The reaction to Sarah Champion’s statement shows we are still more willing to sacrifice girls than to undergo a little discomfort in stopping predators.
It’s been over a week now since Sarah Champion, MP and former Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, was forced to resign following comments she made in an article in The Sun. Champion stated that “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.” She went on to write that “For too long we have ignored the race of these abusers and, worse, tried to cover it up. No more. These people are predators and the common denominator is their ethnic heritage.” Her frustration with the issue grows more evident, as she goes on to write, “….by not dealing with the ethnicity of the abusers as a fact, political correctness has actually made the situation about race”. Following the predictable outcry over this piece, Ms. Champion apologised for her ‘poor choice of words‘ and resigned.
In accepting her resignation, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has remarked ” Child exploitation is wrong. Child abuse is wrong. It is a crime, and it has to be dealt with. But you cannot blame an entire community, an entire nation or an entire ethnic community. You have to deal with it for the crime of what it is.”
However, that Ms. Champion was made to resign, following this article is beyond atrocious and an incredible betrayal of the victims of child sex abuse scandals in the UK. Here’s why.
Sarah Champion’s Statement Was Not A “Blanket Condemnation”
After decades of battles, feminists and advocates against sexual violence have coined the term ‘rape culture’. The term refers to a culture in which rape is not taught, but a long list of subtle acts, attitudes, beliefs and norms undermine the plight of the victim and reinforce the impunity of the perpetrators. This term is one of extremely wide application, one that faults the entire society. Undoubtedly, the term sets off considerable discontent and has led to discord within the feminist community, some of whom object to the application of the term to Western liberal societies. Angry men online, and self-styled men’s rights activists have taken up arms against the term and despise its usage. Yet by and large, the term has become a part of mainstream discourse on sexual violence, and with very good reason. Irrespective of whether every individual in a society actively contributes to rape or not – the term criticises and draws attention to the whole climate of sexual entitlement by males that campaigners believe engenders sexual violence.
Many of our societies, or pockets of society, are blamed en masse for creating environments with rampant sexual violence. One can argue about the accuracy or wisdom of the term, but the last time I checked, personalities were not being shunned from the public eye for using a phrasing that, admittedly, faults the whole of society. In fact, most people who are furious about the use of the ‘rape culture’ terminology appear to be under the impression that the term refers to a culture actively enticing men to rape, as opposed to its reference to seemingly innocent behaviours that in fact contribute to enabling sexual violence. It is a legitimate term, often used to encompass a whole range of behaviours, and is a necessary term to combat sexual violence.
What should also be painfully obvious is that it does not demonise the entire male half of the species. People who complain that it does are, quite frankly, so oblivious to the plight of the victims that they feel offended by a term that is purely generic, and not pointedly accusatory. They are also alarmingly ignorant about how generic terms are used as a linguistic device to refer to a typical, but in no way universal phenomena. For sexual violence campaigners therefore, the accusation put against Champion that her statement was a blanket condemnation of all Pakistani men is baffling.
“People who complain that generic terms demonise entire groups are so oblivious to the plight of the victims that they feel offended by a term that is purely generic, and not pointedly accusatory”
One may contend that ‘rape culture’ as a term faults all of society and is therefore not discriminatory. Across the ocean, another term has been enjoying the spotlight when it comes to sexual violence – ‘campus rape’, used to refer to alarmingly high incidence of sexual assaults on university campuses, and the terrible handling of such cases by campus authorities. Naturally, the term does not imply all college going males are rapists, nor is it an indictment of college campuses as a whole. The term serves the useful function of highlighting a very serious phenomenon within a larger societal problem. Except for prominent anti-feminists and far-right campaigners for male supremacy who attack anyone using these terms, by and large, prominent personalities are not forced into the background for using a broad based, general term. Campaigners against gender based violence have also vigorously advocated for common acceptance of the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ in understanding and thereby preventing ‘male’ violence. Certain rituals and habitual customs in the west have been frequently lampooned as contributing to this toxic culture. Ultimately, locating fault for a propensity to certain criminal behaviour in practices and regular lifestyles is not new, and has not been condemned.
If language that is wide-ranging and generic is not problematic, what is? Was it the mention of a sub-group of people, arguably identified by their ethnic heritage? India’s capital city, New Delhi, has become regrettably and openly referred to as the rape capital of India – a phrase that treats the denizens of Delhi as perhaps being more predatory and violent. An unflattering description, to be sure, but hardly one that evokes the same reaction against Champion. Why then must she face the barely suffused outrage and condemnation?
Reports about the high profile grooming scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale and Newcastle have indicated a commonality in terms of demographics, in that a majority of the guilty men are British Pakistani. Other reports with similar headlines don’t evoke such a response if it’s written by a non-white person. For a public servant to use language identifying the commonality hardly seems like reason for the outcry. The reaction is even more unwarranted because Ms. Champion’s statements are not entirely unfounded.
The furious responses to Ms. Champion’s piece, as well as the Labour leader’s reaction, all take exception to the fact that she tarred the whole community, or attributed blame to the entire community. This sounds very much like the #notallmen response that activists and women get as responses every time they try to locate the cause of violence against women in behaviour that may be *typically* male. An activist writes something to the effect of, ‘men / white males often….’ and there rises a veritable mob of hurt feelings and anger, accusing of homogenising the entire male half of the species (when in truth, the writer only sought to draw attention to significant common features). It is essential that we start identifying the distinction between a general group term (White, Arab, Coloured, Muslim, Christian etc) and a universal condemnation – such as ‘All…‘? In her interview to the BBC, Champion clearly identifies that the majority of the perpetrators are British Pakistani. Of course, her statement doesn’t demonise every single member of the community. No general statement does. To react like it does is silly and a side-effect of a society where everyone is furiously defensive of their group labels.
“It is essential that we start identifying the distinction between a general group term and a universal condemnation – typified by encompassing language like ‘All…‘”
Can we move past instinctive defensiveness in order to protect little girls?
The hardest truth and the most bitter pill to swallow in the discourse on sexual violence is the idea that horrible acts are not committed by deviants springing from the dark, and that they are not simply made that way. Sexual violence is almost entirely a result of socialisation, internalisation of harmful norms, and heightened ideas of sexual entitlement across the world. It is painful to acknowledge that our societies could be producing these monsters, but they do – everywhere. Calling attention to the societal context of the criminals isn’t just correct, it is vital. Again, Ms. Champion’s statement to the BBC clearly identified the need to carry out more research – whether it be racial, cultural, or if there is even more sinister and planned coordination. She astutely pointed out that if such common features were to be found in any other set of crimes, we’d be looking into it, commissioning research, finding out what, if anything, the observed commonality meant. In saying that, she was completely right – if a pattern is discerned, in terms of age group, location, or affiliation however irrelevant it may turn out to be, it has to be investigated and discussed.
Many have written eloquently about the purported fallout on the community in question, which arguably already faces alienation and discrimination and have blamed Ms. Champion for fuelling stigmatisation. Even if that were true, the controversy really boils down to society’s priorities. A putative backlash is deeply unfortunate, but in terms of priorities, the victims should occupy the top tier. Talking about sexual violence anywhere is hard. Since the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by males (on males and females), progress in the area has tended to focus on the male half of the species, a focus that they, quite reasonably, resent. Men (good men) are outraged and insulted when feminists and campaigners fault behaviours and acts in their daily life and despise them for tarnishing their identity of self. But here’s the thing – Men are uncomfortable, women are being raped. There is a fundamental imbalance in terms of impact here, one that must resolve itself in favour of the victims.
Why do I say this? We are finally at a point where we can openly discuss, and call for discarding of norms and subtle behaviours that enable sexual violence. Regrettable as it is, groups, communities and societies have to be rendered uncomfortable for a while. The same is true for any social evil where the whole of society bears the blame. There is, and will be a sense of unfairness on the part of the ‘good’ men. They will resent being suspected, sometimes being wrongly maligned. They will dislike the idea of having to be extra careful so that their actions are not misinterpreted. As a social being, I am sorry for it. As a woman worried about sexual violence against young girls, I accept its necessity.
If having a public conversation means that the lives of the community, of some young men, are going to be rendered a little more difficult – we have to be willing to pay that price. That is the battle that feminists have been, and are waging in 2017. To have the suffering of victims of gender based violence treated with the anguish it deserves, instead of sidelining it because of discomfort or fallout. It was a reluctance to fault standard behaviours and norms in a male dominated society that meant women have had to, until recently, endure marital rape, under-age marriage, lack of reproductive choices etc. Faulting the persons actually responsible would make men and their kin uncomfortable, and so women’s well-being has been thrown under the bus.
Witness the amount of media attention that has gone into discussing the community’s presumed difficulties rather than the plight of the young girls who were gang raped. The link may or may not turn out to be significant, which Ms. Champion acknowledges, but we are still more worried about potential damage in terms of perception to the community than in dismantling the dynamics that have led to the slew of sex abuse scandals and hopefully protecting others. Neither Ms. Champion, nor anyone else, suggested indiscriminate measures of profiling or of treating the group with suspicion – they are calling for a deeper look. Who is really being sacrificed here? A community? Or the hundreds of girls across the country?
One last point must be made. In openly calling Sarah Champion a racist, Areeq Chaudhury faulted her for drawing the link between the ethnic heritage or the religion of the perpetrators, decrying her for endangering them by doing so. But the question is, who created that link in the first place? Was it the perpetrators who typify the link through their gang associations and group activities? Or was it Ms. Champion, who pointed out the obvious? Facts relating to the link made were already being reported, and the general public was already coming to similar conclusions about the pattern. Is it the perpetrators who describe the victims as ‘white trash’ and ‘worthless’ to blame for introducing the racial angle, or is Ms. Champion? Who is really at fault, and why aren’t they angrier at the perpetrators who by their association have enabled the stigmatisation of the community?
The outrage from people such as Chaudhury and MP Naz Shah is also sadly, painfully hypocritical. Mr. Chaudhury faults Ms. Champion for potentially faulting the culture of the perpetrators, and bizarrely argues that the cultural values of no two people of the same ethnic heritage can be reduced to a common list. But writers from brown communities themselves are aware of the tendency of conservative cultures to view ‘white women’ as loose, easily available, and of condemnable sexual mores – a contempt that serves to usefully dehumanise them.
Terrible incidents are unfolding, and the girls should remain the priority. A few general words or sentiments are hardly earth shattering in light of the horror that is the grooming scandal. Even if such words do have negative effects, they must be balanced against the interests of understanding the phenomenon to prevent more abuse. Sarah Champion’s piece and interview was to draw attention to an issue the Rotherham MP clearly feels strongly about. To have forced her resignation is not only wrong, it is cowardly – and it will ensure that once again, the safety of women and girls is sacrificed to protect the feelings of men.
The victims should be the focus. Let’s leave no stone un-turned to ensure there are no more.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.