Progressive social change should be about empowering people to challenge group cultures, writes Joyce McMillan
ON A cold winter’s day in Preston, the Coronation Street actor William Roache faces the media outside the Crown Court, and thanks all those who supported him in the long weeks and months leading up to his acquittal, yesterday morning, on five charges of rape and sexual assault, dating back to the 1960s and 70s.
Roache and his family must have been delighted by the verdict; and millions of Coronation Street fans, who have been watching Bill Roache play Ken Barlow for a record-breaking 54 years, will share their feelings.
Yet as Roache himself said, in his brief statement to the press, in these situations there are no real winners. Even if Roache has been formally exonerated, the charges against him cannot be wiped from the public memory. And as for his accusers – well, the verdict has essentially branded these five women as liars or fantasists, alleging abusive encounters that never took place; as a legacy to live with, this is harsh beyond what most of us can imagine.
The case represents a single eloquent example, in other words, of the paradox that surrounds all allegations of sexual abuse; that in the absence of witnesses, or material physical evidence, juries – or the court of public opinion – are simply left to decide which of two narratives to believe. This week alone, we have seen the Chuckle Brothers stand up in court to defend the good character of the disc-jockey Dave Lee Travis, also accused of sexually abusive behaviour dating back several decades. We have seen Dylan Farrow, daughter of Woody Allen’s former wife, repeat her allegations that Allen sexually abused her as a child. We have seen an angry United Nations report directed against the Catholic church for its widespread failure to protect children from sexual abuse by priests, or to bring those abusers to justice.
And here in Scotland, we have seen Rape Crisis Scotland express disappointment with the justice committee of the Scottish Parliament, which this week failed to approve justice minister Kenny MacAskill’s plan to do away with the historic corroboration rule in Scottish criminal cases.
Rape Crisis Scotland has been among the leading campaigners for the end of corroboration, since rape is by nature a crime usually carried out in the absence of any third person; only 10 per cent of rape cases reported in Scotland ever make it into court, and fewer than a third of those result in a successful conviction.
There is, in other words, a kind of slow-burning crisis sweeping through western culture, in which societies which may traditionally have tolerated or ignored high levels of disprespect towards women, and of mild or even serious sexual harrassment of women and children, are now reviewing their past behaviour in the light of a very different set of values.
That there are dangers implied in this process is obvious. Where children are not involved, it contains an element of retrospective justice, and of social and moral goalpost-shifting about male-female relationships, that is bound to make students of justice uneasy. And in all cases, it makes the judicial process itself extremely difficult, since the lapse of time since the alleged offences took place opens those making the accusations to a very high chance of failure, and of being disbelieved.
Yet still, the genie of women’s anger about what they were once expected to tolerate will not be put back into the bottle; and it might perhaps help to sharpen this debate if everyone involved were to focus more clearly on ensuring a better future for all those vulnerable to sexual abuse, rather than trying to right the countless wrongs of the past. Where accusations are made, for example, the prosecuting authorities should not allow themselves to be panicked by the intensity of public scrutiny – particularly following the Jimmy Savile revelations – into bringing prosecutions which have such a low chance of success as in the William Roache case.
In Scotland, we should be supporting and empowering women so that they feel able to report crimes of sexual assault promptly, and to provide strong material evidence; rather than abolishing a corroboration rule which is such a strong general safeguard against miscarriages of justice.
And in our wider society, the fact is that every one of us can act, in ways that will cumulatively make a real difference. It’s obvious, after all – from the details revealed in the current spate of allegations against showbusiness figures – that where this kind of abuse took place, it took place as part of a culture, and of a group ethos, where people saw this kind of exploitative sexual behaviour as normal, acceptable, and fun. And it’s therefore equally clear that progressive social change should be about empowering people to challenge group cultures that talk and behave in this way, from both outside and within.
This is not easy, of course; and some would argue that in the past 15 years of backlash against second-wave feminism, a culture of equality and mututal respect between men and women has actually lost ground, rather than gaining it.
Yet still, cultural change is possible. Women today are more willing and able to speak out against abuse than at any time in history; and increasingly, their male friends, comrades and partners are willing to support them, and to disassociate themselves from a “lad” culture that sees women as objects of hatred, mockery and abuse.
Long ago, something in the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s – a confusion between freedom and mere licence, a sudden rush of power and fame without a matching ethic of responsibility – gave a generation of successful men permission to behave badly. They should have resisted that trend, and where it can be proved that they committed crimes, they should be held to account.
The rest of us, though, should keep our eyes on the future prize of a society that never looks like giving that permission again; a society that protects its children without fail, that holds true to the idea of sex as something rich and joyful that should take place between consenting adults, and that empowers every man and woman to make their own free and equal choices, about who makes love to whom, and when, and how.