Rolf Harris was convicted of 12 counts of assault. Photo: Getty
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Rolf Harris guilty: but what has Operation Yewtree really taught us about sexual abuse?

As disturbing as they are, celebrity abuse cases are just a tiny subset of a much broader problem.

After deliberating for days, a jury has found entertainer and TV presenter Rolf Harris guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault.

Harris’s conviction adds to the sad litany of cases of sexual abuse of girls and women by male celebrities – a list that includes TV and radio personality Stuart Hall and the publicist Max Clifford. The large majority of survivors who testified in these cases came forward following the posthumous exposure of Jimmy Savile for sexual assaults against hundreds of children and adults.

The Savile explosion and the subsequent Met-led Operation Yewtree have laid bare the horrifying extent and degree of Savile’s abuse, and his manipulation of those with whom he came into contact. As Peter Spindler (then the officer leading Yewtree) so powerfully and succinctly put it, Savile “groomed a nation”.

It appears that the unmasking of Savile has created a climate where victims of other celebrities have been able to come forward – often several decades after their abuse – confident that they will be believed and that the authorities will seek justice, on their behalf.

The Yewtree inquiry has provoked very strong feelings indeed. Many argue the inquiry has rightly cast a devastating spotlight on how individuals used elements of their celebrity, wealth, power and reputation not only to sexually abuse women and children, but also to prevent that abuse from being investigated. Others believe that Yewtree amounts to a witch hunt against celebrities, and the criminalisation of largely “harmless” behaviour.

Some in this latter group have gone on to query why these supposed victims have come forward only now, occasionally suggesting that nothing happened and that many “victims” are just trying to enrich themselves.

However we interpret the Yewtree saga, it is undeniable large numbers of people have been abused by celebrities, who one way or another skilfully manipulated those around them to protect themselves.

Beyond this, there’s not a great deal more we can learn from the cases themselves. As disturbing as they are, they comprise only a tiny percentage of all sex offences – and instead of picking over their individual horrors, we should consider the much larger and more insidious problem of which they are just a small subset.

Everyday problem

The post-Savile celebrity sexual abuse cases follow a torrent of high-profile child sexual abuse scandals over the past 30 years, including in children’s homes, the Catholic church, as well as on-street exploitation (to name just a few). Nor are Savile and his ilk the first celebrity sexual offenders. They were preceded by the pop star Paul Gadd (aka Gary Glitter), convicted of child sex offences in the 1990s and again in the 2000s, and Jonathan King, jailed for seven years in 2001 for sexually abusing boys.

And lest we forget, the vast bulk of child sex abuse takes place in far more “mundane” settings – most child victims are abused by someone known to them, not a stranger, and around 30% of perpetrators are thought to be members of their victims' immediate family members.

The most recent prevalence survey by the NSPCC found 11% of young adults had experienced “contact” sexual abuse in childhood. Although this is a minority, it is clearly a very substantial number of children.

Our understanding of child sexual abuse has come a long way over the past 20-30 years. There are now more ways in which it can be detected, and the police are far more effective at investigating it. But once the furore over celebrity sexual abusers dissipates, then societal concern will diminish and children (and women) will continue to be sexually abused. They almost certainly were being abused as I wrote this article, and will be as you read it.

Still, our approach to child sex abuse, as with so many social and criminal ills, is often to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. Yes, we gnash our teeth and beat our chests when we discover abuse – but we still do little to prevent it. In short, our approach to sexual offending more generally needs a dramatic overhaul.

Wake up

That will require a serious long-term public awareness campaign, where every citizen is given the chance to learn about the extent and nature of sexual abuse, how its perpetrators commit their crimes, and how they avoid detection.

To achieve this, we must ensure that every child in the country receives adequate sex education lessons. It is ridiculous to expect children to understand and avoid sexual abuse if they haven’t been adequately taught about normal, consensual sex. An Ofsted report published last year found that sex education was poor in more than one-third of English schools, leaving these children vulnerable to abuse.

But even more importantly, we urgently have to address male socialisation. Of course some sexual abuse is committed by women, but they are responsible for only a small proportion of offences – by some estimates, as low at 6%. Sexual offences against both children and women are crimes committed overwhelmingly by men, both men and boys.

If our society is serious about changing that, we have to change the way boys are socialised. As things stand, too many grow up to believe it is acceptable to sexually assault children and women.

Not a watershed

The exposure of Savile and the convictions of Harris, Clifford and Hall might well offer some form of “closure” to their victims. The rest of us have come to a strange sort of crossroads. We will never again be so naïve about the existence of sexual abuse nor the prevalence of sex offenders, however well we might think we “know” them. Indeed, many commentators appear anxious to formally designate Savile/Yewtree as a “watershed” in our response to sexual abuse.

This is a dangerous delusion. While the Savile affair and everything it has unleashed may do something to advance our understanding of sexual offending, we have also been shown the abject state of our ability to deal with it.

And even as these abusers who for so long thought themselves beyond the law have finally been brought to justice, there is little to think the situation is changing.


Next, read this: Notes on a scandal: the Jimmy Savile case is all too familiar

The Conversation

Bernard Gallagher receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, The Nuffield Foundation, the Department of Health and the NSPCC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.