'Groping' is not a harmless prank

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Groped by Harris on live TV

Two female celebrities say they were sexually assaulted by Rolf Harris with one taking place during an interview on live TV.

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COMMENT

It’s been less than a week since Rolf Harris was sentenced to a prison term of five years and nine months for charges relating to the indecent assault of four girls between 1968 and 1986, and already there are more allegations of abuse emerging against the former entertainer.

British radio host Vanessa Feltz and singer Linda Nolan have both waived their legal right to anonymity in the revelation of their claims against Harris. Nolan alleges that Harris assaulted her in 1975 during a concert tour in South Africa. The singer told The Mirror that Harris cornered her in a hallway and groped her breasts while kissing and licking the back of her neck. After pleading with him to stop, Nolan says Harris laughed it off and said, “Don’t be silly, I’m only giving you a hug.” She told the Mirror, ““It was horrendous and humiliating, but he made me feel like I was a dramatic, silly little girl so I felt embarrassed. I just went back to the dressing room, blushing, and didn’t tell a soul.”

Rolf Harris, pictured arriving at Southwark Crown Court for sentencing last week.

Rolf Harris, pictured arriving at Southwark Crown Court for sentencing last week. Photo: Dominic Lipinski

Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Express over the weekend, Feltz, a former TV presenter who currently presents a radio show on BBC Radio 2, said that Harris assaulted her during a live television segment in 1996 while filming an ‘On The Bed’ segment for Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast.

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“I was lying on cushions on the bed in a long, flowing, floor-length, heavily beaded evening dress,” Feltz said. “He was sitting very close. As the interview continued, with his wife watching and with the crew all in the room, I suddenly felt a rustling at the hem of my dress.”

Feltz goes on to describe a brazen assault throughout the duration of the live interview in which Harris’ hand crept further up her leg “at speed”. Within a few seconds, Feltz alleges Harris had managed to his hand inside the elastic of her underwear. Faced with the familiar feelings of uncertainty, shock and disgust that accompany many sexual assaults, Feltz recalls struggling with the “natural instinct” to put her hand out to stop him while worrying about upsetting his wife or the children watching at home. Ultimately, she interrupted the interview to cut to an ad break so she could be given some kind of excuse to get away from him. When she returned to set, she says Harris was laughing and joking as if nothing had happened.

Photographers scramble for pictures of Rolf Harris after he was sentenced in Southwark Crown Court on Friday.

Photographers scramble for pictures of Rolf Harris after he was sentenced in Southwark Crown Court on Friday. Photo: Bogdan Maran

For those unfamiliar with the pattern or procedure of indecent or sexual assault, such a response might seem baffling. Why would Feltz simply ‘allow’ this to happen without intervening?

In reality, it’s not unusual for sexual abuse survivors to experience a freeze response during an assault, nor is it rare. Predators like Rolf Harris rely on the silence and shock of their victims in order to get away with their assaults - indeed, it is part of the revolting thrill for them. As Feltz has said of the alleged incident, “I have not a shadow of a doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing and he was getting excited about it, doing what he was doing while he was on live television.”

Sexual assault is all about power. The sickening rewards that these things bring are not about transitory physical pleasures but the reassurance of one’s own superiority and entitlement.

British TV presenter Vanessa Feltz.

British TV presenter Vanessa Feltz. Photo: Getty Images

But what makes the individual sins of Harris any worse than your garden variety indecent assaults occurring throughout people’s homes, in schoolyards, in pubs and across cities and countries all around the world? Leaving aside the enormous privilege bestowed on Harris that for so many years allowed him to hide in plain sight, the answer is nothing. Sexual assault exists on a continuum, which means that everything - from the tiniest of microaggressions to the most egregious cases of abuse - are connected. The reason men like Harris are able to get away with their crimes for as long as they do is because this continuum also contributes to a culture of self doubt and self blame.

I have friends who’ve been groped in bars by men who refuse to consider that what they’ve done constitutes a crime, instead demanding that these women stop ‘overreacting’. But Linda Nolan’s feelings of embarrassment at possibly being a ‘dramatic, silly little girl’ are not unusual. Nor is it strange that in the midst of an indecent assault Vanessa Feltz was worried about upsetting her abuser’s wife. Women are taught at a very deep level to dismiss and ignore the aggressions directed at them, including those involving sexual or indecent assault. Don’t make a fuss. It was a joke. He didn’t mean it. You’re being silly.

Let this be clear to anyone reading. ‘Groping’ is not a harmless prank, nor is it just a case of boys being boys. It is a form of sexual assault and it can have devastating effects. Dismissing it as harmless is an act of participation in the idea that bodies - especially those of children and women - are not entitled to dignity and autonomy.

Rolf Harris abused women and children for decades. Encounters that sometimes lasted only a few minutes wrought lifelong consequences for his victims. Why, if we are to condemn it in him, must we dismiss it as a silly mistake in others?

We need to stop erring on the side of abusive behaviour to avoid being accused of ‘overreacting’. This mass social disregard for the rights of victims is precisely what hurts them in the first place, and leads to them staying silent.

40 comments

  • The author has made a good point in identifying the "continuum" but then come to the wrong conclusion that certain behaviours are always sexual assault.

    At some point along this continuum there is a grey area that will be different for different people. The author rightly points out that unwanted "groping" may be considered sexual assault but what about say patting someone on the back? Touching someone else's face?

    Is the author suggesting that all physical contact could be considered sexual assault depending on the subjective reaction of one person?

    We should rightly condemn sexual assault but just like the author says we shouldn't err or the side of abusive behaviour, nor should we err on the side of assuming people are abusers.

    People need to take more responsibility for themselves and not accept behaviour they don't like. You can't expect other people to know your thoughts.

    Commenter
    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    July 08, 2014, 8:24AM
    • "The author rightly points out that unwanted "groping" may be considered sexual assault but what about say patting someone on the back? Touching someone else's face?"

      Freddie, if you're unsure or if you don't know the person well, just don't touch anything. I mean, why would you need to touch someone's face if you didn't know them well? Are you routinely performing artificial respiration on your nights out or something? ;)

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 10:50AM
    • Groping is pretty cut and dry surely. I didn't get the sense the author was trying to enlarge the definition. In fact the article is almost a bit boring in it's obviousness. No creepy touching.. That would mean no touching on the breast or genital areas or other areas in a suggestive manner - slowly running a hand up a thigh, playing the the side of someone's neck.. anything that suggests sexual or close intimacy. Patting on backs, touching a forearm while laughing are all relatively formal or natural reactions. The only reason you should touch someone's face is if they've got something stuck on it and you let them know what you're doing. It's really pretty simple.. Didn't think there would be much argument. It's basically "What would you think was cool for a gay guy to do to you physically?"

      Commenter
      andrewb
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 11:08AM
    • Fred, I would consider someone touching my face as "space invading" but anywhere near my legs/thighs or more obvious girly bits is definitely sexual and unwelcome. Think about it in terms of what your own body bits would think is appropriate, inappropriate or just out and out groping and there's your answer. And whilst I don't expect any man to be psychic about what I'm thinking, I do expect to be treated physically with respect. Guys KNOW when they're trying to cop a feel!

      Commenter
      Ms Patonga
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 11:12AM
    • "At some point along this continuum there is a grey area that will be different for different people."

      Freddie, sexual harassment cases are currently decided under a "reasonable person" rule, i.e. whether a "reasonable" person would consider the behaviour to be harassment. Outside of a court of law, however, I'd argue that the appropriate standard to consider is whether the person considers the actions against them to be abusive. It's all very well to tell a victim that they haven't been harassed or abused in your view, but that's really a way of silencing victims and telling them, once again, to lighten up, because they don't really understand their own experience.

      "The author rightly points out that unwanted "groping" may be considered sexual assault but what about say patting someone on the back? Touching someone else's face?"

      Patting someone on the back is one thing, but I can't think of a single occasion on which it would be appropriate to touch someone's face unless you knew them *extremely* well.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 11:13AM
    • I agree with Donna and Red Pony on this.

      Recently one of my female PhD students came to see me in tears - a combination of relationship issues (none of my business) and the fact that one of my collaborators had messed her about professionally - he is no longer one of my collaborators.

      I gently patted her shoulder and gave her a platonic hug. She knows me very well and understood that neither were sexual contacts - it was just me exercising my professional duty of care towards her.

      Context is everything.

      Commenter
      Dr Kiwi
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 12:03PM
    • Although I agree with the overall premise of the article that groping shouldn't be acceptable, Freddie does raise good points regarding whether any physical contact could be considered sexual assault and that people need to make it clear that someone else's behaviour is inappropriate.

      I've had plenty of women come up to me in bars and start chatting, it's not unusual for them to repeatedly touch my forearms or "accidentally" brush their leg against mine etc. I don't feel sexually assaulted as a result but as a very happily married monogamous man (and yes I do bring this up in conversation if they start getting a bit handsy) the advance is unwelcome, however I don't want to make a scene and I generally just try and excuse myself from the situation.

      Now obviously it's a very different scenario for me as a fairly athletic guy who is not physically intimidated by whoever is doing it and that whilst it is technically harassment I don't think of it as sexual assault, but the fact that I find it difficult to let them know that their behaviour is unwelcome and instead just leave should show how much harder it is for women to say when something is unwelcome.

      The onus should absolutely be on men (and women) to keep their hands etc to themselves, but if a line is crossed (as judged by a reasonable person) then whoever feels they are being assaulted needs to let the perpetrator know as well, and we as a society need to start supporting the victims rather than claiming it's a compliment or a prank.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 12:04PM
    • My point is that different people have different tolerance for physical contact. What I consider inappropriate, others might not.
      I have female friends who are quite comfortable with a "kiss hello" from strangers. If the person they are kissing doesn't approve, is it sexual assault?

      Unless the author is arguing that no one should ever make physical contact without explicit verbal consent then there will always be grey areas. I think that there needs to be a responsibility on people to make others aware of behaviour they are uncomfortable with rather than expecting them to read their minds.

      Commenter
      Freddie Frog
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 12:20PM
    • Actually the reasonable person test is the best benchmark. We have many, many people in the world with hangups about all sorts of things due to past trauma. I know someone that can't be in the same room as a balloon. They would feel assaulted if someone was celebrating a birthday at a pub behind them and someone came up and patted them on the back while holding a balloon. Their own personal experience would be one of true horror as real as being bumped by a shark while swimming. You'd be able to measure their physiological responses, heart beat, perspiration etc to empirically prove distress - there would be no denying it, everyone could understand the experience, however a reasonable person test shows that even though subjectively it might be like being assaulted with a knife in every measurable way, it wasn't. This is an extreme example to prove a point, but the fact is people do overreact to normal non-assault in highly subjective personal ways so sometimes, yes a more objective test is required. I consider people who let their dogs touch me as abusive. I wouldn't lick a girl's leg so I don't know why it's ok for their dog (proxy) to lick mine or press it's wet nose against me. There are also the sanitation issues and the fact I've been bitten by a dog as a child. If I were allowed to rule the world that might be lot of assaults going on (except I understand I have an abnormal response)

      Commenter
      andrewb
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 12:32PM
    • Freddie, you're right - I can't know what another person is thinking. What I *can* do is ask - for e.g. "Hey boss, you've got something on your jacket - OK if I just brush it away?". She can then respond with a yes or a no, whatever she's comfortable with.

      I'd absolutely always ask before engaging in any sort of contact with someone I don't know, whether that's going in for a clinch after a date or trying to discreetly get dog hair off the back of their overcoat. I hope you would too!!

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 08, 2014, 1:10PM

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