The silence that underpins sexual abuse

Cross-posted from: Herbs and Hags
Originally published: 12.10.12

That bell-weather of misogynist reaction, Brendan O’Neill, can always be relied upon to clearly articulate the woman-hating point of view on any current issue, so he is useful for something. Most woman-hating is slightly disguised and woolly and difficult to spot unless you’re concentrating hard and/ or have managed to clear yourself of many (I won’t say all) of the misogynist assumptions our culture imbued you with from the day you were born; but O’Neill’s pronouncements cut through the obfuscation and help anyone not there yet, to identify clearly the techniques men have used throughout history, to maintain their control over women. Here’s his article on the Jimmy Savile row, just for those who haven’t yet seen it.  This should come with a bit of a trigger/ apoplexy warning, so I won’t say happy reading. 

I won’t bother to deal with the touching empathy this man has for a dead rapist rather than his victims, that’s not the subject of this post.  My only interest in his article is that it absolutely embodies the most effective weapon patriarchy uses to protect men from having their abusive treatment of women and children called out and criticised. Men set up a system of social attitudes and customs, backed by their law, which enabled them to rape, beat and sexually assault women and children with impunity, unless those women and children had more powerful owners than themselves.

The primary weapon they used to enable them to do this, was the silencing of their victims.  They made it impossible for victims to speak out about the abuse they suffered and so they could pretend the abuse did not exist.  If any victim ever did speak out, they were punished with social opprobrium, stigma and sometimes worse – death. There are still parts of the world where women are stoned to death if men rape them and where men are being kinder and more liberal, they just force rape victims to marry their rapists and be available for him to rape whenever he wants for the rest of their lives. So if you are raped, it’s a good idea to keep silent about it, because the punishments for speaking of it are worse than the rape itself.

In our “we’re all equal now” society, of course we don’t use those methods to silence victims of rape and sexual assault; all we do, is disbelieve the victims.  The harsh version of disbelieving them is to outright call them liars and in some cases, prosecute them for perverting the course of justice if they dare to report their rape, so that the rest of us will shut up and not report; the kind version is telling them that they’re fantasists, confused, or just over-reacting about a breakdown in communication or a breach of sexual etiquette.

Even more effective, is the way men get to define rape and sexual abuse. A 44 year old man gets to finger, fuck or otherwise abuse a 15 year old girl-child and that was always defined as just about OK because although she was under the legal age of consent, she’d reached puberty and therefore was fair game.  It was her and her parent’s responsibility, to keep her away from predatory men (never predatory men’s responsibility to keep away from her).  Most people basically think that once a child (who is a girl) has sprouted breasts and pubic hair, you’re not a paedophile if you have sex with her and so although it’s a breach of sexual etiquette, it’s not actually “abuse-abuse” in the way that having sex with pre-pubescent children is.  Even patriarchy (in the developed world) now accepts that pre-pubescents are off-limits (for the time-being).

But girl-children who have breasts and body-hair: well, that’s different.  Megan Stammers is deemed by many to be “in love” with her abuser Jeremy Forrest, the teacher who groomed and then abducted her, because after all, she’s older than Juliet was in Shakespeare’s great play (the idiots who go for this line ignore the fact that although Romeo’s age isn’t specified, he’s always assumed to be roughly the same age or at least at the same life-stage as Juliet).  Because an adolescent girl is able to get pregnant, the fact that she is psychologically and emotionally a child, is completely and totally irrelevant to these people.

The girls Jimmy Savile raped and/ or sexually assaulted, were also not pre-pubescent, which was one of the reasons he was able to get away with his abusive behaviour for so long.  Those people who saw and felt uncomfortable about what he was doing, were silenced by the atmosphere of the times as well: it was the sexual revolution, people who didn’t go along with it were square and and not part of the Zeitgeist. Letting it all hang out, dumping your parent’s morality, that was the future and if you didn’t go along with it, you were going to be part of the past; so if you worked for the BBC or in the rest of the media and entertainment industries, adopting attitudes which might mark you out as part of a bygone age, would have been career suicide.  And that’s without the actual inequality of power between those who might have felt disturbed by the rapiness of the industry and those who were the sexual predators.  I found a fairly horrifying piece on groupies the other day which shows just how normalised the sexual exploitation of girl-children in the pop music industry was: have a look here, but keep your sick-bag ready.

It wasn’t just the media industries which were saturated with this culture of male entitlement to female bodies; the rest of the world too, was designed to enable men to gain sexual access to women and children without being called on their abusive behaviours.  We now know about the systematic nature of child-rape and cover-up by catholic priests; we now know that child abuse within the family is way more prevalent than anyone imagined back in glam-rock days.  On Question Time the other night, Janet Street-Porter was asked why she hadn’t said anything. The story she told about how when at the age of 10, she’d told her mother about a man making inappropriate advances to her, her mother had hit her for saying such a dreadful thing, summed up the culture of enabling men to abuse women and children by silencing their victims.

Some of Savile’s victims did complain and they were punished by the adults who should have been protecting them; one child who committed suicide, left a diary and the police dismissed it as fantasy.  (The heartbreaking story is here) If Street-Porter or Esther Rantzen (to pluck two women who have been criticised for not speaking up at the time – notice how women get more criticism for their silence than men do -) had said anything, none of us would know their names today because they simply would not have been allowed to climb that career ladder.  The system of protecting male abusers ensures that not only the victims of their abuse are silenced, any on-lookers who might be their advocates, are also silenced.  When women are not silent – like Julie Burchill, who wrote a robust article years ago where she called John Peel on his revolting sexual behaviour, where they are not punished, they are simply ignored. Burchill’s article is quite clear that Peel was breaking the law, Peel himself boasted about it.  And yet the article was greeted with…. nothing.  Abusive men can do interviews where they laugh about their abuse; in Savile’s case, he actually put it in writing, in his auto-biography (good article from a horrified Hugo Rifkind here) The abusers wave their willies and bond with interviewers over tales of their “conquests”, while the victims are either punished, undermined, silenced or simply ignored if they speak of it.

The most effective weapon is of course the silence.  It take time, effort and brain-space to undermine a victim’s claim; forms might have to be filled in, articles might have to be written, caveats about “real victims” might have to be inserted. If this keeps happening, people might start thinking that something is amiss and want a more far-reaching, in-depth look at the astonishingly high levels of male sexual violence against women and children. Far better if victims STFU because if you don’t even hear them, you don’t have to deal with them at all and you can carry on with impunity. You can pretend that the sexual abuse of women and children by men, is a marginal issue of a few bad apples, rather than a systematic behaviour.  When 25% of women will be sexually assaulted, up to and including rape, by men and the overwhelming majority of them will stay silent about it, that isn’t a few bad apples, that’s something much deeper and more entrenched and more societal than a few individual cases here and there.

Abusive men know this.  Men who hate women and may not abuse them themselves but approve of other men’s abuse of them, or at least don’t question their right to abuse them, know this.  That’s why they get really uncomfortable when women speak out about the rapes and assaults and sexual harassment to which men have subjected them. That’s why they hate sites like and which give women a space where our experience of men’s systematic methods of keeping us in our place, can be exposed.  Because when women start exposing men’s abuse of them in large enough numbers, eventually the climate changes and it becomes unacceptable.  Sexual harassment in the workplace is now unacceptable because women talked about it, they exposed it, they held men up and embarrassed them about it and now although it still happens, no-one sensible argues anymore that men have the right to treat women like that at work. Men know that women speaking out about their abuse of us, changes things.  That’s why they want to keep the silence and when we find the courage to speak out, they tell us we were cowards for not doing so before or that we are delusional or malicious.  They  created a society where silence is the safest course of action in the face of their abuse and then they blame us for our silence.  Expect many more comments like O’Neill’s, because a system which relies on our silence to keep going, is profoundly threatened when we break that silence and will fight tooth and nail to shut us safely up again.


HerbsandHags: Meanderings of a Hag I have no fixed subject matter for my blog, it tends to be whatever grabs me, but for some reason lots that has grabbed me has been about rape or other male violence. It’s all with a feminist slant though. Twitter @Herbeatittude