10 November 2012

Confronting Abuse: Sailing Between Scylla and Charbydis

The seemingly unending sequence of increasingly grotesque revelations about Jimmy Savile that have followed in the wake of ITV’s 3 October broadcast of Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy has been sickening, but distressing though these stories have been, they give us an opportunity to face the reality of abuse that we would be foolish to surrender.  

Confronting abuse must be done honestly and calmly, however; it is too easy to set up lazy scapegoats or succumb to a witch-hunting mentality. 

Serious questions have, rightly, been asked of the BBC and other institutions with which Savile was linked. The question of whether Savile’s behaviour was deliberately ignored and even concealed is, as in the case of abusive clergy, perhaps the biggest question. “Monsters exist,” wrote the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, “but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are… the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” 

Some, with axes to grind against the BBC, have been eager to believe Savile’s behaviour was deliberately concealed, rather than being facilitated by a wish to believe the best of people and a refusal to face reality. Unfortunately, the media’s natural narrative dynamics contribute to this approach. “The trouble is that the media hates cock-ups as they dilute guilt,” observed Simon Jenkins in The Guardian last week, explaining “a mistake must be rendered a lie, a cover-up and a crisis, so that the cry can go up for heads to roll.”

Investigation is clearly needed, but it would be a tragedy if sensationalist storytelling made the BBC an institutional scapegoat, bearer not just of its own sins, but those of a whole society. Child abuse is no more the primary preserve of the British establishment than it was that of the Irish Church, and while concentrating on the past failures of the BBC might make us feel better, it would really be just a form of denial, draining valuable attention and energy away from where they're most needed to acknowledge and tackle abuse across Britain today. 

Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy Children’s Commissioner, reported to the Commons Home Affairs committee in June that sexual exploitation of children is rife throughout urban and rural Britain. Describing in graphic detail the pack-raping of young girls by adolescent males, she insisted that “people need to lay aside their denial”, so that victims can muster the courage to come forward, trusting that they will be believed.

The numbers seem to support Berelowitz’s statement: abuse rates cannot be compared precisely between different countries, as surveys ask different questions and use different definitions and methodologies, but it seems that Britain’s abuse figures are no better than Ireland’s. 

Twenty seven per cent of Irish adults had been victims of childhood sexual abuse, according to the 2002 SAVI stud, which suggests that abuse must have peaked before the 1990s. The NSPCC’s 2011 study, Childhood Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today, found that 24.1pc of British adults between the ages of 18 and 24 had experienced sexual abuse during childhood or adolescence; 65.9pc of the contact sexual abuse reported by those aged 17 and under having been perpetrated by under 18s.  

While we need, therefore, to recognise how widespread abuse is, we need to do so responsibly; there’s a narrow path between denial and hysteria, and the victims of child abuse and our need to tackle abuse as the social pollution that it is will not be well served by a moral panic. 

People have generally been dismissive of claims by clergy that right through to the 1990s they simply didn’t understand the reality of child sexual abuse. It therefore seemed somewhat disingenuous of Savile’s Radio 1 colleague Paul Gambaccini to say, as he did last week, that it “was considered so far beyond the pale that people didn’t believe it happened”. 

He’s not been alone in saying this, but rather than sneering about double standards and hypocrisy among media types, maybe we should welcome this as a belated recognition that the sexual revolution unleashed a maelstrom of confusion in a more naive world.

In December 2010, Pope Benedict provoked fury from Sinéad O’Connor and others when he told the Roman Curia that, “In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorised as something fully in conformity with man and even with children,” but the evidence shows that Benedict was right.

Sexual liberation had been one of the great ambitions of the student revolutionaries of the late 1960s; a desire to banish sexual repression led to the establishment of several communes and kindergartens in Germany where sexual contact between adults and children was expected. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a prominent MEP, described himself in his 1975 book The Great Bazaar as engaging in sexual acts with very young children in one of these kindergartens.

In the mid-1980s, the German Greens’ state organisation in North Rhine-Westphalia argued that “nonviolent sexuality” between children and adults should generally be allowed, while a Green Party task force in Baden-Württemberg wrote in a position paper that “Consensual sexual relations between adults and children must be decriminalised”.

In Britain, on the other hand, the National Council for Civil Liberties – then headed by Britain’s eventual Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, argued in 1976 that “childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage… The real need is a change in the attitude which assumes that all cases of paedophilia result in lasting damage.” 

The activist group called the Paedophile Information Exchange ubsequently became affiliated to the NCCL, campaigning for the age of consent to be lowered and opposing bans on child pornography. In the early 1980s the International Gay Association passed motions calling for an international solidarity campaign on behalf of the Paedophile Information Exchange and for the abolition of the age of consent.

Note that Peter says it may be impossible to condone paedophilia
Many of these would-be-liberators acted with sincere – if astonishingly naive – intentions.

The civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell seems to be their natural heir, writing in 1997 that several of his friends had enjoyed having sex with adults when between the ages of 9 and 13; while not condoning paedophilia, he argued that society should acknowledge that “not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful”.*

He’s not alone in arguing that sexual contact between adults and children isn’t always intrinsically harmful; Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that he found being molested “an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience”, and wonders whether it might be less damaging for children to be sexually abused than to be raised Catholic.

Attitudes to sexuality in the 1970s were chaotic, confused, and naive. Most of us have learned better, but although some of us have been slow to catch up, we need to remember that the past was indeed a different country, and they did things differently there. Blaming people for their historical naivety won’t help us fix today’s problems.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 1 November 2012.
* In September 2010 Tatchell claimed that The Guardian edited his letter without his knowledge or consent, but I would be curious if he felt it was edited to a point where he felt that his views had been misrepresented, and if he can prove this. After all, it seems that he was willing to let thirteen years go by before he attempted to disown the letter as published. It's almost as though he was happy with it until people pointed out that he'd publicly said that for adults to have sex with children isn't always abusive, is sometimes wanted by the children, and can be utterly harmless and even enjoyable.

No comments: