The real elephant in the room in the Rochdale rape case
Posted on May 12, 2012
This is the text of the speech I delivered last night at the Cambridge Reclaim the Night rally in King’s Chapel:
Good evening everyone; and can I just congratulate Ruth and the organisers for yet another great turnout. As some of you may remember, I came and spoke at the anti-Strauss-Kahn event, and there was a really impressive turnout for that one as well.
Speaking of which, I take it you’ve all heard the latest about the eminent former International Monetary Fund chief? I take it you’ve all heard that not only has his claim for diplomatic immunity over the alleged sexual assault of Nafissatou Diallo in New York been rejected so the civil case can now proceed to trial; not only is he also currently under investigation for “aggravated pimping in an organised gang”, but he could also now be facing gang rape charges after an escort alleged that he, along with three other men, held her down and anally raped her in a Washington hotel in December 2010.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’d just like to reiterate what I said the last time I was here – shame on the Cambridge Union for trying to make a name for themselves off the back of Strauss-Kahn’s notoriety; and shame on them for ever thinking it was okay to invite such a violent misogynist to address young people at one of this country’s most prestigious universities.
Having said all that though, there is at least one good thing that came out of Strauss-Kahn’s appearance here, and that’s the speak-out that took place during the evening protest, and that’s prompted the new Cambridge Speaks Out website that’s gone live tonight. A website that I’m sure is going to prove to be a valuable resource, along with Cambridge Rape Crisis, for survivors of rape and sexual violence in this city.
Talking of speak-outs, I also work for a Rape Crisis centre – Suffolk Rape Crisis in Ipswich – and I was doing some research into the history of the rape crisis movement recently when I came across this passage that I just want to read to you:
“Rape, as an issue, did not arise because certain feminist leaders viewed it as ‘the issue’ nor did it arise because it was a designated topic on a consciousness-raising list. Instead, rape became an issue when women began to compare their experiences as children, teenagers, students, workers, and wives, and to realise that sexual assault, in one form or another, was common.
Conditioned to believe that the rapist was sick and a social aberration, while at the same time held accountable for attracting and precipitating the sexual violence we often experienced, many women repressed their memories of rape. It was either an incident unrelated to their ‘normal’ lives as women or a situation they had let ‘get out of hand.’ In her first sessions of consciousness-raising a woman would ‘admit’ that she had been a ‘seductive child’ or that she had made the ‘mistake’ of drinking too heavily at a party or that she must have given her date ‘the wrong idea.’ But as women compared their experiences they began to come to some understanding of the anger they had kept hidden even from themselves. The pattern that emerged from their individual experiences was not a common pattern of assault – some had been brutally raped by a stranger while others had been assaulted by a lover – but a common pattern of responses that they encountered – ‘you’re lying’ ‘it was your fault’ ‘you should have been more careful’ ‘you’re exaggerating.’ Through the process of consciousness-raising, women moved on from the discovery that sexual assault was not just an individual and unique experience, to the realisation that rape, as an issue, was a means of analysing the psychological and political structures of oppression in our society.”
So, “You’re lying”, “it was your fault” “you should have been more careful”. How familiar do those kinds of accusations sound? These are victim blaming responses that could well have been written today. In fact anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the last few weeks will probably have seen statements similar to these levelled at women and girls who have been raped and sexually assaulted recently, whether that’s in Rochdale at the hands of a gang of predatory male abusers, or in a hotel room with some of the so-called stars of the footballing world.
And yet the passage I’ve just read out was written in the early 1970s. It was written some 40 years ago. It comes from a book by the New York Radical Feminists called Rape: the First Sourcebook for Women, a book that came out of some of the very first rape speak-outs, which were organised by them from January 1971 onwards.
It just goes to show how little has changed when it comes to attitudes around rape and sexual violence, and how much work we still have to do.
But it also goes to show not only the importance of women speaking out about the sexual violence that is still endemic in our society, but how the work you’re doing here in Cambridge is part of a long feminist tradition, a tradition of consciousness-raising and women’s empowerment; of helping women to name the abuses that have been perpetrated against them, and then making the links between those abuses and the wider oppression of women and girls across the world.
And of course Reclaim the Night is also a part of that same tradition.
Did any of you see BBC’s Question Time last night? Well for those who missed it it provided a perfect example of precisely why events like Reclaim the Night are still so important and so necessary. Because when the discussion moved to the recent case in Rochdale, where young girls were groomed and raped by a group of much older male sexual predators, the very attitudes that we’ve been protesting about tonight didn’t take long to come out at all.
Much of the discussion centred not on the perpetrators of the horrendous abuse, not on those who have been tried and found guilty of crimes of rape, sexual assault, and trafficking, but on what the young victims were doing out at that time of night and what they might have been wearing. A vicar in the audience even said, and I quote:
“Children are guided by peripheral ideologies and interests, where they feel it is appropriate, at 13, to go out – forgive me for saying this – I’m not saying the victims in this case did that – but it seems prevalent on the streets in the area – where they go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place. They don’t give themselves the privilege of growing up any more.”
Seriously, that’s what he said, and he wasn’t the only the one to articulate victim blaming views like that. People talked about locking young women indoors after 7 o’clock at night, of curfewing them; they talked about the need to instil in girls the right values and instincts to keep themselves safe, and the journalist Peter Oborne asked “Why were these girls so vulnerable? Why were they so ready to surrender that innocence for a bag of crisps?”
And it’s not just on Question Time but in the rest of the mainstream media where the main focus this week has been on whether race or culture played an issue in the Rochdale case. Apparently race has been the elephant in the room, the thing no one has dared talk about in all this. And yet while everyone’s been busy talking about this thing that they apparently can’t talk about, the biggest elephant the room has ever held has been sat there all along.
And that’s gender.
Because while rape and sexual violence aren’t race issues, they most definitely are a gender issue. It was men who preyed on and groomed the young girls in Rochdale; it’s men who rape women and girls with seeming impunity in this country, and it’s men who must be held responsible for the street harassment and the crimes of sexual violence they perpetrate, not the women and girls who are the victims of those crimes.
So thank you for taking part tonight, and thank you for helping to challenge the rape myths and the victim blaming that are sadly still with us despite the last 40 years or more of feminist campaigning.
The Rape Crisis National Freephone Helpline is open from 12-2.30pm & 7-9.30pm every day of the year: you can call them on 0808 802 9999