Christine Keeler
Christine Keeler (Photo: Getty Images)
Christine Keeler (Photo: Getty Images)


Christine Keeler was failed by a society that views young women as collateral damage

Keeler, who died yesterday, spent her life being treated as a headline, or a punchline. We need to remember that she was an abused woman, says Daisy Buchanan

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By Daisy Buchanan on

Imagine that a woman who is dear to you dies, after months of suffering from a chronic illness. Imagine that every tribute offered, every remembrance and recollection contains a reference to a person this woman had sex with 56 years ago. Imagine this woman had been introduced to a frightening, sexualised adult world when she was just a teenager, and was held accountable for her own abuse so publicly that she started to describe herself as a “dirty joke”.

Christine Keeler has died, aged 75. Every obituary describes her as the “Profumo affair model”, sometimes putting those words before her name. But the way she is being remembered, as the woman embroiled in one of the biggest political sex scandals of the twentieth century, doesn’t do her justice – and it damages women everywhere.

Keeler was 19 years old when she met John Profumo, the secretary of state for war. She was introduced to Profumo by a man called Stephen Ward, who had found her in a nightclub in Soho two years earlier. Ward was 46 when he first saw the teenage Keeler. I think it’s important to hold that fact at the forefront of our minds when we read sentences like this one, which appeared in the Daily Mail. “Many contend that he, like Christine, was a victim; that he was actually just pairing his influential friends with attractive young women.” In 1963, Ward was charged with “living off the immoral earnings of prostitutes”, Keeler and another woman called Mandy Rice-Davies. He killed himself shortly afterwards. In Tanya Gold’s brilliant piece about the problematic posthumous rehabilitation of Ward, she asks “Where is the redemption of a woman who calls herself ‘a dirty joke’. Where is that?”

According to Keeler’s memoir, Ward was not interested in her sexually, but he groomed her to have sex with powerful men. News of Keeler’s relationship with Profumo caused a scandal because it was reported that Keeler was also involved with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. Profumo made a statement denying the affair in the House of Commons, but admitted he was involved with Keeler a few weeks later. At the time it was thought that this scandal contributed to Harold Macmillan’s resignation as prime minister, and the election of the Labour party in 1964.

Keeler was collateral. When we tell the story of British politics in the 20th century, we refer to her as a pawn, a sexy puzzle-piece linked to the fall of several powerful men. Keeler epitomises the way that women with a public profile are objectified and dehumanised. In a 2013 interview, Keeler said “I never really enjoyed the sex”, although she said that it was pleasant with Profumo “because he was kind and loving afterwards”. It breaks my heart, and my brain. A desperately vulnerable young woman, who grew up being abused by men, including her own stepfather, experienced so little affection and kindness in her life that this act of tenderness was remarkable to her. This is the woman who was publicly pilloried, the woman who the prime minister called “a tart”, the woman who was referred to in the Life headline “Temptress Rocks the Empire.”

The last few months have shown us, beyond all doubt, that the abuse and exploitation of women is a pandemic, and it’s happening everywhere, on every level

As I learn more about Keeler’s life, I can’t stop seeing patterns in the way we judge and discuss the lives of female celebrities. The sheer prurience with which Keeler’s life was described by the media is echoed every time a woman appears in the “sidebar of shame”, constantly sexualised for simply having bodies and wearing clothes. Perhaps the problem lies in our notion of victimhood. While I’m not sure Keeler would ever have wanted to describe herself as a victim, surely a 17-year-old girl can’t be held culpable for what happens to her when her groomer finds her in a Soho nightclub? Yet society failed to see that 50 years ago, and it fails to see it now.

Keeler was doubly damned. Firstly, she was exploited by a series of men whose interest in her was solely sexual – men who knew that she wasn’t in a position to turn them down, who manipulated her by offering the possibility of glamour and escape from an awful life, or men who simply overpowered her by force, and took what they wanted. Then, she was publicly shamed and humiliated by the men who believe that women who don’t conceal their sexuality deserve punishment. She was damned for displaying sexual agency, when she was simply using her sexuality to survive.

We can’t reflect on Keeler’s life unless we learn lessons from it. The last few months have shown us, beyond all doubt, that the abuse and exploitation of women is a pandemic, and it’s happening everywhere, on every level. For a long time, it’s been easy to abuse women and even easier to dismiss us. When we consider Keeler, we need to consider the treatment of the countless women who have come after her, and have been publicly blamed for the actions of the men who used and betrayed them. Think of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Tulisa Contostavlos, just three of the women who have been extensively slut-shamed after their partners leaked their sex tapes, and sought to profit from them. Think of Tiziana Catone, the woman who killed herself when her sex tape became a meme. If Christine Keeler had been treated with the kindness and empathy that she deserved by the public, and the media, perhaps a better precedent would have been set, and that tragedy would never have happened. It can’t be allowed to happen again.


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Sexism in the media
Daisy Buchanan

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