Ben Sullivan: guilty until proven innocent

The treatment of an Oxford Union president accused of rape has been shameful.

At the beginning of May, Ben Sullivan, the president of the Oxford Union, was arrested following one allegation of rape and one of attempted rape. Despite the allegations, Sullivan decided to stay on in his role as president. For some Oxford students, this was too much: they wrote an open letter to Sullivan asking him to step down because of the ‘anger with which Oxford students have reacted, combined with speakers cancelling their appearances’.

The rationale of this letter is ludicrous, especially when you consider that the signatories themselves actively contacted upcoming speakers at the union asking them to withdraw. The idea that Oxford students have reacted with any coherent or widespread ‘anger’ to Sullivan’s arrest is undermined by the fact that the open letter has received fewer than a hundred signatures. 

In fact, the letter does nothing to clarify why Sullivan’s arrest should have any impact at all on his ability to lead the Oxford Union. Of course, this has not stopped the letter, and the arrest of Sullivan, from becoming matters of national concern. The New Statesman initially published the letter, only to take it down on the basis that it might constitute contempt of court. Lord Ashdown, due to speak at the union, responded to the letter by saying he is ‘very concerned’, but not concerned enough to cancel his appearance. And in a further bizarre twist, the head of international police agency Interpol thought it necessary to withdraw his offer to speak at the union before offering his own view on Sullivan’s position: ‘In my view, [Sullivan] should be guided by the best interests of his organisation. He should not be guided by his own interests. In this case, my advice to Ben Sullivan would be either to resign or take a leave of absence until the criminal investigation has been completed.’ Quite what qualifies the head of a quasi-police force to comment on what is in the ‘best interests’ of the Oxford Union is anyone’s guess.

In fact, the only person contacted by the campaign who has actively criticised its position is the philosopher AC Grayling. He pointed out that Sullivan was ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and that the very serious allegations made against him should not be adjudicated in the ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’.

Quite right. The idea that commentators and other public figures are right to comment on the arrest of a young man for a very serious allegation shows a complete abandonment of any respect for objectivity and distance. The widespread publicity afforded an open letter which effectively sought to trash the reputation of a young man, and happens to make little sense even on its own terms, doesn’t just ride roughshod over important legal protections; it also shows that the contemporary discussion of rape has become tawdry and utterly undignified.

Sullivan is not the only target for contemporary feminist campaigners. Rather, the reaction to his arrest shows that Sullivan is seen as a symptom of a pervasive and oppressive sexual culture at universities, in which all young men – especially rich white ones in positions of privilege and power – are potential rapists who use a patriarchal and pervasive ‘lad culture’ as a means of sexual domination. Sullivan himself was alleged by student newspaper the Tab to be part of a rather tragically named drinking group called the ‘Banter Squadron’. Sullivan tried to use the Oxford Union’s money to sue the paper for libel. He later admitted he was a member of the ‘Banter Squadron’, but that this was just a name he used to refer to his group of mates.

This may go some way to explaining why Sullivan was such an easy target for student campaigners. Consider the National Union of Students’ (NUS) recent summit on lad culture. This was an event in which student attendees were encouraged to ‘eradicate’ lad culture on their campuses. What is lad culture?  Well, a team at the University of Sussex have actually done research on the topic – commissioned by the NUS – and found that contemporary ‘laddism’ can be seen as ‘young, hedonistic and largely centred on homosocial bonding’. This ‘often consists of “having a laugh”, objectifying women and espousing politically incorrect views’. Unsurprisingly, the same report found that 50 per cent of students have experienced such ‘lad culture’, which is effectively an academic way of describing immature but mostly harmless male student life. Both the report and the summit drew connections between such ‘lad culture’ and a casual approach to sexual violence, with the report pointing out that a ‘laddish’ group mentality ‘normalised sexual violence’.

So even before Sullivan was arrested, his alleged way of life had been marked out as a breeding ground for sexual violence. No one knows the circumstances of his arrest, beyond the very basic facts of the allegations. The details will not become public knowledge unless he is charged and put before a jury. However, the reason why those in the public realm felt confident enough to disregard Sullivan’s right to be presumed innocent was that in their eyes he was already part of a pervasive ‘rape culture’. He was allegedly a ‘Uni Lad’ and, accordingly, he was guilty until proven innocent.

This was exemplified in the actions of the Oxford University Students Union Women’s Campaign, which thought it appropriate to write another open letter to the entire Oxford Union inviting them to take part in a ‘consent workshop’ following Sullivan’s arrest, complete with the chance to be educated as to when it is okay to have sex. Only contemporary feminists, riding on the back of widespread official concern with ‘lad culture’, could be so cynically opportunistic as to treat the arrest of a young man as an opportunity to sexually re-educate an entire student society. This unwittingly illustrated the attitude of many campaigners, who believe that every male member of the Oxford Union – especially anyone who would actually self-identify as a member of a ‘squadron’ devoted to ‘banter’ – was a potential rapist in need of mental sterilisation by a do-gooding mob of self-righteous campaigners.

Those who have thought fit to wade into the allegations against Sullivan should be ashamed of themselves. Regardless of how the case against Sullivan eventually resolves itself, his treatment prior to being charged has been a disgrace. It’s time that some of those campaigning around rape grew up and learned to treat rape like any other crime, rather than cynically exploiting those in desperate situations for their own tawdry political gain.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked.

Picture by: wikimedia commons.

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