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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.