TERRY PRONE: Has it gone too far? Stories of sex abuse show nothing has changed

If anybody’s putting together one of those lists of frequently asked questions arising from the ongoing global controversy initiated by Harvey Weinstein, top of the list is: “But has it gone too far?,” writes Terry Prone

Wrong question. It’s direction, not duration, that matters. As evidenced in the case of Larry Nassar, who raped and sexually abused young athletes — at least 157 of them — while telling them what he was at was pelvic floor treatment.

Nassar’s accusers, vindicated, stood up in court, one after another, and told him the impact on each of them of his horrific acts. Sometimes he looked at them. Sometimes he put his head in his hands and didn’t look at them. Then Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced him, effectively, as she pointed out, to death in prison, because the length of his sentence, combined with no access to parole, means he will never walk the streets again.

But then the judge went further. She expressed regret that the US constitution didn’t permit her to sentence him to “cruel and unusual punishment”.

If it did so permit her, she told the court, she would have permitted “many people to do to him what he did to others”.

Aquilina, here, was indirectly referring to one of the earliest legal codes, laid down by Babylonian emperor Hammurabi 18 centuries BC.

Hammurabi had an acute sense of right and wrong and a matching misogyny.

Under his code, if a man killed a pregnant servant, for example, he would be fined, whereas if he murdered a pregnant free woman, his own daughter would be killed as a punishment. A man could have it off with servants and slaves, but if a woman did the same, she and her lover would be tied up and tossed in the river.

The most famous element of his code, though, was the lex talionis, easily remembered as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. This one was quoted in the Bible and led to the pacific advice that, instead of smacking someone in the face because they smacked you in the face, you should turn the other cheek.

Modern laws, backed up by policing and judicial systems, set out specifically to move away from the ancient lynch mob approach, which is about vengeance rather than punishment.

So it was astonishing that a judge would publicly conflate justice and revenge. Civilized living depends on their separation.

Conviction and punishment are not, in modern states, crafted to satisfy the needs or wants of the victim, but to meet the wider needs of society, although it’s worth pointing out that even within the impact statements of Nassar’s victims lay significant differences in attitude. Some were right up there with Judge Aquilina, some markedly more measured.

One of the principles of incarceration is the possibility of the criminal learning a different way of living, just as one of the beliefs underpinning the #MeToo coverage of the last year is that enough voices crying “enough!” will change everything. Indeed, it has been widely suggested that it has already changed everything, that power-driven demands for sex will simply not happen any more, because men will be too fearful of the consequences to engage in sexual misconduct.

Optimists always believe that great singular events will change the world for the better. They rarely do. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the received wisdom was that New York was changed, changed utterly.

A new respect, a new compassion, a new sense of community, had been created out of the tragedy and that change was palpable. No, it wasn’t. I delivered a training course in Manhattan five months after 9/11. Everybody on the street was still in a rush that might or might not require knocking you down, but if it did, tough. The streets still echoed to the most aggressive use of car horns ever found anywhere in the world. Taxi drivers were still obnoxious. Nothing had changed other than the belief that something had changed.

To support this thesis and apply it to sexual misconduct, I give you Exhibit A: The President’s Club debacle. Which came, you will remember, after almost a year of coverage, literally every day, of CEOs, presidents (of companies, rather than countries), politicians, actors, comedians, TV presenters, medical professionals, and dozens of others losing their jobs or resigning because they were accused of importuning women for what used to be called sexual favours. The President’s Club lads can’t have missed it, like. But, in the absence of their wives and girlfriends and in the presence of scantily clad gorgeous girls classed as “hostesses”, a bit of amnesia set in, greatly helped by the crudity of some of the prizes these rich guys were bidding to win over dinner.

The amnesia allowed guys to proposition and grope at will and, in at least one case, resulted in one of the black-tie attendees inviting one of the hostesses to survey his private parts, which he had obligingly put on display.

Remind me what these captains of industry had learned from the most consistent public lesson being hammered home over nearly a year?

The sum total of nothing, I would suggest. The reasonable men (and some women) asking the “has it gone too far?” question might consider the possibility that a lot of sexual predators are like cigarette smokers who figure that the other guy is the one who’s going to come down with lung cancer: They don’t see what they’re doing as sexual predation, and they don’t perceive their chances of being caught and shamed as particularly large. An attitude which may have been reinforced by the outcome of the newspaper sending in undercover reporters to reveal what went on.

A bit like Hillary Clinton moving to another job the woman who accused a senior team member of sexual harassment, while leaving the accused in position, the end result was that the charity was closed down, but the guys who caused the closure went unnamed and unpunished.

Reaction to that story underlines where I believe this issue is going. Major reaction was a collective tsk tsk. But in a half-whisper came another reaction.

Another question: “The women signed up for it. They were told in advance in writing to wear skimpy black, right down to instructions about their underwear. What did they expect?”

Here’s the answer. They expected just over a hundred quid, which, doesn’t sound much for teetering on 4in heels in tiny black dresses and being charming to rich blokes feeling their charity oats. They may even have expected charm and civility back, because, their reasoning might have suggested, big businessmen who might in the past have gone the Weinstein route will have learned the error of their ways.

What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Even recent history involving our sexually predatory peers. “Has it gone too far?” is a question predicated on the belief that everything has changed. It hasn’t.

The judge expressed regret that the US constitution didn’t permit her to sentence him to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’


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