Independent on Sunday, 14 October 2012
It’s the kind of shift that happens once or twice in a lifetime. In the past few days, people who hadn’t previously thought about it have suddenly realised that “a bit of harmless fun” might actually be a nasty sexual assault. About time, too: what kind of culture makes a household name out of a creepy child-abuser who didn’t even hide his predilections? Jimmy Savile was knighted by Margaret Thatcher and given a Papal knighthood by John Paul II. Now he’s the catalyst for a sea-change in public attitudes towards verbal harassment, unwanted touching and worse.
Just about every conversation I’ve had with women friends last week has produced an outpouring of angry recollections. One friend, now in her eighties, recalls being sexually assaulted by a dentist who treated her when she was a teenager. I’ve hardly met a woman who hasn’t experienced these things, but for years we were told we didn’t have a sense of humour or had imagined it.
Why did feminism take off with so much anger and energy in the 1970s? It was because a generation of young women strode into offices and colleges, expecting to be regarded as equals, and couldn’t believe the way we were treated. I’m talking about a spectrum of behaviour from sexually explicit remarks to physical assaults. A chasm opened up between what women experienced and assurances from authority figures – bosses, police, politicians – that such things were rare.
It was infuriating to see popular newspapers campaigning about rape not because so many offenders were going unpunished, but because of supposedly “unfounded” accusations. The Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, and the black-cab rapist, John Worboys, were beneficiaries of the notion that “ordinary” men weren’t sexual predators. The News of the World boasted about its campaign against paedophiles, but the men it went after were easy targets, convicted sex offenders living on council estates, not national figures.
Now a series of events has up-ended popular assumptions about what is acceptable. Accusations against Savile are piling up so fast that it’s hard to keep track, and a picture is emerging of a pop culture where DJs such as John Peel saw sex with girls as a perk of the job. The Rochdale case, in which a group of men preyed on underage girls and forced them into prostitution, shows there’s nothing historical about child abuse. Then there’s the curious case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose refusal to return to Sweden to face possible charges of sexual assault has exposed bizarre notions among his supporters of what constitutes rape.
I don’t think anyone can plausibly claim any more that sexual harassment is rare or that potential victims, including teenage boys, are sufficiently protected. So many institutions have questions to answer that the case for a public inquiry grows by the day. I don’t believe all men are predators, but I want to see much tougher attitudes towards the ones who are.