Why this isn’t rape

Indigo Jo Blogs - 30 July, 2019 - 17:14
Warblington School, where Sean Aldridge was assistant deputy head and head of safeguarding

Yesterday a teacher in Havant, Hampshire (a small town near the south coast of England) was jailed for 12 years for engaging in sexual relations with four girl pupils, ranging in age from 13 to 16. He was convicted of 24 counts of sexual activity with a child which in one case resulted in a girl becoming pregnant and then miscarrying; in between the incidents themselves and their coming to light, he had been promoted to assistant head teacher and head of safeguarding. The girls themselves did not report the incidents until they were adults; the police had interviewed two of them between 2010 and 2012 but the teacher, Sean Aldridge, had persuaded them to lie to the police. The case has resulted in a familiar flood of complaints that the media report these cases using phrases like affairs, sexual relations or just sex rather than what the complainers believe it is, which is rape. Why isn’t it?

The simple answer is that, when sexual contact occurs and one party is between 13 and 15, or 13 and 17 where the older party is in a position of trust (such as a teacher, as was the case here), the legal term is “sexual activity with a child”. The term rape is used only where someone was forcibly penetrated or a competent person had sex with a person so impaired as not to know what was going on or who could not agree. When one party is below age 13, this would be automatically charged as rape under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, regardless of whether the older person knew the younger person’s age or not. I am guessing the reason is that, while a 14- or 15-year-old might be mistaken for a 16-year-old by someone a little bit older than 16, a 12-year-old could not be (although this defence has been used and in a case last year resulted in a man getting an absolute discharge). The same law introduced the higher age of consent where a teacher is involved; previously, the age of consent was 16 and so relations between teachers and sixth form pupils (or even fifth formers, in cases where they had been held back a year) were perfectly legal, while even in cases where both parties were underage and the boy was younger, the boy was committing a crime but the girl was not. The law was stuck in Victorian times and it was generally accepted that the situation had to change.

So, when the media uses phrases other than rape, they are reporting the story both factually and legally accurately. With the exception of cases where one party is under 13, British law has always used ‘rape’ to mean sex which is forced on someone, not where consent is legally invalid, because that is what rape has always meant in common parlance; the term has inherent connotations with violence. Many US jurisdictions use the term “statutory rape” to refer to such situations, but that is not the case here and never has been. The law recognises that under-16s have some degree of agency; the age of criminal responsibility, for example, is 10, not 16, although crimes other than murder committed by under-16s tend to be treated more leniently. If a 15-year-old could be sent to prison, even if he had been talked into the crime by an adult, it makes no sense that any sexual act involving them be assumed to be rape (especially by people who would also call it rape when a 15-year-old boy has sex with a 13-year-old girl).

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Review: The Left Behind

Indigo Jo Blogs - 23 July, 2019 - 22:20
Gethin, a young white man, sits on a sofa in a living room and a young woman sits on the arm looking at a mobile phone in his hand.Gethin shows his sister a video about a new housing development, in their old home before eviction

The Left Behind is an hour-long BBC Three drama in which a young man who is facing homelessness as a result of his family’s eviction and gets very rapidly groomed into racist violence, leading to a fatal attack on a halal butcher’s shop. The BBC’s blurb describes it as a “factual drama” and “a steel-tipped state of the nation drama based on deep research into the realities of life in ‘forgotten Britain’”; however, the drama, set in Cardiff, is fiction. There is an interview with the writer and director of the drama on the BBC’s website, in which they draw the connection between being stuck in the “gig economy” without secure housing and becoming involved in the Far Right. There is, however, a lot they left out about this process.

The central character is Gethin, who seems to be sleeping in his sister’s shed and using her bathroom, but they are being evicted as the landlord wants to put up the rent and are forced to move into a “family hostel”, which means they cannot take Gethin. Gethin is working in a halal fried chicken restaurant and has a Muslim female friend (who he may or may not imagine might become his girlfriend), but the council tell him they cannot house him as he is a single man with no dependents; they also tell his sister that they cannot house her family with him and that they should not consider him part of their family. There is a development being proposed in his area, but this turns out to be a private housing development at market rates where 30% is to be set aside for ‘affordable’ housing, which is clearly well beyond the means of most local people. At a meeting to discuss that development, a councillor pleads that she understands everyone’s predicament, which makes everyone more angry; as it progresses, people start to blame ‘others’, particularly Muslims, for the fact that they cannot get housed.

Gethin, a young white man wearing a black jacket and trousers and a red T-shirt sits on a red sofa in the street with a young South Asian woman who is wearing jeans and a yellow jacket. There is a concrete wall behind them, and a new red-brick house behind that.Gethin and his Asian friend, as her family move in

Gethin has a group of friends, two white men and one black woman (later revealed also to be gay; she accuses the Muslims of hating women and gays, meaning she would be ‘fucked’ on both counts) and is approached online by someone who accuses Muslims of “taking over”, of demanding Shari’ah law and various other things, and Gethin also hears a news report about a group of men convicted of grooming and abusing young girls. He gradually begins to use a lot of the same rhetoric with his friends and while meeting an officer at the housing office, he demands to know why ‘they’ are getting housed rather than him when this is “his town”. Eventually he gets together with three friends who don pig masks and attack a butcher’s shop and break windows. He is later recognised as one of the perpetrators and waylaid in the street at night by two Muslim men who beat him up and spit on him; he then gets together with three friends and they set fire to the butcher’s shop, resulting in the death of a man who was sleeping in the building at the time, unknown to them. At the end of the programme, he is being visited in prison by his sister, who begs to know whether he knew the man was in the shop.

I’m not a film critic and my critique of this drama will be about its core premise, not the quality of the acting or camera work, though I found the slow-motion filming of the attack on the butcher’s shop near the end to be confusing; I was not sure what Gethin was doing or where he was at any given time during that scene. I would have preferred that they just film it in “real time” as they did the rest of the programme. So, to come to my main issue with this programme: it gave too much weight to the idea that poverty breeds extremism and examined no other angles. Apart from the report about the grooming gang, the only other media we saw in the programme was a snippet of a BBC Question Time programme from Barking. We saw the ridiculous spectacle of someone going from having a Muslim best friend and really not exhibiting any racist tendencies to setting fire to a butcher’s shop after being approached by some unknown online, admittedly when he was at a difficult point in his life.

A South Asian man wearing white butcher's clothes, a red and white striped apron and blue plastic gloves tries to calm a man wearing a pig mask who is threatening him. An electronic scale and hanging cuts of meat are behind him.A halal butcher confronts one of his four attackers.

The role of the broadcast and print media in fomenting racist attitudes was not even acknowledged here; not a single front page in which Muslims were accused of demanding Shari’ah law or a ban on this or that, or news story in which a women wearing a veil gets a council house with a six-figure value, or indeed any reference to them. Neither did we hear any talk radio show about hijab in primary school or any other Muslim-related issue. These outlets have been sowing racist and otherwise bigoted attitudes among the population for decades, and not just among the desperate. It was, for example, the overblown media reporting of the tiny al-Muhajiroun protest in Luton in 2009 that led to the formation of the English Defence League and may have won it many more followers than it would otherwise have had; the protesters were referred to simply as ‘Muslims’ when they were the remnants of a group which was known for causing trouble, which had been dwindling for years and whose leaders were always being offered microphones because their statements would make good copy. The recruits for the EDL came from the football hooligan community, not from the ‘desperate’ or ‘left behind’.

This is not to say that poverty, family breakdown and housing insecurity have no role in fuelling the growth of racism or the Far Right, but these things feed on prejudices which have been built up over years by organisations that profit from doing so. Sadly, the links between the ‘respectable’ and the commercial tabloid media are strong and writers and editors will often move from one to the other or take jobs on both at the same time and the BBC itself has promoted this kind of journalism on some of its local stations — it hired Jon Gaunt to shout at its London listeners for several years on its morning phone-in show until 2005 when they replaced him with the equally insufferable (though for different reasons) Vanessa Feltz. But the media must face up to their role in fostering the growth of the Far Right rather than, as happens here, suggesting that it is purely the product of poverty or desperation. It is a big missed opportunity.

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