Why feminists were right all along

What Savile has done for feminism: campaigners against lad culture don’t look so humourless now, says Joan Smith. Are we witnessing a watershed moment?

The Times, Wednesday 17 October 2012

Just over forty years ago, an American band called Gary Puckett and The Union Gap got to number one in the British charts. Their single Young Girl sold more than a million copies and featured on Top of the Pops, where it was introduced one evening in May 1968 by Jimmy Savile. No one raised an eyebrow at the time but the lyrics, in which a man bemoans the discovery that his girlfriend is below the age of consent, now read like a hymn to paedophilia: ‘You led me to believe/ You’re old enough/ To give me love/ And now it hurts to know the truth’. It’s the classic tactic of blaming the victim, complete with references to ‘that come-on look’ in the girl’s eye.

History does not record whether Savile, then one of the BBC’s hippest DJs, saw any parallels between the song and his own behaviour.  Now we’re being told that things were different then, as though there’s something forgivable about men preying on under-age girls (and boys) if it happened in the past. Much the same is being said about the flood of accusations from women who say they were sexually harassed by well-known figures in the entertainment industry. ‘It was a different world in the 70s – all institutions were the same back then’, says Dave Lee Travis, the former Radio 1 DJ who’s been accused of groping two women in his studio. Travis denies the allegations but he’s one of several stars from the period who’ve been named in the scandal following the Savile

Within a year of his death, Savile has been revealed as probably one of the UK’s most prolific paedophiles. He’s been linked to the pop star and convicted child sex offender Gary Glitter, who is said to have been seen in Savile’s dressing room having sex with an under-age girl. There have even been allegations of a ‘paedophile ring’ operating at the BBC, and the corporation has announced an inquiry into a culture and practice which seems to have allowed abuse to go unchecked for decades.

But the furore is unprecedented and about more than the behaviour of a handful of high-profile men. What’s in the dock is a wider culture which was sexist, out of control and for the most part unchallenged. Vivien Creegor, who has accused Travis of ‘jiggling her breasts’ while she was on air on Radio 4 in the 1980s, says she was too scared to report the alleged incident.  ‘I was in my early 20s and I was on an apprenticeship at the BBC, and I didn’t want to report a huge star like Dave Lee Travis,’ she says. ‘No woman who valued to her career would have been happy to put her name down on a harassment claim’. Two other presenters, Liz Kershaw and Sandi Toksvig, have claimed they were habitually groped by colleagues.

In the 70s, British bands like Led Zeppelin toured the US with what music journalists referred to as ‘road wives’, young women who provided sexual services in return for the glamour of being associated with a rock star. An American girl called Lori Maddox was only 14 when she began a relationship with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, and
she had to be kept hidden during the tour to protect Page from being arrested for statutory rape. Maddox was one of the so-called ‘baby groupies’ based in Los Angeles – Sable Starr was the most famous – who were aged between 12 and 16 when they had sex with rock stars. But it wasn’t just young girls who were at risk from predatory men. Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham had to be dragged off a flight attendant during a US tour after announcing he was going to ‘have her from the rear’.

Another Radio 1 DJ, John Peel, worked on commercial radio stations in the US before joining the new BBC station in 1967. In interviews, he later spoke flippantly about the perks of the job, recalling that girls used to queue up outside his studio to offer him sex. ‘Well, of course, I didn’t ask for ID’, he said. ‘All they wanted me to do was to abuse them sexually which, of course I was only too happy to do’. Peel assumed that his taste for girls was nothing to be ashamed of, joking that ‘one of my regular customers, as it were, turned out to be 13, though she looked older’. His first wife was only 15 when he married her. They divorced in 1973 and she later committed suicide. None of this was an impediment to Peel’s reinvention of himself, towards the end of his life, as the uxorious presenter of Radio 4’s Home Truths.

Pop culture was so glamorous and influential that its misogyny quickly spread into other areas of British life. The feminism of the 1970s was a response to a widespread feeling that some men were habitually abusing women but it was caricatured as man-hating and humourless, leaving individual women feeling isolated. Pirelli calendars and Page 3 pictures of topless models accustomed men to thinking women’s bodies were a normal feature of everyday life, encouraging the founding of lads’ mags with titles like Loaded, Nuts and Zoo. Towards the end of the 1990s, women who worked in the City reported a new hazard: being expected to join male colleagues in trips to lap dancing clubs.

If things have changed, it’s happened very slowly. The Savile revelations are about paedophilia but they’ve lifted the lid on a rage that’s been simmering for years, prompting a flood of women (and one or two men) to come forward with a flood of stories about everything from verbal harassment to rape. The big question is whether history will show the Savile scandal to have been a turning point in attitudes to behaviour that used to go unquestioned. After all, in the sinister light of Savile’s unchecked paedophilia, it’s undeniable that a lot of things look very different. Who now thinks there’s anything normal about all those pictures of him with his arms around very young girls? And might more people now agree that publishing photographs of young women’s breasts, day after day, sends a message that it’s perfectly OK to treat them as sexual fodder?

When the Labour MP Clare Short began a campaign against Page 3 in the 1980s, she was derided and accused of being motivated by envy. Lorry-loads of glamour models turned up at her house, she was the target of cruel jibes about her appearance, and much the same happened when she raised the issue again half a dozen years ago. It’s hard to believe she would get the same reception now: as the sexual abuse of girls in
English towns has been revealed in a series of harrowing trials, all this objectification of young women has started to look tacky and dated. An internet campaign calling for Page 3 to be dropped from The Sun collected thousands of signatures in a matter of days, and lads’ mags are faltering. The Page 3 campaign is an example of the way the internet is being used to spread the feminist message, as well as offering new and innovative ways to tackle long-standing problems.

For years, women were told not to over-react when men whistled and cat-called from building sites or in the street, but a website called Hollaback! (ihollaback.org) has shown just how widespread – and annoying – this behaviour is. Something that seems merely anecdotal when it happens to one woman assumes a very different character when it’s
revealed as an element in a pattern of sexual harassment. Another site, The Everyday Sexism Project (everydaysexism.com), encourages women to exchange examples of sexist remarks, once again turning individual anecdotes into evidence of a larger phenomenon. Sexist advertising slogans and jokes about ‘rape’ from stand-up comics can now expect to be circulated very quickly and challenged on sites like Twitter, forcing a change of heart from people who aren’t used to being called to account.

Even before the Savile allegations surfaced, feminists had begun to talk about a ‘conducive context’ in which toleration of ‘minor’ forms of sexism and harassment encourages an atmosphere in which it’s difficult for individuals to complain. The historic
allegations of sexual harassment we’re hearing from the 1970s and 80s certainly fit that pattern, and they’ve posed one of the great feminist questions: if we live in an equal society, why has it been so hard to speak out? And are things any better now? Many young women say they’re not, which is why the SlutWalk movement has taken off in several countries. It’s also striking that after decades of shying away from the F-word, many women of all ages are happy to identify themselves as feminists on websites and Twitter.

If anything good is to come out of Savile’s decades of predation, it may be the very last thing he would have expected: a new feminist agenda, invigorated by the internet. Suddenly it’s possible to talk about all sorts of things – groping, sexist remarks, the relentless sexualisation of under-age girls – which have been sidelined for years as prudish or boring. Young Girl may still be being played on ‘classic’ radio stations where nostalgia trumps common sense, but change is in the air. Even people who haven’t previously thought about it much are having to entertain a startling proposition: feminists, it turns out, have been right all along.


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