Thursday, 4 October 2012


Last night, it seemed most people I knew were watching the documentary about Jimmy Savile. I couldn't. I had to wait until this afternoon, when it was daylight and I had trusted company and wouldn't have to face sleep for a while. I hope by the time you finish reading this, you'll understand why. For me, one of the most disturbing things in he documentary was the revelation that Savile had gifted one of his (alleged) victims a copy of his autobiography signed 'your keeper'. It's that aspect of perceived ownership of people and of experiences that I want to talk about here, because despite the many recent pieces I've seen written on this subject, it's something that I haven't see discussed in any depth. I think it's important to breaching the gulf between those who watched that programme wondering why nobody took action and those of us who live in a parallel world where we'd have much much more surprised if somebody had.

I haven't slept much over the past two weeks. It wasn't the programme itself so much as all the talk surrounding it, that triggered once again the flashbacks and the mornings where I'd wake up with my body full of fury as if I were in the middle of fighting someone off. That, and the build-up of recent cases of publicly discussed sexual abuse, rape and exploitation (whether alleged or confirmed, malicious or just plain stupid) from Julian Assange to Ched Evans, from Jeremy Forrest to the disappearance of little April Jones, never mind the perpetuation of rape myths by people like Tod Akin and George Galloway. All these cases merited media attention but it can be difficult when one is unable to go for a day without such reminders. So, I'm going to touch on some of my own experiences here, but I'm not after sympathy (which I struggle to know what to do with) and I certainly don't wish to suggest that everyone's experiences or reactions are the same. I simply wish to explain my perspective and to ask for your patience if I'm a little more emotional than is usual in my writing.

One question I have seen arise persistently in relation to that Savile case is "If they're true, why didn't these women report these incidents sooner?" Of course, some of them did, and were ignored, but let's focus on the others. I can see how this might be hard to grasp for some people - after all, would one hesitate to report a burglary or a traffic violation? - yet to me and many people like me the answer is so blindingly obvious that it's difficult to get across with the patience and restraint necessary to promote understanding. First of all, let me clarify that the person who abused me when I was a young child was not famous, yet I, like a substantial portion of those who experience child abuse, said nothing directly to anyone for almost twenty years. The reason was twofold. Firstly, whilst I was still in contact with that person, I wanted to avoid a confrontation. Secondly, I didn't want to think about it. I didn't forget, but whenever those thoughts arose I stomped them down. I'd have gone crazy otherwise. I felt I had a right to get on with my life, and it wasn't until I had psychologically adjusted to being in a safer environment that it all bubbled back up to the surface.

When one does start talking, there are consequences. For most of us that's centred on family relationships and friendships, but in a case where the assailant is famous, there must also be the understanding that it could easily end up all over the papers. Yes, complainants have a legal right to anonymity (which two in this case have bravely chosen to waive) but that can't make it any easier to see the intimate details of sex acts in which one was an unwilling participant splashed all over the news. This can make it impossible to get any time off from those persistent thoughts and memories, and it also makes a desperately personal part of one's life into public property.

This is one of the reasons why I didn't go to the police when, as an adult, I was sexually assaulted by a celebrity. I was walking back from a shopping trip when it happened. He was so drunk he probably doesn't even remember it. It was broad daylight. He approached me in the street and subjected me to a tirade of homophobic abuse, then grabbed at my genital. There wasn't much I could do about it. I have a muscle wasting disease and fragile bones. My priority had to be staying on my feet. Later I mentioned it to a friend who said he knew someone who had been persistently harassed by that particular guy. Just like with Savile, there are rumours. I know there were witnesses in my case. They did nothing. That's usual. People who could talk about it at no personal cost, but don't. I'm not convinced it would do any good for me to say something now. I'd have no material proof. And my experience has been that on the occasions when I have reported assaults to the police, nothing has come of it. I still suggest that option to others, so maybe I'm a hypocrite, but it's more hat I want hem to consider the choices available to them. I've also helped others to escape ad recover from abusive situations without reporting.

Another reason why I kept quiet about my experiences when I was younger is that I don't have a binary gender identity (I realise this may not be obvious from my physical appearance - although I am actually intersex, it's hard to look butch with a muscle wasting disease) and I didn't want to be forced into an ultra-feminine poor-helpless-little-thing role, there to be protected - effectively objectified. It wasn't until later that I came to understand many women loathe this too. It's illustrative of how victims of sexual abuse and assault are written out of their own narratives. It's easy to lose control, especially when there are so many people eager to step in and 'save' us (always after the fact), to be heroes, to win social acclaim without making a fraction of the effort that we've had to make just to survive. Of course this doesn't mean we never want or need help, but we can do without being told what to think.

One of the things I've been told is that I should forget about what happened to me. I should look to the future. I'm sure everyone who says this means well, but there's that gulf of understanding once again. Whilst I want very much for those memories to lose their power - it's been thirty five years and I still wake up screaming sometimes - they are my memories, part of my life, and if I disavow them then I lose part of myself. I want to be a fully integrated, whole person capable of coping with all my diverse experiences, not a book with pages missing. I can't help but feel that, some of the time, the request that people in my position forget is more about sparing others from having to think about our problems than it is about what we live with ourselves. Just like the way that other people try to manage the social stress of child abuse by placing undue focus on, or eliding, the sexuality of the victims.

I'm sure that even those who are guilty of it can understand why others get upset at the suggestion that children seduce their abusers. More difficult to deal with is the elision of young people's sexuality - and a type of focus on sex that misses the point of some of the ways in which abuse causes harm. Studies suggest that sex is indeed the prime motivating factor for some abusers (as opposed to, say, a desire for power); unwanted acts can be acutely distressing both to experience and to remember, as well as (in some cases) causing physical harm, so I don't want to minimise that. What I do want to do is expand the picture.

In a tangent to these recent discussions there has been a lot of focus on the age of consent. On of the failings of the way this works in the UK, to my mind, is that it doesn't take into account age gaps. In many countries it is legal, for instance, for someone aged fourteen to have sex with someone aged sixteen but not with someone older. This means that young people are not criminalised for having sexual relationships with their peers but that such relationships are understood to be different from those they might have with significantly older people. And there's that word - relationship. Because the age at which we start to desire and can cope with (and enjoy) sexual experiences is rarely going to be the same as the age at which we become capable of navigating complex power dynamics in a relationship. Young people can be at significant risk of exploitation and emotional abuse from older adults who understand the dynamics of human behaviour much better than they do.

Let's take the Forrest case - the maths teacher who ran away to France with one of his pupils. He seems to have believed he was doing it for love (or to have successfully persuaded himself of that). Perhaps his pupil felt that way too. Perhaps, had she been a few years older, no-one would have seen it as a sexually exploitative relationship (and I hope for her sake, in her experience, it wasn't - and that no-one obliges her to feel violated). But it was still abusive in other ways, because Forrest was old enough to understand that this action, at the point when she was studying for vital exams, could seriously screw up the rest of her life. In that context, regardless of anything else, his actions were self-centred and callous.

There's just one thing that makes me hesitate when talking about cases like this - and I'm speaking in the abstract now, because I certainly don't wish to imply anything about specific individuals. It's this: could an individual who leaps at an opportunity to run away from home be doing so in order to escape an abusive situation there? And that's the thing - that's the shift of perspective at the heart of these discussions. I don't want to feel that way. I don't want to be paranoid or to look at the world and perceive everything as potentially hostile (even if that paranoia may have saved my life on a couple of occasions). I didn't want, as an older child, to wince when I saw kids sitting on Savile's knee in Jim'll Fix It. He could be a perfectly decent guy, I told myself. But watching that, even then, triggered that instinct in me. Jim gave out amazing opportunities. Sitting on his knee was the price one had to pay or it. At that age, I saw pretty much all interactions with adults that way. If one wanted or needed something, one had to be prepared to put up with a little unpleasantness to keep the adult happy.

Sometimes my instincts will be right and sometimes they'll be wrong. At a practical level, I'll always try to assess people calmly and rationally, but, after so many years, I doubt the way I feel will ever change. This is what child abuse does. If Savile were alive, said a lawyer in that documentary, he couldn't fairly be taken to trial over an incident thirty years ago which he'd be unlikely to remember clearly. That may indeed be fair. Perhaps, right up until his death, he lived in the same world as those of you who have never been hurt in that way. I live in a different world and every time I make contact with the wider one I have to cross a cognitive gulf. I am asking those of you who read this to dare to try and cross that gulf in the other direction. To take a look at my world (which is full of people with similar histories) and to try and rethink your assumptions. Some survivors will fit a more conventional, more comfortable narrative sculpted by others, but those of us on the other side are still human and have a right to be recognised in the human story.

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