A book you have been waiting for!
A book that joins the dots between neoliberalism and sexism, between equal pay, war zones, the veil, The Wire, the web and welfare states…a new way of thinking about where we’re at.
A book you have been waiting for!
A book that joins the dots between neoliberalism and sexism, between equal pay, war zones, the veil, The Wire, the web and welfare states…a new way of thinking about where we’re at.
PUBLIC MAN, PRIVATE HAREM
The Conservative Party mourns the death in January 2016 of one of its great players, Cecil Parkinson. He contributed greatly to public life, to the transformation of Britain by Thatcherism, the party said this week.
His political career was, say the obituaries, ruined by a woman. What they don’t say is that a woman’s political career was ruined by Cecil Parkinson.
The woman was Sara Keays, his lover for 12 years, his secretary, companion and confidante. She was a resilient, respectable middle class woman from the fastnesses of Conservative England.
Her tragedy was to trust an ambitious Tory politician, and to vest her own political ambitions in proximity to power.
What remains unnoticed is that Cecil Parkinson not only repudiated the woman he’d loved, spent his days with, and relied on since the early 1970s and refused to acknowledge their daughter, but — unbeknown to Keays — killed off her political ambition.
He got her kicked off the Conservative Party candidates list for the Bermondsey by-election following the resignation of the Labour incumbent Bob Mellish in 1982.
The journalist Frankie Rickford once described powerful men’s promiscuous dependencies on women as being like a modern version of a harem: wives at home and surrogate wives at work.
Cecil Parkinson’s relationships with women — his wife, his secretary, his leader — were an exemplar. He was a suave lieutenant of Thatcherism, he was regarded as a beautiful performer, an adroit party manager and strategist, and he blessed those around him with charm, flirtation, political panache and promise.
But his career was serviced, and sometimes sponsored, by women.
The moralism of ‘traditional values’ that was promoted by the Thatcherites was well understood in the 1980s to be intended not for the Tory elite but for the masses.
Sara Keays is blamed for his demise in 1983. Yet Keays was no more to blame than his wife, his leader or any other woman. He was to blame. It was as if the act of putting himself inside a woman was nothing, as if the pregnancy was nothing to do with him.
His party, too, was to blame for not reading the runes of a society whose sexual culture was being shamed and enlightened, by women — more sexually tolerant and more alert to consequences.
Cecil Parkinson was a favourite of his party and above all of Margaret Thatcher. When he confessed to her on the night of the 1983 General election that he’d been having an affair with his secretary, Thatcher refused to let him go.
But pregnancy — that was another story. He hadn’t told her about that. Thatcher only learned of it from a letter written to her by Keays’ father, Colonel Hastings Keays.
The letter arrived next day and she presented to Parkinson at a lunchtime meeting. Thatcher still didn’t dump him: he was given trade rather than the Foreign Office.
Sara Keays lost him, of course, and by the autumn party conference he announced that he would remain with his wife and children. He would never speak to Keays again: she was, indeed, a woman scorned. Sara Keays had refused to go quietly to the abortion clinic and decorous obscurity.
She wanted to be recognised not as mistress, not as a phantom of collective fantasies about him, but as herself.
So, it wasn’t ‘kiss and tell’ when she produced a book, A Question of Judgement, in 1985. Certainly, she laid trails, little clues deigned not to betray him or the government but to show that she had been important enough to him to share state secrets.
She wanted her reputation, she wanted be recognised as a considerable person, as a woman who had been loved for a long time, who had been respected by Parkinson and who felt that she deserved respect in her own party.
But their relationship was the traditional personal-political contract served on women by powerful men: his social prowess, his comings and goings (while she served and waited) meant that his power was manifest whilst his dependency was covert.
The Parkinson scandal was not so much about morality: it was not unusual for Cabinet ministers to have their harems — wives at home, ‘wives’ at work; and it was not the only time the Tories were confronted by their own contradictions.
Men were assumed to be sexually incontinent. Parkinson was not expected to be responsible for his ‘private’ life — that was women’s work.
During my research in the 1980s on Iron Ladies, a book about Tory women, all the women I asked blamed her. She must have known what she was doing, they said, ‘Well, men! They don’t do they.’ said one of them, echoing all.
They grieved for their loss of Cecil, not just because the party lost his political charisma, but because their fantasises about this man had been ruined by reality. His decline and fall — like his power — was eroticised.
They longed to save this Icarus, to protect him — but from what?
She was blamed for ruining him and worse: by declining to go quietly, she had revealed the reapolitik of unequal romance which cost her reputation and her own political career.
She exposed the sexual division of labour in Conservative political culture: the illusion that proximity to power gave women power.
Sara Keays told me that she had subordinated her own political ambitions to his. She had been on the candidates list for Parliamentary elections.
‘The events of 1983 ended my career. The party refused to have anything to do with me and never gave me any reason for taking me off the candidates list.’
What Keays had not known was that before the 1983 by-election in Bermondsey, Parkinson had intervened to get her off the Tory short-list for the south London seat.
During the scandal, she said, the then party chairman John Gummer called her in for a meeting. It was all over. But they ‘never put anything in writing,’ they never explained, they never apologised.
It was clear, ‘Cecil’s position in the government could only be secured by minimising the scandal, which was done by belittling his involvement with me and concealing that he’d consistently lied to us.
‘Various Tory supporters in the media have written about him as my victim. He’s paid the price and served his sentence. It was acceptable for my career to be destroyed.’
She wondered whether, had she been a politician already, ‘my position would have been secure. But because I wasn’t, people had very little to go on — perhaps they thought I hadn’t lost anything.’
By 1985 everyone expected Parkinson to be fully rehabilitated. But the Daily Mirror published extracts from Keays book about this saga, including vignettes about the Falklands war cabinet.
‘That’s when she had the government in her power,’ commented a prominent Tory. That’s when the government knew she was dangerous.
Not because she was about to share those secrets, but to show that she knew stuff, that she’d been important to Parkinson, she was somebody.
His obituaries celebrate his charm and adroit political intelligence. They don’t recall his punitive court action banning any public reference to their daughter Flora, his reluctance to contribute financially to her care, his refusal to acknowledge her personally — never a card, a gift, a word.
Keays is still cast in the role of the woman scorned. She was, of course, scorned. But not for what she exposed about him, more for what she insisted upon disclosing about herself:
She risked shame to protect her own dignity. She was defending her honour.
But if women like Sara Keays knew that they were, and are, indispensable to men’s power, they were wrong to imagine that it would be reciprocal.
Being necessary to men always meant that power-sharing between men and women was unnecessary.
The Parliamentary debate on bombing IS/Daesh in Syria was brought to an intense and rousing conclusion by Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary. It was Benn rather than Tory Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond who inspired the House of Commons — MPs endured Hammond and applauded Hilary Benn.
The commentariat relished the difference between Hilary Benn and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but also inevitably, perhaps, with his father Tony Benn.
It was as if they had not noticed Hilary Benn’s eloquent defence of his leader — as a politician and as a person — and his unrequited invitation to David Cameron to apologise for his ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slur.
And it as if they had not noticed that throughout Hilary Benn’s parliamentary life he has not been an echo of his father — that the Benn family has survived generational and individual differences with better manners than most.
Melissa Benn — the only girl among Tony and Caroline Benn’s children, an astute writer and activist — reminds us that ‘the Benns have something of a history of courteous exchange but also of opinions strongly held to and expressed. Often not exciting enough for rapacious press, looking for gossip, intrigue and networking and power plays.
She’s right: schism and ‘irreconcilable differences’ attract attention, whilst respectful, intelligent and peaceful co-existence doesn’t.
Hilary Benn is not his father.
This is not a dynastic drama; it isn’t a sectarian schism either.
Hilary Benn has always disagreed with Tony Benn and with Jeremy Corbyn about Britain’s wars.
That makes Benn’s appointment as Foreign Secretary by Corbyn a daring move; just as his appointment of Maria Eagle as shadow Defence Secretary is also interesting. They don’t agree on the war in Syria. They don’t agree on the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles.
So, they’re going to have to work it out.
The surprise is that they’re going to try. And they’re going to try in the knowledge that these issues are difficult because they are difficult, we should expect disagreement because they are among the most testing themes of our times.
Listening to the Syria debate and Benn, brought to mind not his father but Parliament itself and a sense that Benn was emancipated by the context — Parliamentary democracy at work.
I didn’t agree with him about the bombing. But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has brought a genial tone to the Corbyn team, lost his touch a bit when he said Benn’s speech was like Tony Blair in 2003 when he argued for war in Iraq.
No, he wasn’t.
Benn wasn’t so much charismatic as effective: the performance was adroit, supple and smart. He didn’t overwhelm the honourable members with evangelism, he didn’t deceive or bully. He invited them to think, and to be available for persuasion. That’s what made his speech bracing.
Unlike, for example, David Cameron who de-humanised the enemy, Benn discussed some particulars — acts of violence animated by a special kind of manly excitement; an enemy that electrified by violence that is also thought-about and strategic: aimed not only at destruction but the theatre of terror.
That’s what made his allusion to fascism so interesting. Who knows if he’s right, but the word takes us to other modern — not medieval — ideologies of supremacist violence: the Nazis, Mussolini’s nationalism, racist lynching in the United States.
If he soared on this occasion it was because the occasion — the place, the time, the people — demanded it: here was Parliamentary debate at its best, and here was Hilary Benn doing his best.
Weirdly, the commentariat responded not by thinking, but by boxing the speech into its own discourses about power and politics. They’re missing the point: this isn’t about splits (whatever the ‘traitor’ twitters outside Parliament get up to).
Isn’t disagreement and debate what happens in political parties, in relationships, in families?
Westminster’s political culture isn’t used to this — witness the utter bewilderment about Scotland’s great independence conversation: households, friends, lovers dissented from each other — but they didn’t get divorced or die. They kept talking.
This is good politics, and Westminster and the commentariat should get used to it.
What we witnessed during the Syria debate was a party that was functioning; recovering from near death, from being eviscerated, hollowed out; from being ruled by diktat, by people whose anti-party politicking left Labourism too terrified to do what it is supposed to do: think, look right, look left, look right again and then go.
Former Daily Mirror editor, and unrequited lover of US television, Piers Morgan, is settling into ITV’s breakfast slot. Expect more of the eloquent bile he offered in response to Andrew Neil’s celebrated rant on This Week, in the aftermath of the Paris massacres.
Morgan admired Neil’s rant. It chimed with the country’s ‘blind fury’.
Neil had addressed himself directly to the ISIS attackers: you, he said, ’loser jihadis’, he said, ‘Islamist scumbags’.
Followed by an itinerary of the glories of France, its food and drink, its enlightenment.
‘You’ won’t win, he warned the Islamicists, ‘you’ will be dust in a thousand years when Paris will still be lighting the world. Or some such.
But Morgan’s celebration of ‘blind fury’ is exactly that: blind.
‘Scumbag’ and ‘loser’ don’t describe Islamicist adversaries; they don’t throw light on the motives and modus operandi of ISIS, still less on how to respond to an enemy that lives not in a far off land but the sea in which we all swim. They’re just the lexicon of flagrant virtue.
Andrew Neil is paid a lot of money to create contexts in which pundits can think and share their thoughts. But that’s exactly what he didn’t do. He didn’t do thinking.
Rubbishing IS is as easy as raging against the Yorkshire Ripper or Hitler.
The Paris massacres were an opportunity to indulge in the joy of denigration and contempt, rather than the effort of the enlightenment he hails in his paean to Paris.
I was in France the weekend of the massacre, and here I am in England where we are all contemplating the implications. The mood in both countries isn’t ‘blind fury’, it is shock, fright, grave sadness.
While the mass media mocks opposition to the renewal of Britain’s Trident, it appears not to note:
This is the moment to wake up, not collapse into the comforts of blind fury.
When Peter Stringfellow tells you that you are a ‘lovely lady’ you know that your are either in the wrong job, or the wrong conversation — or you are winning the argument.
We were debating on Sky News the decision by Playboy magazine to abandon nudes in its Spring 2016 revamp.
Stringfellow, the ‘sex entertainment’ entrepreneur, insisted that Playboy is merely modernising, moving to the internet where easy access to virtual sex and women is a most prolific and profitable form of traffic.
But Stringfellow and other commentators are missing something more interesting: We are in midst of a cultural revolution.
Whilst on one flank, what the femininist scholar Maddy Coy calls sexualised sexism flourishes on the web, on another flank it is severely challenged by feminist campaigns against lad mags and The Sun’s Page 3, and by men themselves.
Lad mag circulations have been diving, several have closed, and the publishers’ own research reveals that there is more to this than men switching from print to the web.
Among millions of men, it seems, their taste for sexism has faded.
Stringfellow and friends may hate to admit it — and the porn traffic in on the web may contra-indicate — but the readers confirm that the debate about sexual objectification of women isn’t just a joust between men and women it is an argument between men.
When Playboy, the daddy of them all, announced in September 2015 that there would no nude women in its re-launch in the Spring of 2016, we know now, if we did not know before, that we are indeed in the midst of a cultural revolution.
A Playboy editor Cory Jones had consulted the market research and bravely confronted its founder Hugh Heffner with his conclusion: the nudes had to go. It was a mix of profit motive and politics; the research showed not only that men could, by the flick of a finger, access any amount of nudity and virtual sex.
Playboy’s survival as a magazine depends on moving online. Most of its income is generated by the logo — a bunny to brand handbags and sportswear.
But if the magazine that gave birth to that bunny in 1953 is to staunch terminal decline it has make some accommodation with social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and that means putting clothes on.
Social media are not sexism-free spaces — but they are sites where it is contested, and they are sites inhabited by women and men.
In August 2014 Playboy’s website dispensed with nudity: the average age of its readers dropped from 47 to just over 30, and its web traffic jumped to about 16 million from about four million unique users per month.
In Britain, the lad mags that proliferated in the 1990s — when it was so right on to be right off — had already peaked by the end of the decade. Less than 20 years after they arrived in the shops, three of the biggest-sellers, Loaded, Maxim and Nuts had been closed.
Holly Baxter, Vagenda co-founder, reckons that it isn’t only online porn that’s wounded the lad mags, nor the successful campaigns to persuade retailers — markedly the Co-op — to get lad mags off the shelves.
“Loaded, Maxim and Nuts — all closed down — because they ‘represent an ideology which has become markedly unpopular. “Laddishness” is dying out; the whole concept has become desperately uncool. Even mainstream online porn has been shifting to focus on shared pleasure rather than straightforward female objectification.”
Over optimistic I fear. In 2015 Esquire editor Alex Bilmes got himself into bother with his nearest and dearest and women in general for insisting that Esquire used women for ornamental purposes.
After his ‘ornamental’ comment made at a media conference made him a bit notorious, he explained: He puts women in the magazine because they are interesting, have cultural currency, and they’re hot.
“But most of all, we wonder: is she hot? Will our readers agree that she’s hot? Ornamental, see? “
He admits though that Lena Dunham, New York creator of the hit HBO series Girls, “is a brilliant, brazen, necessary corrective to that.” He’d want to watch her show, but not see her on his mag’s cover.
“It’s not my job to provide positive role models for young women, or to challenge the homogeneity of representations of young women in the media. I’m a men’s magazine editor. I supply entertainment for men. “
But the Playboy decision also shows that she is on to something — men who like sexualised sexism have somewhere else to go; and men who don’t are doing something about their distaste: they’re just not buying it.
Unlike lad mags, Men’s Health and Shortlist — men’s mags that don’t do sexualised sexism —aren’t in decline.
Former Nuts editor, Phil Hilton, was invited to join the launch of Shortlist in 2007. Up to then, he’d been “locked in a ferocious newsstand battle for three years in which the biggest single factor in winning readers was women, without clothes, on the cover, every week.”
Now, the notion of a free mag felt liberating: if the publisher didn’t have to worry about men buying it, they could change the content, they could even put men on the cover. In his launch diary, he wrote that they could:
“Produce a title that appeals to the best instincts of all those prosperous grown-ups who don’t even browse the newsstand anymore. I’m excited.”
Stuff, a gadget magazine for young men, always had women on its covers. Now it is concentrating on what the magazine is really about, gadgets. This followed the magazine’s research into readers’ responses to ‘girl’ and ‘non-girl’ covers. For several months last year the publisher put non-girl covers into four regions: sales were higher than girl covers.
Rachael Prasher, Stuff publishing director, said the decision by the owner, Haymarket Media Group, to go non-girl “is based on what our audience have told us through focus groups and cover trials, there is no question that it feels like the right decision to make.”
Stuff editor in chief, Will Findlater, adds that their market research showed that if using women to sell gadgets once worked — did it? — it doesn’t now: Stuff readers are “united by their passion for technology — and nothing else.”
So, Stringfellow and his comrades think they have their finger on the pulse of men. But they haven’t registered the zeitgeist: that feminist pressure on the Murdoch empire and the retailers, No More Page 3 and Lose the Lads Mags have had an impact.
And the publishers’ own research on their readers tells them that its not just women who don’t like sexualised sexism, its men, too: this isn’t just an historic debate between women and men but between men, about women and what it means to be a man.
Earlier than usual — maybe 7.30 am — the BBC rang: What did I think about the woman who’d gone to the police over a wolf-whistle from a building site? Should she have gone to the police?
The incident had not crossed my radar. But in any case I found myself in a generational fade: Going to the police, a wolf-whistle…?
Unsure how to think about it; there had to be more to this story but I didn’t know what it was, and pointed the caller in the direction of Everyday Sexism who, to be sure, would know how to think about it.
The Daily Mirror’s version on 29 April was this: ‘Builder quizzed by police over wolf-whistle says he was complimenting ‘silly little girl thinking things above her station’
The paper asked its readers whether they agreed with the action taken by digital marketing director Poppy Smart: Would you go to the police over a wolf-whistle? 8 per cent said YES, 92 per cent NO.
If I didn’t know what to think beforehand, now I do know: Poppy Smart did not complain to the police about a wolf-whistle. She contacted the police and the site contractor about her daily encounter en route to work with a group of men she didn’t know; they didn’t know her either but they presumed to show her what they thought of her in a daily performance of what in any other context would be interpreted as sexual harassment, intrusion and insult.
She didn’t just contact the police, she contacted the site contractor after deciding that this sexism was similar to racism, she shouldn’t have to put up with it.
European directives on sexual harassment are clear: It is behaviour that is unwanted, that is designed to violate the dignity of a person, that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Employers are expected to ensure that their workers do not engage in such behaviour.
Poppy Smart’s story is illuminating both because she challenged behaviour that many men tenaciously affirm as, variously, banter, a joke, a compliment irrespective of what women might feel, behaviour that is deemed weightless yet worth defending to the bitter end, and also because her complaint prompted the police and the building company to actually do something.
One of the perpetrators, a 23-year-old Ian Merrett, protested in his old-fashioned chivalrous way that wolf-whistling was a compliment, he’d done it many times and ‘snogged so many girls off the back of that’ .
Poppy Smart ‘must be thinking things above her station,’ he said. Thinking things? Station? Two crimes: Thinking and trespassing. Here was a woman who seemed to think that she could occupy terrain — her own body — as if she owned it; that she could exercise both freedom of movement and freedom of thought as if she wasn’t living in Saudia Arabia.
Merrett had form. He told the press that in the past he’d get ‘pissed up and fighting’; he’d received a 12-month jail sentence when he and a dozen or so pals provoked a fight on a Worcester-Birmingham train in 2009.
His friend had ‘indecently exposed’ himself to other passengers after he accused one of them of looking at him. Merrett punched another passenger, who received stitches to his face.
But he was a reformed character, he said, he was only doing what men on building sites do.
The Daily Mirror conducted a poll among its readers on 1st May: 92 per cent supported the men and 8 per cent the woman.
However, police showed the men Poppy Smart’s video of their behaviour, ‘so we stopped doing it.’
She achieved something rather remarkable (despite the mass media’s trivialisation): she showed men dedicated to sexual harassment what it looks like and made them stop it.
Poppy Smart also offered us her own version of events: read it, be sad; be inspired.
FOR A DAY in July 2014, the advocates of children in care institutions who have been sexually abused by adults — including suspects shielded from scrutiny by the Establishment — tasted triumph: their campaign for an inquiry into historic abuse and cover-up had finally been rewarded, there was to be a public inquiry.
Then the government appointed a retired judge, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, to lead the inquiry. The campaigners tasted defeat.
A woman of integrity, said her supporters. Yes, a member of the Establishment, but an honourable woman, well-placed because of her judicial inquiry into a child abuse in the county of Cleveland in the north east of England in 1987.
I wrote a book about the Cleveland crisis, the Butler-Sloss judicial inquiry and the consequences. My only encounter with her was when I asked her permission allowed to interview witnesses to her tribunal. After I’d submitted to her the stories written for the New Statesman, she agreed, on condition, of course, that my book would follow publication of her report.
Day by day after her appointment to head up a new inquiry, worrying evidence billowed around her — and not just because she is a quintessential Establishment figure charged with investigating the Establishment’s cover up of sexual crimes against children, but because her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney General in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and allegedly implicated in cover-ups.
Oh no, nothing to do with me, she protested.
Then, on 11th July 2014, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a report on Butler-Sloss, including a recording of a marvellous moment: a speech she made in 2003 at Gresham College in the City of London.
She gave a light-hearted insight into the Establishment modus operandi when Gresham Professor of Law, Richard Susskind, asked her: “Who instigated the inquiry? How does such an inquiry get set up?”
“I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor,” she said.
“So the Prime Minister wanted somebody and my brother said it probably would be politic because there was some Marxist Leninist feminine…feminism area on there. The social worker had some strong views and there was a certain element of women against men.
“And so I think my brother said ‘well I think you’d better have a woman judge’ and there were only three women judges and by a process, I have to tell you, of elimination — because the other two were not available — I found myself doing it.”
This was simultaneously a laugh-out-loud moment — her exquisite difficulty with the f-word — and a bomb.
The Establishment recruited a woman to do in women in the child health and welfare professions at a radical moment in the history of childhood and protection from adversity and abuse. Thereafter, Butler-Sloss reserved her ire for the women in this case — seemingly impossible women, fortified with authority and knowledge; women who just would not yield, witches; women who mesmerised and discombobulated men, women who created professional alliances with men, women who weren’t afraid of men, of staring abuse in the face…’feminine’ and ‘feminist’ women, whatever…
Now we know.
That crisis was, of course, thoroughly gendered — but not for the reasons proposed by Butler-Sloss, not because there was a ‘women against men element…’
The crisis was something to do with men: men who buggered little children; physical signs on the bodies of children whose average age was six, suggested penetrative abuse; And a police force that refused to investigate suspected crimes against children.
By 12th July 2014, neither the government nor Butler-Sloss could cling on. She withdrew. Her demise takes our gaze beyond the horizon of the elite gene pool: it was not just her dynastic connection to the Establishment that offended people; it was her brother’s role in alleged cover-ups that went all the way to the top; that involved not only the elite but the security services.
And the problem was her way of doing business: Her Cleveland report, published in 1988, was a defining moment: it framed the terms of engagement thereafter between the state, professionals and children suffering sexual oppression. It set the template for how those who are not victims or abusers may come to some understanding: it isn’t possible unless you open your eyes and ears to survivors, or those who work with them.
Her report was compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith. This doesn’t mean she was a bad woman, or a corrupt woman, it merely means she was unavailable to challenge the status quo, to learn or to listen to people with less power — always very hard for an Establishment person.
Ultimately what was more important than anything else, it appeared, was to have and to hold a myth.
In the millions of words published in her Cleveland report, two stand out: she accused doctors seeing signs of abuse of refusing to ‘suspend belief’.
Ever since then, health, welfare and criminal justice professionals — together with society in general — have been obliged to suspend belief.
A new e-edition of my book, Unofficial Secrets – Child Sexual Abuse: the Cleveland Case, is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, here is an extract from the 1997 edition:
ONE MORNING early in the summer of 1987 a story appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, which didn’t make sense. The story ran and ran and ran, measuring more column inches than any other single saga that year – and yet the story went on not making sense. Nevertheless, it became a defining moment in the British state’s response to childhood adversity.
This was the Cleveland case, the story of 121 ‘innocent’ children being snatched from their ‘innocent’ parents by practitioners perceived as witchdoctors so suspicious of sexual abuse that they saw signs of it everywhere – including in children’s bottoms. ‘Innocence’ itself became an actor in this drama, an impersonator, disturbing the safe categories of victim and culprit, which had shaped the statutory services in the image of Freudian fantasy: after all, sex doesn’t happen to children – unless they incite it. And sex doesn’t happen in bottoms. Unless you’re queer.
These fundamental principles of sexual ideology were confounded in the Cleveland case: the ghost of budding Lolitas inciting incontinent men was undermined by the average age of the Cleveland cohort: six. And the orthodoxy of the orifice was shaken by the evidence that a baby in a buggy, with a very sore bottom, was being buggered by her father.
The Cleveland case challenged our world view about sex. It also became a crisis of knowing, of what is known and how it may become knowable. As the months and then the years went by, we were not allowed to know what had happened in Cleveland.
Just as there was a determined not-knowing in 1987, there was equal resistance to any attempt to follow up those 121 children, and reluctance to co-ordinate referrals. Some children did return to the attention of the statutory services. Some children did go on enduring abuse by adults who – having been acquitted by the public debate – had permission to carry on…
The government, suddenly that summer, announced a judicial inquiry, not into the phenomenon but into the response to it…
The inquiry conspicuously evaded the questions on everyone’s lips: ‘what has happened to these children? What brought them to the attention of the statutory services? What do the signs scripted across their bodies mean?
The government guaranteed that these questions would not be asked or answered.
In cases of alleged sexual abuse there has always been something more important than knowing – and that is not knowing.
I am abashed at what we thought was controversial.
For example, the first edition of this book contains an interview with a man and a woman whose children all showed worrying symptoms. The father was already a convicted sex offender. He was candid: yes, he had ‘previous’; yes, he’d confessed and then retracted. His explanation for anal and vaginal medical signs? He didn’t have one. I didn’t believe his protestations, but I faithfully reported his story. And I didn’t ask why his career as a sex offender and his absurd alibis weren’t relevant.
If this case was deemed controversial, it was not because a convicted sex offender was given custody of his children. It was because Dr. Marietta Higgs’ diagnosis had ignited an investigation. If this case was controversial, it was not because the convicted sex offender made a confession — like his previous record, that didn’t matter.
It was as if Dr Higgs, not the man with convictions and a confession, had to be found guilty. Revisiting his case was a revelation: what would now be interpreted as a significant — convictions and a confession — were then irrelevant; they were put to one side and made to not matter. Since then, he has been the subject of a new investigation – based, this time, not on signs but on a story of sexual abuse.
During 1987 the civil courts were pre-empting the outcome of the judicial inquiry by throwing out many of the local authority’s applications. The Butler Sloss inquiry’s report did not criticise the dismissal of these applications.
So, although the government acted as though nothing had happened, it read her report knowing that something had indeed happened to many, if not most, of the children.
What did they know? That the signs scrolled on the bodies of children suggested serious sexual abuse. They also knew that, if the children had indeed been abused, then the signs were telling us something more – that the children were so marooned in their abusers’ needs and pressure and point of view that silence was itself a survival strategy. A tactic of accommodation was revealed by the signs: the architecture of the body suggested the anatomy of adaptation, of small bodies adapting to overwhelming intrusion, orifices scarred and altered by incoming objects, orifices speaking into the silence of their young subjects.
Not all the children were silent. Some spoke loudly and clearly. Some spoke obliquely and hesitantly. But the adult community chose to interpret the silence — rather than the signs — as the relief of suspicion, rather than as a clue to the difficulty of disclosure. Instead of interpreting the matrix of signs and silence as a dynamic, as a drama of physical suffering and survival shrouded by secrecy, it chose an interpretation of this eerie scenario that reinstated the ideologies and institutions that were so stiffly challenged by these children.
Thereafter, a determination to act as if it did not know what had happened to the Cleveland children defined the disposition of the government. The ‘top men’, the medical and legal establishment gossiped over cocktails and confided to each other that well, yes, those doctors probably got it right…
When the judicial panel inquired into the response by professionals it never investigated perpetrators — the absent presence in the whole debate. Experts who worked with perpetrators were shunned. The only evidence the inquiry heard about alleged abusers came from an American advocate for the accused, Ralph Underwager, an itinerant ‘expert witness’ who specialised in giving evidence on behalf of defendants, whose confidence in the campaign to discredit children’s evidence of abuse prompted him to pronounce only five years later that paedophiles should proudly proclaim their sexual desire for children as the will of God.
The government and the inquiry report never asked or answered the question: What do we do to protect endangered children when the children themselves do not, or cannot, protest? Just as silence as a strategy, as a source of agency amid calamities that did not originate with the child, was not assimilated, neither was the weight of children’s fear, nor their dissociation as another survival strategy to protect themselves from chronic, extreme pain. Far from learning from the children’s difficulties, the government’s procedures actually relied upon them, regulating even more intensely the limits upon the space and time available to children to begin to speak. That is the scandal.
In 1987 the Department of Health was already well aware of all this and more. When it set up the judicial inquiry, the Department, social services staff and the police were themselves already addressing a different difficulty: how to help children who had a complaint to make. All over the country statutory services were struggling with the same things; how to help children who were speaking, protesting, to get justice; how to listen, gather evidence, consolidate a case, and protect children in danger; how to help doctors become definite instead of defensive; how to help the child psychiatric services embrace the possibility of an external event.
The typical difficulty for child protection workers was the absence of medical signs to corroborate strong stories that rarely survived the rough journey to the criminal courts. Here were physical signs that had been regarded as forensic gold. If the revelation of Cleveland was the closed circuit of strong signs and silence (although we must never forget that some of the Cleveland children did speak), then the inquiry’s shift from the signs to the silence was an intimation of collusive cynicism – once the argument about the signs was settled, the inquiry turned its mind not to the question of silence, but to how to patrol the possibility that children might speak.
Procedures, according to one child protection specialist, were designed to police the professionals and to control the conditions in which children might speak.
Those with an investment in silence, accused adults — sometimes parents — appeared as the victims of a new contagion: system abuse. And the arrangements created in the aftermath gave even convicted sex offenders the right to participate in planning the futures of the very children they had oppressed. ‘The fact that they were parents was more important than anything,’ said the specialist. ‘When I saw the list of participants at a case conference and read that minutes were to be sent to the father in prison, and that the Governor was to be approached to invite him to the next meeting, I knew it was all finished, particularly for his children who were terrified every night they went to bed that he’d come and get them again. Of course, they were right. The procedures ensured that he would.’ That is the codicil to Cleveland’s bequest to British children.
The first edition of this book was written during the controversy, when anger was directed not at alleged abusers but at children’s advocates.
Now, I wonder why. And I wonder why, like most other people, I reserved my restless discomfort for the people who had decided to do something about the evidence before their eyes. That disposition did not mute a critique of the outrageous mutiny by the police, the most masculinised public serve, who seemed to abandon their duty to investigate and to co-operate with their colleagues. They were the detonators, but their behaviour never aroused anger. Was that because Britain was already pessimistic about the police, the one agency that cannot be called to account? The report’s criticism of the police didn’t matter: no one noticed; no one was disciplined. But, nevertheless, that discomfort still lies like permafrost across the enduring controversies about child abuse. We still think nothing happened. We’re still angry with the wrong people.
I talked to child protection professionals and members of survivors’ movements elsewhere in Britain and in Ireland. They weren’t surprised by the signs that were so contested in this case – they’d already encountered them. They weren’t surprised by the combustion, either, because professional conflicts and political panic were endemic to sexual crime.
Now I understand the meaning of the meeting in 1987 initiated by child protection workers in Nottingham, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, who were trying to tell politicians that the scale and seriousness of the problem were straining their resources, too. They were also asking: ‘What are we supposed to do about this?’ Why weren’t people like this invited to the inquiry?
When Elizabeth Butler-Sloss reported that she had no reason to doubt the medical signs, professionals and the public could reasonably infer that the doctors might have been right. But that would have been wrong, because the message inferred by some from that report was that it didn’t matter. Those doctors had – with the arrogance of innocence – blown the whistle. They thought their suspicions of abuse that imperiled the well being of their patients might have mattered.
They were wrong. What mattered more was that the sovereignty of services built on an acceptable level of abuse was retrieved. I did not understand that then.
Confidential documents (never acknowledged by the Department of Health) confirm what was only coded at the time: that the government and the health authorities had reason to believe that the doctors were probably right, but that no one would be allowed to know. That is the scandal.
Lifestyle or self-determination?
What should be the focus of debates about abortion in Britain?
The Daily Telegraph reports ‘lifestyle abortions warning as serial termination numbers surge’.
And I’ve had a sporting ding dong with the catholic former MP Ann Widdecombe on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, during which she berated the ‘sheer number’ of abortions and women ‘putting their careers ahead’ of a ‘life in the womb.’
What is a lifestyle abortion? This is an example of bad language; of what the great Doreen Massey calls ‘vocabularies of neoliberal economy’ — the way the very language we speak has been skewed by the Right.
‘Lifestyle’ is associated with conspicuous consumption; it is associated with IKEA identity — we are what we consume, we are our kitchen cabinets and our build-it-yourself beds, we are endlessly re-making ourselves by endlessly discarding cushion covers. Lifestyle is anything from gardening to diet; from sex to sexual orientation. Lifestyle connotes pleasure.
However, this coupling is about ‘style’ rather than ‘life’.
So, abortion trends are being set up as consumption rather than self-determination; women’s control over their own bodies becomes caprice. That, in the misogynist mind is the cause for concern. The Daily Telegraph, it seems, is on a mission.
But what does the evidence tell us about who is having abortions, and when? And what, in any case, is a cause for concern?
Something significant is happening, however, but it isn’t about either ‘shopping’ or ‘surges’.
According to the 2013 statistics recently published by the Department of Health, abortion is declining, including among teenagers; the ratio of early abortions is rising, and the rate of medical (pill) rather than surgical abortions is rising, too:
If there has been a surge it is in early abortions: under 13 weeks — now 91 per cent.
Under 10 weeks: 58 per cent in 2003, 80 per cent in 2013.
The proportion of medical (a pill) — as against surgical — abortions has reached almost half, at 49%. A decade earlier it was only 17 per cent.
The implications for women themselves and for the National Health Service (the provider for the overwhelming majority of women) are palpable: abortion is less costly to the health and the funds of both women and the NHS.
There is another story — the numbers are falling: at 16 per 1000 women, this is the lowest since 1997.
Teenage abortions are also declining:
The number of women who have had more than one abortion has risen to 37 per cent, compared to 33 per cent.
And the number of women having abortions who already had a child rose from 47 per cent in 2003, 53 per cent in 2013.
The Daily Telegraph and Ann Widdecombe have a new target: not the ‘not bovvered’ teenagers, but mature women making choices.
They interpret these figures as indicative of women having serial abortions, ‘a casual attitude to multiple abortions’, says Widdecombe.
Women don’t have casual attitudes to abortion. We don’t know how to explain these figures.
Unsurprisingly the age at which most abortions happen is 21-22 years. What is these women’s experience? Why aren’t their male partners using condoms? Are they having an abortion in their 40s — having had one in their 20s? Do they think they are past getting pregnant? Do the men they have sex with use contraception, and if not why not?
There isn’t a surge of serial abortion but there is evidence that, among older women, having a child doesn’t necessarily mean they feel able or willing, or safe, to have another.
What used to be called ‘family planning’ and reproductive choice is now traduced as ‘surges’ in ‘casual attitudes’ among women who ought to know better. The moral right always needs to blame some woman or other.
I am a woman
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ — Maya’s revolutionary book about abuse, adversity, segregation and poetic resistance.
Back home. Mud to show for a mind-expanding sojourn at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival at Hay, a parallel event to the annual book jamboree that takes place every May in this town-of-many-bookshops.
HowTheLightGetsIn is only six years old, and it does what maybe nothing does in our culture — it brings great minds, ordinary minds, curious minds, philosophers, physicists, political theorists and activist scholars together — all of them as participants.
Speakers and listeners have access to each other, and the organisers ensure that book writers are available to their readers; theorists are available to congregate with…well…anyone.
There is a lovely democratic esprit.
I was fortunate to be doing both — talking (about End of Equality) and listening. This year, its spirit was signified by mud.
LSE sociologist Catherine Hakim turned up in baby-pink shoes (was she carried in a sedan chair?), as if her feet were her manifesto. By contrast, green wellies were de rigeur for the philosopher Mary Midgley, who was extraordinarily busy at Hay this year.
Midgley becomes exponentially more prolific with advancing years — she is 94 — as she smothers brittle Darwinists with the tough soft tissue of really wise, big knowledge and philosophical ‘good sense.’
I wish I could have got in to hear Mr. Scruff. Sold out.
And I wish I could have heard cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton, theorist of the multiverse — in contrast to universe — debating with particle astrophysics pioneer John Ellis, their research on the origins and structure of our universe/s…
“I think this is a wonderful place to come and release these things,” Mersini-Houghton told Observer journalist, Tracy McVeigh, “As a scientist you are isolated, and I have spent the past five months locked up with equations. It is wonderful to come here and see people’s eyes light up in front of you as they get it. The big scientific questions are just as interesting to everyone.”
She said it: this festival lets the light in. It’s a way of thinking — people gathering, listening, speaking, dancing, chilling — about philosophy and music and everything in between, is democratic: speakers mingle with everyone; heroic intellects get to share their thoughts with people like us, who are, of course, people like them.
To paraphrase John Ellis’ book, ‘A Theory of Everything’, HowTheLightGetsIn is a smart challenge to the lowering horizons and narrowing aperture of what passes for politics — it encouraged and enabled everyone to be interested in everything.