An editorial in the current issue of The Listener says the Roast Busters scandal suggests a need for society to undertake a deep and searching self-appraisal if we’re to understand how we have reached a point where young men take pleasure in the humiliation of vulnerable girls.There’s ample evidence that this is exactly what is now happening. Not a day passes without the Roast Busters affair being earnestly discussed on talkback radio (which is not, contrary to conventional wisdom, the exclusive domain of the bigoted and ignorant). Several thoughtful and heartfelt newspaper columns have appeared, including three in the Dominion Post by Chris Trotter, Sean Plunket and Jane Bowron*. If there’s a common factor, it’s a sense of shock that we have come to this.
But there have also been kneejerk reactions, the aim of which seems to be to contain the discussion within parameters that certain people are comfortable with. I refer to the orchestrated condemnation of RadioLive hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, who have now been taken off the air for the rest of the year to reflect on their wickedness.I don’t listen to the Willie and JT Show and suspect I wouldn’t much like it if I did. Mouthy blokes don’t do it for me. Yet I have found myself forced to defend Jackson and Tamihere for asking questions that many people think shouldn’t be asked, even if I think they could have done it rather more sensitively.
Before I go any further, I should make a couple of points as emphatically as I can, since the reaction to my earlier post on this subject suggests some people have trouble getting the message. These are (a) that I detest sexual abuse in any shape or form, and (b) that nothing excuses the behaviour of the contemptible young shits who call themselves the Roast Busters. Everyone got that?I need to restate this since some of my attackers effectively accuse me of "victim blaming", because I suggested that it’s valid to ask questions about whether the behaviour of the Roast Busters’ victims might have contributed in any way to their abuse.
Here’s my point: it’s simplistic to conclude that this is simply a matter of over-testosteroned young men behaving reprehensibly. Of course that’s the core problem, and nothing excuses or condones their behaviour. But we need to acknowledge that the social context in which this abuse occurred is more complex than that.For a start, there’s evidence that some of the Roast Busters’ female friends saw nothing wrong in what they did and even admired them for it. That alone suggests society – or perhaps a subset of society – has taken a wrong turning somewhere.
If we step back and try to look at the big picture, it’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that a key reason for aberrant behaviour like that of the Roast Busters is that we live in a society that’s drenched with sex. That makes me sound like a 1950s prude, but what the hell.The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s may have liberated us, but it has also left us with some perverse outcomes. One is that many girls grow up thinking one of their key functions is to be sexually alluring and available. And the attitude of some of their male peers, as demonstrated by the Roast Busters, is one of entitlement. After all, if there’s all that sex out there (and they know there is, because they see it all the time on music videos, on TV, in the movies and in video games like Grand Theft Auto), why shouldn’t they grab some?
I’m not just talking about pornography being instantly and universally available, though that’s certainly part of the problem. I’m also talking about girls being sexualised from an inexcusably early age and bombarded with sexual imagery and sexually-laden marketing everywhere they look.I believe children are entitled to enjoy their innocence for as long as they can. God knows they encounter the real world soon enough. But society and popular culture seems determined to rob them of that innocence long before they have the maturity to deal with the emotional complications that come with sex.
Who’s to blame? Phwoar. Where to start? Perhaps with pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, whom popular culture holds up as role models for girls. In the MTV Video Awards, seen by millions of sub-teens, Cyrus – a former Disney Channel child star – comes on to Robin Thicke, submissively rubbing her buttocks against his groin and doing that crotch-towelling thing that dancers in seedy strip clubs do; in the video for her song Wrecking Ball, surely one of the most watched songs on YouTube, she strips naked and mock-fellates the head of a sledgehammer. Swallows and Amazons this isn’t. And only this morning I read about the sexually explicit content on Lady Gaga’s latest album, supposedly inspired by her own sex experiences.But the blame goes much further than that. How about the Family Planning Association, which for years has been running a determined campaign to promote sexual precocity in kids? (Now that will definitely get me labelled as some sort of Mother Grundy, but it’s true.)
Ultimately, though, responsibility lies with all of us for sitting back passively while our children’s right to the innocent, uncomplicated pleasures of childhood was gradually stripped away.Now, to get more specific, I’ve been asked to defend myself by explaining how the behaviour of the Roast Busters’ victims could have been a contributory factor in their abuse. (Please note that I didn’t say their behaviour was a contributory factor; merely that it’s legitimate to ask whether it was a contributory factor – a distinction lost on the ideologues who prefer explanations for bad behaviour to be bumper-slogan simple.)
Here are a few of the things I was thinking about. How do 13-year-old girls get into situations where they are at risk of being sexually exploited by older boys? How did they end up at parties where they were plied with alcohol? Did their parents know where they were? Did they care?Do young girls dress provocatively because they see people like Miley Cyrus wearing only a bra and knickers, or nothing at all, and think that’s the cool thing to do – a sure way to attract male attention? Do they then suddenly find themselves out of their depth and in a situation that they can’t control?
Suggesting these might be factors doesn’t excuse bad behaviour; but it may go some way toward explaining it. And if we’re genuinely interested in understanding how society produces aberrant young males like the Roast Busters, then we shouldn’t exclude anything from the conversation.I know the argument goes that women and girls should be entitled to dress however they want without risking harassment or assault, but that strikes me as naively idealistic. I could argue that I should be able to go to bed at night leaving the doors unlocked and the windows open, but I don’t because I know what the consequences could be.
A 77-year-old Papatoetoe woman forgot to lock her door on Sunday and was sexually assaulted by an intruder. Does her forgetfulness justify or excuse the crime against her? Of course not, but it was inarguably a contributory factor. The point is, we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.I have long believed it’s unfair that a woman can’t go into a bar for a drink on her own without risking being hit on, but most women aren’t prepared to take the chance. It’s not right that things should be that way, but it’s the way the world is. And until we change the world – which I believe we’re doing, slowly – then we have to accept that some actions may have unpleasant consequences, so prudent people try to avoid them.
In the case of young teenage girls, those traumatic consequences are almost inevitably unintended, simply because they don’t have the maturity or experience to anticipate or perhaps even understand them. In other words, what happens to them ISN’T THEIR FAULT. (I need to put this in capital letters because some readers of this blog have limited skills of comprehension.) But that shouldn’t stop us stepping back and considering whether sexual abuse might not be quite so one-dimensional as the ideologues – the people who clamour for radio hosts to be taken off air – would like us to believe.* Sorry, but I couldn't find Jane's column online.