Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 28 November 2017
Women have got used to not having allies, even among their own sex. Each time a well-known man faces credible accusations of sexual assault, from multiple witnesses, someone is bound to come along and ask whether they weren’t a little bit to blame for what happened. Tragically, that someone is quite often another woman.
Enter, stage right, the veteran actress Angela Lansbury. After weeks in which a stream of women have made allegations, including rape, against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Lansbury has waded into the furore with a series of breath-takingly ignorant and ill-informed remarks. (Weinstein has expressed remorse for his behaviour but denies allegations of non-consensual sex.)
‘There are two sides to this coin. We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive,’ Lansbury told the Radio Times. ‘And unfortunately it has backfired on us – and this is where we are today.’
Taking a direct dive into the age-old practice of victim-blaming, Lansbury continued: ‘We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that. Although it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped.’
It is indeed awful to say that. It is also one of the most persistent myths about rape. Dame Angela may believe that women of her age – she is 92 – are no longer of interest to male sexual predators, but she is wrong.
Babies as young as six months have been raped, and so have elderly women who thought they were safe in their beds at the time of the attack. Were they targeted because of what they were wearing? Of course not.
No wonder campaigners against rape are outraged. ‘It is a deeply unhelpful myth that rape and other forms of sexual violence are caused or “provoked” by women’s sexuality or “attractiveness”’, declared a statement from Rape Crisis England and Wales.
Lansbury went on to say that the fault doesn’t lie with individual victims but she seems to have no inkling of why her views are so damaging. She doesn’t understand that they leave women with a lingering sense of guilt as outsiders – people who have no idea of the ordeal they went through – imply they could have avoided the attack.
Serial rapists are motivated by a desire to control and humiliate their victims, not to mention a deep-seated hatred of women. Victims describe the pleasure their attackers took in insulting them, and in forcing them to perform acts they found humiliating. It is ludicrous – and dangerous – to lead women to think they can avoid being raped by looking a bit less attractive, whatever that means.
No doubt people will say in Lansbury’s defence that her views reflect the age she grew up in – but that doesn’t excuse her saying it today, when we know so much more about sexual predators and how they operate.
When she says she didn’t suffer sexual harassment as a young actress in Hollywood in the 1940s, I can’t help thinking she was fortunate – and it doesn’t mean other young women weren’t coerced into performing sex acts against their will. A recent book about a notorious murder in Los Angeles, Piu Eatwell’s Black Dahlia, Red Rose, paints a horrific picture of sexual exploitation of would-be actresses in the 1940s – events that went far beyond the infamous ‘casting couch’.
Even if Lansbury was unaware of the dark side of Hollywood in her youth, the fact that she is recycling rape myths seven decades later is inexcusable. It also explains why so many women who have been sexually harassed or raped don’t come forward at the time. They fear they won’t be believed – or that even if they are, someone will pop up and suggest they were in some degree responsible for the violence against them.
It cannot be said too often: rapists are responsible for their own behaviour. Rape myths undermine that idea, tainting the criminal justice system and making it harder to get convictions. That is why we live in a world where the vast majority of rapists get away with it.
Lansbury has just finished work on a Disney film but this isn’t Mary Poppins Returns. As a public figure, she has a responsibility not to wade into debates she clearly knows nothing about. That’s especially the case when the most likely effect of her careless remarks is to make life harder for victims of horrendous sexual violence.