Last week broadcaster George Hook made some comments during his radio show about a recent rape case that have been almost universally condemned. Although he has since apologised, his words ring hollow, not least because he apologised for causing offence rather than retracting his central thesis; that a victim is partially responsible for what happens to them if they are insufficiently careful (1).
He has form for this, too, having previously argued, while discussing a case where a man routinely raped his heavily medicated, sleeping partner, that sharing a bed with someone effectively grants consent in perpetuity (2). His own autobiography even includes a nauseating passage in which he recalls deliberately getting a “fallen woman” (you can tell by the fact that she is wearing eyeshadow, apparently) drunk enough to take advantage, while sticking to water himself (3). He wrote that about himself, unselfconsciously.
And that’s the problem. Hook, and the disturbingly large numbers who have rushed to defend him, genuinely don’t see what’s wrong with this line of thinking. They swarm over comments sections, over social media and pub conversation in their droves, comparing a woman getting drunk or dressing in a certain way to leaving a wallet unattended – as if that does anything but prove that that on some not so subtle level they equate women with stuff, without a rightful owner when unattended. When we speak of rape culture, by the way, this is what we mean. The excuses, the whataboutery, the analysis of victims’ behaviour and clothing, the examination of victims’ sex lives in court (4), the queue of the great and good of the town to shake hands with the convicted man in the dock (5), the slow and inevitable shifting of blame away from the person who chose to violate another and onto the violated.
Where does this attitude come from? Well, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. When you’re surrounded by this kind of messaging it becomes somehow the accepted narrative. When rapists are handed excuses of the type that Hook hawks, it combines with the false notion that rapists are monsters who lurk in dark alleyways (and never the victim’s partner or friend, never your friend, colleague or brother and especially not you) to give the impression that rape is somehow rare and rapists barely recognisable as humans. The fact that rape convictions are so difficult to come by (6) and that many victims choose not to report their attacks for fear of further negative consequences to no useful end, means that there are unconvicted rapists all around us, wearing the clothing of decent people, tutting at the lenient sentence handed to Brock Turner (7).
And this, in turn allows us to imagine that Turner’s sentence was a grotesque anomaly, that there aren’t similar and worse miscarriages of justice happening as we read this. Every time a story like this is reported, people like Hook breeze in to cast doubt on the story, to deny the reality of rape statistics because they don’t match with their own experience and view of the world as filtered through the horribly biased, male-dominated and socially conservative media. It’s a gigantic feedback loop; the choice by Newstalk and other major Irish media outlets to restrict women’s voices to less popular time slots and to fill their schedules with older men is not incidental to this (8). This allows issues like consent to be seen as a marginal interest, a women’s problem, something we don’t really need to talk about with any kind of nuance because we have serious newsworthy business on our hands; Man Talk.
There is a backlash against Hook happening now; significant media figures have declared their intention to boycott the channel while he is still employed there (9), major sponsors have withdrawn support (10), and his own colleagues have written a letter calling for him to be fired (11). At the same time, there is a backlash against the backlash; for starters he still has a job. And for many this story is an example of silencing, of refusing “debate”, of trying to deny a platform to someone who has been a consistent presence in media here for a quarter of a century (12). These are the people to whom I address this piece; Mr. Hook, it seems, is a lost cause.
There is no room for debate on this issue. Victim blaming is always wrong. Not having a primetime national radio show is not a case of silencing or a freedom of speech issue in any way. Systematic downgrading of women’s voices in the media and in news and analysis media especially is, however, a downgrading of women generally, a deliberate framing of the national issues to make us appear marginal, specialised, trivial. If nothing else comes from this grim episode, let it be a commitment to tackle this.
Elaine Crory is a part-time Politics lecturer, director of Hollaback Belfast, and an activist with Belfast Feminist Network and Alliance for Choice. You can find her on twitter @ElaineCrory