Monday 11 March 2019

Believe the victims of child sexual abuse? If only we did

It’s taken years for people to see Michael Jackson for what he was. With abuse, the world prefers to look the other way

Here are some things I don’t really want to think about but have had to over the years: Jimmy Savile’s penchant for tracksuits, as the bottoms can be pulled up and down so easily; vulnerable 13-year-old girls in Rochdale ignored by local police; seven-year-old boys sleeping in the bed of a pop star and being introduced to masturbation; or the day long ago when I was teaching film studies and a film I showed (Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives) produced extreme distress for one of my mature students.

Something in that film, a shot of a sofa I think, had caused a rush of terrible memories. In those days there were groups for survivors of sexual abuse and I was able to find some kind of help for them. Never for one moment did I disbelieve the distress I saw in front of me. Nor did I find it strange that sometimes people did not clearly remember what happened to them as children and that they could not talk about it till many years later.

What I find shocking at the moment is that we all know about the sexual abuse of children but we still remain in such a deep state of denial about it. The NSPCC estimates that one in 20 children in this country has been sexually abused. The police say that if they were to prosecute every case there would be no time to do anything else. Everyone who works in mental health services, or with addiction, or with the homeless, will tell you how sexual abuse is a factor in the background of so many people they deal with. The detritus of abuse is all around us. We turn a blind eye to that which disturbs us in order to protect ourselves.

In the documentary Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson (left) and
James Safechuck talk sometimes blankly, sometimes shakily, about what
Michael Jackson did to them.’ Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian
Yet as the documentary Leaving Neverland airs, as Wade Robson and James Safechuck talk sometimes blankly, sometimes shakily, about what Michael Jackson did to them, it is hard to say that our understanding of child sexual abuse has grown much over the years.

Sure, at particular moments we may be more attuned to it. Anyone who watched David Nicholls’ brilliant adaptation of the Patrick Melrose novels glimpsed the dissociative states that many who were abused as children enter into. Here the abusive father is unspeakably monstrous.

In Jackson’s case we saw this child-man, whose timbre of voice varied according to who he was talking to, taking his pick of young boys: taking them to his room, sleeping in the same bed with them because – as all the world knew – he just loved children. He told us that. All he ever wanted to do was buy them stuff and make them happy, this incredibly talented man who we believed had been robbed of his own childhood. We understood he had been abused himself (not sexually but in other ways). In allowing him to reclaim his own childhood, did we turn a blind eye to his robbing small boys of theirs?

If there is one thing we should have learned from all the recent child abuse scandals it is simply this: listen to the victims. Believe them. Yes I believed the men in this documentary, just as I believed Jordy Chandler when he accurately described the underside of Jackson’s penis. That case was settled out of court for millions of dollars. Chandler’s father later killed himself. Robson’s father would also kill himself. There are many victims here.

We know by now how grooming works, don’t we? How it makes victims feel special and loved and confused about keeping the secret. This was apparent in the testimonies of both Robson and Safechuck. When the line between love and sex and care becomes blurred for children, it is hard ever to trust or even know what these boundaries are as adults. This is why abuse wreaks such psychic chaos. Not only were these boys told they were special as they were assaulted, they were then dismissed when the next boy came along and became the favourite.

All of this is obviously being denied by the corporate machine that is the Jackson estate. He was a total angel, his true fans say, we are smearing a good man. Believing Jackson is innocent is now some sort of article of faith. It is certainly easier to submerge oneself in a vat of saccharine denial. Look at how long parts of the Catholic church did that. Look at how long it has taken them to accept what damaged adults have said was done to them.

Yet sexual abuse doesn’t usually involve superstars. It is sadly ordinary. Too, too ordinary.

Every time I talk about this subject – and I have done for years – I get emails and messages from both men and women saying that this has happened to them and they have never told a soul. I never know quite what to do beyond letting them know that they have been heard and that they have been believed.

I hope right now that this message is louder than the voices of those who “know” the “so-called victims” are lying and the denials of the Jackson estate. But I am sadly not sure.

The grooming continues to this day. And why wouldn’t it? It works, after all.

(Source: The Guardian)

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