In one of the projects I undertook during my journalism training my eyes were opened quite significantly to the task faced by rape charities in the basic education over what does and doesn’t constitute abuse.
I’m not an easy person to surprise, but this one really got me. I went into the project already pretty sure of what I would encounter – first mistake as a journalist, and lesson quickly learned – and what actually transpired left me with a lot to think about.
My story that day was based on being given an insight into the Tessa project; an initiative set up by Argyll & Bute Rape Crisis to go directly into schools and conduct workshops with pupils aimed at educating young people about what is and isn’t ok when it comes to sex. Project workers kindly allowed me to sit in on one of the workshops to see first-hand how they approached the issue, and to get an idea of how young people see things.
Video snippets of various scenarios were part of the course material. After each was shown, the pupils would discuss how they felt about it, and whether or not they thought the scenario constituted rape.
It was very well done. It covered the grey areas. It looked at the various situations in which the victim is not kicking and screaming; the ones in which it seems young people are confused about where the line really is.
What shocked me most was not the responses of the teenage boys in the group, but that of the teenage girls. Wearing short skirts and skimpy outfits and flirting was considered enough to indicate that the eventual victim of rape ‘should see it through’. I was genuinely taken aback. In my naivety I had assumed that the young women in the room would understand the complexities around abuse and it would be up to the project workers – and partly them – to educate the young men in the room.
Naïve indeed. What I found instead was that in situations that I considered clearly to be rape or abuse, the young people in that room, the ones likely embarking on their first relationships, weren’t quite so sure.
It forced me to examine my own views around sexual violence and look at it all in a much wider context. During my research, it finally clicked for me just how much of it happens every day to victims who do not understand that they are victims. I realised that even I had not fully understood abuse.
When I spoke to project workers afterwards, I was horrified by what they were dealing with. They told of scenarios young people had described which were blatant cases of grooming and sexual coercion, but in which the victim had absolutely no idea what was happening to them, and instead considered it just a part of life, just a part of the culture they were surrounded by. It became evident to me what the project was up against. It was frustrating to hear that with such an educational battle ahead, one of the biggest problems they had was in funding their work.
And all of this happened before the revelations about Jimmy Savile. It happened before the details began trickling out to the public domain of serious sexual abuse, rape and grooming at every level and walk of society in the UK.
It is not uncommon now to hear the term ‘sexual slavery’. To our horror, we’ve become aware of the children and young adults who have endured years of abuse at the hands of grooming and coercion, although many still struggle to really understand the dynamics at play in those situations.
The old ideas of rape being a one-off event in which the victim kicks and screams before running to the nearest police station should hopefully be long gone. That depiction of rape only ever benefited the perpetrators of abuse, the people who in reality spend time and effort grooming, confusing or threatening their victims.
We’re now all considering those grey areas, and there is a very big, long overdue conversation on the horizon. Before we can get to the heart of it, I suspect more information about abuse at the highest levels of the British establishment will first come to the fore. All the while in the background, charities and projects like Rape Crisis and Tessa continue in their quest to educate the upcoming generations about the reality of rape and abuse. The work they do is undervalued, under resourced and it is essential. My mind turns to all of this while debate in the UK continues in a frenzy about the former footballer and convicted rapist Ched Evans. He maintains he did not commit any crime, and if that is true it is up to an appeal court to overturn his conviction. However, as it stands, Evans has been convicted of rape, and his victim has been forced to move home several times in order to protect her identity.
The very notion that, given everything we are up against when it comes to getting the message out about rape, he can return to the position of an idolised footballer that children follow and look up to is preposterous.
The Evans case opens up an even wider question for the lucrative world of football. It’s an industry in which phenomenal amounts of money are traded each year; sport, and football in particular, has its own, huge space in media. It has its own TV channels, it gets its own section in the newspapers, football players sell merchandise in spades for clubs and they make yet more money on top of their sizable incomes from advertising and sponsorship deals.
Football is undeniably influential, and it’s not without its problems. When it comes to race, gender and sexuality, the football arena becomes a controversial place. Where other big-money industries have at least progressed, football has struggled with the pace. However, the traditionally ‘macho’ football stadium has extended its reach over the decades and is now a common weekend trip for women and children. Times have changed, and football must begin to catch up.
An industry which makes so much from its customers must take some responsibility and recognise its duty to those customers. That has to come from the top – the football authorities can make an impact on this issue by taking a strong position on the Evans case. If the football industry can make money from its legions of young fans, it should take a pro-active role and take this opportunity to spell out some common sense: a convicted rapist who believes he did nothing wrong can have no place in their industry. The thought of young people cheering Evans on or wearing shirts bearing his name should fill us all with nausea.
There should never have been any doubt about this, but when the footballing authorities have been largely silent on a debate which continues to rage all around them, questions must be asked about what the Football Association and its member clubs believe is acceptable behaviour for its stars on the pitch.
As blogger Jean Hatchet, who launched a petition calling for Oldham Athletic to ditch plans to offer Evans a contract, rightly told the BBC:
“It’s time that the Football Association [and] the Professional Footballers’ Association realised that accepting players back into a high-profile role that have committed such an atrocious crime is wrong. They’ve got to take a stand on this.”
It’s no longer good enough for the football industry to shirk out of its responsibilities. It’s no longer acceptable that we just don’t expect anything better from it. There are too many young and impressionable minds effectively paying these players’ wages for the bosses to fall silent when it is convenient.
This incident has shamed the industry for its lack of significant response. Damage has already been done, but it isn’t too late to make a move.
The message it is vital to get out to young people is twofold: one is that it is never, ever ok to engage in sexual conduct with a participant who is unwilling, uncomfortable, is coerced or who is not in a position to give consent; and two, the victims of these crimes need the validation to say with confidence that the things they’ve endured were wrong.
While he remains a convicted rapist, Ched Evans’ place on a football pitch is a considerable threat to that message. The only message that can possibly validate is the one I heard in that classroom years ago – sometimes girls just deserve it.