Published by Kettle Mag 18/10/2014
A 19-year-old man was jailed for five years on October 13, for drunkenly raping a woman after he’d taken off all her clothes, and photographed her naked as she slept. Louis Chand is from Scunthorpe, at the time of the assault he had just completed three and a half years studying engineering, and he had no previous convictions. So how did it come to pass that after a few drinks he thought, in the first instance, that it was justifiable to strip a sleeping woman and photograph her, and in the second, that he then had the right to have sex with her without her consent – or, indeed, her consciousness?
To merely condemn this man as a terrible human being would only serve to sweep the cultural issue under a carpet of inflammatory rhetoric, which so often serves to hide the deeper problems that are inherent in our society when we talk about sexual assault and rape. Across the country women suffer through sexual intimidation every day – but these instances, sadly, seem to be more prevalent in areas of high unemployment, and low economic growth.
An Economic Sinkhole
I am four years older than Louis but I, too, grew up in Scunthorpe. I may not have lived there since I was his age, but I remember the kind of culture that proliferates in its clubs and bars. Scunthorpe, like a number of industrial towns has, in recent years, been swept up in a seemingly unstoppable slide into an economic sinkhole.
Since the 1980s, employment in Scunthorpe’s main steel industry has fallen from 27,000 workers at its height, to an estimated 4,500 today. The knock-on effect of such a dramatic set of job cuts, is that a disproportionate number of the population have been forced to claim government benefits of some kind. The high street is littered with pound shops, and big-name retailers including Marks & Spencer and Dorothy Perkins, have been forced to close. Crucially, the crime rates, particularly for burglary and sexual violence, are significantly higher there than the national average.
I should mention, at this point, that underage drinking is also something of the norm. With such an abysmal set of achievable aspirations on offer for its young people, coupled with the bitter injustice of a significant rate of unemployment for many skilled older workers, Scunthorpe’s pubs and clubs have become a bizarre and frightening alternate reality, in which to wile away the hours.
At the heart of this alcohol-fueled twilight zone, the age range of the people caught in thrall to its pulsing lights and 50p Sambuca shots, ranges from 15 and 16-year-olds, to a singularly disheartened generation of apathetic pensioners. In this other-world, a generation of benighted teens are exposed from an increasingly young age, to a strange pseudo-morality, in which the norms of equality so hard won throughout the 20th century, are drowned beneath an incessant and sickeningly sweet flow of cheap alcohol and economic impotence.
Challenging Cultural Conditioning
A number of years ago, and as an underage young teenager myself, I was one of the many boys and girls who floundered there on a Saturday night. What concerns me, is that I never realised quite how far from the norm of social structures Scunthorpe’s nighttime system was, until I left for university. So, let me describe for you a particularly worrying faction of this system – as it was when I resided there – as context for the environment that, I’m sure, Louis and his victim are all-too familiar with.
Underage girls are conditioned to bribe their way into clubs by wearing low-cut, high-hemmed, skin-tight clothes, and a delicately nurtured vodka-jacket. When challenged by some of the more diligent bouncers – and they do exist – their night may yet end with a swift and disappointing taxi ride home. But for a concerning number of wannabe revelers, a flash of flesh and an intoxicated smile, will be enough for them to gain access to the rivers of chemicals that flow beyond the doors of many a darkened watering hole.
Once inside, the real fun begins. With an age range that encompasses the only-just-pubescent and the probably-taking-viagra alike, anything goes, and girls learn from their first entry, that a certain system of acceptable behaviour is firmly set in place. Men will grab you. They will grab you an awful lot, almost anywhere they can reach. The trick many young girls intuit quickly, is to push valiantly through this sea of wandering hands, and learn when to smile, when to laugh it off, and when to get angry and move on.
This may sound both prosaic and prurient to anyone who has been in a club in recent years, and so already knows first-hand that this happens across cities and towns on a nightly basis. But so ingrained is it in our culture, that it has become a phenomenon that the media increasingly leaves unhappily unexamined. The surprising quality of Scunthorpe’s nightlife, however, more than that of any other town or city I’ve experienced, is that this system has entered into a sexual spiral, in which the lines of acceptability have become steadily more difficult to define.
Rape Culture and Socio-economics
I would delve deeply into the nuances of this problem, but I think it can be summed up by one key anecdote. On Scunthorpe’s high street, in a sticky little bar called The Britannia, is - or there was a couple of years ago – a dance floor heralded by a sign which reads “Beaverview Square”. Here, there resides a first-floor dance partition with a see-through plexiglass floor. Women are encouraged to dance there – it being the only dance space available – whilst men of all ages, from those in their teens to those in receipt of their free bus pass, sup their pints and leer up-skirts from the ground level directly below.
This is “normal”. Even worse than that, this is “harmless”. In an area in which so many people are without even the prospect of a job, and surrounded incessantly once the sun goes down, by such readily-accepted sexist voyeursim, is it such a huge leap to suggest that the area’s young people will become, inevitably, both perpetrators and victims of rape culture?
In the first instance, Louis’ actions were voyeuristic. They were fueled by an already publicly sanctioned desire to see more of this young woman, and to see it while she was at her most vulnerable. That isn’t to say that it is excusable. Louis is 19-years-old, a presumably intelligent human being, and being drunk is no justification for assuming a right to a woman’s unconscious body.
But without previous convictions, without a history of violent behaviour, and with an educational level higher than a number of men his age from the same area, he did. Now, he will have to live with this actions coming to define the rest of his life, and so will his victim. In a statement to the court, she told the jury she had “flashbacks and nightmares” of waking up with this man on top of her. She said she now felt that her “goals and ambitions” had been “ripped from” her, and she has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and prescribed anti-depressants.
Now, through no fault of her own, this young woman must come to terms with what has happened to her. Louis has scarred both his own life as well as his victim’s, and his actions are inexcusable. But to pretend that this crime is simply a result of one man’s predilection for violence against women, would be wrong and unhelpful. The issue is far wider and far more ingrained than that, both within our culture generally, and within the gaping maw of our socio-economic situation. As a society, isn’t it about time we addressed the economic factors inherent in our rape culture?