I find the term ‘rape culture’ offensive, but in hearing the British Health Secretary reporting to the British Parliament on the Savile Affair, I question whether being offended is valid any more.
When I was 16 years old, in 1964, a British TV show featuring pop music started. ‘Top of the Pops’ was an iconic show from the BBC. It came from an old church in Manchester that had been turned into a TV studio. I used to pass it by bus on my way to and from school. I can remember seeing the queues of girls hoping to get in and see their favorite ‘pop stars’. It was like nothing that had been presented before and the first presenter was a man destined to become famous—perhaps infamous would be better—and an icon of my generation.
He went on to host the continually popular TV show ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ where he fulfilled the dreams of children, mainly, and wound his way into the imagination of a generation of children and their parents. In Britain the phrase ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ became a by-word for getting your dreams fulfilled.
He was famous for spending his spare time as a hospital porter, looking after children and adults in need. He raised an estimated £40 Million for charity and was knighted by the Queen in 1990. He was a quite extraordinary man.
This week Jeremy Hunt, the British Health Secretary, spoke to the House of Commons about the revelations contained in a report, published on behalf of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), about that man, Jimmy Savile. He said,
I know this House, indeed the whole country, will share a deep sense of revulsion at what they reveal – a litany of disturbing accounts of rape and sexual abuse committed by Savile on vulnerable children and adults over a period of decades.
At the time, the victims who spoke up were not believed and it is important today that we all publicly recognize the truth of what they have said.
But it is a profoundly uncomfortable truth.
As a nation at that time we held Savile in our affection as a somewhat eccentric national treasure with a strong commitment to charitable causes. Today’s reports show that in reality he was a sickening and prolific sexual abuser who repeatedly exploited the trust of a nation for his own vile purposes.
He went on,
Mr Speaker, today’s reports will shake this House and our country to the core.
Savile was a callous, opportunistic, wicked predator who abused and raped individuals, many of them patients and young people, who expected and had a right to expect to be safe. His actions span five decades – from the 1960s to 2010.
The family favourite loved by millions courted popularity and used it to perpetrate and cover up his own evil acts.
The issue I want to address is how we should we look at this situation and what lessons we can draw.
I have recently been involved in a discussion here on GMP about the concept of ‘rape culture’. I disagreed with the idea that this culture is prevalent. I said in a comment,
I find the concept of ‘Rape Culture’ offensive. To me it is offensive because it lumps men together as being offenders, something that is simply not true. Individual men are offenders but not men in general.
In looking at the Savile case I have had cause to re-think what I feel and what I see. Let me explain why.
‘Rape culture’ is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and one in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape. It is a term that was originally coined by the feminist movement but has now moved into common usage. It is believed that the culture starts with a lack of respect by one individual to another, and moves through dominance and control in intimate relationships and in business to people not taking sexual violence or rape seriously. This is seen as a big issue in the US where there are many examples of society appearing to condone such behaviour. The concept takes in everything from ‘micro aggressions’ to the behaviour of a sexual predator.
I have never seen such a prevalent attitude here in Britain, but the fact that Savile was allowed to get away with his behavior for many years in the BBC and the NHS, major British institutions, would appear to suggest that such a culture exists in those institutions and therefore at the highest level in British society. It also suggests that such a culture exists at all levels of society because of the extent to which Savile’s crimes were not reported by ordinary people mainly because they were not believed.
Men are often accused of being controlled by their sexuality. We, reputedly, think about sex all the time and it is only with great difficulty that we are able to control ourselves. In the case of Savile it would seem that he was totally unable to control his sexuality, or perhaps he just chose not to, because he could. It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with men and their urge for sex, in many ways that is a good thing. The only aspect that is wrong is when that urge results in non-consensual sex. Men, or women, do not need to ‘control’ themselves they just need to accept that consent is a pre-requisite for any sexual act. For Savile there was no sense in which he sought consent, he just assumed that because people were in awe of him they were fair game.
Ben Belenus, in a article on Savile in The Good Men Project in 2012, ‘Jim’ll Fux It‘, said,
If we all celebrated and talked openly about our sexuality, maybe there would be fewer prisoners, men would respect women and we would all respect the earth.
We do need to be more open about sex and not let our sexuality control us, we need to acknowledge our sexual desires and, at the same time, accept that our desires do not give us the right to prey on other people to fulfill them.
It is possible to see this situation as just about our ridiculous adoration of celebrities, whether they are movie or TV stars, sportsmen and women or just people ‘in the news’. We give these people control over our lives, we give them our power. Savile was allowed to get away with it because people thought he did so much good for children and the needy. It is power and privilege that allow some people to get away with rape and other sexual offenses. This has nothing to do with being a man and everything to do with the exerting of power and control.
We see this not just with celebrities, but with priests, with coaches and with teachers. It is the celebrities that get the attention, but the predator is often in a trusted position within the community if only because they organize that to get access to their prey, their victims—ordinary men, women and children.
I was involved in a lighting project in a Catholic Church in Ireland. As a part of the refurbishment work within the church, the Vestry, where the choir boys and men changed for services, was being divided to ensure the boys were separated. Glass doors were being put in the confessionals so that whatever happened inside could be seen by anyone. The idea that boys are at risk has, at last, gone deep into the Catholic Church.
Nick Triggle, health correspondent of BBC News said today in an analysis of the report on Savile,
He enjoyed unsupervised access, particularly at two sites, Leeds General Infirmary and Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, and was able to use his fame to intimidate junior staff. What is more, senior management were too unquestioning.
Savile was an example of a rampant sexual predator using his fame and influence to pressure people into letting him have free and open access. There are a lot of people who have a great deal of soul searching to do. There are still a lot of questions to be answered but the reaction over the past few years of revelations has been universal. Except that, interestingly, the news is off the front page the next day. We may be horrified but we don’t want to hear too much about it.
What lessons are there for all of us? We need to be aware of what people are doing with their fame and celebrity. Sexual predators exist everywhere and they will use any means to get what they want. They may be evil criminals who will not be stopped, but they achieve their ends by our consent, which is often expressed as a lack of objection, a lack of reporting or, more importantly, a refusal to believe people when they do report it.
We need to understand whether there is a difference between people, often men, with twisted minds who think it is alright to abuse, dominate, threaten and rape at will, and a culture of disrespect in society. The problem, for me, with the word ‘rape’ in ‘rape culture’ is that it tends to focus the blame for a culture of disrespect on sex and people’s, often men’s, sexuality. But rape is a problem of control, not sex, and control is, necessarily, linked to general disrespect and dominance, to a general lack of consent even in mild issues of dominance. We need to decide if there is a continuum of disrespect, micro-aggressions, sexual advances, sexual violence, rape and predatory sexual behavior. They are all issues to be talked about and dealt with and until people at large become schooled in the concepts of inclusion, respect, understanding and consent we need to careful of making light of any of it.
The use of the word ‘rape’ in ‘rape culture’ is offensive, but I am beginning to think it is necessary to shock people into understanding what is happening. I never saw this as being a big problem because I have always respected what other other people want or do not want. I have never forced a woman to do what she did not want to do, no matter how much that frustrated me. So I saw respect and consent as normal. Yet even I have to understand the extent to which this approach is alien to many people and to large parts of society. That shocks me, and, perhaps, the lesson of the Savile affair, for me, is that I need to be shocked to accept what is happening, at an institutional level, and, worse, at an ordinary level in society.
I will finish with the final words of Jeremy Hunt in speaking to the House of Commons,
But today, above all, we should remember the victims of Savile.
They were brave. They have been vindicated. Savile was a coward. He has been disgraced.
The system failed to prevent him from abusing. It failed to act when people spoke up. We must not allow this to happen again.