Rape culture: still around; still as grim as ever

Thursday 10 May 2012

The newspapers have, for the most part, been putting on a united front regarding the horrific details of the case that has led to this week's sentencing of nine men involved in the grooming, rape and exploitation of girls in Rochdale. Granted, much of this is down to the fact that there's much wrangling over whether race is the most important factor in how we should view the case. Did "political correctness" mean that police didn't do enough? Is race the "elephant in the room"? Certain news outlets are intent on making a really big deal about the supposed fact that "you can't talk about race" - while talking about it a great deal. They're choosing to ignore the fact that numerous similar cases over the years have involved white perpetrators, because it's a sensationalist angle guaranteed to create controversy and really get the mouth-frothers going.

The focus on the ethnic background of the perpetrators has meant that one key aspect of the way the media generally deals with rape cases hasn't really been noticeable. Even the comments on Mail Online have been remarkably free of it, which really does surprise me (although to be fair, the opportunity to talk about race and immigration is guaranteed to get them excited more than just about anything else). I'm talking, of course, about victim blaming, something that's so ingrained into the way society talks about sexual violence that we have to listen to people discussing rape in terms of whether it's "rape rape" or, you know, one of those lesser types of rape where it's committed by a partner, or if a woman "flirted" with her attacker. We hear about a judge describing a girl of 11 as a "willing participant" who "looked older" as if that makes it okay that two men raped her and filmed themselves doing it. We see newspapers referring to 12-year-old girls as "lolitas" who have ruined the lives of the men who gang-raped them. We see the public rally round a man who has been found guilty of rape, turning on his victim instead and "outing" her online.

Due to the fact most people are pretty busy obsessing over the factor of race in the Rochdale case, this hasn't been too evident. Until last night, when BBC News featured a report on the sentencing and asked a local man for his thoughts.

"Some argue," we were told by reporter Chris Buckler, "That it's up to families to take responsibility too," referring of course to the oft-repeated refrain of "Where were the parents?!" when very young girls are abused and exploited.

The man interviewed on the street claimed that if he had a daughter "She'd be in bed for seven" (as if this would solve everything).

"But ultimately, if they're being sexually exploited, the ones that are responsible are the people doing the grooming," replied Buckler.

"Yeah, but it takes two to tango," came the response.

And there you have it. A group of men rape a number of young girls. Everyone agrees that it's bad - of course it's awful, they're "monsters", in tabloid parlance. But beneath it all, there is still an unwillingness to totally place the blame with them. And so we have "Where were the parents?". Never mind the fact the girls have all been described as "vulnerable" and "known to social services" so strict and protective parents may well not have been a feature of their lives. Never mind the fact that it's impossible for parents to stop such things happening to their children no matter what - because of the simple fact that sexual violence exists. Even more unpleasantly, we have "It takes two to tango". Never mind about the fact the girls were given drugs and alcohol, never mind about their age. They must have been in on it somehow. In a roundabout way, it's their fault, because they weren't your stereotypical innocent "good girls". I mean, they hung around outside takeaways in the evening, for goodness' sake - what did they expect? If someone had kept them under control it would have been fine.

Rapists rape, but for many people, there must always be this element of it being the victim's fault, as if it's completely unpalatable to actually, just for once, simply condemn the perpetrator. Even if it's just slightly her fault. She should have done something to stop it. She should have not acted in a certain way. Her family should have been there. She shouldn't have put herself in that situation.

What's been highlighted, although much less prominently than the issues of race, is the fact that the whole thing could have come to light four years ago. Instead the case was dropped because it was decided that the victim who came forward would not be viewed as a credible witness by a jury. When young girls, particularly young girls from supposedly "difficult" backgrounds, make allegations, society's default reaction is disbelief and dismissal. The police know this; indeed, it's the default reaction for many of their own profession. Julie Bindel, highlighting the way victims are ignored in a piece for the Guardian yesterday, said:

"The uncomfortable truth is that there is complacency about organised sexual exploitation, which leads to few convictions regardless of the ethnicity of the perpetrators. We choose instead to blame the victims."

She went on:

"The truth is that the victims of the most horrendous abuse are being let down – viewed as troublemaking slags, in fact – which is why opportunist grooming gangs can get away with it so often."

Even when the rapists have been sentenced, when it has been acknowledged that abuse has taken place, for some people, the girls and women whose lives they've ruined will always be "those girls", those "troublemaking slags", whether we're talking about the men from Rochdale or Ched Evans or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Their voices won't matter - they're just there to be judged or used as statistics. The assumption, for some people, will always be there, no matter what the details of the case happen to be. Rape culture isn't going anywhere fast.

Image from here.

UPDATE: Following the victim-blaming extravaganza that was last night's Question Time, here's some further reading on what happened, and the response it received:

- Sian and Crooked Rib - Don't presume

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