FUREDI INTO THE ABYSS
Is there a consensus about sexual abuse of children and rape generally? The answer to this question would seem self-evident but it isn’t. There are laws, of course, but laws don’t describe consensus. Nor do they create consensus. Laws may describe prohibitions and rights, but they do not effect either rights or prohibitions.
The eminent lawyer and former Appeal Court judge, Stephen Sedley cautions that ‘Any state can set out rows of shining rights, like medals on a leader’s chest…’ But rights only have meaning, he says, in their implementation, and their application to intractable conflicts of interest.
Long-standing laws proscribing sexual acts with children exemplify Sedley’s point: sexual offences laws attract many-a-medal but few rights. More than 90 per are never reported, and fewer than 10 per cent of reported rapes ever reach a courtroom. Legal prohibitions are not the same as legal rights.
This failure goes to the crux of consensus and whether we mean what we say about sexual assault and rape. Failure to implement the law contributes to the lack of consensus: it doesn’t create it, but it facilitates it. This gap exercises great minds in the criminal justice system, social justice and feminism. It is also the abyss into which sociologist Frank Furedi throws himself. He is a prolific emeritus professor and a go-to-contrarian in the right-wing media. He bundles random hypotheses into purported grand theories about the meaning of modern life, and his methodology is sound-bite rhetoric.
His work is an archetype of child abuse scepticism, a hyperactive, cynical engagement with nowness that masks hubris, an addictive againstness that is parasitical – it squats on terrain, phenomenon and agendas made by others, only to criticise or condemn.
Furedi reads the gap between sexual offences law and implementation as evidence not of hidden crime but of perils imagined by moral crusaders: the gap, therefore, between crimes, reported crime and justice outcomes, is confirmation that sexual abuse is bad but rare. He goes further: irrational paranoias and scandal-mongering menace civil society. Typically, he used the 2012 Jimmy Savile scandal to air a grand theory about the crisis of civilisation as we know it: Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust.
He omits concepts of power, oppression, suffering and inequality, and enlists ‘sexual violence’ instead as a transcendent term: ‘panics’ about rape and child sexual abuse sponsor his complaints about threats to civilisation, consensus, reason, public institutions and public safety, everything.
Let’s consider Furedi’s case and his method.
Consensus: Furedi argues that there is, or rather was, a moral consensus: everybody agrees that sexual abuse of children is wrong. But (contrary to the evidence) he insists that it is rare and it is exaggerated by feminists and other ‘moral entrepreneurs’ for their own political ends.
Furedi argues that moral consensus is being – or has been – disoriented and even displaced by the promotion of distrust in traditional institutions, and aversion to risk and the ordinary hazards of everyday life, ‘There is little consensus even on some of the most elementary questions about the meaning of life,’ he argues
Scandal: A moral apocalypse has been created by scandals that never clarify or clean up society, they just make people feel bad, they lead only to a ‘sense of disorientation’; Irrational suspicion and ‘sightings of new evils are an integral feature’ of moral crusaders who promote an ideology of evil that ‘rarely accepts that a problem has been solved.’
Sacred childhood: Amidst this loss of faith in the established order, he suggests, an idealised icon of hope glows, it is the child, a sacred ideal of innocence, an optimistic gleam in an otherwise incoherent world. Thus, he argues, we insulate childhood from sex and everything else, children are sacralised and sequestered, under the perpetual surveillance of anxious parents fearful of everything outside their domestic bubble.
He offers no evidence. Nor does he consider trans-Atlantic debates about the sexualisation of children in popular culture and the polarisation between masculinities and femininities in the marketing of childhood.
Culture of fear: He accuses paranoid adults of seeing sexual abuse everywhere – we won’t let our children just be; we invest not in their future but our own. We smother children not with love but with fear. His misanthropic prospectus brings a cynical frown to anti-oppressive movements and leads him to defend traditional institutions and consensus from challenge.
Thus, he claims panic is induced by the ‘tendency to massively inflate the peril of paedophilia’; scandals – typically the Jimmy Savile scandal – are a ‘moral crusade’, exemplified by the police inviting ‘the entire nation to recollect any incident of abuse that might have happened to them in the past’; by feminists contending ‘that the majority of young girls and women are subjected to some form sexual abuse by family members’ – for this he offers no evidence. He relies on the arch sceptic Richard Webster, who also offers no evidence.
There is a loss of authority, he says, exemplified by a chilling example, ‘the Catholic Church has lost significant moral capital as a result of the involvement of a few of its clergy in a series of sexual abuse scandals.’ Well, yes.
Crisis of authority: loss of trust derives not from the impact of survivors and radical social movements, not from the rise of democracy and the decline of deference, not from political scrutiny, but from moral crusaders, self-interested moral profiteers who exploit a few mistakes and misdemeanours to terrify everyone into feeling that they just can’t leave the house.
So successful has this been, he says, that even the authority of judges is called into question. He cites the movements to revisit the Hillsborough stadium disaster and abuse in North Wales children’s homes: The independent panel of inquiry into the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster in which 89 people lost their lives ‘called into question’ the inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor. Furedi is wrong – the panel vindicated the Taylor inquiry and went further by accessing evidence of wrongdoing by South Yorkshire police that was unavailable to Taylor. The launch of the review by Julia Macur into the evidence available to Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s inquiry and his report, Lost in Care, ‘indicates that the authority of judicial independence is not beyond question.’ It might have. But, wrong again, the issue was not ‘the authority of judicial independence’ but whether Waterhouse had full access to evidence, and the ability to investigate it.
There is, for sure, an important debate to be had about the conditions in which scandals and public inquiries do or do not sponsor political change. The scandals following the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966, Hull’s triple trawler tragedies in the 1968, the thalidomide drug scandal in the 1950s-60s, all exposed reckless disregard for safety.
The inquiries did not necessarily yield reform: in Aberfan the National Coal Board, the trade unions and civic authorities, were all implicated, and the potential agents of challenge and change were, therefore, compromised.
It took a decade – after mighty, lonely campaigns by the women of the fishermen’s families – before new laws regulated the fishing industry; It took three decades of campaigning by the Hillsborough relatives movement and the people of Liverpool, for the authorities responsible for the Hillsborough football stadium disaster to be called to account; it took four decades for relatives of the British Army’s murderous action on Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, to get the full story of what happened to the 13 unarmed people shot by the British Army.
All of these outcomes were contingent on whether the truth could ever be told, by whom, and to whom – to everyone? – and on whether it was made to matter. These are questions of political culture, the ‘balance of forces’ and hegemony. Politics and power, however, are nowhere in in Furedi’s chronicle, in which scandal is moralised rather than politicised.
A good example is telephone hacking, cited by Furedi as just another blow to institutions and reputations. The ‘crime’ at the heart of the hacking scandal was industrial scale, illegal hacking of people’s telephone conversations. Although it was initially represented as the price celebrities pay for being seen, the politics of hacking came alive in the House of Commons Culture Select Committee hearings in 2011. That was when the traffic of personnel between the Metroplitan police, the Murdoch press and Downing Street was disclosed. That was the moment when the hacking scandal became much more than the invasion of individuals’ privacy – though that was cruel enough; that was when we learned of secret and illegal surveillance that circulated between, and served the interests, of the Met, Downing Street and the Murdoch media empire.
The Murdoch media had established a symbiotic relationship between hackers, senior Metropolitan police officers, and Downing Street. They could spy on anyone. They could ruin anyone – not least their adversaries.
Children, teenagers, sex and violence: Furedi’s modus operandi appeared in 2012 in a blog that indicated his general approach to sex and sex crime.
In 2012 the British government launched a campaign directed at teenagers about sexual violence in relationships, and in particular, boys’ sense of entitlement. That year the parenting website Mumsnet launched its own campaign We Believe You campaign against rape.
The Home Office initiative was a novel campaign that fielded a ‘top man’, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to promote equality in young people’s sexual relationships.
Furedi rushed into print. He had been triggered by an advert on London Underground, ‘REAL MEN GET RAPED… Talking about it takes real strength.’ He admitted that he didn’t get it. But that didn’t stop him. He threw in a third ingredient, the trial of two boys convicted of attempting to rape an eight-year-old girl. ‘The Home Office campaign is so obsessed with ‘raising awareness’ about an alleged epidemic of sexual violence that it wouldn’t recognise a healthy teenage relationship if it bumped into one. Once rape has been redefined as a normal feature of human relationships, it will end up being ‘discovered’ everywhere,’ he protested, so boys had been subjected to a ‘showtrial for being naughty and were convicted of attempted rape at the Old Bailey in London’ despite the fact that the eight-year-old ‘admitted in court that she had made up the story of her ordeal’.
There was indeed widespread unease among children’s advocates about the criminal trial. However, the boys were not tried for being ‘naughty’ and it wasn’t a ‘showtrial’. The judge and the lawyers divested themselves of their usual wigs and gowns, and during the trial the boys were allowed to sit with their mothers.
In 2010, the boys had been seen taking the girl to various locations to attack her. The girl’s mother had told been another boy that they were ‘hurting’ the girl ‘and doing really bad things.’ The mother found the boys in a field where they were trying to assault her daughter. The girl had been consistent in her evidence at the time, but under cross-examination at the Old Bailey, she retracted. (Not unusual.)
Nonetheless, the jury believed her contemporaneous statements and delivered a guilty verdict.
The implication was that the Home Office campaign had pathologised intimate relationships between young people. Furedi went further, he mounted a defence of pressure: ‘pressure – unwanted or wanted – is integral to every attempt to strike up a sexual relationship.’ It is? How does he know? And should it? Is that how it is for him? Generalising from masculine intuition, he complains that heterosexuality is being criminalised by efforts to clarify what is meant by sexual violence and the question of consent.
The Home Office campaign could hardly bear the weight given it by Furedi: Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) supported women’s movements’ attempts to improve the criminal justice system’s response to rape. She recognised that the system should not just seek to prosecute perpetrators but to prevent abuse.
Research conducted among teenagers by Bristol University scholars revealed that 90 per cent had been in an intimate relationship, 30 per cent of girls experienced violence from a partner; a sixth of girls felt pressured to have ‘sexual intercourse’ and one in 16 had been raped; one in 17 boys felt pressured into sex.
The Home Office then commissioned a campaign to raise teenagers’ awareness. But the Department of Education and Secretary of State Michael Gove baulked at spreading the campaign to schools – the most obvious location. Despite research showing that publicity didn’t penetrate unless accompanied by action to engage people in the issues, there was no follow-up in schools. May tackled Gove about this, but to little avail. ‘A sorry story,’ confided one of the officials involved.
Mumsnet: Furedi also trashed a parallel campaign by the online parenting network, Mumsnet. It conducted a survey of 1,600 women that confirmed long-standing findings from other research: 10 per cent had been raped, 30 per cent had been sexually assaulted, 80 per cent didn’t report these attacks to the police.
Mumsnet had created a phantom, he said, ‘The process through which this fantasy was concocted is fairly typical of the modern pathologisation of sexual relations. First, an online poll carried out by an advocacy group is miraculously transformed by a journalist into ‘research’. And of course, there is no need to raise any questions about how the poll was conducted or how representative was the sample on which it was based. Then, by the time the story hits the rest of the media, it is yet another case of ‘New research shows…’ – a phrase we hear all the time these days, and which should always set alarm bells ringing. Finally, the 80 per cent claim is magically converted into fact.’
He accused feminist scholars of promoting ‘an epidemic of rape’ by their ‘methodological exaggeration of male violence.’ Not only did they inflate the figures, he said, ‘they constructed survey questions that stripped sexual acts of context and, therefore complication, ‘Since that time, discrete acts of rape have been so denuded of meaning that they have become indistinguishable from the normal ambiguities, tensions and pressures involved in everyday sexual encounters.’
Furedi himself could have inquired into the conduct and methdology of the poll. He only needed to ask Mumsnet. He didn’t. I did.
Mumsnet explained that, of course, surveys among their members are not representative samples, they are Mumsnet users. Mumsnet explained: What had been learned was that ‘official data can miss important aspects, because it’s not asking enough questions, or asking the right questions. In lots of other situations, the official record is simply silent because the research is never undertaken.’
The rape survey and the campaign emerged from online conversations, ‘Mumsnet is a female-dominated site where users are anonymous, and as such it is an environment where women can talk about sex, bodily functions and the nuances of relationships in great detail, and without being told to pipe down. And that has a significant effect on the kinds of conversations that take place.
‘The campaign grew out of an entirely organic set of discussions and surveys that the users themselves carried out. What was really noticeable about those user conversations was the way in which users were led, by other women, towards the naming of their experiences as rape or sexual assault.
‘Incidents that they had previously thought of as ‘just a bit off’ or ‘don’t know whether that was OK’ or ‘I haven’t thought about it for years’ or ‘I suppose I didn’t say no and scream and shout’ became recognised for what they were – rape and/or sexual assault. So, the survey that we carried out was conducted in an atmosphere of heightened awareness among our users.’
Mumsnet explained to me that, ‘the definition of rape and sexual assault to cover all non-consensual sexual activity is challenging, especially for people – not all of them men – who have grown up believing that a bit of slightly forcible slap-and-tickle is nothing to make a fuss about.
‘We have seen users on Mumsnet become extremely angry and upset when other users tell them that the experiences they’re relating – sex instigated while they were asleep, anal sex taking place suddenly or without discussion, condoms being promised but not worn – were non-consensual and thus categorisable as a criminal offence; the women themselves don’t always want to see their experiences and their relationships that way. So, it’s not only Furedi who struggles with this.’
A year after Mumsnet’s survey, it was vindicated by Office for National Statistics figures showing that only around 15% of rapes are reported to the police.
Furedi does not report official statistics, instead he finds the main culprits in a coven of feminist academics and journalists, primarily Mary Koss and Ms Magazine. There is indeed a story here (though Furedi doesn’t tell it) about the politics and technologies of measurement when surveys delve into the most intimate and defended crimes. Feminist researchers had criticised official surveys for failing to address context and complication, as well as official under-reporting.
Koss and her colleague Cheryl Oros published the first rape survey showing that only a quarter of women who had experienced legally-defined rape described it as rape. Her work attracted the attention of Ms magazine, which sponsored a federally-funded survey on rape among college students. Koss was writing in the context of a revolution in rape awareness and research, not least the discovery in the 1980s that official statistics, based on police reports and national crime surveys, did not reach into or record women’s experiences.
The Ms Magazine survey discovered that a quarter of students had been victims of rape or attempted rape, yet only a quarter of those whose assault met the legal definition actually named it as rape. This is the story of ‘one-in-four’ and the entry of ‘date rape’ into the lexicon of sexual politics.
It became a template, regularly revisited and refined, for research on sexual violence. Bonnie Fisher and Francis Cullen, writing in 2000 about the development of measurement, ‘Measuring the Victimization of Women: Evolution of Current Controversies and Future Research’, comment that, ‘What they developed, therefore, was systems of criteria, measurement, and vocabulary that were sufficiently subtle to cope with women’s reticence, shame and ambivalence about their experience, particularly in the context of entrenched social scripts about sex and violence.
‘Researchers have come to realise that conceptually defining and then operationalising sexual victimisation are complicated and, to a degree, imperfect enterprises—especially when deciding when an unwanted sexual advance crosses the line from imprudence to criminal behaviour.’
They also had to anticipate and address the inevitable criticism that as activist academics they would find what they were looking for. The methodological challenges ‘opened the way for conservative commentators to charge that the supposed “epidemic of rape” is an invention of feminist scholars.’
Scholars and pundits remained divided. Was the perceived extent of rape a ‘constructed’ or real public health and justice problem? What were the linguistic and psychological implications of these dissonant narratives?
After decades of experimentation, surveys have become more refined, yet ‘Letting a woman tell her own story’ doesn’t necessarily resolve the discrepancies: half of women describing acts legally-defined as rape still did not consider it to be rape. It is when acts are described explicitly that rape estimates increase.
Bonnie Fisher comments that how people construct incidents ‘may be a large, not a small, source of “measurement error” in how people respond to questions.’ The implications are heavy, ‘For virtually any other crime (e.g., larceny, burglary, robbery), the idea of measuring objective, rather than socially constructed, reality would raise barely a ripple of concern.’
The early feminist estimates have been consistently confirmed in the US by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and in the UK by the Office for National Statistics. In 2016 the BJS published a survey which found that 20 per cent of students had been sexually assaulted since entering college, and 34 per cent during their lifetime. In the UK, in 2016 the Office of National Statistics published the first official breakdown of on children and rape statistics derived from the National Crime Survey. (The ONS updated its child sexual abuse findings in 2019). The breakdown showed that 30 per cent of rape victims are children
Furedi didn’t get it. But ‘It looks as though our ‘concoction’ was not too far off the mark,’ commented Mumsnet.