Over the next week or so, we are likely to see the next round in the Washington struggle between Donald Trump and his critics – and it isn’t a very edifying spectacle. Because the approval or not for his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh involves now a confrontation with Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of assaulting her at a high school party some decades ago.
When I say that #MeToo has become a political weapon, and a dangerous one, that is not intended to detract from the courage of Prof Ford in coming forward, when she knew the storm that would be unleashed around her. Or that the underlying purpose of #MeToo is somehow illegitimate. We certainly should take assaults against women more seriously.
But then again, these set piece battles unnerve me because of the puritanical storm that can follow them, sweeping up guilty and innocent alike in their wake (and I speak as the father of two boys who will have to live with it, when they are innocent of anything that went before).
It is that storm that I want to talk about here. Because, for every high profile gaolling, there are hundreds of retired carers, scouting staff, chaplains, teachers, therapists whose fear ratchets up a little more. We all know them – they are the generation that taught us, looked after our spiritual crises and guided us.
They are nervous, not because they have anything to hide or feel guilty about, but because they know how vulnerable they now are and how few safeguards they took decades ago, that their successors now have to take as a matter of course – making sure they keep records or that they are not alone with vulnerable young people of the opposite sex.
They know that it would only take one person with a grudge or a false memory, or heavens even a fantasy – though I know Freud’s insights are no longer considered acceptable (the populist mind rejects anything where emotions or motivations have shades of grey) – to bring their world crashing down. They know this because most of them have friends who have suffered in this way.
I know for the true believers that nobody is innocent. I don’t believe that, and I also know how many of the last generation I have reason to be deeply grateful to for their generous interventions, and time spent on me when I most needed it.
I realise this is controversial, but I believe we should now introduce a statute of limitations about any case which was never mentioned before, say, 1999. That is an imperfect solution, I am fully aware. Or that the Director of Public Prosecutions should introduce very much stricter rules of evidence for cases during the last century.
Again, I know that will leave some of the guilty untried, but that is preferable to the current spreading of fear – among my parents’ heroic generation. And among the very best of them too, who looked after the most vulnerable when others were out speculating on property.
That is the humane, caring way forward: we should be honouring the older generation, not making them fear for their remaining lives.
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Peter Arnold says
A very timely and thoughtful posting, David, which needed to be said. Well done.
David Boyle says
Thank you Peter. The sky has not yet fallen in!
Barry Cooper says
It is strange how today’s laws and attitudes can be applied to reputed sexual acts 50 years ago or more, whereas the laws of that time cannot be used now to pursue individuals for alleged misdemeanants whilst the laws were then current.
To quote Wikipedia: “In England until 1970 a woman whose fiancé broke off their engagement could sue him for Breach of Promise, whilst a woman, historically regarded as the weaker sex, was permitted to change her mind without penalty.”
Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera says
It would appear from what has been written that the author has little to no genuine understanding about crime and its impact on the victims and society as a whole.
As someone from the offending gender for most sexual offences, and I say this having been a police officer, and now a criminal justice academic, I have to say that I would find a statute of limitations for these and other serious offences that have been highlighted as totally unacceptable. Perhaps the author also believes that those guilty of war crimes, and even those involved in the persecution during The Holocaust (1933-1945) should not now be held to account?
Mitigating circumstances to any found accusation are always relevant, and will influence the nature of the punishment/resolution imposed, and should be heard, but ‘time limiting’ whether an accusation can be heard in the first instance, does not promote ‘equality, fairness and justice’.
What we are witnessing in the USA breaches all of these worthy tenets, and it saddens me that disproportionately it is ‘my brothers’ who seek to defend those accused, even though the full facts have not as yet been heard.
We still have a long way to go, apparently, before our sisters are seen as equal before the law, for far too many!
Mark Blackburn says
I don’t often disagree with David, but as someone who was abused at prep school, I suspect for every person wrongly accused there are a hundred abusers who got away with it, and I know which side my sympathies lie with more. I do appreciate the horror of false accusation and those who have been wrongly accused have my utmost sympathy, but wrong is wrong, whether it was fifty years ago or five days ago.
James Blanchard says
I’ve always looked forward to your writing David, it’s always usually thought provoking, addressing the important issues and right, but this is really disappointing.
I had a primary school teacher who like to expose himself to his pupils, and I well remember the powerlessness I felt as an eight year old around this – compared to the people who have actually been physically or sexually abused though, it must barely register. Thankfully, I’m told this teacher was eventually caught out and punished (well kind of thankfully, as obviously that implies that his behaviour had continued and, I’m told, worsened). I also remember a secondary maths teacher who was accused of sexual misconduct by a troubled girl in my brother’s class. After a short suspension he was back in the classroom, with the girl facing all sorts of terrible rumours. Only last year (some 25 years after this) was the teacher jailed for grooming and sexual abuse of another girl after this one- how would both girls, now women, feel if no justice was served?
We all know that there are malicious or just plain false claims out there, but also that far more ‘get away with it’ then face the consequences of actions which were illegal and unacceptable ‘back then’ too. A blanket statute of limitations is now way of protecting the innocent on either side
David Boyle says
I’m grateful to everyone who has responded to this and accept that it is a difficult issue. I did suggest some kind of statute of limitations, but also some other options and I do take the points you have made. But nobody who has responded has suggested a way to tackle the problem of older people, rightly or wrongly living in fear, when they are not just innocent but have spent their whole lives caring for other people. I can’t believe it is beyond the wit of innovative people to come up with a solution that meets this problem but also the need for people who have been abused to be heard. Something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but along different and more therapeutic lines? Perhaps the justice system is getting in the way for both sides?
Katherine Bavage says
Well, in terms of abuse victims of the Catholic Church, that is indeed happening.
I’m not sure why we would privilege sexual crimes over other crimes in terms of a statute of limitations. There is a commonly held assumption that such crimes boil down to two people giving different versions of events, and that in such a scenario the accused is less likely to receive justice than the accuser – but both charge and conviction rates prove this is quite the opposite. In fact the same evidentiary standards are applied to form a view about a realistic prospect of conviction is in the case of other historic crimes (murder, offences against the person, domestic terrorism) and I don’t see you arguing that we should draw a line under those.
Perhaps really your concern is that innocent people will be caught in the crossfire of an overdue historic reckoning in a culture where the bodily autonomy of women and children in particular (although I note adult men are sexually assaulted too and it is no less devastating). I think you must weigh that concern against the one currently being upheld as more important – that these survivors never seek or receive justice and that this culture doesn’t change. My father was a secondary school teacher for 40 years and worked in schools with a deprived intake and vulnerable children. He is exactly the sort of person I think you think should be nervous, but I don’t think he is. I think he has been and always will be far more concerned that the aberrant people in the teaching profession such as the examples James highlighted, who used their roles as a cover for predatory behaviour are allowed to continue or never held to account.
In sum – we should be more worried about the PTSD and multiple mental health issues survivors experience than the unfounded wariness of false accusations, which statistics demonstrate to be vanishingly small.
As a side note, I really objected to your framing of this as prejudicial to the older generation, as of course many survivors are themselves now older people.
This is an absolutely garbage piece of writing and this site should be ashamed to have published it. You have such concern for your sons and the potential false allegations against them, but you do not say that these are VANISHINGLY rare. Where is your concern for the women who have been raped? What are you doing to ensure that your sons don’t rape anyone? Honestly, your attitude is absolutely awful, and it worries me that people with your attitude are raising sons.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Natalie. This site is set up for the very purpose of open debate and discussion of different opinion – even, maybe especially, around difficult issues. We do not believe that anything should be put beyond debate and discussion. We may all individually disagree with parts or all of David’s piece. But that should not put it beyond debate and civil discussion.
We have on this site in the past taken a stance against no-platforming and other forms of shutting down discussion. We still take that view.
In my opinion, and only my opinion, your point about vanishingly rare is a good one that had not occurred to me before. Getting such points across is the purpose of such discussions.
Alison Smith says
David, If some old people are worried that they may be accused of sexual assaults when they’re blameless, I would suggest you get them some kind of counselling or at the least find out what basis they have for their worries and talk to them about it. It seems highly unlikely that they would be accused of crimes if they have done nothing wrong at this distance in time. But you seem to be assuming that most of the current reports are false. I’m not sure why you feel it’s more important to put a statute of limitation on crimes to reassure old people who have done no wrong than to honour the people who have come forward with reports of rapes and sexual assaults, and jail their abusers? Reporting even to the police is an extremely difficult and traumatising thing to put yourself through. This is not a witch hunt, it’s trying to change the prevalent social culture which is for sexual harrassment and assault to be so common as to be almost routine. Changing that is essential. The incidence of false reporting is minimal – somewhere between 2% and 7%, and it’s hard to record because different agencies, and different departments within those agencies, record things differently, and those figures are likely to be inaccurate, because sometimes ‘no crime’ and ‘false reports’ are conflated. Telling boys about respect and consent for women and others they regard as ‘lesser’ is crucial. I don’t think you’ve thought this through.
Victims of sexual assault live with a life sentence of coming to terms with what has happened to them. Many never will muster the courage to report, and who can blame them for not wanting to be revictimised through recollection of the absolute panic, fear and dread they felt.
If the #MeToo movement has caused a little discomfort or hesitation for a few innocent men, it is nothing compared to the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of women who continue to struggle to come forward in the face of victim blaming.