Stephen Fry, which child sexual abuse victim do you think changed their mind about trigger warnings when you told them to ‘grow up’?

In an interview with Dave Rubin on the American talk show ‘Rubin Report’ yesterday, the writer, actor, presenter, and all round national treasure Stephen Fry decided that “self pity” by survivors of child sexual abuse was an appropriate target for his ire.

First published by Independent Voices, 12th April 2016

In an interview with Dave Rubin on the American talk show ‘Rubin Report’ yesterday, the writer, actor, presenter, and all round national treasure Stephen Fry decided that “self pity” by survivors of child sexual abuse was an appropriate target for his ire.

Fry’s argument focused on censorship and the “deep infantilism” he perceives in today’s society. The discussion included mentions of the unsuccessful Oxford University petition to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes and the application of so-called “trigger warnings” to literature.

Fry remarked that many great plays contain scenes of rape and murder, including Shakespearian classics such as Titus Andronicus and Macbeth. “They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly,” Fry said, “but if you say you can’t watch this play… [because] it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I’m sorry.

“It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self pity gets none of my sympathy. Self pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. Just grow up.”

The language Fry uses is so utterly patronizing that it strips his wider points, about the inability of some to engage with complex issues, of any real value. To belittle someone’s childhood experience of being abused by a family member and reduce it to ‘uncle touched you in a nasty place’ is deeply callous and irresponsible.

Fry is a well-respected public figure, an entertainer and an intellectual. For anyone who has suffered a sexual trauma, in childhood or adulthood, to hear him tell them to “grow up”, that they are “unlikeable” if they have not come to terms with what happened to them, that their emotions are “ugly”, is hugely damaging.

Survivors of sexual abuse aren’t waiting around hoping that Fry will feel sorry for them. They are trying to heal and get on with their lives, without being constantly reminded of the event. Which is why trigger warnings are sometimes useful.

Not everyone who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder or has been a victim of a crime such as rape feels that trigger warnings are necessary or helpful. That’s because all people are different. Some feel that trigger warnings imply a sense of fragility and make subjects more difficult to broach; others, as the writer Laurie Penny stated in an essay for the New Statesman, describe trigger warnings as facilitating openness and debate, and allowing people to make adult decisions about what’s best for their mental wellbeing.

Deciding that you’re not ready to engage with a book, a film, a play or a social situation that could cause a panic attack or prompt flashbacks, or be otherwise damaging to your mental health, is an example of self care.

Survivors of trauma and abuse are not cry babies or whiners. They are not interested in shutting down debate or limiting artistic expression where it relates to taboo issues. In fact, it is in the interest of survivors that we do create and discuss culture that explores traumatic events. One of the best ways to combat rape is to educate others about the reality of rape; exploring rape in film, literature and on television in a way that doesn’t titillate the viewer, but focuses on the effect on the victim and their process of recovery, is one way to do that.

Fry’s comments about our tendency to approach issues in a black and white way, unable to handle the slightest hint of complexity, are worth discussing. We are all infantilised by reductionist debates around issues such as immigration, the EU, the penal system and the threat of terrorism, and when we’re exposed to reporting on the attire of politicians rather than their policies. This shuts down debate far more often than using trigger warnings.

Fry has done much in his career to raise awareness about mental illness through his candour about his diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. Surely he can see that comments such as “grow up” and “stop feeling sorry for yourself” repeat exactly the language used to shame those managing mental health problems throughout their lives, as he has campaigned against?

 

OK So the Sexual Violence in Game of Thrones has Gone Too Far

I LOVE Game of Thrones. I wear my GoT t-shirt to bed, and I watch the show religiously every week. I love the nuanced characters, figures that you can’t completely love or hate. I love the brave, expansive storylines. I love the opulent costumes and the show’s compulsive watchability.

 First published by The Debrief, 19th May 2015

I’m going to start this piece with a disclaimer: if you haven’t seen the latest episode of Game Of Thrones, then there are spoilers ahead. And I LOVE Game of Thrones. I wear my GoT t-shirt to bed, and I watch the show religiously every week.  I love the nuanced characters, figures that you can’t completely love or hate. I love the brave, expansive storylines. I love the opulent costumes and the show’s compulsive watchability.

I don’t love how the show presents sexual violence.

After Sansa Stark’s rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton in last night’s episode, I’m even more convinced that Game of Thrones isn’t on the side of women than I was already, and that it will continue to use sexual violence as a plot device to generate cheap thrills for its audience. Sansa has already suffered a humiliating, abusive engagement and marriage to everyone’s favourite little king, Joffrey. Do we really need to see her degraded by Ramsay Bolton too?

The TV show has once again deviated from the books, in which Sansa did not marry Ramsay, instead remaining with Littlefinger to hone her powers and learn more about the manipulation necessary to survive the brutal world in which the show is set. Ramsay took a local girl pretending to be Arya Stark as his wife, and proceeded to torture and abuse her. Replacing this local girl with Sansa is not just a way to bunch together overly-complex storyline – it has created another harrowing scene of unnecessary sexual violence, and stripped Sansa of the new-found power she was able to build with Littlefinger during her time in the Vale.

As a survivor of sexual violence, I find Game of Thrones very difficult to watch, at times. This is not because sexual violence occurs in the programme, but has more to do with how rape and sexual assault are presented; I don’t think rape should never be shown on TV or film or in fiction, but I wish that rape was not trivialised by the writers in a bid to make their show more ‘shocking’ and boost ratings.

If we look back at previous episodes, it is clear that sexual violence is employed in Game of Thrones as no more cheap titillation, with the devastating consequences neatly glossed over in favour of another battle or a raunchy sex scene. The effect that rape has on survivors is never shown.

In Season 4, Cersei is raped purely for entertainment, by her lover and brother Jamie Lanister. Cersei and Jamie have sex in that particular scene in the book, but it’s consensual sex. The rape of Cersei was added by HBO for no other reason than to pack more ‘punch’ into the episode. The effect of the assault on Cersei is not explored, and why would it be? That’s not the interesting part, right?

When Prince Oberyn Martell and his mistress are choosing sex workers in a brothel, one of the selected women clearly isn’t excited about the prospect of a threesome. Oberyn pulls off her tunic anyway, baring a naked body, shaking with terror. The woman isn’t forced into sex, as Oberyn’s mistress remarks that ‘timid bores her’, but who was the full-frontal shot of the frightened woman for? We can only assume that it was for viewers, who are meant to enjoy the nudity and the scene, flavoured with the threat of sexual violence.

There’s the moment when Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane enter a tavern to see the proprieter’s daughter assaulted, and no one does anything to help her. She’s never seen again. Her pain and humiliation are just a quick way of showing the audience that the king’s soldiers are dangerous. Don’t forget Joffrey’s sexualized killing of Ros and the two prostitutes that he forces to torture one another, the rape of Craster’s daughters at the hands of mutinous Night Watchmen, or the rape of Danerys by her husband Khal Drogo.

The fact that many of these scenes of sexual violence (Cersei, Sansa, and Ros) were manufactured solely for the television show, really does suggest that they are being used cynically to make the programme more ‘gritty’ and ‘adult’. Unfortunately, this means that Game of Thrones is guilty of trivializing rape, in a world that already trivializes rape to a disgraceful extent. As uncomfortable as it might feel to address this, we live in a rape culture, where victims are routinely not believed, shamed by others, blamed for their own assault, subjected to ‘edgy’ jokes about rape, and told that some rapes are more valid or serious than others. There are thousands of women who have experienced sexual assault sitting and watching Game of Thrones, and it does them the disservice of reducing their nightmare into cheap television. The gratuitous nature of sexual violence on the show makes it commonplace, expected. It encourages people to debate at work in the morning whether one rape ‘really was rape’ or whether it was ‘as bad as’ another rape on the show.

In April last year, Danielle Henderson wrote in an article for The Guardian that she was giving up Game of Thrones because she was “exhausted by the triumph of men at the expense of women as a narrative device”. I feel her frustration. Sansa had already been through terrible trauma with Joffrey, the continuation of this trauma in Winterfell with Ramsay serves only to paint him as a more terrible character. Sansa’s violated body is just a vehicle for this.

Moreover, anyone crying ‘historical accuracy’ needs to take a long look at themselves and the show. Game of Thrones is in no way historically accurate. It’s fantasy. It has dragons, white walkers, children who can possess men and animals, magical green ‘wildfire’, and ghosts that kill people. If it was historically accurate, most of the characters would have already died from gout or dysentery.

Reek may have been forced to watch Sansa’s rape last night, but none of us tuning in for the latest episode were under pressure to do so. We watched because we wanted to, and it’s more than a little disturbing that the show’s writers seem to be offering up scenes that trivialize sexual violence because they think that’s what viewers want to see.

Rolling Stone have let down survivors of rape with a staggering failure of investigative journalism

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published a horrifying account of a gang rape on the University of Virginia’s campus, allegedly perpetrated by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

First published by Independent Voices 8th April 2015

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published a horrifying account of a gang rape on the University of Virginia’s campus, allegedly perpetrated by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The article detailed the university’s callous self-preservation tactics and the self-interested responses of the victim’s friends on the night of her alleged assault. It was shocking, sickening and an explosive example of the rape culture that saturates American (and British) campuses. The only problem? The story wasn’t true.

Within days of the piece’s publication, commentators questioned its veracity, and the Washington Post uncovered details that ascertained that events could not have taken place as the Rolling Stone article described. ‘A Rape on Campus’ has been formally retracted, and on Sunday the Colombia Graduate School of Journalism report, compiled by Pulitzer-winning journalist and dean Steve Coll and commissioned by Rolling Stone itself, was published. The Colombia report examines in great detail the journalistic failings that lead to the story being released without proper verification of the facts and without giving all the parties depicted in the piece a chance to tell their sides of the story.

This makes me angry. I’m angry because what should have been a rigorous journalistic investigation has succeeded in drawing more attention to false allegations of rape and diverting focus from the problem of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. I’m angry because veteran reporters, editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone should have known better than to rely on a single source to carry and verify a complex story that alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of UVA students and neglect on the part of the university administration. I’m angry as a survivor of sexual assault, who knows the crushing hopelessness and despair that accompanies not being believed, and who also knows that every line of print devoted to false allegations makes it that little bit more difficult for people to come forward and report rape.

When campus rapes and assaults happen, and they do happen with alarming regularity (the US Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 5 women will be victims of sexual assault on campus), and when universities fail to protect victims of sexual assault, it is the responsibility of journalists to report on them in a sensitive and ethical manner. This means checking all the facts and contacting every person involved to allow them to tell their stories and uncover major inconsistencies. If Rolling Stone had contacted the three friends of ‘Jackie’ who met her after the alleged assault took place, or Jackie’s lifeguard date who allegedly orchestrated the assault, perhaps the damage done by Jackie’s false story could have been entirely avoided.

Rolling Stone’s apology acknowledges that the magazine let down its readers and has damaged the reputations of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. The magazine has also let down survivors of rape, of which there are estimated to be 85,000 in Britain every year and 300,000 in the USA (a low estimate). Every media source that wittingly, or in the case of Rolling Stone, unwittingly, publicises false allegations of sexual assault is making a major contribution to rape culture.

Rape culture means that rape and sexual assault are normalized and we are taught ‘not to get raped’ rather than ‘not to rape’. Rape culture is created through victim blaming, rape jokes, street harassment, myths about ‘blurred lines’ around the issue of consent, and through the relentless focus on the small proportion of falsely reported rapes. In reality, the malicious false reporting of sexual assault is not common.

Studies suggest that false reporting rates for rape are no different from false reporting rates for any other crime (around 4 per cent).The Crown Prosecution service has published a report stating that false rape reporting is ‘very rare’ and could make up less than 1 per cent of all reports.

The frightening thing is that the hostile responses in light of the Colombia report are so predictable. Many will use Jackie’s false allegations as an example of how women lie about rape and how victims cannot be believed. The debacle is prime ammunition for Men’s Rights Activists and others who seek to deny that rape culture exists and paint victims as manipulative and untrustworthy. I will not speculate on why ‘Jackie’ fabricated her story or write angrily to blame her, but Rolling Stone’s failure to confirm the accuracy of their story is indefensible.

There are so many women (and some men) who have real accounts of sexual assault to share. We cannot allow this staggering failure of investigative journalism to further silence real victims of rape and sexual assault.

It’s not just banter: the epidemic of sexism on university campuses

University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture.

First published by Open Democracy, 10th March 2015
I was on a Manchester Magic Bus at 11:30 on a Friday night. It was packed with boozy students, travelling from the student district of Fallowfield to the city centre for a night on the town. I usually try not to take too much notice of what’s going on around me on the bus, but it was so noisy that I had no choice but to pay attention.
A young man was standing in the middle of the lower deck of the bus, taking a selfie. When asked why, he shouted that he wanted to ‘get the freak in the picture’, referring to a girl sitting behind him who was dressed in a steampunk-style ensemble. The guy’s friends found this absolutely hysterical, and suddenly it felt like the entire bus was laughing at one girl, dressed differently, sitting alone, her head bent and cheeks scarlet. The young man responsible took his seat again and proceeded to show his mates pictures of girls he had allegedly slept with, shouting sexual details about them, while the group loudly rated them out of ten.
It wasn’t a huge incident, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’d witnessed bullying, pure and simple, of a girl on her own by a loud-mouthed sexist who had no qualms about sharing pictures of and intimate details about girls he’d *maybe* bedded. His behaviour and that of his friends turned the public space of the bus into their space, where they could bully and behave like sexist dicks with impunity. It felt like an unpleasant microcosm of the worst of student behaviour; where the privileged control a space that’s meant to be for everyone, and show utter disrespect for women and anyone who is different from them.
University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The prevalence of sexist attitudes of campus and the quotidian nature of harassment and assault means that the university experience is sullied for many attendees.
There is an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault occurring on university campuses across Britain and it must be recognised and dealt with as a matter of urgency. One in five women in the UK are victims of sexual offences, and one in three female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances or sexual assault, yet universities seem reluctant to deal with the sexism rooted in campus culture, like a malignant cancer.
University lecturers are not exempt and can contribute to the drip, drip of sexism that students are exposed to. Hanna* attended a prestigious film school, where female students were told to ‘marry rich, girls’ during a talk on how to set up a successful business. Tutors would also refer to some male producers are ‘difficult’ while difficult female producers were ‘ugly’ or ‘bitches’.
Jess* was raped in her second year of university, by her boyfriend, while she slept. “At the time, I knew what he’d done was wrong, but I wasn’t brave enough to call it rape. At 20, I saw rape as a very black-and-white situation- I pictured rape as women having to be held down and screaming, – and I thought maybe it didn’t count.”
She didn’t report the experience because she didn’t think the university administration would take it seriously. “So many people are judgemental, and do see rape victims as attention seekers or lovers of drama, and I am still too scared to face what others think of me.” The toxic nature of rape culture at university means that rape is treated as a source of amusement and in some cases, the police and university admin figures are complicit in silencing students who have been assaulted. The majority of sexual assaults in Britain are not reported, with 80% of participants in a 2012 Mumsnet survey choosing not to go to the police.
I can’t talk about campus sexism without mentioning ‘lad culture’. The NUS’‘That’s What She Said’ report on campus sexism explores the nature and impact of lad culture more comprehensively than I am able to in this article, but a few points bear repeating. One of the key aspects of lad culture is a focus on sexist ‘banter’, speaking about female students (particularly female sports players) in a denigrating and disrespectful way, and making women feel excluded and unwelcome in public and campus spaces. The more that female students are dehumanised and viewed as things rather than people, the easier it is for male students to justify acts of sexual abuse and violence. The NUS research shows that 50 per cent of participants in the study identified ‘prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment’ at the universities they attend.
Let’s not forget the famous Uni Lad article entitled ‘Sexual Mathematics’ that included this: “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink… won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds … Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise’.” Or the Oxford University Ruby Club email that encouraged members to spike the drinks of their fresher dates.
Arriving at university as a fresher, I was warned about second and third year boys ‘sharking’ on newbie girls, as getting to ‘fuck a fresher’ gained them serious ‘points’. My male fresher friends were given no such advice. Throughout my three years of undergraduate, I laboured under the misapprehension that in a club, it was totally normal to be groped by strangers, and to move around the venue with friends, ‘hiding’ from the guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Now, I feel horrified and upset that a stranger grabbing my body uninvited was just a regular part of a night out.
‘Lad culture’ on campus is often excused as harmless, as simple bonding among male students, or as ironic ‘banter’. Some dismiss critics of lad culture as classist, attacking a particular strain of working class male behaviour, when in reality lad culture has very little to do with social class. I attended an overwhelmingly privileged university, where proponents of lad culture were largely privately educated and wealthy.
When Lucy* moved to university, it was the first time she’d lived away from home. “A couple of weeks in, I met this second year guy, and we started seeing each other casually. Then one night, a couple of months in, I was out for a friend’s birthday and he said he had loads of friends staying and they were continuing the night at his, and I should come back too. I’d stayed at his before, and he always made sure I got home safe, so I thought it would be fine.
After we all hung out for a while, we got set up for the night. It was like a proper sleep over, with all the guys in sleeping bags and everything on the floor. I got to sleep in the bed with the guy I was seeing. Lucky me.
It was the guy I was seeing and his best friend who raped me, with four other guys in the room, none of whom stepped in to help me. At one point, I vaguely remember one of them telling me to shut up crying because they were trying to sleep. The guy I was seeing actually asked his mate “are you finished with her?”, and then handed me his joggers to sleep in.”
Lucy says that the bullying that followed was worse than the assault itself. “The guys in the room told everyone that I had slept with these two guys in front of everyone. It got back to my flatmates. The male flatmates were the worst. I stopped going out, but when they went out they would get home and shout abuse through my door. They would make loud sex noises outside my room, screaming my name, and the name of the guy who had raped me.
Sometimes they even had one guy being the rapist, and the other screaming and crying, obviously meant to be me. They wrote insults on all my stuff, like if I left notebooks of uni work in the kitchen, I would get it back later with the word “slut” scrawled all over the front. They drew obscene drawings onto post it notes and stuck them all over my bedroom door. Some of these drawings would actually be accurate to how the guys had pinned me down on the bed.”
Lucy’s story is horrific and it is not unique. A third of male university students said that they would rape a woman if there were no consequences involved.
University campuses should be spaces of academic growth that are comfortable and welcoming for all students, not just the white, heterosexual male portion of them. As a response to sexism and lad culture, some young women join in with misogynistic banter and harassment, perhaps so that they don’t feel at risk of being on the receiving end of it. Others become withdrawn, policing their own behaviour, not speaking out in seminars, avoiding social activities and moderating the way they dress. Some victims of sexual assault, like Lucy drop out of their courses altogether. Oxford and Cambridge’s ‘consent classes’ are a step towards creating a healthy culture where enthusiastic consent is viewed by all students as an essential part of sex, but more needs to happen, and more quickly.
It’s time to put an end to this pervasive atmosphere of exclusion and harassment on campus, to stand up to every inch of the sliding scale of sexism and encourage university tutors, administrators and union reps to do the same. Sexism, harassment, misogyny and abuse should have no place in higher education and both male and female students need to stand shoulder to shoulder against it.
*names have been changed to protect identities

What Are MPs Doing About Street Harassment?

First published by The Backbencher, 22nd May 2014

If you’re female and reading this article, you’ve probably experienced some form of street harassment. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing or how much of a hurry you seem to be in. Street harassment is thoroughly ingrained in the existence of millions of women and girls across the UK. Both myself and my younger sister experience street harassment at least once a week.

If you’re not convinced about the widespread nature of the problem, log on to Twitter and peruse Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project. It currently has 144,000 followers and receives thousands of tweets every week, from men and women who want to share their daily experiences of sexual harassment and abuse.
One woman describes returning to her building after grocery shopping and being told by two men that they would help her carry her bags if she ‘showed them her tits’. Another woman was shouted at from a van: ‘I’d fuck you!’. When walking home with her young son, a woman was confronted by a man who told her that he was ‘going to get inside her’. From girls in their school uniforms, to lesbians, disabled women and cancer suffers, the stories of harassment and assault abound. Women do not ‘invite’ these comments with their attire, as there are as many stories of women being harassed in running gear, business suits and baggy jeans as there are of women experiencing the same behaviour in party dresses or clubwear.
Street harassment doesn’t just include catcalls, whistles and sexual comments. It also encompasses being grabbed, groped and otherwise touched inappropriately in the street. An official report in 2013 showed than one in five women over the age of 16 has been the victim of a sexual offence. The hashtag #grabbed is currently providing a space for women to recount their experiences of being physically molested in public spaces.
The idea that street harassment should be ‘taken as a compliment’ or experienced as ‘flattering’ has gone on too long. This concept has been encouraged by men who have never experienced sexual harassment, men who wish to normalize their actions, and the misguided comments of Vice columnist Paris Lees. Any woman who has refused to respond or spoken back when faced with a comment or catcall knows that the intention of the harasser is not to flatter. All too often, the whistles turn quickly into abusive and aggressive remarks. Laura Bates describes an incident where two men stared at her breasts and one turned to the other to remark ‘I’d take a knife to that’.
One of the most disturbing things about the prevalence of catcalls and sexualized comments is that it helps to create a culture where women’s bodies are ‘fair game’, objects in a public arena that can be judged and remarked upon in an aggressive sexual manner. If men feel as if they have the right to make sexualized judgements ‘I’d do her’ in public, the bodily autonomy of the woman in question is compromised. Sexual offences including grabbing, groping and serious assault are more likely to occur, and women are in turn less likely to report them, as they simply become part of an ugly tapestry of harassment that unfolds on a daily basis. Laura Bates describes the ‘background noise of harassment and disrespect’ as inextricably linked to ‘the assertion of power that is violence and rape’.
What are our current MPs doing about the prevalence of street harassment? The answer to this question appears to be ‘very little’. Maria Miller, the former minister for Women and Equalities hardly made a ripple when it came to women’s issues and voted to reduce the upper limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks. The current Minister for Women is Nicky Morgan, who voted against the legalization of gay marriage and is described as being ‘moderately against’ gay legislation by the website TheyWorkForYou which records the voting records of politicians. I don’t believe that we can expect any meaningful discussion on the issue of street harassment from Morgan, who only appears to represent heterosexual women. It’s worth remembering that members of the LGBTQ+ community report higher levels of harassment in public spaces, according to research from stopstreetharassment.com.
Let’s hope that Stella Creasy, the outspoken and highly articulate Labour MP for Warmslow will be encouraged to spearhead the discussion about street harassment. Creasy has received her share of death and rape threats via Twitter for raising her voice on issues like the inclusion of a famous woman on Britain’s banknotes. Until then, we must keep #ShoutingBack about our experiences of harassment without shame, and educate the men in our lives about the importance of respect. A catcall is not a compliment.