Monday, July 07, 2014

On the sex abuse scandal floodgates

If you live in the UK, you can't have escaped the torrent of cases involving historical sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people. Especially if you listen (as I do) to BBC Radio 4, which doesn't shy away from spotlighting the growing number of cases.

We had well-known individuals like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. We've had stories emerging from institutions such as St Paul's School, Broadmoor Hospital (related, but not restricted to Jimmy Savile's legacy), and immigration detention centre Yarl's Wood. There have been cases involving teachers, including William Vahey. There was an additional case of a school for boys from homes with difficult circumstances, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was called. It was featured on a BBC R4 programme a few weeks ago, and one of the victims was interviewed. He talked about being 'pimped out' by the staff to people from the town.

Most of this abuse happened between thirty and fifty years ago, although some of it persisted until fairly recently and in some cases, there are allegations that it may well be ongoing.

The expression 'it was a different time' is sometimes used to excuse behaviour of previous generations that later generations find perplexing. In this instance, it's absolutely no excuse, but it is also true: it was a different time, and this is how the perpetrators managed to carry on doing what they did to people who were in no position to fight back. A child who reported a teacher in the 50s and 60s was unlikely to be believed, and might well have brought down worse circumstances upon him/herself. A woman who reported a male colleague for inappropriate behaviour, likewise. And in both cases, the victim was expected to take responsibility for changing the situation.

Let me share two experiences from my own life for two reasons: to back up my assertions and to demonstrate that 'this sort of thing' can happen to anyone. Keeping it a secret only supports the agenda of the perpetrator.

When I was around 7 or 8 years old, there was a man who used to take up his station in the children's swimming pool at the beach near my home. He posed as a fun person, who cavorted with the children in the water. Most commonly he would push a child through the water at great speed. The sort of thing you do with kids - usually totally innocently, and usually to the great delight of the child. Only he would achieve this by placing one hand on the child's shoulder and the other between her legs, pushing her away from him through the water. There was always a long line of kids waiting their turn to play this game. I joined the line once at the suggestion of a friend. Our two families were visiting the beach together that day. She said the game was open to anyone and was great fun. Certainly, everyone did seem to be very happy. It happened so fast, it was over before I knew it, and I made a beeline for my mother, lying beside the pool. When I reported what had happened, my mother told me "Stay away from him, then." The other little girl's mother called her daughter over and - over her objections - told her to stay away from him, too. That was it. The sum total of the action taken. No-one called the police. No-one challenged the man on his behaviour.

It was up to his little victims, many of whom didn't even appear to notice what he was doing, to take responsibility for ensuring that it didn't happen again... to them, at any rate.

Sexual harassment
When I started my first 'proper' job at the age of 21, I was subjected to a sustained campaign of sexual harassment by one of the company directors. Mine was a very junior position, but the nature of my job meant that I was often present at meetings of senior staff members and client meetings. I was always the only female present. I was also at least 15 years younger than the next youngest person in the room. If I did something well, this guy knew of a suitable 'reward'. If I made mistake, he knew a suitable 'punishment'. Always suggested in the most unmistakably lascivious fashion. He would openly stare at my body and complain if I stood at an angle or in a position which obscured his view. He did this in the presence of other senior staff members and our customers (also all male and mostly middle-aged), most of whom would laugh uproariously. I had no idea what to do about it. I asked my Mom for advice, and she told me to try to avoid him. Again. My (male) boss told me to take it as a compliment. Other women on the staff shunned me as if I were somehow to blame for the man's behaviour. The MD warned me in private never to be alone anywhere with the man, especially at any event where alcohol was involved.

So, once again, the victim was expected to take ownership of the situation.

In the intervening years between those two incidents, I encountered a few 'dodgy' individuals - usually someone's uncle - whose own family members would warn me to avoid. Sometimes it seemed like almost every family had one, but no-one ever did anything about it, other than to ensure the people they cared about didn't become victims. Fortunately my own family didn't include any dodgy uncles, I'm pleased to say.

We see the same tacit attitude in legacy guidance to female university students or shift workers to avoid becoming a rape statistic by doing (or not doing) this or that thing.

What we're beginning to see now, is the backlash of all of those years of not taking action. It's like someone has lanced a boil. Decades worth of suppuration is coming tumbling out. I predict that for a while, we will continue to be deluged. Several more of our icons will prove to have feet of filth. Eventually the flood will slow down, but hopefully someone will then proactively clear rest of what is in that wound and it can then be disinfected.

In the meantime, we need to create an environment in which the shame attaches itself to the perpetrator, not the victim. In which the victim makes a beeline to a parent/teacher/manager. In which said parent/teacher/manager takes immediate and decisive action.

We need to change the language we use from apportioning responsibility to the victim for avoiding the crime, and direct ourselves toward teaching people not to be perpetrators of the crime. Every perpetrator once was a child.

By the same token, we need to take care that we don't create a society in which every vulnerable person is a victim and every person in a position of responsibility is automatically under suspicion. We have seen signs of that when several high profile children's authors refused to visit schools because of the requirement that they undergo CRB checks.

I'm not sure where the solution lies, but we need to start working towards one. There is no doubt that we have let people down. Often and badly. But throwing draconian legislation at it in a kneejerk reaction isn't going to be helpful, in my opinion

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