Thursday, 25 June 2009

Racism, sexism and gang rape in the city.

This week, the subject of Channel 4's ever sensational Dispatches was gang rape. 'Rape in the City' (was that supposed to echo 'Sex and the City' in some perverse way?) featured testimonials from women and girls who had been gang raped as well as interviews with young black men about their attitudes to women and sex.

I watched this documentary knowing that it was going to make me angry for several reasons. Warning bells started to ring when I read the programme information; it was going to explore whether or not this is a problem with black men. We were presented with some fairly shocking statistics about gang rape and its perpetrators: 86% were committed by non-whites, 66% were committed by black gangs. However many times presenter Sorious Samura referred to these figures, there was never any in-depth analysis of them. If only 1 in 8 gang rapes are reported, how representative can these statistics be? And if it is mainly black men who are committing gang rape, where was the discussion of why?

Saying that it is because of a pervasive negative attitude towards women and female sexuality in this community does not go far enough. Sexism is pervasive in all sections of our society. It sounded to me worryingly like the racist idea that 'black men cannot control themselves' whereas white men can hide their contempt for women and keep their libido in check. It's telling that the first result Google finds from the search 'dispatches gang rape' is a post from far-right website Stormfront. It also seemed relevant to me that in almost all of the cases mentioned, these rapes were taking place on council estates and yet there was no mention of poverty and what role it may play.

The interviews with the young men were chilling but again, another important factor was skimmed over. It is hard to believe that young men were being entirely honest, there certainly seemed to be a strong element of sexual bravado involved. I have no doubt that young women are being treated in the horrific ways described by the interviewees, but perhaps their accepting attitude towards such behaviour was exaggerated.

From the testimonials of the young men interviewed and comments from the police, it seemed apparent to me that the focus of sex education needs to change. Young people know how to have sex, they even know about safe sex. The real problem that needs to be addressed is ignorance surrounding issues such as consent and its intricacies. They may not think about the fact that a woman or girl faced with many men who expect sex from her may be willing at first but the fact that she is outnumbered may men that she may not be able to change her mind without fear of reprisals. A police officer reported that one man arrested for a gang rape said that he didn't know that forcing a woman to give oral sex was rape. Whilst this is in many ways a separate issue from that of gang rape which is deliberate and intended to damage their victim physically and emotionally, an ignorance of issues surrounding consent cannot be helping.

Equally as galling was the way in which each girl's account of gang rape was introduced, with a brief rundown of her sexual history. One girl 'had only just started to date boys and was still a virgin'. What is the relevance of this please? If the girl in question had had sex with everybody at her school, it wouldn't have made what happened to her any less terrifying and appalling. Whether this stemmed from a belief on the part of the programme makers that raping a virgin is worse than raping a sexually active woman, or from a desire to sensationalize an already shocking documentary, it is reprehensible. Such sensationalism detracts from the gravity of what happened to these women, the horror of which is apparent from their brave and devastating personal accounts.

Having a black presenter does not make a programme immune from being racist. At a time when race relations in the UK are precarious, it seems irresponsible to make a programme that merely scratches the surface of what is an extremely complex issue. And given that the presenter talks so much about the denigration of women by men, it is sad and ironic that he uses the virgin/whore dichotomy to sensationalize a subject that could hardly be more shocking. This documentary is not going to help prevent future gang rapes or encourage a real productive discussion on this subject. It came across as a poorly researched, lazy 'shockumentary', which does the victims of this crime a disservice.