"If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen": the falsities we attach to sexual abuse

As the extensive media coverage of the Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile cases shows, we are now in the era of exposure. And yet until we are willing to talk about what goes on behind the headlines, sexual abuse will remain something that happens to other peop

"If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen" is the falsity, at once comforting and mortifying, we tie to sexual abuse. It was before Stuart Hall abused, among others, a nine-year-old girl and most likely will be after. As of yesterday, it appears Hall is facing five more charges. His existing sentence is currently being reviewed, the public having argued that 15 months for molesting children and then calling them liars was lenient. People don’t like child abuse. They don’t like it when they can’t avoid it.

How can any of us avoid it? What was hushed and shamed and dismissed is now front page news; abusers, famous, frail, in the grave or the dock. This is the era of exposure. When arrests seem endless and trials, likely to weight the upcoming months, become prolonged headlines. Now, we want it exposed. The celebrity paedophile or the ring of men who treat girls as less than meat. Whether we turn it back to our own lives is something else entirely.

The NSPCC have now launched "The Underwear Rule" campaign. It’s targeted at getting children to understand sexual abuse and most importantly, getting parents to talk about it with them. What parts of the body are private. What a good secret is (a birthday present) and what a bad one is (one that makes you feel worried). And what to do if the bad secrets start to be asked of you. These are the lessons no one wants to teach their children. We know they’re the lessons every single parent should.

Back when Hall was sentenced, Suzanne Moore wrote that anyone criticising attempts to find justice for abuse surivors “should listen to the calls coming into Childline for a few nights.” I’ve listened to them for eight years on and off, since I was nineteen and became one of the many volunteer counsellors to pick up the phone (or as time progressed, and abuse continued, "opened online messages").      

What comes through to Childline are the things that everyone should hear and no one should have to say. They do though. In their thousands, and they’re just the ones able to call. That last point is important. Sometimes sitting on the phone in silence for a minute is the bravest thing anyone can do. But we’d be back in the comfort of ignorance if we weren’t very aware there are more unable to even get that far.

1 in 20 children in this country have been sexually abused. One in three who were hurt by an adult find no adult to tell. Nine out of ten children were abused by someone they knew.

These are not the things we think about. These are not the statistics we’re able to believe are about our lives. They’re what sit safely behind grotesque headlines, the sort of thing that happens to other people’s children.

For some people, "other people’s children" has to be their children. The comforting promise that it isn’t our own family’s concern at some point has to end somewhere.

If it was easier to dismiss Hall and Savile as products of the culture of the 1970s or on a false idea of the complexity of consent, it’s easier to consign sexual abuse to this type of faraway threat; one removed from our families, our street, our lives. Hall and co are the “monsters”, and if there were a monster near your child, as a parent you’d surely know.

"If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen." Perhaps the lie is closer to "If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen". For the boys and girls hurt, shamed, and left with no one, let’s hope we all start talking, and soon. 

The NSPCC have now launched "The Underwear Rule" campaign, which targeted at getting children to understand sexual abuse and getting parents to talk about it with them. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.