5%, by use of alcohol or drugs 0.5% and attempted intercourse due to threat or use of physical force also 0.5%. Of male respondents, 18.5% reported having experienced sexual aggression. Specifically, 3.8% reported experiencing unwanted sexual intercourse due to use of alcohol or drugs, and 2.3% reported attempted intercourse due to threat or use of physical force.

Poppen and Segal (1988) 14% of women reported lifetime incident(s) of perpetration (including both verbal coercion and physical assault)

Russell and Oswald (2001) – 18% of women in a college sample reported engaging in sexually coercive behaviors, ranging from verbal threats and pressure to use of physically aggressive tactics.

Russell and Oswald (2002) 44% of college men in their sample reported being subjected to a sexually coercive tactic.

Shea (1988) Women’s reported lifetime prevalence – 19% for verbal coercion; 1.2% reported having physically assaulted a man.

Sisco, Becker, Figueredo, & Sales (2005) – A third of women reported that they had verbally harassed a person or pressured the person into performing a sexual act that the person felt uncomfortable with while roughly one in ten performed a coercive sexual act that would be considered illegal (e.g., sexual acts that involved a person who was unable or unwilling to consent)

Sorensen, Stein, Siegel, Golding and Burnam (1987) Lifetime prevalence rate of 9.4% and an adult prevalence rate of 7.2% for men’s sexual victimization (male self-reports).

Struckman-Johnson (1988) – 2% of 355 female college students reported they had forced sex on a dating partner at least once in their lifetime.

Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1998) – 43% of college men reported experiencing a coercive incident, of which 36% reported unwanted touch and 27% reported being coerced into sexual intercourse.

[As I was almost done completing this list, almost inevitably, I discovered that someone else – Martin Fiebert to be precise – had already compiled a similar one.  The bastard. Anyway, it’s here, and contains many of the same papers plus many more]


Where does this research lead us? Most obviously, to the conclusion that female sexual aggression in relationships is far more common than I, and I suspect most people, usually presume. It is a huge, and almost entirely invisible phenomenon with many, many unacknowledged male victims.. There are also enormous heffalump-traps here. Firstly, the research does not show that women are as likely to sexually aggress as men. Where there is a direct comparison (eg the very first reference) they tend to show that men are at least twice as likely to sexually aggress as women. Nor does it imply that a man’s experience of being sexually coerced or assaulted by a women is in some way parallel to a woman’s experience of being sexually coerced or assaulted by a man.

Let me bring in an anecdote. When I was at a student party once, around 25 years ago, a very drunk (and physically rather large) woman came on to me, very strongly indeed.  I tried to escape with a tactical toilet break. She followed me into the loo, forced me up against the basin, pushed her tongue into my mouth and her hand into my jeans. I had to summon up quite a lot of physical strength to escape. This may sound strange, but my understanding of the incident, then and now, was not that I had narrowly escaped being raped by her, but that she had narrowly escaped being raped by me. She was in no state to be making such a choice. When her hand grasped my cock it reacted and for a moment I considered letting her have her wish. I refrained, partly because I knew I would regret it afterwards, but more importantly because I knew it was highly likely that she would regret it, if not immediately, then certainly the next day. (I was also pretty sure she was going to throw up any minute, and if I didn’t fancy her much to begin with, that certainly wouldn’t have helped.)

It was all a bit icky at the time, but minutes later she’d wandered off and passed out on an armchair, I sighed with relief, shrugged off the suggestive leers from my mates, grabbed a beer, rolled a spliff and all but forgot about it within minutes.

Had the details of the incident been the same, but the genders been reversed – had I been the obnoxiously drunken man who forced my way into a bathroom with a woman, thrust my hand into her pants and pinned her against a wall, it would have (very probably) been a far, far more terrifying, traumatizing experience for the victim. Nobody would have questioned that it was an attempted rape.  Is this a double standard? Probably, but it is one born of thousands of years of cultural, sexual and gender conditioning, not to mention the political context, in which the ever present threat of rape has been used as a primary tool of male domination over women. We can question that, strive to move on from it, but we cannot simply wish it away.

That said, if I lacked either the strength or sobriety to extricate myself from the situation, I might well have had a very different recall of the event.  In one of the many studies into this subject, Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (1994), found that most men who experienced unwanted female contact had ‘mild negative reactions’ (a fair description of my feelings, I’d say), However about one fifth of the men had strong negative reactions – some were traumatised, damaged, psychologically harmed by the experience.  That is of course far lower than the proportion of women who are seriously traumatised by sexual assaults by men but there is also research going back as far as 1982 (by Sarrel and Masters) demonstrating severely negative psychological and psychosexual consequences to male victimization. We are taking a long time to wake up to this problem.

It seems apparent (and I choose those words with care) that whatever the incidence of female sexual assault of adult males, our society is not teeming with men who have been seriously psychologically and emotionally damaged by experience of female abuse and assault. I recently asked a friend, a clinical psychologist, whether it was something that came up often, and he replied that in a 20 year career, he could only recall two clients who disclosed such issues, both of which had occurred as part of a broader pattern of partner abuse and domestic violence. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean serious casualties do not exist, nor does it invalidate the experience of men who were less lucky than me, more vulnerable than me, or more traumatised than me. Nor does it preclude the possibility that many damaged men simply never confess their nightmares to anyone, even their professional therapists.

What should we take from awareness of the extent of female sexual aggression? First, just that  – awareness. Men need to be aware that there are women out there who will exploit them, not feel isolated or shamed if it happens to them, and be prepared to seek and accept help and support if they need it.

Society needs to be aware that it is a serious issue, not a joke, not always a trivial matter or something that belongs in the News of the Weird section. Abigail Rine at The Atlantic has written a couple of excellent pieces [here and here] about our cultural hypocrisy on the issue recently. We need many more writers like her.

Our mental health and social care systems need to be more alive to the extent of the issue, be open to the possibility that emotionally and sexually troubled men might be troubled for this very reason. And this might sound bizarre, but perhaps women need to be aware that they can and do assault and abuse men. I strongly suspect many women genuinely believe that any man will be (literally) up for it at any time, and will always be glad of a sexual thrill. This is as much of a rape myth as any other.

Above all, this knowledge should yet again give us pause to consider our collective understanding of the nature of sexual consent. I don’t think we can entirely untangle female sexual abuse of men from male sexual abuse of women. Both stem from a willingness to exert selfish power or sadistic cruelty, placing sex in a framework where we take what we want and get what we can, rather than give what is wanted.  Perhaps greater enlightenment on this topic could help to further break down all abusive sexual behaviours, to the benefit of male and female victims alike.

Was just prompted by a chat on Twitter to realise that it might be useful for some to include links to support organisations.

If you are a male survivor of any form of sexual abuse and would like support or advice.

In the UK:
n the US:

(if you can suggest any other organisations I should link to, please let me know below)