by Peter Wells
In Philip Pullman’s 2019 novel The Secret Commonwealth, the hero, Lyra, aged around twenty, suffers an attempted rape. If I say it is the most convincing description of a sexual assault I have ever read, this is not to say much, as I have never been raped, though in my youth I had some unpleasant encounters with predatory men that gave me some inkling of it. Anyway, it’s a creditable effort by Pullman to depict a nightmare experienced much more often by women than by men, and he should be applauded for attempting to help his readers (male readers especially) to imagine it.
The scene begins in a train, where Lyra finds herself, far from her own country, in a carriage occupied by soldiers whose language she does not know. There have already been grins and nudges, and alcohol has started to circulate.
The bottle went around the compartment again; the talk became louder and looser. They were talking about her, there was no doubt about that: their eyes moved over her body, one man was licking his lips, another clasping the crotch of his trousers.
Lyra attempts to escape, only for the man opposite to push her back into the seat and say something to the man by the door,
who reached up and pulled down the blind over the corridor window. Lyra stood up again, and again the soldier pushed her back, this time squeezing her breast as he did so.
Then the assault proper begins, as all the soldiers launch themselves upon her.
Lyra, who is equipped with a fighting-stick of exceptionally hard wood, defends herself with a considerable degree of success, as you would expect if you followed her adventures in Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, disabling at least two of her attackers. However, they are just too numerous for her.
She then felt other hands – two men’s hands – on her wrist, up inside her skirt, fumbling at her underwear, gripping it, tearing it aside, and thrusting fingers at her.
Fortunately, the sergeant in charge of the men appears in time to prevent the worst, and restores order.
Lyra was still standing, her skirt torn, her fingers blood-soaked and wrenched, her face cut and scratched, blood trickling down her legs, her eyes aflood with tears, trembling in every muscle, sobbing, but standing, still standing, facing them all … Every part of her seemed to hurt. She could still feel those hands tearing at her underclothes, and wanted to wash more than anything else in the world.
The sergeant takes her to an officer, who exhibits “great gentleness.” He treats her skilfully with his other-worldly first-aid kit, containing rosewater, among other ingredients. But he comes out with some extremely politically incorrect comments:
(Officer) Well, if you will ride on a train with soldiers, you must expect a little discomfort.
(Lyra) I have a ticket that permits me to ride on this train. It does not say that the journey includes assault and attempted rape. Do you expect your soldiers to behave like that?
(Officer) No, and they will be punished. But, I repeat, it is not wise for a young woman to travel alone in the present circumstances. May I offer you a little eau-de-vie as a restorative?
He sees her safely off the train, and offers a final word as he helps her to step down on to the platform:
(Officer) A little advice.
(Officer) Wear a niqab. It will help.
[A niqab is a garment that covers the face except for the eyes.]
I find it difficult to fault the behaviour of this fictitious gentleman, whose advice is in line with that issued over the centuries by parents, elders, teachers, officers of the law and countless others who feel responsible for the safety of the vulnerable.
Here are some of the things they say:
Men are in general more dangerous to women than other women are, due to their sexual desires. Because of the comparative rarity of homosexual men, as opposed to heterosexual, young men are not as much at risk of sexual assault as young women, but they are at some risk. Old people are also vulnerable, but to theft, not sexual assault. There are other possibilities of assault to consider as well – racially motivated, drink-fuelled, or just random (I was mugged walking home alone one night by a group of young men I did not know, who just beat me up and walked off without a word of explanation). For these reasons it is always better to travel with at least one companion, especially at night and in unfrequented areas (whatever your age or gender). Young women would be well-advised to avoid alluring or flimsy attire in certain situations. If they must walk alone they should take precautions, such as carrying alarms or defensive sprays, being in phone contact with someone, telling people where they are going, and when they expect to arrive. Long-term they might consider gaining some skill in unarmed combat or techniques for escape. And the same goes, in proportion to the risk, for young men. (If my naïve parents had warned me about the danger from men, I could have avoided a couple of nasty moments.)
It’s all tedious, but true: Better safe than sorry. Discretion is the better part of valour. Forewarned is forearmed. Look before you leap. Prevention is better than cure. Pride goes before a fall. DON’T TAKE SWEETS FROM STRANGERS!
There is one inconsistency in this relentless avalanche of common sense. Men are apparently no longer allowed to advise women to take sensible precautions against being molested. If they say anything that implies that women can or should reduce the risks they face by making particular choices – if they give exactly the same advice that their mothers or grandmothers would give – they are accused of ‘victim blaming,’ that is, the crime of implying that women, not men, are responsible for attacks on women by men. At least, there seems to be a trend in this direction that is gathering momentum. If it continues, its only effect will be to make women less safe.
This new doctrine is based upon a single premise: that women should be able to walk anywhere, at any time, wearing whatever clothes they like, in whatever manner, and with whatever company, or lack of it.
This is an inadequate premise. It makes advice depend upon an ideal situation, instead of facts. It is rather like saying that, as it would be nicer if it didn’t rain during the day, people shouldn’t have to carry umbrellas or waterproofs. There are many things that should, or should not happen. People should not steal. But they do, which means that we would be well-advised not to leave our purses on top of our shopping bags, or carry our mobile phones in the back pockets of our jeans. There is an immense, world-wide, long-term problem of men who are are a danger to women, and very little progress, if any, has been made in treating the causes of it: men’s lustfulness and lack of self-control. Therefore, our chief current option is to mitigate its effects by taking protective measures, and all those advisers – male or female – who recommend women to exercise caution should be commended, not condemned.
Cut to the story of Philip Allott, a British Conservative local politician, businessman and one-time military reservist, who was, at the age of 25, the youngest mayor in the country, having studied law at university. But his political career did not fulfil its early promise, and his attempts to enter Parliament were unsuccessful. Instead, he became the leader of the Conservative group on his local town council, and was eventually (May, 2021) elected to the post of Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for his county – North Yorkshire.
In March, 2021, a short while before Allott’s election, there occurred, in London, the tragic rape and murder of a young woman, Sarah Everard, by a member of the Metropolitan police, Wayne Couzens. It emerged that the rogue officer persuaded Everard, who was walking alone at night, to enter his vehicle, by producing his warrant card and alleging that she had broken Covid-19 regulations. Allott was interviewed about the case on Radio York in October 2021, shortly after Couzens was sentenced to whole life imprisonment. The ostensible reason for the interview was that Everard came originally from his area (she was born in York, which is in North Yorkshire).
Asked what women [NB, women, not people in general] could do to avoid the specific danger of being wrongly arrested, Allott’s first mistake was to try to answer the question as posed.
[His actual words can be heard here, as long as the link survives.]
Beginning his response, Allott suggests that, in order to avoid being deceived by a dishonest police officer, women should acquaint themselves with the rules about what they can be arrested for. Breach of Covid-19 regulations, for example, he explains, is not an offence that would normally involve arrest, unless the person accosted by the police officer escalates the incident.
(The quotes that follow are direct transcripts.)
(Allott) So women first of all just need to be streetwise about when they can be arrested and when they can’t be arrested.
If Allott had responded, instead, that people like Couzens should be locked in a bottomless pit and the key thrown away, he would not have lost his job, but probably have been praised as a champion of justice for women, and in due course re-elected with an increased majority.
What actually happened was that the hostile reporter (Georgey Spanswick) pounced upon his boringly accurate and painfully relevant remarks, and made out that Allott was saying that Everard, not Couzens, was responsible for her own death.
(Spanswick) But how on earth do I know that? She didn’t know that because a police officer is telling me this, a man is flashing a police ID at me saying ‘you’re in breach of covid rules’ because she’s walking home. How would I know the ins and outs of how you operate? [NB a Police Commissioner is not a police officer, but a civilian.]
Too late, Allott realises that he’s in trouble, and reminds Spanswick that she had asked him how women, specifically, could protect themselves against a specific danger (false arrest). He tries to rescue the situation by indicating that what he earlier said was actually a response to the reporter’s question:
(Allott) Just on that technicality what I’m saying is perhaps women need to consider in terms of the legal process, just learn a little bit in terms of that process.
A nimbler intellect would have broadened the topic to include any vulnerable people, instead of just women, or shifted to other ways of tackling rape, but Allott does not come across as quick-thinking. Instead, he dug a deeper hole for himself by continuing to address the specific problem of women being duped by police officers with bad intentions.
It doesn’t work. Ignoring Allott’s condemnation of the Metropolitan Police, his condolences for Everard’s family, and his statement that a range of measures is being put in place in North Yorkshire; ignoring the fact that Allott is not a police officer, but a civilian commissioner – and for an area hundreds of miles from London – and completely rejecting the idea that women should do anything to protect themselves, Spanswick lashes out at him as if he is responsible for the crime:
You know, why is it down to me, Philip, why is it down to women? Because actually, you know, this is down to one man in the police force, and there are serious doubts about this man’s conduct, we have found, there are serious doubts about his lifestyle, concerning his lifestyle, and yet he’s still a serving police officer, how does that happen?
The next thing that the nation heard was the unmistakeable sound of bandwagons being mounted. Here is Allott’s (and Everard’s) local paper, the Yorkshire Post, one voice among many other similar ones, hoping for increased sales and advertising revenue:
In order to understand quite why so many people have called for North Yorkshire’s Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner to step down from his £74,000-a-year public office, you have to examine more than what Philip Allott said in his interview to BBC Radio York.
You have to contemplate *why* he said what he said, and draw conclusions as to what that tells us about the man.
But before we do that, we should pause for a moment to remember Sarah Everard. A happy, conscientious, thoughtful woman who was just walking home when she was stopped. Stopped by a police officer, seemingly in the line of duty. Apprehended. Handcuffed. Abducted. Raped. Strangled to death. The remains of her body burned and hidden – by a police officer. A serving police officer – Wayne Couzens. Someone Sarah would have instinctively trusted. Someone any of us would have instinctively trusted.
So what did Mr Allott say to BBC Radio York?
Mr Allott told BBC Radio York listeners – Sarah’s home town – she should, in fact, not have trusted the police officer who stopped her, citing covid-19 legislation that was introduced amid the global pandemic – to help save lives.
He said that women ought to be more ‘streetwise’ when it comes to their (note, their – women!) encounters with police, adding that Sarah should never have submitted to Couzens. [NB, to repeat: Allott was asked specifically what women should do – PW]
What did he mean by those words?
By his words, it is evident that – instinctively – Mr Allott believed Sarah Everard was to blame for what happened to her. To question Sarah’s ability to sense danger. Her intellect, even.
But he wasn’t just taking aim at Sarah. He went on in his interview to state that: ‘perhaps women need to learn a bit more about the legal process.’ Just women, incidentally. [sic]
So, what did he mean? In the context of those words it is reasonable to deduce that what Mr Allott believed – and perhaps believes – is that women are to blame for any harm they may come to at the hands of men. Police officer or otherwise. (James Mitchinson, Wednesday, 13th October 2021, my emphasis)
To summarise: From Allott’s attempt to answer a question about self-protection in a very specific situation by describing police procedures and the rules regarding arrest, Mitchinson feels confident to assert that Allott believes that every injury done by any man to any woman, ever, is the fault of the woman. When he said that we need “to examine more than what Philip Allott said in his interview,” he was, apparently, referring to psychic powers of his own, capable of deducing the motives of people distant in time and space, from a mere few seconds of speech. There is no point in mentioning that Mitchinson’s flatulent prose sets up the concept of ‘instinct’ as that which cannot be disobeyed, and then condemns Allott for obeying his. We are in a logic-free zone. In a sane world Mitchinson’s vicious and baseless accusation would be actionable, but in fact it was Allott who lost his job, forced to resign by a tidal wave of drivel like this, on a range of media. Last week we elected his replacement, picking our way through a forest of frothy promises until we found a candidate with a balanced and realistic agenda. He didn’t get in.
I do not know Mr Allott. He may, in spite of having both a wife and a daughter, retain some of the negative stereotypes about women found in some men of his generation (younger than mine), though we have, as yet, been given no reason at all to suspect this. I’m not a Conservative, and I’m sceptical about the point of the newly invented role of Police Commissioner, which seems to me to be very generously paid, and not very useful. But I feel I know a little about justice, and this condemnation isn’t just. It’s an opportunist witch hunt. At the time of Allott’s resignation there were unsubstantiated accusations in the press about sexist remarks he had made to his staff. More than a month later, they have not been repeated, or investigated, in spite of the media feeding-frenzy.
To be sure, the situation is not straightforward. Unlike novels, real life never is. There is, sadly, a group of men who despise women, regard them as sex objects, and, if they don’t have the guts to carry out actual physical abuse, enjoy it vicariously by means of filthy jokes and derogatory remarks. It’s not a small group. Such men might very easily make a comment implying that a victim of rape was ‘stupid,’ and there might seem to be some superficial similarity between their response and Allott’s. But associating Allott arbitrarily with such misogynists goes far beyond the available evidence, and verges on the malicious. There is a world of difference between the vile lout who says, ‘Serves her right going out dressed like that,’ and the loving mother who says, ‘I hope you’re not thinking of going out in that, young lady,’ but in one, very narrow, respect these two people are aligned, because the world is as it is. It would be fairer, in view of Allott’s hitherto blameless reputation and record, to associate him with the mother than with the lout, especially as he is the father of a daughter.
Perhaps Allott had sufficient media-savvy (he runs a PR company) to realise that saying that Everard should not have set out alone for a three-mile walk on a dark night in London would bring him howls of condemnation. This may be the reason why he opted for a narrow technical analysis of the question. However, by identifying increased knowledge of the law and of police procedure as a way in which women (and other potential victims) could make themselves safer, he created more problems for himself. What sort of mass public education programme would it take to teach the public how to verify a police-officer’s credentials, or to make sure that the whole population was aware what offences people can be arrested for? What sort of procedures could reasonably be established for ensuring that police officers could demonstrate their authority to make an arrest, without making it impossible for them to do their job? Is the particular deception employed by Couzens common enough for such complex precautions to be worthwhile? In retrospect, Allott probably now realises that his best option would have been to duck the interview. Given the climate of opinion, he was never going to come out of it well.
Our unpopular Home Secretary in the UK, Priti Patel, tried to improve her ratings, in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, by producing this platitude:
Every woman should feel safe to walk on our streets without fear of harassment or violence. (Twitter, 11/3/21)
It is not clear what those who make this sort of claim (and there are many) think should be done to bring about this state of affairs. Merely making the statement, no matter how often or how stridently, will not cause it to happen. Longer prison sentences for offenders, or other, even harsher, punishments? More CCTV cameras? Better vetting for police officers – a system so clever that the most intelligent rapists will not be able to circumvent it? Some hitherto unimaginable educational procedure designed to convince all young males that hurting women is a bad thing? (As in A Clockwork Orange, perhaps?) Or is the answer merely to take out the anger on unimaginative functionaries like Allott, and replace them with someone who will make the right noises and do nothing identifiable to make the lives of women, or any vulnerable people, safer?
Of course, not everyone will find the behaviour of Pullman’s unnamed officer difficult to fault, as I did. Like Allott, he believes women should be ‘streetwise.’ He points out that if a young woman goes alone into a carriage full of drunken soldiers she is, unfortunately, men being what they are, likely to be sexually assaulted. Worse, he advises Lyra to adopt a garment (the niqab) designed to subjugate and depersonalise women in a particular culture. Dreadful though this advice is to liberal ears, it works. Lyra continues on her journey hot, but unmolested. The officer has done what he could: he has treated her injuries, punished the miscreants, and offered practical advice. He thus exemplifies the difference between those who work to make things better in the situations in which they find themselves, and those who merely wish that people were nicer. Ironically, though he is fictitious, he inhabits the real world, whereas those who would criticise him, don’t.
A relevant anecdote by way of conclusion:
In my twenties I signed up for an evening class in elementary judo, securing for myself a vast, warm pyjama top and the coveted white belt. I may have claimed an intention of becoming fitter, but underneath was probably a determination to avoid a repetition of the unpleasant experiences of my youth that I’ve already mentioned. While the tutor was an elderly gentleman of an advanced Dan, all the other attendees were young women, and I don’t think their eyes were on the forthcoming Olympics, either.
At the conclusion of each session we had a period of free activity, in which we were supposed to put into practice spontaneously all the moves we had so far learned. For this purpose I teamed up with the grizzled veteran, while the women divided into pairs.
One evening, after I had had enough of being hurled to the ground by a man three times my age and three quarters of my weight, he and I turned to watch the tussles taking place around the hall. In one corner a burly lady was kneeling upon her defeated partner, pinning her to the ground with her knees on her shoulders.
“What do I do now?” the loser asked the tutor.
“Both thumbs straight up into the eyes,” responded the maestro, giving a nonchalant tug to his black belt.
“Is that in the rules?” she asked, incredulously.
“No,” he responded, “but it’ll make him get off you.”