Feminists who campaign on the issue of sexual violence against women and children, and those who work with survivors, are well aware that we live in a culture of disbelief, where accounts of rape, assault and child sexual abuse are routinely met with scepticism if not dismissed outright as lies, fantasies, exaggerations or misunderstandings. Believing survivors is an important feminist principle; combatting the culture of disbelief is an important political task. But there are some accounts of violence and abuse that even feminists may struggle to come to terms with.
In the early 1990s, Trouble & Strife was one of the few feminist publications that addressed the issue of ritual abuse. The discussions we had in the editorial collective were instructive, with those not involved in support work finding the issues raised difficult to contemplate. Our conversations were informed by the feminist principle of believing survivors, but much of what was being said seemed unbelievable: even some rape crisis groups struggled with the accounts that were emerging, despite their extensive knowledge about sexual violence. This is still an area of work that stretches our humanity – why would one want to believe that adults can abuse and torture children in such vile ways?
In the last few years, other kinds of accounts have emerged that seem to many people scarcely credible. It is alleged that senior politicians and other members of the British establishment attended sex parties where children were not only abused but in some cases actually killed. Following the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as, in the words of the police, a ‘serial sexual predator’, and the conviction of several other media figures on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, there has been a steady stream of fresh reports of so-called ‘historical abuse’ (a term which is contested by survivors, for whom the effects are ongoing, and also because some perpetrators of ‘historical’ abuse may still be abusing in the present). Believing these accounts means accepting that a seemingly extraordinary number of prominent men have committed serious sexual offences. It is one thing to believe that one man, Savile, was able to do this unchallenged for many years, and another to suggest that he was not an isolated case.
We do believe the accounts given by survivors. But we also think it is important to talk about the particular difficulty posed by accounts which are ‘extreme’, either because they report very extreme practices (such as ritual abuse and murder) or because they point to a problem whose sheer scale makes it difficult to take in (as with the current reports of ‘historical’ abuse). That difficulty is easily exploited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the culture of disbelief. But if we look back to the way this was done in the past, there may be lessons we can learn for the present and the future.
The denial of ritual abuse
What is it that makes stories more or less believable? Partly it is the context in which we hear them. When the first accounts of organised abuse, and in particular ritual abuse, emerged, the context in which they were heard was one in which public perceptions were coloured by an earlier controversy about (non-ritual) child abuse in Cleveland, where the professionals who had taken children out of their family homes to protect them from abuse were demonized, portrayed in the media as zealots who saw signs of abuse everywhere. What emerged in this context was a ‘formula story’ about ritual abuse that has been repeated in the media ever since, and appears impervious to any challenge. (Just this year, the BBC gave the journalist David Aaronovitch a slot on Radio 4 to repeat it yet again.) The story is that gullible professionals believed the unbelievable, and created a moral panic about children being abused by groups of adults who believed in some version of Satanism.
Bea Campbell has published several pieces which challenge this account, including a two-part refutation of Aaronovitch’s most recent intervention. She points out that in one case in Nottingham, which is frequently cited as proving the formula story, the adults involved were imprisoned for a total of 150 years; the accounts children gave of ritualised elements were corroborated by three other adults who were not charged. In another case in Orkney, the father of the family involved had already been convicted for what the judge called ‘sadistic and horrific’ abuse.
Purveyors of the formula story are fond of pointing out that no one has ever been convicted of ritual abuse—which is factually accurate since in law there is no such offence—but the adults in the Nottingham and Orkney cases, and others since, have certainly been convicted of child sexual abuse offences in court proceedings where ritual elements were explicitly discussed. Survivors have continued to approach agencies for support, with pretty much every rape crisis centre supporting women whose experiences echo those that began to be discussed in the 1990s. Over two decades, centres have built up an understanding of how best to offer support by working with women who have experienced ritual abuse.
But public disbelief, shored up by the repetition of the formula story, had consequences. By the end of the 1990s it had resulted in the withdrawal of the definition of ritual abuse in child protection guidelines. More recently a different framing has been accepted, but this relates specifically to the abuse of children in minority and migrant communities, where the media have reported cases of ritual abuse and even murder without displaying the incredulity they showed in cases where the perpetrators belonged to the majority ethnic group. The issue was taken up by the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith and Belief, which reported in 2012. Many safeguarding policies now reference this work, without being accused of stirring up moral panic.
Disbelief has also been suspended in the case of reports on the brutal forms of violence practised against women by men in groups like IS and Boko Haram. It seems behaviours deemed ‘incredible’ in the civilized West become credible when those accused belong to a group defined as Other and ‘uncivilised’.
This point is also relevant to another ‘extreme’ case in which initial disbelief and denial has now given way to a measure of acceptance: the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are recruited into a form of organized abuse using emotional manipulation (so-called ‘grooming’), and then controlled using violence, threats, alcohol and drugs. After a series of cases in towns including Rochdale and Oxford, the main story that has emerged about this phenomenon tends to emphasize the ethnicity of those involved, with much of the discussion focusing on the problem of Muslim men exploiting white, non-Muslim girls. Not only is this inaccurate (there have been many child sexual exploitation cases where the perpetrators were not Muslims), it obscures the links between this form of abuse and others which are talked about using a different set of terms.
The accounts which have been circulating for some years now, about prominent men abusing children at sex parties, are in fact stories about what we now call sexual exploitation. Clearly it is not a new phenomenon, nor one confined to certain minority communities. What recently went on in cheap hotels in Oxford was essentially the same thing that is alleged to have gone on decades ago in the upmarket surroundings of the Dolphin Square flat where establishment figures are said to have held their parties. The children who were brought to the parties appear to have been recruited from the same vulnerable population as the Oxford victims (e.g. children in local authority care), and the prominent men involved, like the ‘ordinary’ punters in the Oxford case, were paying other men for access to them.
But these similarities are obscured by the way the stories most often get told. In stories about contemporary sexual exploitation the focus is on the ‘grooming’ process and the ethnicity of the procurers; the media do not typically ask who their paying clients were, and who else facilitated their organized abuse (though in Oxford those arrested included the (white) owner of a bed and breakfast where some of this abuse had taken place). In stories about historical abuse by prominent men, by contrast, what is emphasized is primarily the men’s ‘establishment’ status, and secondarily the possibility that the establishment protected its own by covering up their activities. Questions about who procured their victims and what tactics they used to do it barely feature in the discussion. These appear to be stories about two different things, when really they are stories about the same thing, but located in different times and places and seen from different angles.
The angle from which cases were presented had a similar distorting effect on perceptions of ritual abuse in the 1990s. The stories that circulated were sometimes sensationalised (a tendency amplified in some cases by the involvement of fundamentalist Christians), and there was a preoccupation with questions about the adults’ beliefs and the nature of their rituals (were they really Satanists? Did their networks function as cults?) This made it easier than it might otherwise have been to deny that ritual abuse existed, since it stopped people from noticing the basic resemblance between the ritual abuse which survivors were reporting and other forms of organized abuse whose existence was not in doubt.
The principle of believing survivors means that feminists cannot just set aside those parts of their stories which seem bizarre and ‘incredible’, but our analysis also needs to make clear that these elements, which can easily become the main or only focus of attention, are not the whole story, or even necessarily the most important part of it. ‘Extreme’ cases have basic features in common with accounts of more ‘ordinary’ and familiar forms of abuse. To put it another way, they represent different points on the same continuum.
‘Historical’ abuse: the backlash
The concept of a continuum of sexual violence, first developed by Liz Kelly, was meant to give feminists a way of connecting the most everyday forms of abuse to the most extreme. In a book she wrote about ritual abuse in 2001, Sara Scott argued that feminists should have used this approach more systematically, connecting this new and seemingly alien set of practices to what was already known about other kinds of sexual abuse. The same applies to the current discussion of ‘historical’ abuse by prominent men.
In this case the question is not whether any prominent men have ever engaged in abuse, but whether their involvement is being overstated, or whether the issue has become entangled in dubious conspiracy theories. Clearly the abuse perpetrated by some prominent men cannot be denied. When investigation revealed the full extent of Jimmy Savile’s crimes, committed in numerous different locations over a period spanning decades, it became impossible to maintain that allegations against celebrities and public figures were simply not credible, and to dismiss anyone who made them automatically as a mischief-maker or a fantasist. At the time this seemed like a momentous and irrevocable shift in public attitudes. But a revisionist backlash has already begun.
This backlash trades on the idea that Savile’s case was unique—a case that is not difficult to make, since in some ways his career as an abuser really was exceptional. Not only was he a particularly dedicated and prolific offender who seems rarely to have passed up any opportunity to abuse, he also had—through the combination of his TV stardom and his charity work—an exceptional level of unmonitored access to powerless and vulnerable victims, from young girls participating in TV recordings to psychiatric patients. Savile has also been characterized in retrospect as ‘hiding in plain sight’—a reference to his overtly ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’ persona, which some commentators suggest should have prompted suspicion at a much earlier stage. (In fact there was no shortage of suspicion: the problem was that Savile was a National Treasure, and therefore regarded as untouchable.)
Emphasizing Savile’s uniqueness as the most extreme of the extreme opens up a space for sceptical responses when allegations are made against other celebrities and public figures. ‘Don’t compare X to Jimmy Savile, he’s [insert description of someone ‘normal’: a married man, a father of two, a dedicated public servant]’. ‘They can’t all have been at it: this is a witch-hunt/a conspiracy’. Or maybe ‘Yes, but those were different times: not everyone who had sex with a 15-year old was a serial predator like Savile’. And of course, ‘the Savile case has brought the crazies/the chancers out of the woodwork, making mad accusations so they can sell their stories to the papers’.
We also hear the argument that the police, embarrassed by their failure to act on Savile, have shifted overnight from a stance of blanket disbelief to one of utter credulity. The person who makes this argument often begins by acknowledging that in the past the police used to turn ‘genuine’ victims away, but then suggests it is equally deplorable that they will now believe whatever anyone chooses to tell them. Flimsy and implausible stories about things that allegedly happened 40 years ago are being used to persecute frail elderly men, or to tarnish the reputations of the dead.
Joining the dots
To counter this revisionism, it may be helpful to focus on what Savile did have in common with other men at the centre of historical abuse allegations, as well as what may have been different about him; and also on what links these cases involving the powerful and prominent with other cases which don’t attract the same attention, or the same incredulity.
One factor that is relevant here is the workings of impunity (a mixture of feeling entitled to engage in certain acts and feeling confident that you will never be held to account for them—they will be missed, ignored or condoned). We know that impunity is one of the things that allows sexual violence to flourish in contexts as apparently different as the private space of the family home, the conflict zones where military personnel engage in mass rape of civilians, and the parts of the world where women and girls are trafficked and sold or killed by criminal gangs (or groups like IS and Boko Haram). It is not unreasonable to extend that insight to the exclusive locations in western capital cities where powerful and wealthy men pay to engage in recreational child abuse.
Impunity may explain why some groups of men—those with the most power, whether it is exercised by force and terror or through money and influence in high places—seem to be over-represented among perpetrators of ‘extreme’ sexual violence and abuse. This is a point that gets overlooked in the ‘they can’t all have been at it’ argument, which implies that there is some sort of conspiracy to bring down the rich and famous. A group of men whose position gives them a strong sense of entitlement, and a belief that they need not fear the consequences of their actions, might be expected to have a higher rate of involvement in the most extreme and risky abusive practices.
In Jimmy Savile’s case the belief that he could act with impunity was well-founded: he was never held to account during his lifetime. If other men are to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrated in the past, it will be important to prevent the revisionist view, which portrays ‘historical’ abuse investigations as campaigns of persecution driven by moral panic or political conspiracy, from gaining the same influence as the formula story about ritual abuse. We can acknowledge that such extreme forms of abuse are uncommon, and that some of the details may be difficult to believe. But what we have to resist is the framing of extreme cases as both vanishingly rare and completely different from more ordinary forms of sexual violence. These are not unrelated phenomena, but points on a continuum. In both our analysis and our activism we must continue to join the dots.