Amid shock and dismay at the unfolding revelations of the Savile sexual abuse scandal, many people ask how we can better protect children in future. Perhaps the most frequent demand from professionals, politicians, media and the public has been that we “listen more to the victims”.
That is understandable, and indeed true, especially in relation to stigmatised young people who are often still disbelieved when they report: as the Rochdale sexual exploitation case among others has graphically revealed. But it skirts the awkward problem that the majority of Savile’s victims did not report him, and most children do not report sexual abuse. Too often, we would be listening for a merely silent victim.
In my own research with sexually abused young people and adults, both at CRFR and during 2011-12 with Open Secret in Falkirk, survivors described how intense shame, self-blame, hopelessness, distrust or fear of reprisal kept most of them silent until well into adulthood. One small group of young people came up with fourteen different reasons why they did not tell.
In particular, very few children tell the agencies they are urged to tell, such as teachers, police or social workers. They are more likely to turn to a school friend or their mother. The child protection system urgently needs to take these uncomfortable facts on board and to reflect the way real children think, act and behave, in order to ensure that current distressing revelations leave a more positive legacy for our children. Otherwise, it will continue to unearth very few cases of child sexual abuse.
In my own research studies, these are some suggestions for change which survivors themselves, both male and female, have made:
- Children very often try to tell in oblique, childlike or roundabout ways. Always ask sensitively if for instance they keep being tearful or very withdrawn, or persistently act out distress through bad behaviour.
- An independent counsellor in a school or youth setting, posters placed anonymously on school lockers or inside toilets, and other discreet or anonymous publicity is very helpful in reducing the shame and stigma teenagers feel, at the prospect of becoming known to their peers as a victim.
- In my own research, male survivors in particular were often excluded from school for acting-out in bad behaviour. This placed them in much greater danger on the streets, and safe alternatives to school exclusions need to continue to be sought.
- Peers and mothers need greater support when they are the recipients of information about current abuse.
- There is now “third-party reporting” available for hate crime such as homophobic crime, and race crime. People can report to certain voluntary agencies if they fear or distrust to report directly to police or social work and that could be extended to the reporting of childhood sexual abuse.
- Both adults and young people who have been abused felt strongly that social stigma has assertively to be combated with publicity campaigns, since many families and communities still prefer victims to avoid shaming them by speaking out. Likewise they wish schools to tackle the perceived stigma of being a victim: just as many schools now encourage pupils not to stigmatise, for example, young people who self-harm, or young gay people. That might reduce many boys’ fear of being branded a “poof” if they reveal abuse.
For further discussion of the experiences of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, please read:
Nelson, S. (2009) Care and support needs of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, CRFR Research Briefing, no.44, Edinburgh: Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.
Nelson, S. (ed) (2008) See us hear us: schools workign with sexually abused young people, Dundee: Dundee Young Women's Centre.
Nelson, S. (2002) Child sexual abuse: fracturing family life, CRFR Research briefing, no.5, Edinburgh: Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.