In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:
As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)
In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.
The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.
These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.
I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.
This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.
Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?
This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.
I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.
I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.
Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.
I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.
Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.
We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.
I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.
I found this extremely interesting as a 21 year old male who would also describe myself as a feminist. As such, I’ve found much in Suzanne Moore and Kira Cochrane’s articles that I agree with – particularly about men in positions of authority needing to do more when complaints are made. I also think there’s a long, long way to go in enlightening male attitudes towards women. My problem with their articles, however, is that I don’t understand what Moore et al believe I should be doing as a young, feminist male – I’d love to be able to write a column for The Guardian about how disgusting I find the treatment of women in everyday life, and especially in these sex abuse cases, or about how disturbing I find some of my male contemporaries’ attitudes towards women but not all of us are lucky enough to be able to write about our convictions for a living, or (as someone who has for student magazines etc) have the kind of reach they enjoy! As such, I feel as if I am being told by someone with the means to reach people with a feminist message that I’m not doing enough without really understanding what I’m expected to do to prove that I find the things Hazell, Hall, Savile and Bridger did absolutely abhorrent – I’m certainly not hiding my disgust at what they did so why does Moore assume otherwise?
There was a particularly illuminating quotation in the Guardian on Alice Eve http://tetrarchangel.tumblr.com/post/50411206877/last-time-zoe-needed-to-wear-underwear-and-this – which was a moment that vexed me greatly also. There are clinical psychological links between the ‘little things’ like objectification and the big things that you discuss in this article. (e.g. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0092656685900212 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ab.20328/abstract ) and also the attitudes of society towards rape and sexual assault.
Thanks Andrew, you made me cry but it’s a great article-as usual! I love your honesty-it’s very brave in these blaming times.
I am a female feminist (Who’s not afraid to be called a feminist), and so many articles are just blaming men, or blaming all women as ‘people who hate men’ just for bringing up what may be termed “feminist” issues. This is a brilliant post because it doesn’t take either direction. I have been trying to explain to my mother what I mean by the “Partiarchy”, and for me it’s the idea at the end of the post – that a partiarchy is when women are demeaned just because that’s what’s expected. Most men aren’t out to get women (or vice versa). The fact that many people (of both genders) are afraid to use the term feminist because it seems to imply a hated of men. To me it means wanting equality, not to be “Better” or “Worse”.
Today’s iPm programme on Radio 4 included an interview with a woman who used to work with sex offenders, which makes an interesting lesson for the less histerically inclined.
Maybe I need to condemn a little more and understand a little less. But we won’t deal with this problem simply by condemning those involved – well, it certainly hasn’t worked up to now anyway. I doubt that men who abuse and/or kill women or children are unaware that they’ve done something they shouldn’t have. I doubt they didn’t know beforehand that they were going to do something they shouldn’t. This idea – this urge – is a secret they carry with them. I’d imagine it’s a guilty secret because I daresay they read the newspapers like everyone else. We all know what people who harbour those sort of thoughts are, right?
We’re animals. For all the progress that we assure ourselves we’ve made, men are still cocks prancing around in front of women who don’t always have to feign indifference. And male insecurity is a killer. I don’t know what we can do to change that.
There *is* a link between sexism and unspeakable acts in that they’re both carried out by men. But I don’t think it’s cause and effect: they’re both symptoms of the same thing(s). It’s over-simplifying things to say some men hate women. Or at least, I’m sure that isn’t the root of the problem, because there are reasons some men hate women. I suspect some of those reasons lie in our animal nature and some are nurtured.
I hate sexism and I’d hate to think I’d abused anyone. But equally, whatever it is sport offers, I don’t need it; I’d walk away rather than fight anyone; my penis may be at the front but it isn’t leading; and I’m not hung up on some weird concepts of “respect” and “losing face” that I can’t even begin to understand. I’m not a “real man”.
Like I said, I don’t know what’s nature and what’s nurture. I was born into the same world as my peers and I don’t believe I was ever going to see things the way most of them do. But when all’s said and done, men are men and women are women – nature certainly had a hand in *that*. As a famously shit philosopher once said, we’re equal but different.
Stamping out sexism and porn won’t stop stars trekking into darkness – or anyone else come to that. But I suspect that anything that will is actually too awful to contemplate. As an alternative, perhaps we need to try to better understand and accept just who and what we really are, both as individuals and as a society. But I’m not sure exactly what The Sun’s role in that is going to be…
A well thought out piece, as usual. We are not quite the same age, but close enough. Thinking back to my school days, I remember the Peter Adamson trial, and the tabloid coverage thereof. At the time, it became trendy to use “Len” or “Lennie” as an insult at my school, in much the same way I imagine “paedo” might be bandied about now.
What I didn’t, or rather couldn’t, remember – because I didn’t know it in the first place – is that Peter Adamson was acquitted. If you’d asked me before reading this what I knew about Adamson I’d have said that he was an actor in Coronation St who got busted in the 80s for doing something horrendous… but then I guess his acquittal would have garnered a lot less column inches in the tabloids.