It happens everywhere 3

When the university city of Oxford became the setting for a high-profile case involving the abuse and trafficking of young girls, the media recycled every cliché in the book. But the stereotypes have not gone unchallenged, as Debbie Cameron reports.

I live and work in Oxford: city of dreaming spires, college quads, punting, Alice in Wonderland, former, current and future Prime Ministers, and recently, Operation Bullfinch. If you’ve never heard of Operation Bullfinch, it’s the codename for a long-running police investigation of organized sexual exploitation of young girls in the Oxford area [1]. Earlier this year, nine men were brought to trial; last month, seven were convicted of multiple offences including rape, conspiracy to rape, arranging the prostitution of a child and trafficking.

In reports, the defendants were frequently described as ‘Muslims’. I put the term in scare quotes because in this case it was more an ethnic label than a reference to any active religious observance. Most of them were British men of Pakistani descent, and most lived in East Oxford, one of the few parts of the city with a significant minority ethnic population. Their victims were white girls aged between 11 and 15, many of whom had spent time in care or were known to the social services. Underlining the point that ‘Muslim’ was ethnic shorthand, the girls were never, to my knowledge, described as ‘Christian’.

These details are relevant because the dominant theme in public discourse about Bullfinch was racism. Was the victimizing of white girls a reflection of racist attitudes among Muslims, or was it racist to mention the ethnicity/religion of men who, in truth, were just plain evil? This was not a new question. It had been asked about other cases involving the ‘grooming’ and trafficking of white girls by British Asian men in places like Rochdale and Derby. But if the arguments in Oxford were similar, the framing and tone were rather different.

Oxford isn’t generally seen, by itself or by outsiders, as a place like Rochdale or Derby. If Operation Bullfinch were the plot of a TV cop show, it would be more Scott and Bailey than Inspector Morse. It didn’t feature any crusty old college dons, or privileged undergraduates, or millionaires with estates in the Cotswolds. Nor did it pose the kind of intellectual puzzle that makes a classic episode of Morse. The whole thing was just distasteful, sordid, not in keeping with the Oxford ‘brand’. And that was also part of the story, especially in the media.

The camera and the Camera

A few hours after the verdicts were delivered, the BBC news showed a reporter standing outside the Radcliffe Camera (an iconic, round building in central Oxford which is part of the Bodleian library) intoning (I paraphrase, but this is what it boiled down to): ‘To the gazillion tourists who visit every year, it’s the city of dreaming spires (etc., etc.)—but a couple of miles from here there’s another Oxford where, unspeakably vile things go on’. Initially I found this baffling: instead of speaking to camera from the Camera, why hadn’t the film crew gone to a location that had some connection to the matter at hand, like the park outside the East Oxford health centre where the men used to meet their victims, or the guesthouse where a number of the girls were raped? Then I realised the location had been chosen to set the scene for an audience with certain expectations. If you don’t show the Camera, or some other university landmark, no one will recognize the setting as Oxford.

This kind of reporting makes the Oxford most residents actually inhabit, the one you don’t see on postcards, invisible. It’s a version of the same thing that allowed the exploitation to go on for so many years—not looking, not listening, not noticing, not caring. It also implies that in the ‘real’ Oxford, postcard Oxford, unspeakable things do not happen. On the eastern edge of the city (in reality very close, but in our fantasies so distant we do not even go there to film news reports about it), vulnerable girls are preyed on by alien evil men. But such horrors do not intrude on the lives of the privileged elite who dwell among the dreaming spires. None of them are rapists; none of them get raped.

Except that some of them are, and some of them do.

Rape in academic dress

Universities in general have a serious problem with sexual violence. In the US, the big scandals tend to involve fraternities or sports teams, whose criminal behaviour—in some cases, gang rape—is condoned or covered up by the authorities [2]. In Britain we don’t have those scandals: we don’t have the Greek system, or universities where football is more important than anything else. But we do have sexual violence, and we do have university authorities whose overriding concern when it happens is protecting their public image.

Oxford is not exempt from these problems. Last week, a colleague who’s about to take up the role of ‘tutor for women’ in her college told me what she planned to say in her first address to the students: ‘this year, I want all sex in this college to be consensual sex’. Another surprised me by remarking that she had found the media coverage of the Jimmy Savile case ‘very helpful’, since it meant her colleagues now understood the concept of ‘grooming’—predatory men targeting vulnerable individuals, and using their power to create an atmosphere in which no one feels able to challenge their behaviour, even when it’s clearly inappropriate and happens in front of witnesses. She was saying what Savile did in hospitals and children’s homes is recognizable, at least in outline, to people who work in Oxford colleges.

I don’t want to suggest that Oxford is alone here, since that would let other institutions off the hook. But Oxford has certain problems precisely because so many of its students are the children of the privileged and the powerful. All universities worry about bad publicity, but Oxford is hyper-sensitive because it gets so much press attention. And when it does want to take action, it can sometimes face obstacles that less privileged institutions might not. Occasionally you hear of an incident so egregious that a college has decided to expel the students concerned, only to back down when the culprits’ well-connected parents get expensive lawyers on the case. As the parents see it, their sons’ lives will be ruined if they don’t get their precious Oxford degrees; they’re determined to prevent that by any means necessary. Oxford may be rich compared to other British universities, but it’s still a public, mainly state-funded institution: it can’t afford to be constantly fighting lawsuits about cases that never made it to the criminal courts.

I said you ‘occasionally hear of’ such cases because they are typically discussed in private, behind the closed doors of committee rooms in individual colleges. If someone who was in the meeting feels sufficiently outraged to break ranks and talk about it to colleagues elsewhere, that conversation will be strictly off the record. I’m being careful here myself: there is nothing in the last two paragraphs the university could not dismiss, if it had to, as unsubstantiated rumour and gossip.

‘It Happens Here’

But recently, women students have begun to break the silence. Earlier this year, the Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) launched a campaign whose name, ‘It Happens Here’, is a pointed allusion to the stereotype of the university as a place of untroubled privilege where unpleasant things don’t happen [3]. They have an excellent blog, a significant part of which is devoted to the testimony of survivors of sexual violence. Here’s their explanation of what the campaign is about:

Sexual violence happens here, but here can be where we come together to end it.

We are dedicated to raising awareness about sexual violence and working with members of the University of Oxford and the wider community to ensure that Oxford is a safe place for all people.

Anyone can be a survivor or a perpetrator of sexual violence. People of all genders, sexual orientations, races, cultures, religions. Undergraduates, postgraduates, university staff. Anyone.

We believe that it’s time for all of us to join together and say that sexual violence will not be tolerated in our community. That we will support survivors. That we will educate ourselves about consent. That we will create a culture free from damaging myths. That we will make here a place where change happens.

Although this text does not explicitly say so, the campaign is also working to challenge and change the practices mentioned earlier, whereby official policies that promise zero tolerance are rendered ineffectual by a combination of denial, prejudice and fear of bad publicity or litigation.

That will undoubtedly be a long, hard struggle. But I do think ‘It Happens Here’ marks a sea-change. Some contributors express ambivalence about the f-word, but the campaign itself is clearly feminist. From where I stand, frankly, it’s the most feminist thing to have happened at Oxford for years.

Connecting two worlds

It’s not just their own treatment that makes the women angry. On the campaign’s Facebook page, there are occasional updates about the Bullfinch case (which, incidentally, is still ongoing: three more men have just been arrested on suspicion of keeping a brothel and conspiring to procure children for sex at the guesthouse where several girls testified that they were raped). Clearly, the students do not see the two Oxfords as completely unconnected worlds. Nor should anyone else.

When I say that, I don’t mean we should make no distinction between what happened to the girls who gave evidence at the Bullfinch trial and what happened to the students who tell their stories on ‘It Happens Here’. Of course there are differences, and of course they have a lot to do with age and class and education. The Bullfinch girls were much younger, and multiply socially disadvantaged. The abuse they suffered was organized and prolonged: they were victimized and terrorized over a period of years by criminals who exploited them for profit as well as personal gratification. They had little or no support from anyone at the time, and they still have far fewer resources with which to rebuild their lives.

But when I read the testimony of the student survivors, I was also struck by certain similarities: there are themes that recur in both sets of narratives. One of them is alcohol: many rapes of students by other students occurred when the women were, by their own account, extremely drunk. The girls in the Bullfinch case were also plied with alcohol by their abusers. It was used, along with other drugs, to render them compliant during the abuse and too confused to recall the details afterwards. Among students, drunkenness is evidently seen by some men as making a woman ‘fair game’, and the opportunity it affords is exploited for very similar reasons: she can’t resist, she won’t remember, she won’t be seen as a credible witness.

Another similarity is that quite a number of the students describe something that could, as my colleague suggested, be compared with ‘grooming’. The men who assaulted them were often initially attentive and charming; they seemed to want a romantic relationship, or else they presented themselves as friends in need of a sympathetic female ear. Some women explicitly say that they were socially insecure and sexually inexperienced at the time they met these men. They were pleased to have been singled out by someone who appeared to like them, to be attracted to them or to need their emotional support.

The strategy used by the Bullfinch men was not a million miles from this. They initially used their charm to persuade young girls who felt alone and unloved to have sex with them, and then they presented having sex with other men as a favour the girls could do them. Then, when the girls resisted, they used force. As did the men in the students’ stories.

Putting these accounts together reminds us that there are vulnerable girls and women in every section of society. It also reminds us that in every class and ethnic group there are men who will deliberately exploit that.

Community and impunity

Reading ‘It Happens Here’ made me think about something which never seemed to come up in discussions of the supposed racism of the Bullfinch men (or alternatively the racism of those who called them racist). Sex crimes follow the same ‘means, motive and opportunity’ logic as other crimes. Just as con artists seek out confused elderly people whose bank accounts they can drain, so sex offenders choose victims who are accessible, who meet their needs, and who maximize the probability that their crimes will go undetected.

This kind of calculation is particularly relevant to organized sexual abuse. If, like the men in the Bullfinch case, what you’re aiming to do is make money from prostituting and trafficking underage girls, it makes sense to target girls who nobody much cares about: who don’t have supportive families looking out for them (or whose families have difficulty in controlling them), whose distress—acted out in behaviours like drinking, drug-use or repeated running away—will be put down to their being ‘troubled’ or delinquent, and who probably won’t be believed if they talk about what’s really happening. In many parts of Britain, including Oxford, most of the girls who meet those criteria will be from the majority ethnic group. It’s not that the abusers respect ‘their own’ women (a telling phrase) while holding other women in contempt. Their behaviour—the fact that they are rapists, pimps and traffickers—suggests a basic contempt for women in general. But some women are easier than others to exploit.

Whatever the Bullfinch defendants’ prejudices about white women (and I’m not denying they may have had them), it seems clear that to do what they did, and get away with it for as long as they did, they had to go outside their own community. Pakistani East Oxford is a small, densely populated place, a place where almost every household is connected to others by ties of kinship and marriage. Where in such a place could men, who were themselves well-known to other residents, have found isolated pre-teenage girls whom they could abuse for years without anyone noticing? They couldn’t have got away with it: someone would have confided in a cousin or a neighbour, and they would in turn have told others, until the information reached someone who felt obliged to intervene.

Among students, on the other hand, shitting on your own doorstep is not only easier but also less risky than going further afield. The embarrassment and shame felt by many women, combined with the institution’s fear of scandal, means that even if a rape is reported, the perpetrator will probably only be subject to the disciplinary procedures of a college, and not the sanctions of the criminal law. Those procedures will be conducted behind closed doors (no public naming and shaming), and in many cases, for reasons already mentioned, the guilty will not be punished to the fullest extent permitted. All this deters women from making complaints, and encourages a culture of impunity among men. They would not have the same impunity if their victims came from outside the university. Conversely, the Bullfinch men would not have had the freedom they needed to operate within their own community.

Here, there and everywhere

There is no place, no institution, no community which does not need to address the issue of sexual violence. Granted, the problems that most need to be addressed and the strategies needed to do that effectively may not be the same ones in every situation. But whatever the problem, part of the solution will depend on listening to what girls and women say. It enrages me that the girls in the Bullfinch case were ignored for so long; but it encourages me that women in the institution where I work have created a forum where survivors can speak out.

It’s also significant that they have done this in a way that takes their experiences out of the enclosed world of the university and puts them squarely in the public domain (their blog can be accessed by anyone). That reinforces the point that we can and should make connections. We can’t just consign the Bullfinch case to some sordid netherworld which has nothing in common with the city of dreaming spires. It does happen here. It happens everywhere. And everywhere should be where we come together to end it.


[1] The girls’ stories are summarized here (warning: they are distressing): they show that the men subjected their victims to a relentless campaign of violence, encompassing imprisonment, death threats and repeated physical assaults as well as rape and trafficking.

[2] In the US there has recently been a campaign to make colleges change their policies on sexual violence and their behaviour toward survivors; you can read more about it here.

[3] ‘It Happens Here’ is not just an Oxford movement. It seems to have originated at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where a blog devoted largely to survivors’ stories has existed since 2012. The model has since been taken up at other institutions in the US, as well as in Oxford.

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