Over the last twenty years documentarian Louis Theroux has tackled some of the biggest issues of our times.
From paedophilia and racism to alcoholism and cults, there are few subjects that the ever unflappable Mr Theroux is afraid to dive in to.
Louis’ newest film though will see him tackle what could be one of the most difficult and controversial topics of his career: sexual consent and the increased scrutiny about what constitutes sexual assault.
The Night In Question will see the legendary broadcaster travel to America where he’ll meet both students who have been found responsible for sexual assault by their universities and those who have been assaulted.
The film offers a difficult but fascinating insight into modern-day campus life, where some people believe the stricter code of sexual conduct is draconian and hurts the innocent, while others praise the rules for giving victims, who’d be otherwise ignored, a voice.
In particular, the film examines the effects of Title IX, a federal law which states that ‘sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.’
Earlier this week we spoke to Louis Theroux about The Night In Question and what it was about this particular topic that first interested him.
He told UNILAD:
Anyone who’s seen any of my previous documentaries knows I’m drawn to the darker side of life, material that raises difficult questions, which takes you into the mind of people who are sometimes a bit dubious or just involve angst.
I’d been reading about cases of sexual assault on campus for years and it was one of those stories which I’d always been intrigued by.
I became curious when it became clear it was becoming a polarising topic and specifically there was a tension between the need to prosecute and investigate sexual assaults with the care they’re due, while on the other hand there was respect for due process and so with that in mind I thought I’d wander in.BBC
Of course, covering a topic as sensitive as sexual assault has the potential to be extremely controversial and I was interested to know from Louis whether he had considered any potential backlash.
Especially as the main subject of the documentary, Saif Khan, was found not guilty of sexual assault by the courts but was judged responsible by his university and suspended from school.
Louis explained how they walked that tight rope:
I had a certain amount of nervousness about it, I think we all as did as a team. I was coming to the story in the context of, with what I see as a necessary and important cultural moment, to do with the greatest of sensitivity towards sexual assault, belittling, and harassment in the workplace.
At the same time, my natural journalistic MO is to try and find ‘break holes’ for lack of a better term, areas where it’s hard to know what to do and to create awkward dissonance with the viewer.
My normal way of working when dealing with dark material is to find someone who viewers have suspicions about, someone with questionable beliefs or practises, and then try and get in their heads and obviously, that can be quite a high-risk proposition because it’s quite natural to be cordial to someone.
But also you want to be there and give them a reasonable hearing, but you don’t want to give them an uncritical platform and ignore the voices of victims and it’s hinged on finding that balance of respecting victims and letting the viewers know that we as programme-makers are seeing it through the context that [sexual assault] is under-reported.
As a viewer, when you’re introduced to Saif, I’ll be honest, it’s hard not to sympathise with him slightly. After all, he’d been found not guilty by the courts so why was he being suspended?
It’s something Louis seemed to know that viewers would struggle with, telling me that there are plenty of instances where the lack of evidence has fallen short of the standards of court but there is still evidence that something untoward happened.
Some people struggle with the idea that someone who’d not been found guilty of rape in court who never the less may have committed a sexual assault.
Look, in the Yewtree era after Jimmy Savile was unmasked I remember being at parties where people would say ‘well let’s not go too far’ and ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
Now that’s just a criminal standard, and that’s an important rule of thumb for court cases. But look, Jimmy Savile was never found guilty in court. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t commit multiple sexual predations.
You’d have to be obtuse to imagine that you’d say because Jimmy Savile didn’t face prosecution he is innocent, that would be a weird position, so I don’t think you can apply that criminal standard as the be all and end all.
And while [Savile] was alive he managed to intimidate people into silence or not pursuing the case. So I think it’s not the common sense thing but just because a court case has fallen down, it tells you a certain amount, it doesn’t tell you everything.
He also cast doubts on how sorry we should feel for Saif, bringing up one scene early in the doc where Saif starts to cry about his suspension.
Louis told me that the scene in question didn’t make him sympathise with him. Instead, it had the opposite effect leading to Louis questioning Saif’s authenticity.
I had an odd feeling [when he started crying] if I’m completely honest of not quite believing him. Now that’s not that I didn’t believe him but I just felt there was a question mark over the tears, and something in me didn’t respond to it.
Now I didn’t know whether or not that meant it was inauthentic, I just knew I had a question about it and in the context of the conversation, which involved him describing deep-throating the woman, it just struck me as really odd. None of it was quite adding up and I just had this feeling that it was more questionable than I thought it would be going into it.
I also asked Louis about Title IX and the potential it had to be a scapegoat for students who had committed sexual assault to point to and claim that it was ‘PC culture’ gone mad.
That is taking place, and it’s a real issue, but I also think that the problems are outweighed by the understandable need to have protocols which handle transgressive or harassing sexual behaviours.
So it may be a target for men’s right’s activists or Fox News commentators but it shouldn’t be impeded from doing from doing its job… as long as we make sure it proceeds in a fair-minded way.
Finally, we spoke about one of the doc’s most controversial moments, where a woman who’d been raped on campus discussed the idea of changing how we as a culture perceive rape.
Her idea is that rape is seen as such an atrocious crime that we become squeamish about it and try to hide it away by condemning rapists for life.
She claims if we were more open about sexual assault in general and less punitive, men would feel more comfortable in recognising their behaviour.
Okay yeah, I thought it was a very interesting thing she said and it took me a while to get my head around it, I think what she’s saying is that – and she’s speaking from a ‘Me Too’ perspective which has been accused of being too punitive – we’re not trying to be draconian or go over the top.
We’re not saying that people who go over the line need in all cases to be sent to prison and never be seen again, instead, she’s taking a classically liberal position that we’re just calling out behaviour and saying there are cases which fall short of the criminal standard but sexual conduct needs to be handled responsibly for those who are traumatised.
What you sometimes hear from old school circles or from naive men’s right activists is that rape is something where women are drugged, tied up behind a bush, but she’s saying that’s not how most rapes take place.
Rape can be your boyfriend during consensual sex losing his shit and punching you or overpowering you while you protest against it.
And I think she’s saying by extension that she doesn’t believe in all cases of rape people need to be locked up, hand in hand with a greater understanding with how rape place needs to be a sense that people can get better.
The Night In Question airs on BBC Two on March 4 at 9 pm.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30). Alternatively you can contact Victim Support on 08 08 16 89 111.
Male Survivors Partnership is available to support adult male survivors of sexual abuse and rape. You can contact the organisation on its website or on its helpline – 0808 800 5005.
More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.