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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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