Here’s my speech from Cambridge uni this afternoon. I was invited to speak along with Douglas Wigdor, Nafissatou Diallo’s attorney, following the Cambridge Union’s decision to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak this evening.

Good afternoon, and can I just start by saying thank you to the organisers for inviting me to speak this afternoon (and also a huge thank you to Douglas for coming all this way to contribute to today’s event).

I’ll just give you a very brief background on myself, on who I am and why I’m here. My name’s Cath Elliott, and as Ruth said in her introduction, I’m a freelance writer and blogger and a trade union activist. I’m a UNISON activist, and I’m chair of UNISON’s Regional Women’s Committee. I write (occasionally) for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, for a site called Liberal Conspiracy, and I also write and edit my own blog site – too much to say for myself.com.

What some of you may not be aware of is that on top of all this I also work in a Rape Crisis Centre. I work for Suffolk Rape Crisis, and I’ve been involved in the women’s voluntary sector for a number of years now in various different guises: as a staunch advocate for specialist women’s services for example, as a campaigner, a protestor, and obviously as a feminist writer on issues around rape and other crimes of violence against women and girls.

So that’s me.

Now I want to kick off by making clear that I absolutely share your anger and disgust – anger that’s quite palpable in this room, and that we’ll no doubt see and hear more of as the day progresses and at the protest later – I share your anger and disgust at the Cambridge Union’s decision to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn here today, as do many many more people up and down the country; some of whom have managed to make it here to this event, but many of whom unfortunately couldn’t.

I think like a lot of people, when the news first broke that Strauss-Kahn had been invited to address Cambridge University students, when the news broke that he’d not only been invited, but had accepted an invitation to address young people at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, I honestly thought it was some kind of sick joke.

But sadly it wasn’t.

And I really don’t care what excuses the union and others make about free speech, or about this being a long-standing invitation that Strauss-Kahn has only just now been able to accept because of the sudden and unexpected large gaps in his diary, the very fact that he was invited, and the fact that he’s here addressing students today, is nothing less than an insult. It’s an insult to women; it’s an insult to survivors of rape and sexual violence, and it’s also an insult to anyone and everyone who is concerned about what is going on in this country. By which I mean those who are concerned about rape culture, and about the violence against women and girls that is now endemic in our society.

And when I talk about rape culture I’m not just talking about things like UniLad and the so-called ‘rape joke’ Facebook pages that seem to be proliferating just lately – although they obviously have a significant role to play in feeding this misogynist culture – I’m also talking about rape myths; the rape myths that still predominate both here and in the US, and that played a part in the flawed decision to drop charges against Strauss-Kahn for the (alleged) rape of Nafissatou Diallo in a New York hotel room last year.

The myths that have become so deeply embedded in British society that in survey after survey after survey, a significant proportion of respondents have had no hesitation in claiming them as fact, and that are so endemic and so entrenched  in the national psyche that they even find their way into our court rooms, influencing both juries and judges alike.

Rape myths such as the one that says that women lie about being raped; that says that women falsely accuse men of rape out of some twisted desire to destroy men’s lives, and that then gives the impression, with the help of the Daily Mail and other red top tabloids, that the country is full of so-called ‘rape liars’ and false rape accusers. When in fact the reality, as we know, is that there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that more women falsely accuse men of rape than anyone else falsely accuses anyone of any other crime.

Then there’s the myth that says that when a woman is dressed provocatively she’s “asking for it,” or the one that says that if she gets drunk it’s her own fault if some sexual predator comes along and ‘takes advantage’ of her: the myth that says that inebriated women or women who’ve taken drugs or who’ve partied ‘too hard’ are somehow responsible for their own rapes and the sex crimes committed against them.

Rape myths: the tired arguments that are constantly used against us irresponsible and feckless women when we choose to dress “provocatively” or when we dare to walk around unchaperoned after dark; arguments that are used against any woman who’s ever been raped or sexually assaulted and who hasn’t been able to prove to the world or to the courts that she’s led a totally blame-free and virginal life.

Rape and sexual violence are endemic in this country and across the world: and they’re endemic partly because our rape culture gives men the message that when a women says no she means yes, and that when she’s wearing ‘revealing’ clothes or she’s pissed she’s actually ‘asking for it’ or ‘up for it’ or whatever other crass phraseology you want to use.

Just as an example of what we’re talking about, a poll for Amnesty in 2005 found that:

– a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped

– a quarter of those asked said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing

– more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman has many sexual partners

– around one in 12 people (8%) believed that a woman was totally responsible for being raped if she has many sexual partners

– more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk

– more than a third (37%) held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say “no” to the man.

Let’s face it, if you’re a woman, and you’re one of the nearly 14,000 women a year in this country who’s brave enough to report a sex crime committed against you, someone, somewhere, will find a reason to argue that it was all your fault.

But people still wonder why tens of thousands of women choose not to report.

And yet we know there are many reasons for their reluctance to report. Some women bury the abuse and get on with their lives, only for memories to resurface many years later. For other women the stigma of sexual violence and the fear of having to relive the assault in court are too much for them to deal with. And for many women, the historic and widespread failure of the police to take rape victims seriously, and to treat them with dignity and respect, means that the criminal justice system is the last place they’ll ever think of going to for help.

And while rape myths still abound, and while it is still the victims being put on trial for the clothes they wear, the amount they drink, or for failing to live wholly chaste and innocent lives, few women will have the confidence to seek the justice they deserve.

So, it’s time to put an end to the myths that stop so many women from coming forward, and it’s time we stopped telling women constantly that whatever’s happened to them, at the end of the day if they weren’t dressed in a burka and sipping soft drinks when they were assaulted, they’ve only themselves to blame.

A woman has the right to say no whatever state she’s in, however she’s dressed, and no matter what her relationship or previous sexual experience with her assailant.

And if he can’t take no for an answer, or if he carries on regardless without checking for consent first, then the blame lies solely with him. It’s not her fault.

When a woman dresses in a low-cut top or a skirt that barely covers her backside: that’s not an invitation to rape her. When she has had a few too many to drink: that’s not an invitation to rape her. When a woman is in a relationship with a man: that’s not an invitation for him to rape her. And if a woman has already engaged in some form of intimacy with a man, again, that is not an invitation for him to rape her. And if a woman is cleaning your hotel room: that is not an invitation to rape her.

Women are not responsible for the crimes of sexual violence committed against them. The only people responsible for that are those who perpetrate these horrendous crimes.

And what about the perpetrators? While all this victim blaming and stigmatising is going on for the survivors of rape and sexual violence, what about the perpetrators of these crimes? How does our rape culture deal with their aberrant and criminal behaviour?

Well take this for an example. This is from an article that appeared on the website Salon.com in July 2011. It’s from a piece by Roy Black, the lawyer “best known for his successful defense of William Kennedy Smith on rape charges” and it’s entitled “Why we should protect those accused of rape“, in which the author attempts to argue the case for anonymity for defendants in rape cases.

Here are just a few choice quotes:

Here’s Roy Black talking about Strauss-Kahn:

“We did all we could to make a public spectacle of him. Dragged him off his Paris flight; interrogated him all night to look suitably haggard; paraded him, handcuffed between two beefy cops, through a scrum of tabloid cameras; then plastered the seedy photographs worldwide. He was hounded out of his apartment; shuttled from place to place like nuclear waste; an electronic nanny clamped on his ankle and suffered the ignominy of paying $200,000 a month for his own prison guards. We are relentless at public shaming and humiliation.”

Seriously, just let that last sentence sink in for a minute – We are relentless at public shaming and humiliation – and then remember: he’s talking here about men accused of rape, not about the victims and survivors of rape and other crimes of sexual violence…

He goes on:

This type of abuse is routinely suffered by lesser-known rape defendants. They are terrorized by the media circus, and turned into carnival freaks. Unruly crowds rally in front of their home. They are followed, spat on, chased through the streets, forced to move, lose their sanity and some even commit suicide to end the abuse. They are the new victims of modern technology: Google, Twitter, Facebook and cable news.”

It makes your heart bleed doesn’t it?

No. Thought not. Mine neither.

And then there’s Whoopi Goldberg’s now infamous comment on the child rapist Roman Polanski:

“I know it wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.”

And then of course there’s Julian Assange. Brave defender of free speech and civil liberties and exposer of corruption and dirty dealings right up to the highest levels of our national governments. Assange, the latest cause celebre of liberal left men the world over, surrounded by sycophants and media darlings, all of whom have shown themselves ready to sell out women at the drop of a hat and do whatever it takes to defend their latest poster boy.

Meanwhile, the (alleged) victims of his (alleged) crimes have been named and  shamed on the Internet, and accused of everything from having some kind of hidden agenda, to being CIA stooges involved in a plot to bring the great man down.

Survivors of rape and sexual violence who dare to speak out or who dare to seek justice are vilified, by the police, by prosecutors, by the media, and by wider society, and yet in the vast majority of cases the men who actually commit these crimes are given a free pass, or else, as is certainly the case for the famous and privileged, they’re lauded by their peers and instantly forgiven.

Polanski, Assange, Strauss-Kahn, Mike Tyson, there’s an endless list of men like these who, despite being accused and in some cases convicted of crimes of violence against women, have not only got off relatively scot free, they’ve been able, or should I say enabled, to rehabilitate their tarnished reputations, pick up their careers, and carry on pretty much as if nothing has ever happened.

And that’s what’s happening here today.

Strauss-Kahn should be hanging his head in shame. Instead he’s being paraded like a hero while some of this country’s elite students are hanging on his coat-tails and using his notoriety to try and make a name for themselves.

Well shame on him and shame on them.

And shame on the Cambridge Union.

Thank you.

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