K sometimes reads this blog. I imagine when she sees the final word of this, she will cover her eyes and think, Oh, Mum, how could you?!
It’s ok, sweetheart, this won’t have any, y’know, actual details in here. However, it is a cold day, we have a new woodburner installed and I have spent much of the day idly flicking through Twitter and Facebook. Along came the story of the online abuse directed at Simone Webb, an Oxford University student, who had the temerity to organise a protest against Julian Assange speaking via Video Link at the Oxford Union, in a debate about those who seek the truth. I follow Simone on Twitter (in my IRL identity) – she is @santaevita, and if highly intelligent, left wing feminist, biting wit is your thing, you should probably follow her too.
Scattered amidst the tweets about Assange were other tweets about Jimmy Savile, sexual abuse and the need to speak up about the abuse of others, whether adults or children. Linked with the Assange narrative about whether or not the rape allegations are a conspiracy, whether you can really rape someone who is already in your bed (Clue – Yes, you can. Even if you’re both naked. Consent only works if present at the time of the, ahem, ‘act’. See, K, I’m really trying here), it made me think: –
Is the world just waking up to the fact that in a world where men have had more power than women, many powerful men have used said power to sexually abuse others? And when I say others, I mean women or young people.
And by ‘many powerful men’, I don’t just mean a few US presidents, prime ministers or TV stars. I mean men who have positions of power – by being the ‘boss’, by having influence with others, by being well known, by being fathers, the friends of fathers, by being teachers or doctors. While the media narrative around Savile has died down, there are still numerous stories about the scale of the abuse – and we are led to believe that this is somehow monstrous and aberrant, a one-off, the sexual predator version of Hitler. I don’t buy this. I have seen men who use every opportunity to meet women, especially impressionable young women, and to try and seduce said women. Savile had more opportunities than most, but I don’t accept that he was a one-off monster. One of my favourite DJs, John Peel, confessed to promiscuity with a long line of young women, many of whom were underage. Or might have been. To believe his account, typical of many others, these women and girls threw themselves at people like him. Or did they? Possibly they wanted autographs and ended up with rather more? And if young women do want to have casual sex with someone on account of their fame, why aren’t we angrier about this? What kind of world are we creating where half our young people aspire to achievement in the form of sexual transactions with a footballer or someone who was once on a reality TV show?
Aha, but power is an aphrodisiac, people say. An aphrodisiac that only works on women, however. As someone who has a senior role, I can honestly confirm that no young men have hinted that they would love to be one of my ‘conquests.’. Did Margaret Thatcher, as well as laying waste to manufacturing industry, council housing and trade unions, also work her way through every handsome young researcher? I’m really hoping not.
With my new found neural wiring knowledge, how do I make sense of this in terms of social pressures influencing actual behaviour? I resist the theory that L has anorexia because of pictures of skinny models, it is a brain disease. However, images, language and messages via the media, can create patterns in our thoughts and ideas in our brains, which become truths. Being slim, being thin is good. Being sexually attractive to men is good. Being desirable, especially powerful men, is a power in itself. Read a magazine and those paradigms are everywhere. In adverts, in the stories people tell, in the reaction to the stories. Women should always be attractive, look their best, make the most of themselves. And, above all, not be too big. The Guardian Magazine, that beacon of social conscientious reading material, proudly models clothes each week For All Ages. Yet not a single model is anything other than slender, beautifully made up and elegant. We see these images, read the stories and our brains store these messages as facts, as important knowledge to be remembered for the future. Neural pathways are created, telling us how we should be.
How do we change this? How do we convince our daughters that power can be theirs without having to borrow it? That being strong is about being yourself and working out what you want rather than whether you give in to what others want for you? That sex isn’t something ‘done’ to you, if you are beautiful, special or lucky enough? I don’t know the answers. I am slightly ashamed that I don’t, after all these years. But I do know that we have unique opportunities to make this a mainstream debate and we will be letting our daughters down if we don’t make the most of them.