Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Savile row – why paedophile scandals continue to haunt society

The stunned response that has crystalised around the proposed inquiries into alleged abuse at public institutions following the broadcast of ITV’s Exposure investigation is perfectly understandable.

Yet after decades of scandal, alarm and outrage, controversy after controversy, following numerous inquiries and reports, and despite the best efforts of huge numbers of dedicated staff, one conclusion is inescapable: Britain has created, in the words of Nick Davies, “an elaborate and sophisticated failure, a child protection system which does not protect children.”

Jimmy Savile was a popular public figure, a man who entertained millions and raised millions for worthy causes. We need to understand not only how he could evade capture and remain undiscovered whilst hiding in plain sight, but more importantly, why did he and those like him commit and continue to commit such terrible crimes?

The BBC’s Mark Easton provides a stark answer: From the 60s until relatively recently, there existed a pervasive attitude that unwanted sexual advances were an irritant rather than a disciplinary matter or a crime.

Indeed, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005 have all advanced wider public attitudes.

David James at WalesOnline agrees. He dispels the conventional perception that the past was a safer place as a myth, suggesting that illegitimate privileges claimed by false authority (such as with the expenses of sleazy politicians, media and Police over phone hacking and bribery and now celebrity scandal, an easily augmented list stretching from bank rate fixing to bike race doping) deserve to be challenged more regularly and robustly.

Suzanne Moore also argues the Savile row is “an exemplar of wider social issues around sexual abuse” – that it is a matter of prevailing cultural attitudes. However she is less convinced that the cycles of abuse have been broken.

One simple overriding fact underscores this analysis: its scale.

According to a 2009 metastudy from the University of Barcelona published in Clinical Psychology Review, more than 1-in-4 adults globally are estimated to be victims of paedophile abuse – that’s about 20% of all women and 8% of all men suffered sexual abuse as children!

In the current population of UK children alone, this calculates as 1.5 million girls and over 500,000 boys, which is statistically consistent with the total estimate of 1.1 million offenders in the UK.

The highest recorded figure is for South Africa, with a victim prevalence rate for women of 43.7% and for men of 60.9% – a truly shocking number figure which cannot possibly be separated from the cultural history of apartheid in that nation. Other countries recording notably high levels of abuse for both males and females include Tanzania, Israel, Australia and Costa Rica, each with their own darker recent histories of social inequality and repression.

It is easy to see how, on a deeper level, public interest in the Savile case reflects not just his defamed celebrity, but that he has become an avatar for huge numbers of victims to project their own pent up experiences of suffering. The demonisation of a once-lionised disc jockey reflects the parallel disgust at our national culture which elevated him and allowed those like him to prey on so many.

Ultimately sexual abuse in society says much about the state of sexual attitudes within that society. Because sexual abuse is abuse of power, the dysfunctional relationship it represents between individuals also directly reflects the level of dysfunctionality in the relationship between the state and the individual.

So if this or any other country is to successfully address the problem of sexual abuse once and for all, it will only be possible if we are to develop more open, engaged and responsible relationships based more closely on the principle of equality.

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