The conviction of Rolf Harris yesterday seems to have hit a nerve in today’s society – more so than the earlier convictions coming out of ‘Operation Yewtree’. I think it is something to do with the fact that, in his own words, he came across as a ‘touchy, feely sort of person.’ Until yesterday those words were almost reassuring, a description of fun, cuddly, safe sorts of people – people that you would feel comfortable accompanying you as friends on family outings, people that you would trust. Yesterday destroyed all those connotations. Rolf Harris epitomised everyone’s friendly uncle when I was growing up – we were entranced by his on-screen artistic ability, his big persona, his Australian accent. Now it is all too clear that we were being deceived, manipulated and used. Sadly, and inevitably, it appears that the twelve cases that were successfully prosecuted for indecent assault were far from the only cases; other women have come forward not only in the UK but also in Australia and other countries that Harris visited.
One of the aspects of Operation Yewtree that has disturbed me most has been the backlash, mostly by men over 45, against women, and in defence of the various men who have been questioned by police. The defence takes two main lines – the first being that if the alleged victims were adults (the definition of adult seems quite fluid) then ‘unless they’ve actually been raped it is no big deal’, and the second is ‘but that was then – i.e. the 60s, 70s, 80s, – and things were different then’. Finally comes the ‘but that was so long ago that any allegations must be unreliable – how can memories be that good?’
Of course any type of assault against a child is appalling and unforgivable, but I don’t subscribe to a scale of victimhood. Who can measure the trauma inflicted on a 16 or 17y old compared with a 21 or 23y old? Those who attempt to do so stray perilously close to the territory of those who say ‘she was asking for it’ when a rape victim is found to have been wearing a miniskirt, or those who claim that a man found guilty of sexual assault of a sexually experienced woman is less culpable than the one found guilty of sexual assault of a sexually naive woman. Some men say that they feel sorry for celebrities (DJs, musicians and so on) who are mobbed by hordes of screaming fans, as though such men were helpless victims of their own sexuality when surrounded by crowds of young women and girls. I find this extraordinary – are these men really claiming that men are little more than animals, unable to exert responsibility for their actions? The majority of male celebrities seem to be able to cope with the adulation of their fans without taking opportunities to indecently assault them. For that matter, male teachers (with rare exceptions) also seem able to face large groups of teenagers on a daily basis without succumbing to uncontrollable sexual desires.
The argument that these offences were committed in a different time and culture carries some superficial appeal. However, all that is really being said is that it was culturally more acceptable for men to exert overt power over women in the 60s,70s, and 80s. Thus a woman who was sexually assaulted or raped by a man in the 70s would have been unlikely to speak out about it as she would probably have been disbelieved, especially if the man concerned was in a position of power or authority. We have clear evidence that children who summoned up their courage to tell their teachers about an assault were usually told off for spreading wicked lies. A failure to report an assault at the time that it happened does not mean that it did not happen.
Similarly passage of time does not often obliterate the memory of a traumatic event. It may cause the memory to be suppressed, and in such cases the suppressed trauma may act as a catalyst for other problems. A number of psychological disorders may be associated with earlier sexual abuse, and it is not uncommon for memory of the abuse to surface later, sometimes during treatment for other conditions, or triggered by publicity. Certainly publicity about famous men being arrested, questioned or charged with sexual offences gives other women the courage to come forward.
I am sure that there are many other women who have been assaulted or raped in the 70s and 80s by men who held some sort of power or authority over them, who have never made this public, but equally have never forgotten it. Perhaps the way that they have dealt with it is by saying ‘that was then, the culture was different’. I did this myself, having been raped on several occasions by a lecturer when I was a student in the 70s. He was never violent, just extremely emotionally coercive, and I knew that it was impossible to complain to anyone. I certainly wasn’t the only person I knew in a similar situation. That didn’t make it right, and it didn’t make it harmless.
The victims of these men may feel a little bit better after being heard and finally believed, although the experience of going through the judicial process is harrowing and inflicts further trauma. Nothing can compensate for what they have lived with for all these years. Nothing can compensate the many women who carry their experiences with them throughout their often successful lives, knowing that the men who traumatised them are carrying on their own successful lives.
Each unsuccessfully prosecuted case damages our ability to trust men and to trust the judicial system. Successfully prosecuted cases involve so much trauma for the alleged victims that it must make women question the cost of making an allegation of assault public. There are no winners in these situations, and the responses to each prosecution seem to push gender equality just a little further away.