The first dom who abused me (the first dom I had, who groomed me at 16) was a well respected member of the BDSM community. Locally, and across the state. Other members of the community – most who knew I was a minor – told me he was a good guy, a good dom, an exemplar of BDSM ‘values’. He was renowned across the state of New York.
When he was tired of abusing me, he gifted me to other upstanding members of the BDSM community.
When I moved, I was given to a dom of the BDSM community in my new state.
Don’t let them hide behind the idea of community; the idea that the community polices itself and protects subs. Just like the real cops, they only protect the abusive assholes.
They knew. They all knew. They knew when a dom violated safe words. They knew when he hurt a sub. They knew when he pushed past a sub’s limits. They knew about the grooming. They knew about the abuse. They knew about the rape. The community fucking knew. They just didn’t care.
In the end, Valérie Bacot could take it no longer. For almost four decades, her husband, Daniel Polette, had been a malign presence that dominated her life: he molested her when she was 12, made her pregnant at 17 and then trapped her in an abusive relationship, during which she bore him three more children.
Now in the ultimate humiliation, he was pimping her out for sex in the back of their battered Peugeot people-carrier in the woods near their home in Saône-et-Loire, in central France, getting his kicks from watching through a chink in the curtain in its rear window.
In March 2016, after an encounter with a particularly brutal client, Bacot claims to have grabbed the loaded pistol that Polette kept next to the driver’s seat and, closing her eyes, shot him.
Daniel Polette first began to show an unhealthy interest in Bacot when she was a young child
“There was a loud noise; the flash, the smell,” she said in an interview with Le Parisien last week. “I got out of the car, opened the door, he fell. I thought only of saving myself because I was sure he was going to kill me.”
But he was dead. When Bacot told her elder children she had killed their father, they hugged her. Two of her sons, together with her daughter’s boyfriend, then helped her bury his remains in the forest. “I packed the earth down like crazy with my hands. I was too afraid he would come out to kill us,” she recalled.
Next month Bacot, 40, goes on trial for murder in a case that has turned a spotlight on conjugal violence in France — and on the few victims who dare to fight back.
By this weekend more than 384,000 people had signed a petition demanding Bacot’s freedom. A television interview with her drew an audience of 4.5 million and a book in which she tells her life story went to the top of the bestseller list after its release last week.
“I was struck by Valérie’s strength, her courage and her intelligence. I really wanted to help her to tell this story,” said Clémence de Blasi, a journalist who ghostwrote the book, Tout le monde savait (Everyone Knew), having met Bacot after her release in October 2018 pending her trial.
In talking to Bacot’s children and others around her, de Blasi realised what a powerful hold Polette had over his wife. “He was watching her permanently, day and night,” she told me. “He was someone who was extremely dangerous and ready to do anything.”
It was Bacot’s mother who first brought Polette into her daughter’s life. After breaking up with her husband, she had a series of casual relationships before meeting the lorry driver in 1992 and inviting him to live in their home in the village of La Clayette, 60 miles north of Lyons.
Polette soon began to show an unhealthy interest in the young girl, who had just turned 12, going into the bathroom while she was washing and insisting on rubbing her with cream. Bacot’s mother tried to keep his activities quiet but word eventually reached the local authorities, and in 1995 Polette was arrested and convicted of sex offences against a minor.
Bizarrely, however, on his release after 33 months in jail, he was allowed to return to the home in La Clayette and was soon abusing Bacot again and raping her. After she became pregnant in 1998, she moved with him into a little house in Baudemont, a neighbouring village of a few hundred people, where, despite an age difference of 25 years, they lived as a couple for two decades, marrying in 2008.
According to Bacot’s account, it was anything but marital bliss: he frequently beat her, on one occasion breaking her nose and on another holding an unloaded pistol against her temple and pulling the trigger. “The next time there will be a bullet for you and for each of the children,” he told her.
Bacot thought of denouncing him to police but was fearful of how he would retaliate and did not dare to go herself. Instead she sent her children, but the police refused to listen to their claims and sent them away.
In the meantime, he had forced her into prostitution, initially only at weekends but then, after he gave up his job, almost full-time. To get clients, he made her distribute flyers in the local area. Once their daughter was 14, Bacot feared he would force the girl to sell her body too.
With no money and no friends or family to turn to, Bacot felt she had no alternative but to stay with her tormentor — until the day she shot him.
At first the family pretended he had gone away. But Bacot was eventually denounced to the police, apparently by the mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. At 6am one day in October 2017, the police came for her; she knew she was going to be arrested and for days had been sleeping in her clothes.
Bacot’s experiences show in an extreme form the plight of women who fall victim to conjugal violence and the failings of social services, according to her lawyers, Janine Bonaggiunta and Nathalie Tomasini. “Valérie was transformed by the extreme violence she suffered into a remote-controlled puppet who, against her will, became an object for her perverse husband,” they write in a preface to the book.
In too many cases, such violence ends with the woman being murdered. Earlier this month a 31-year-old mother-of-three in the Gironde died after her former partner shot her in both legs, poured petrol on her and set her on fire while still alive.
It was the 39th such killing this year, after 90 in 2020, according to Féminicides par compagnons ou ex (Women killed by partners or exes), a campaigning group that tracks such cases.
In a few instances such as Bacot’s, however, it is the victim who turns killer — as with Jacqueline Sauvage, whose case became a cause célèbre in France after she was sentenced to ten years in jail for shooting dead her husband in 2012 with a hunting rifle. He had abused her and driven their son to suicide. After an outcry over her treatment, François Hollande, then the president, gave Sauvage a full pardon.
Bacot’s growing band of supporters would like her to be pardoned too. “Even though she committed murder by killing her torturer,” their petition says, “given the 25 years of suffering she endured to general indifference, it is her freedom that we ask for.”
The campaign — together with Bacot’s highly unusual step of writing a book in effect justifying her actions — may not go down well with the court, however, and Bacot herself seems reconciled to her impending punishment.
“I am looking forward for this to end, to finally know what is in store for me,” she told Le Parisien. “I have done my job, fulfilled my role as a mother; now I can go to prison with peace of mind.
“I deserve to be jailed for a very long time. This trial is not only mine, it is also that of ‘the other’ ” — the term she uses for Polette, whose name she cannot bear to say out loud. “I hope that I can be stronger than him and for once in my life win against him.”
A father and a student campaigner are seeking a High Court hearing to consider whether the government should tighten youngsters’ access to porn.
Ioannis Dekas and Ava Vakil want the government to implement proof of age for access to pornography promised in the 2017 Digital Economy Act.
It comes as new research suggests the majority of 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK have recently seen pornography.
The government is currently preparing a new Online Harms Bill.
This bill would go further than the Digital Economy Act, giving the watchdog, Ofcom, powers to block access to online services – including social media platforms and search engines – which fail to do enough to protect children.
It is expected to be put before Parliament later this year.
Ioannis Dekas, a father of four sons, became concerned after he found one of his boys had accessed pornography.
He said this was a wake-up call for him and his wife as parents, making them confront the potential danger to their son and the impact on them all as a family.
“In the two weeks leading up to this moment, we’d noticed a drastic change in his behaviour, withdrawal, a sense of anger towards his siblings, we could sense frustration in his life.”
When he and his wife talked to their son, they found he was under peer pressure to be familiar with the language of porn.
“What I don’t often hear is how to deal with this. What happens in your household when this happens? With the availability, it’s not a matter of if, but of when.”
Mr Dekas wants the government to put in place the age verification requirements set out in part three of the Digital Economy Act – a law that was passed in 2017.
However, in 2019, the then Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan said the measures would no longer go ahead, with efforts instead focused on the government’s wider Online Harms Bill.
But Mr Dekas says that this bill still has to be brought before Parliament, and may be delayed if detailed regulations need to be drawn up.
In the meantime, children are being exposed to pornography, he says, when they could be protected using the Digital Economy Act’s full powers.
Mr Dekas is bringing the challenge jointly with 20-year-old University of Oxford student Ava Vakil, whose letter about what she described as a culture of sexual violence in some schools went viral online.
Ms Vakil told the BBC: “I think porn is everywhere, and growing up as a young woman I’ve seen the influence of that.
“I think young men are ingesting pornography online to an extent that people aren’t aware of.
“I’m sure everyone, and particularly young women, can look back on so many conversations they’ve had with boyfriends and male friends and think 100% it was impacted by porn.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said it would not be appropriate to comment on legal proceedings.
A spokesman said the government was committed to protecting children from harmful content.
The legal action comes as research from City, University of London found many teenagers had seen porn.
Prof Neil Thurman conducted a survey of more than 1,000 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK, using a panel from the specialist market research company Youthsite.
While 63% said they came across porn on social media, 47% said they had also visited porn websites.
The research suggests the government’s approach of widening the range of legislation to more platforms is right, Prof Thurman said.
More worryingly, 46% had used technology that disguises identity when browsing online, such as a virtual private network, and which could allow evasion of age verification.
However, Prof Thurman said this was not a reason not to regulate access.
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring in legislation,” he said. “Firstly I think it would reduce accidental exposure, particularly for younger children and teenagers, and it does send a signal, not present at the moment, that they are accessing something inappropriate for their age group.”
Vanessa Morse, head of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, said there was a “wealth of evidence” to show that viewing pornography led to harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours.
“The government’s own research, which it published this year, showed an association between porn consumption and real world violence against women. It’s no surprise considering one in eight porn videos contains sexual violence,” she said.
“Pornography has made violent acts in sex completely normalised.”
A new report by the internet safety body, Internet Matters, looking at children’s use of technology during lockdown has found that although the internet had a positive impact on how children learn and socialise, parents also reported a rise in the amount of online harms children experienced.
A survey of 2,000 parents in the UK in March this year suggests a 39% increase in the sharing of sexual images among children since January 2020.
Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, ambassador of Internet Matters, says “as children have come to rely on technology more than ever during the pandemic, and therefore spending sometimes several hours a day online, it also gives them increased exposure to all of the risks that go with it.”
Very apropos my last post, there is a new biography of Caroline Norton out, The Case of the Married Woman Caroline Norton: A 19th-Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women by Antonia Fraser.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 she insisted on keeping the traditional form of the service where the wife promises to love, honour and obey her husband, even though the Archbishop of Canterbury wondered if such a pledge was really appropriate in her case. Victoria, however, insisted; it was her way of demonstrating that she was getting married not as a queen but as an ordinary woman.
Of course, there was no comparison between Victoria’s situation and that of “ordinary” wives of the period, who at the time of marrying lost all rights, becoming in law their husband’s property. Full divorce was available only through an act of parliament, and a wife who left her husband had no rights over their children, as they too were considered to be the husband’s property.
As the distinguished biographer Antonia Fraser makes clear in this, the third of her books on great reforms of the 19th century (she has already tackled the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act) the fact that the law was changed to give women a limited degree of independence 20 years later owes much to the life and work of her subject, the indefatigable Caroline Norton.
Norton was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and was one of three beautiful sisters, dubbed the “Three Graces”. The young Disraeli called her the “starry night”, and she was famous for her dark eyes and hair, her wit, her charm and her literary talent (she published her first poems at 17). She was also described as “mannish” — the ultimate put-down — and one aristocratic diarist, Harriet Granville, wrote: “Caroline Norton is so nice, it is a pity that she is not quite nice, for if she were quite nice, she would be so very nice.”
Caroline did not marry well. Her first love died young, and in 1827, aged just 19, she hastily wed an older admirer, a Tory MP called George Norton. They swiftly had three sons, and while Caroline soon became disenchanted with her husband’s petulance, and suffered physical abuse (he once kicked her so hard that he caused a miscarriage), she loved her children and enjoyed the power and influence she wielded running a political salon at her home in Storey’s Gate, within spitting distance of Downing Street.
Caroline’s sympathies were progressive — she went on a march supporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs — but she liked power and became very close to the less than radical Whig home secretary Lord Melbourne, a frequent visitor to Storey’s Gate.
George Norton at first tried to profit from this connection, asking his wife to lobby Melbourne for a JP’s appointment (this was a paid position, unlike being an MP, and the Nortons were broke apart from Caroline’s income from her writing). However, a year later, in 1832, the marriage broke down irretrievably, and Norton took his sons away and refused to let Caroline see them — as was his legal right. In 1836, probably with the encouragement of senior Tory politicians, he then brought a case of criminal conversation (adultery, essentially: “conversation” was a euphemism for sex) against Lord Melbourne, who was then prime minister.
Norton aimed to use “crim con”, as it was known, as a way of extracting financial redress (£1 million in today’s money) for the damage Melbourne had done to Norton’s property — Caroline — by having an affair with her. Melbourne denied the charges and was acquitted. Caroline always maintained that Melbourne “was my friend though not my lover”, but while Melbourne remained as prime minister, she was left penniless and unable to see her sons. Worse was to follow when her youngest child, Willie, died aged nine in 1842 from a riding accident after being left unsupervised. His last word was reportedly: “Mother.”
Some women would have been broken by all this, but the “mannish” Caroline was extraordinarily determined. In 1839, using her extensive political contacts, she had already campaigned vigorously in support of the Infant Custody Bill, which gave “innocent” married women the same rights over their young children as unmarried mothers. It was only a small step, and there was much debate about whether the law would encourage women to commit adultery, so it was made clear that only “blameless” women would be allowed to have custody of their children. Yet as Fraser points out, it was the first time in British history that “a married woman had some rights over her own children”.
Twenty-odd years later Caroline was campaigning again, for another piece of legislation, this time giving married women some rights over their own property. After her separation she supported herself and her sons with her writing, noting that “I made more in a month by writing, than [Norton] did in a year as a barrister”. But her income was still legally her husband’s property — and in 1853 they met in court over an unpaid debt, with Norton once again losing. In her 1854 pamphlet English Law for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Caroline wrote that “in no country in Europe, is there in fact so little protection of women as in England, despite the fact there is a female sovereign, unlike other countries where the Salic law forbids it”. Three years later an act giving married women some legal rights for the first time over their own property was passed.
Caroline’s ceaseless campaigning, her taste for publicity and her ambition (she once wrote to the prime minister Sir Robert Peel suggesting she be appointed the next poet laureate) did not generally endear her to people — even her sisters wished that she would stop making such a fuss. She was also not what we could call a feminist: she believed that women should be “protected” by men. Yet she made a difference, a big difference. There have been other books about Caroline Norton, but Fraser’s is the first to emphasise what a modern figure she is, portraying her not as a hapless victim but as a working mother and bestselling writer who refused to submit to what can only be called the patriarchy — a “difficult” woman whose bloodymindedness improved the lot of other women. Fraser is surely right to call her a 19th-century heroine.
I used to regularly go into schools to teach consent workshops to teenagers aged between around 13 and 16, which included showing the students a video made by Thames Valley Police called Tea and Consent. I’ve seen this video so many times I can almost recite it by heart. It begins with this line: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine that instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea…”
The video gently compares the act of making tea to the act of sex, appealing to the viewer’s common sense understanding of social niceties. Making someone a cup of tea is generous, right? But as a well socialised person, you’ll know that if someone says no to your offer of tea, you shouldn’t force it upon them, or get angry because they refused you. And you certainly shouldn’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat.
Although I don’t think my efforts in the workshops were entirely wasted, I also doubt they made much – if any –difference to rates of sexual violence within the schools. Consent workshops can potentially achieve two things: they can teach participants (including potential victims) what is and is not illegal, and they can offer schools the opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance attitude towards any kind of sexual misbehaviour. If, for instance, a student is caught sharing revenge porn after taking part in an official consent workshop, he or she can’t plausibly claim they did not know this act is both illegal and punishable by expulsion.
But many fans of consent workshops seem to believe their chief purpose is to do something fairly miraculous: to appeal to students’ empathy and common sense, thus dissuading potential rapists or, as the tea video phrases it, people “still struggling with consent” from acting on their desires. This hopeful project relies on the idea that the whole business of sexual violence is really just a consequence of some misunderstanding, swiftly cleared up during a 45-minute workshop in which children are told not to rape one another.
Forgive my cynicism, but I don’t think this workshop strategy is going to work. I find it odd that liberal feminist media outlets such as Teen Vogue will wax lyrical about the importance of consent education in schools, while also telling young readers it’s OK to watch porn that “portrays fantasies about non-consensual sex”. It is recklessly inconsistent to suggest, on the one hand, that consent workshops can have a profound effect on teenagers’ behaviour, while also insisting that exposing their young brains to porn depicting rape or other violence (even if only simulated) is nothing to worry about.
The arrival of the internet has changed both the quantity and quality of the porn that’s available. In a 2020 survey of men across several western European countries, respondents reported watching an average of 70 minutes of online porn a week – with 2.2 per cent watching more than seven hours. Within the last decade or so, BDSM content, particularly that featuring strangulation, has migrated from niche porn sites to mainstream porn sites and now to social media, including to platforms that advertise themselves as suitable for children aged 13 and over. You do not have to look hard to find these images. If you are exposed to mainstream porn or even just to mainstream social media, you are very likely to come across them unintentionally.
How on Earth is a consent workshop supposed to compete with the vast dopamine feedback loop offered by the online porn industry? Gail Dines, an academic specialising in violence against women, is one of the most pessimistic voices on this issue, and she describes the problem with painful clarity: “The pornographers are laying waste a whole generation of boys, and when you lay waste a generation of boys, you lay waste a generation of girls.”
The most popular porn sites are bombarding users with sexually violent material depicting rape, upskirting and other abuse, according to a landmark study.
An analysis of 131,738 titles on the homepages of Pornhub, XHamster and XVideos found that one in eight showed non-consensual or incestuous acts, including where the subjects were described as drugged, unconscious or “very young”.
More than 8,000 titles referred to physical aggression or forced sexual activity, even when the researchers excluded representations of consensual bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) practices.
The study, published today in the British Journal of Criminology, is one of the most in-depth analyses of online porn to date and draws on the largest sample of mainstream material yet collected. Swathes of material depicting degrading and extreme violence against women were widely available to view for free and with no age checks.
The findings will fuel calls for measures to force porn companies to tackle harmful content, which campaigners and charities have said normalises violence against women.
First-time visitors were shown the material by default even though much of it contravened the sites’ terms and conditions, researchers from Durham University’s law school found.
Many of the videos included references to forced sexual activity — “rape porn” — which is illegal to possess or distribute in the UK, whether real or acted, if it is realistic.
“It is not the case that criminal material is relegated to niche sites, hidden from all but a determined viewer, or only available on the dark web,” the authors of the study write.
The findings come as Britain is rocked by allegations of sexual abuse at schools and by the death of Sarah Everard, 33, who went missing while walking home in Clapham, south London.
In recent weeks thousands of people have spoken out about their experiences of sexual violence, with many women describing times they have felt afraid in day-to-day situations.
Over six months in 2017-18, the researchers took hourly snapshots of content on the home pages of the three most popular sites, including 72,326 titles from XHamster, 40,401 from Pornhub and 38,858 from XVideos.
After removing videos with no description of the content, they used keywords to categorise titles in line with the World Health Organisation’s definition of sexual violence. Each video was then reviewed and those that described consensual BDSM practices were excluded.
In total 2,966 titles on the homepages described criminal acts of image-based sexual abuse, including “Pharmacy store bathroom hidden cam”and “Upskirted in the train” and examples of so-called revenge porn.
A further 5,389 titles referred to physical aggression and 2,698 described coercion and exploitation.
Only one clip included the word “rape”, which is banned by the sites, but thousands described it in other terms, such as “Again and again forced” and “Boyfriend forced gf for sex”.
Common keywords included “grope” and “molest”, and many titles referred to women crying. Four included the word “chloroform”, a chemical used to incapacitate and kill. Another 5,785 titles described sexual activity between family members, making it the most common category of “sexually violent” material identified in the sample.
Previous research has shown young people turning to online porn as an educational tool. A recent survey by the British Board of Film Classification involving 16 and 17-year-olds found that most had viewed pornography that they found disturbing or overly aggressive, with many saying it influenced how they behaved in sexual encounters.
Clare McGlynn QC, a professor of law at Durham who co-authored the study, said: “It’s shocking that this is the material that the porn companies themselves are choosing to showcase to first-time users. Our findings raise serious questions about the extent of criminal material easily and freely available on mainstream porn websites and the efficacy of current regulatory mechanisms.”
She said it was common for descriptions of the most serious sexual offences to be characterised as ordinary or entertaining. “It’s no wonder that young women are sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse when this is normalised in the porn that is being offered to new users.”
Fiona Vera-Gray, a legal research fellow and co-author of the study, said sexually violent material “eroticised non-consent” and distorted “the boundary between sexual pleasure and sexual violence”.
The study has raised questions over the ability and willingness of sites to regulate themselves. Much of the material the researchers identified is likely to be in breach of the websites’ own terms and conditions.
In their policies, Pornhub and XVideos explicitly state that all content “depicting” child sexual abuse, rape, incest and forced sexual acts is prohibited, meaning simulations as well as real acts of violence are prohibited.
XHamster’s terms proscribe any material that is “unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing … invasive of another person’s privacy” or “hateful”.
The researchers said their analysis, which was carried out with the porn sites’ written consent, showed a “large gulf between what the companies say they prohibit and what is actually available”, although they added that their findings focused on the titles of the videos, rather than the footage itself.
They urged the government to use the Online Harms Bill to hold porn companies to account.
Legislation that will make Ofcom the regulator of “online harms”, and give it the power to fine companies up to 10 percent of their turnover for failings relating to harmful content, is being prepared by the government, but the most intense scrutiny so far has been reserved for social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Despite being less talked about, the porn sites — which allow users to upload their own content, like YouTube — command huge audiences. XVideos is the seventh-most visited website in the world while Pornhub, the UK’s top porn site, is 13th globally and XHamster 20th, according to rankings on SimilarWeb, making them more popular than eBay, PayPal and LinkedIn.
In addition to sexually violent material, much of the content on the website homepages fetishised sex with teenagers, including those who are underage. The most frequently occurring word overall was “teen”, which occurred in 7.7 per cent of video titles and 8.5 per cent of those found to describe sexual violence, while 26 videos included the words “very young”.
All the sites claim a zero-tolerance policy on child sexual abuse material and block searches for related keywords.
The research has added to concerns around porn websites’ moderation practices, which have long been criticised for being weak. Last October, an investigation by Vice News found that XHamster hired unpaid reviewers to moderate the site and instructed them: “Do not remove any content if you’re not 100 per cent sure that it’s illegal to be here.”
Since the Durham study began in 2017, Mindgeek, Pornhub’s parent company, claims to have cracked down on illegal content, removing millions of user-uploaded videos in December after Mastercard ended its relationship over further abuse claims.
Unilever and Heinz cut ties with Pornhub in 2019 after it was found to host content showing illegal acts, including secretly filmed “creepshots” of schoolgirls and clips of men performing sex acts in front of teenagers on buses.
Last week, in contravention of their own terms and conditions, content depicting rape, incest and other abuse remained widespread on all three sites.
Pornhub disputed the findings of the study and claimed all content on its website depicted “consensual kinks”. A spokesman said: “Consenting adults are entitled to their own sexual preferences, as long as they are legal and consensual, and all kinks that meet these criteria are welcome on Pornhub.”
The company said any suggestion it allowed illegal content was “categorically and factually inaccurate” and that it had instituted an “industry-leading” policy to identify and eradicate illegal material, as well as banning content from unverified users and expanding its moderation practices.
XVideos said: “We prohibit the uploading of illegal content, remove potentially illegal content when it is brought to our attention, and work with law enforcement in appropriate cases.”
Neither site commented on claims they had failed to remove content prohibited by their own terms and conditions.
XHamster did not respond to requests for comment.
Caroline Nokes, the MP who chairs the women and equalities committee, called for age certification of porn sites as promised by Theresa May’s government.
“Porn is part of the problem that underpins male violence against women and so must be addressed,” she said. “This is giving young people a very warped view of sex and relationships and even more worryingly is normalising this kind of behaviour.”
Students staging a sit-in protest at Warwick University have spent more than two weeks living in a tent in the middle of campus to highlight what they describe as a “huge culture of fear” around sexual abuse and the university’s failure to support victims.
Three years after the university’s “rape chat” scandal, in which a number of male students exchanged violent sexual comments about female students, the protesters say women still do not feel safe on campus or confident reporting incidents to staff.
“The university say they have been trying to improve things over the past few years but students are still here protesting the exact same thing, with the exact same demands,” said Cai Kennedy, a first-year theatre student who helped launch the sit-in with a rally attended by about 350 students.
“We were very wary about the fact the uni hasn’t listened in the past, which is why I proposed the sit-in because we wanted to do something they can’t ignore.”
The protesters, a group named Protect Warwick Women, have presented the university with a list of demands, including sexual violence and consent training for staff and security, more signposting to 24/7 safe spaces on campus, the permanent banning of abusers from campus and increased funding for wellbeing services.
They also want the option of immediate pastoral care in the event of a sexual assault, as opposed to a security response, as they say students are deterred from coming forward for fear of punishment if they have been involved in a breach of Covid rules, for instance.
The university said it “welcomed the ideas put forward” and “there are many areas where we are in broad agreement and where improvements are already in progress or implemented”. However, the students have vowed to continue the sit-in until they receive written confirmation their demands will be implemented.
In recent weeks, thousands of students have shared testimonies of sexual harassment and assault at UK schools and universities since the death of Sarah Everard in March triggered a national conversation about women’s safety.
This week a member of Oxford University’s women’s boat club said she had been failed by the institution’s handling of her rape allegation, and universities across the country are coming under increasing pressure to take more action to tackle sexual abuse on campus.
Suddenly everyone is talking about a “rape culture” in schools. Not for the first time, it has to be said, but influential MPs, headteachers and senior police officers are urging anyone who has been attacked to report their experiences. “Every victim who comes forward will be believed, will be listened to and dealt with sensitively,” according to Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child protection. Really?
I don’t doubt that “rape culture” exists within schools, or that some headteachers have been reluctant to confront it. At meetings of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, we have heard anecdotal evidence about schools where girls wear shorts under uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault. But there is nothing unique about what happens in educational settings. It reflects what is happening in the wider world, where the stark fact is that very few sexual predators face any form of justice.
Official figures tell the story: on average, about 1,060 women report a rape to the police in England and Wales each week. Only 40 of those rapes will lead to a prosecution, and about 27 will end in a conviction. More than 1,000 men a week are getting away with rape, in other words, and that’s only the cases known to the police. Many more go unreported, never featuring in the statistics.
When public figures urge girls to report rape, they should be honest about the fact that they are directing victims into a completely broken system; rape has all but been decriminalised, encouraging a culture of impunity among perpetrators. Hardly any rapists end up in prison, so what do they have to fear?
The government is poised to publish the latest in a long line of reviews of what’s gone wrong with rape investigations, but I could have saved it the trouble. Rape and serious sexual assault are the only crimes where it is victims, not the likely perpetrators, who are treated with suspicion. When a rape inquiry opens, police focus on complainants, making incredibly intrusive inquiries into their previous history. Girls who may now be thinking of going to the police need to know they will probably be asked to hand over their mobile phones, even if they contain intimate photos and messages, and to provide access to school and medical records.
Cases often collapse as a result: say a girl accuses boy X of rape, and detectives find a jokey text message from three months ago telling a friend she fancies X. Understanding of consent is so poor that it will be treated as undermining the credibility of her complaint, even though we are all entitled to change our minds about whether to have sex with someone, especially if the other party is rough or threatening.
There are now more than 8,000 posts on the Everyone’s Invited website, but it does not seem likely that they will change this atmosphere of corrosive distrust towards victims. Bailey’s statement that girls who come forward will be believed is hard to square with pronouncements from the country’s most senior police officer, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, who in 2018 reversed her force’s policy of believing individuals who report rape.
It was national policy at the time, adopted in 2011 after an outcry over the impunity Jimmy Savile enjoyed in his lifetime. But then the Metropolitan police were severely criticised over the way they handled Operation Midland, the disastrous inquiry into a nonexistent paedophile ring at Westminster. The complainant was a male fantasist, quite unlike most rape victims, and he subsequently went to prison for perverting the course of justice.
Dick’s kneejerk response was to tell her officers to have an “open mind” when they hear a rape allegation. She also made remarks that don’t bode well for girls weighing up whether to report attacks at school: “Speaking as a cop, opposed to a citizen, I’m interested in crime. If it’s a long time ago, or it’s very trivial, or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it.”
Some may be the type of case that the police and prosecutors find most challenging, where the accuser and alleged perpetrator are known to each other, and may have consumed alcohol before the attack. I don’t doubt that the assurances now being offered are sincere, but the risk of creating unrealistic expectations is very high.
We live in a society where half the population faces an ever-present threat of sexual harassment and assault at school, at work and in our own homes. But the criminal justice system is so intent on protecting the interests of men and boys accused of rape, it no longer does its basic job of providing justice for victims.