Savile: Denialism and the "grooming the nation" delusion

The myth that Savile "groomed the nation" is pure denialism - pretending that the problem isn’t about us but some other group.

There’s a horrible myth about Savile, and though it changes depending on the person you speak to, the damaging substance of it remains the same. It is the myth that some clearly delineated group bears responsibility for Jimmy Savile, perhaps the BBC if you lean right, or some vague "establishment" if you’re on the left. It is the myth that the public were helpless bystanders in the relentless fifty-year tragedy of Savile’s celebrity life. It is the myth of our victimhood, and it is the warm blanket we curl under for comfort because we don’t want to see the cold, dark reality that surrounds us.

One of the most unsettling things about the whole affair is that we can watch so much of it on Youtube. Savile’s behaviour toward young women wasn’t just confined to sleazy bedrooms. It happened in studios, in front of audiences and directors. It was recorded by cameramen and beamed into millions of homes across Britain, where people watched it, saw nothing untoward, and got up to make a cup of tea. On the evidence of his TV appearances alone, Savile should have been about as welcome in a children’s ward as an IUD in a penis. And yet there he was.

On page six of the Yewtree Report (pdf), the authors remark that, “It is now clear that Savile was hiding in plain sight.” An alternative phrasing might be that everybody was watching, and nobody did anything. “For a variety of reasons the vast majority of his victims did not feel they could speak out, and it’s apparent that some of the small number who did had their accounts dismissed by those in authority including parents and carers.” That’s okay though, because this all happened back in the Seventies, and things were different then. The police weren’t as capable, and attitudes have moved on. Times have changed, and Savile was a product of his era: he couldn’t do what he did today.  

Except that he did. Reports of offences at Leeds General Infirmary continue to 1995. At the BBC, they stretch to as recently as 2006, and the most recent allegation dates to 2009. Age and diminishing opportunities may have reduced the rate of his offending, but he was still apparently able to get away with it. That shouldn’t surprise us at all, because so do tens of thousands of others, every single year. The sum of Savile’s crimes is barely even significant against the number of similar cases that will have occurred in 2013 so far. Why? Because we continue to allow a rape culture to exist, a culture that enables – and at times encourages - sexual violence against women and children.

In the last year alone I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of female friends and acquaintances who were sexually harassed or assaulted. Few speak out publicly; fearing that doing so will cause trouble and make their lives worse. In virtually every case their experiences remain private, and the perpetrators remain at large. I’m utterly sick of it, of seeing it happen and being unable to do a thing to protect people I care about. And it’s relentless, as shown by an utterly heart-wrenching blog post by Louise Jones last week, in which the young writer describes in brutal detail no less than four sexual assaults she had experienced.

What happened to Louise, and to so many of my friends, happens to 400,000 women in Britain each year. I can’t even imagine that many people. If you typed all those names out, one every two seconds, it would take five-and-a-half working weeks of eight hour days to get through them all, and by the time you finished there would be another forty-odd thousand names to add to your Sisyphean list.

The reality is that sexual violence, in its broadest sense, is so blatant and widespread in Britain that mainstream media can openly take part in it without anyone raising an eyelid. In 2012, Prince Harry, the Duchess of Cambridge and the actress Anne Hathaway were all victims of deeply grim acts, in which sexually explicit photographs were leaked without their consent, and sold to editors who gleefully paid for them and published them, taunting their victims in the process. There was no possible public interest at work – there are very few reasons we need to see Prince Harry’s cock short of the presence of a swastika tattoo.  

The Sunday Sport were forced to print a grovelling apology last year after publishing an "upskirt" photograph wrongly identified as Holly Willoughby, but to my knowledge nobody asked who the women pictured was, or asked to see signed consent forms. If I took upskirt photographs of women without their consent I would expect to be arrested; yet grimy little perverts with telephoto lenses are free to do this, newspapers are apparently free to publish the results, and the public buy copies by the 100,000.

Few would call these episodes rape, but it was something uncomfortably similar, with the same dynamic at work – the wanton use of power over women and men for no reason other than to force them to reveal their bodies to leering gangs of men and women.

And our reaction to all this? We tell women to cover up, to stop drinking, to stay indoors at night, to withdraw from the world, to “stay home, keep their legs closed and their eyes lowered”. We continue to say this even though the evidence we have tells us that this advice is complete and utter horseshit. Most victims of sexual assault aren’t attacked by horny strangers in alleyways while wearing skimpy clothing: the crime takes place whatever they wear, it is premeditated, it is perpetrated by somebody they know, it is an act of physical violence and domination rather than lust, often in a "safe" place, often in their own home.

That is why the myth that Jimmy Savile “groomed the nation” is so wrong, and so damaging. It is pure denialism, pretending that the problem isn’t about us but some other group – the BBC, the establishment, whoever. Just like the misguided cartoon in Private Eye’s latest edition which describes "gang-rape style" as the product of "medieval misogyny and third-world lawlessness". Just as rape myths try to put at least some of the blame for rape on victims, pretending that "improving" the behaviour of women would make a blind bit of difference to the 400,000.

But this isn’t about people from "third-world" cultures or medieval times, it isn’t about the BBC or celebrity culture, and it isn’t about women needing to change their behaviour. It’s about men, in twenty-first century Britain, who keep assaulting and raping women on an industrial scale, and it’s about the society that raises those men to do it, but still won't take responsibility for the consequences.

Day after day, night after night, on trains and in buses, our colleagues, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and lovers, half of the people we care about in the world, are under attack. And we the public sit, and we stare, and we do nothing but tell ourselves over and over again that it isn’t really about us.

To blame the BBC is to pretend this is a problem for "some other group", not us. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

Photo: Getty
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.