A personal reflection on the ‘Jimmy Savile affair’
Last week I joined Twitter. I wanted to respond to the (largely) positive reactions to the various newspaper articles I had written in recent weeks in response to the ‘Jimmy Savile’ affair. Now I want to tell a longer story, one that doesn’t belong in an academic journal or in a tweet, but which explains something about why I think this topic is so important, to me and for us all.
I was sexually assaulted in 1969 by the grandfather of a friend. I was 15 years old. We’d gone to visit him as we often did on a Saturday afternoon – he was lonely and a widower – and he was always glad to see us. On this occasion, he said he’d run out of cigarettes and asked my friend to run over to the local shop to buy some for him. As soon as she was out of the door, he lunged at me, kissing, touching and forcing himself on me. I was completely unprepared and shocked – I tried to push him off me and thankfully, was saved by my friend’s return a few minutes later. She saw how upset I was and we left immediately, then all hell broke loose as the two sets of parents had to deal with the aftermath of this. The police were not involved, but my friend and I gradually drifted apart – things were never the same again. I kept going over in my mind what had happened – what if there had been a queue in the shop?; what if she had met someone for a chat?; was my mini skirt too short?; had I brought this on myself? A few years later, I joined a women’s consciousness-raising group at university, and found a new language to explain what had happened to me. I realised that it wasn’t my fault and never had been – that there is no excuse. I also learned that the personal is political, and that my experience, far from being unusual, was shared by many women.
So why am I telling this story again now? Isn’t it just another story that demonstrates the need for women and children to be protected from men’s risky behaviour; a story that affirms women’s vulnerability as well as their moral superiority? My answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that I don’t think it does. I think what it shows is that bad things happen in life, and bad things can happen to men and boys as well as to women and girls. Women do not have sole ownership of victimhood, just as not all men are rapists, potential or otherwise. My story also shows that there is a continuum of sexual victimisation. I was lucky – the assault did not escalate into a full rape; my parents believed my account; I lived in a family that loved and valued me for myself. As a social worker working with children and families for many years, I am well aware that not all others are so lucky. Some children grow up in families where sexual abuse is practised as a way of life, passed on from one generation to the next. Some people (women and men) are so damaged by their experience of abuse in childhood that they are unable to function without the crutches of drugs and alcohol or prescription medication. My strong belief is that their experience and mine is not the same, and that by treating child sexual abuse as if it were so, we minimise the harm done to those who need our help most. My story has another important message, however. I think it unlikely that my friend’s grandfather was a paedophile. I was a fully formed young woman when he attacked me, and I think that he responded to my youth and naivety, not my status as a child. I believe that by treating all crimes of sexual violence against children and young people as paedophilia, we deny the very dangerous and troubling reality that some people (mostly men, but some women too) are sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children.
To return, then, to the current furore around child sexual abuse. It seems very likely that Jimmy Savile abused his position of trust to take advantage of some young people. We don’t yet know how many; nor are we likely to. Some of those whom he abused may have been seriously damaged by this. For others, they will, like me, have had an unpleasant and shocking experience that has become part of their life-story, never forgotten, sometimes reflected on, but not causing lifelong psychological damage. Whether Savile was a paedophile also remains to be seen; more stories have to emerge for that to be fully clear.
A group of academics from a range of disciplines are currently engaged in a seminar series, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This series is revisiting the concept of moral panics as a vehicle for interrogating 21st century social issues and anxieties (see http://moralpanicseminars.wordpress.com). One of the ideas at the heart of early writing on moral panics was that moral panics inflate and conflate issues, and in doing so, they treat some things too seriously while at the same time not treating other things seriously enough. That’s why I have written this blog.
Viv Cree, Twitter @vivcree, 9th December 2012