Thanks to Jenny Kemp for today’s substantial guest post. Jenny is the Coordinator of Zero Tolerance, a charity working to prevent men’s violence against women in all its forms but is writing this in a personal capacity. She is interested in feminism, equality and progressive politics, and is also interested in parenting and childcare issues, being a mum of two primary school aged children who frequently inspire her to fight sexism in all its guises. She tweets as @JennyKemp.
Bill Walker MSP has been feeling the media heat this week, as the row over whether he should continue as an MSP, in light of a series of allegations of domestic abuse and rape, rumbles on. Mr Walker feels that he has been the victim of a “media feeding frenzy” and an “orchestrated smear campaign”.
Despite the fact that he has admitted to using violence against one of his ex-wives (although he strongly denies assault), he has stated that he has no intention of resigning as an MSP, and having been expelled from his party he intends to continue as an independent nationalist.
I believe Mr Walker has behaved reprehensibly and should stand down. These allegations have fatally damaged his ability to be a credible representative, not least for women in Dunfermline, one in 5 of whom will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Parliament’s cross-party consensus against domestic abuse is undermined by elected members who do not embody that approach.
However, if it’s any consolation to Mr Walker, (though I have no wish to give him succour), the next misogynist will probably be along any minute and someone else will be feeling the heat. Men who don’t ‘get’ the seriousness, prevalence or nature of violence against women and yet who have privileged access to means to share their uninformed views are depressingly common in Scottish and British political life.
Think back to some other recent ‘media feeding frenzies’. In May 2011, Ken Clarke, the UK Government Justice Secretary, publicly stated that some rapes are real and serious but others including date rapes (and by implication, the 92% of rapes where the assailant is known to the complainant) are not ‘really’ rape. These remarks were incredibly crass and frustrating, but they were also important for illuminating that the man charged with promoting justice in England and Wales had such a limited understanding of the true nature of sexual violence.
Ken Clarke could have talked about the appallingly low rape conviction rate in England and Wales and the need to improve it, or tackled rape myths, or named the causes of sexual violence, but he chose to use his vast power and influence to harm the cause of justice for abused and violated women.
After calls for his resignation and a plethora of comment on his remarks, Mr Clarke was ‘forced to apologise’ and just as night follows day, the furore died down and the media moved onto the next story.
Just 3 months before, Bill Aitken MSP was forced by a wave of protest to resign his convenorship of the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee (although not his seat) for making ill-advised and frankly offensive remarks about a woman raped in Glasgow’s city centre.
Aitken had questioned why the woman, who had been raped in a Glasgow alleyway by two men, had had the temerity to be out in public in a city centre street, and implied that she might be a prostitute and by implication less deserving of public sympathy. He maintains he was misunderstood, and I gather he was angry about the way his private remarks were reported publicly and gathered momentum, staining his final weeks in the parliament before his retiral.
However, it was clear to many in the women’s sector (and beyond) that his remarks betrayed a clear misunderstanding of the prevalence, the severity and the brutality of rape, and of the location of blame for this horrific crime – at the door of the rapist. Aitken may have exited parliament feeling bruised and angry, but his injury is as nothing compared to those suffered by the women who are raped in Scotland every year, whose lives are altered forever. (In 2010-11, 1,131 rapes or attempted rapes were reported to police in Scotland, but rape is a very under-reported crime so the real number must be much higher).
Just days after Bill Aitken’s resignation, another minor scandal erupted as a Glasgow councillor was exposed as having made appalling remarks about a victim of child sexual abuse. Councillor William O’Rourke had, at a disciplinary panel meeting, launched into what was described by a police officer also at the meeting as “a rant on the age of consent and how it should be lowered, commenting on the promiscuity of children and their modern provocative dress sense”.
In discussing a nine year old girl whose care assistant was alleged to have raped her but who appealed, hence the panel meeting, O’Rourke suggested that she was not a typical innocent nine year old, that she seemed older than her years, and that it was not as bad to commit crimes of this nature on such a child. Let’s remind ourselves of the bare facts of this: he was a politician charged with playing a key role in a vulnerable child’s welfare. She was a nine year old child. A nine year old girl, who had complained of being raped by her care assistant, and who was accused by this politician of wanting it to happen.
Cllr O’Rourke was sacked from Strathclyde Police Authority, the personnel appeals committee and two other boards, but he remained a councillor. He remained part of the establishment, part of the power structure in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, his standing affected maybe, but in no proportion to the callousness of his remarks.
Politicians are by no means the only men of influence who fail to challenge violence against women and children. In June 2011, the Hearts football player Craig Thomson was convicted of indecent behaviour towards two girls of 12 and 14 and put on the sex offenders register. Did his football club, a hugely important part of the lives of many men and boys (and women and girls) in Edinburgh and beyond, instantly sack him? No, they issued a statement in his defence, citing “mitigating circumstances” and the player’s “naivety and possible wrong outside influence”. A second statement talked about mafia influences (“mafia are dragging kids into the crime” (sic)) on players.
It took the club until the 28 June, 11 days after the story of Thomson’s conviction broke, to finally suspend the player, and it wasn’t until 10 July that it confirmed he would be sacked. Cynics might believe the club acted in response to commercial sponsors’ withdrawal of support rather than an awakening that continuing to employ a convicted sex offender in a high profile job, where he was a role model for boys, was the wrong decision and sent out a message that minimised the seriousness of child sexual abuse.
So, having reminded ourselves of various men who have failed to challenge violence and abuse, I can’t help wondering, who will be next? Which MP, MSP, Councillor or celebrity will be the next to make a careless, unwitting, ill-thought remark which betrays their deep-rooted misogyny, their total lack of understanding of the issue, their lack of care for women who experience violence and abuse? Who will be next to defend their pal, their colleague or their employee who has perpetrated abuse as a ‘great guy’ whose behaviour was excused by circumstances or out of character?
Because, sadly, it goes without saying that there will be another Walker, Aitken, O’Rourke, Clarke or Romanov; another rich, powerful, white, middle-aged, stereotypically privileged man who just doesn’t get it.
What I hope is much less certain is that he (or very occasionally she – let’s not forget the deep sexism of Nadine Dorries MP, who has blamed girls for their own sexual abuse) will get away with it. Bill, William and Ken might be safe – although in the case of Mr Walker that’s by no means certain – but I hope that whoever next reveals he doesn’t know or care about men’s violence and abuse will not be left standing, so essentially undamaged by the ordeal. What kind of message would that send out to women seeking justice or recovery from domestic abuse or sexual violence? That the establishment is a safe place to hide if you are a bigot and a misogynist? That the male protection racket is alive and well? That, frankly, we don’t care? That’s not a message I find tolerable or acceptable.
Men of power and privilege have a vital role to play in the work against gender based violence. The vast majority of men never perpetrate any abuse, and many also refuse to ever condone or accept it; some men are actively engaging in challenging violence and abuse, for example the men involved in the White Ribbon Campaign. If we only ever involve women in tackling this problem, which is caused by men, we’ll never solve it. So it really couldn’t be more important for powerful and influential men who act as leaders and role models and who still have privileged power and access to decision making structures and to media outlets to say and do the right thing – to be allies in this work and not its underminers or opponents.
So – time to watch, and wait, and work to prevent another such incident. And in the meantime, if you are a man of power and privilege, please make sure it isn’t you.