The late MP Cyril Smith was a serial abuser of young boys, some of whom only now feel they can open up about it. Photo: Getty
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Child sex abuse victims are starting to feel empowered – this is bad news for the establishment

The Labour MP who has been working on uncovering alleged historic child sex abuse crimes in Westminster writes about the new-found hope victims have found of having their voices heard.

Watershed political moments usually require an indelible image to register change on a large scale. The collapse of the Berlin Wall or the sight of Nelson Mandela leaving prison are images that immediately convey a sense that society was making a quantum social leap.  I had my own watershed moment last week, but it wasn’t a moment eminently framed by news cameras for posterity that made me realise I was witnessing social change. It was the sight of a man in his 50s, his hands visibly trembling and tears welling in his eyes, sat before me talking about child abuse.

I’ve met many victims of sexual abuse now, and it wasn’t his experience of abuse that affected me most – although it was extremely distressing, – it was how he explained why he’d come to see me. “I would not have been able to talk about this ten years ago,” he began. “It would have been too embarrassing and no one would have believed me. But the environment’s changed. It feels safe to talk about it now.”

I won’t forget his face – or the ever so slight gleam of hope in his eyes, reflecting a sense that something good may come out of sharing a terrible burden that’s held him back all his life.

He’s not alone in this view. Many more people are now willing to open up about terrible things they’ve never spoken about before. I’ve long felt that child abuse was a voiceless crime, forever silenced by a feeling that the authorities didn’t want to know about it, but it’s slowly beginning to find its voice and it’s getting louder by the day.

The events of the last few weeks show that we’ve well and truly crossed the Rubicon and this change cannot be contained. First the government caved in to demands for a national inquiry looking at historic child abuse then attempts to appoint a safe establishment figure to chair the inquiry in Baroness Butler-Sloss well and truly backfired as she was forced to step down before she’d even started. In her statement Butler-Sloss acknowledged that she did not have the confidence of victims and survivor groups.

As a measure of how far we’ve come it’s worth recalling that little over 10-years ago the Children’s Minister, Margaret Hodge, was able to keep her job after calling a victim of child abuse “deeply disturbed”. She ended up settling out of court with this victim but nowadays it wouldn’t just cost ministers financially. They would have to resign. Victims of child abuse cannot be so easily rubbished or ignored. And the establishment cannot continue to lord it over us and dictate how investigations are conducted.

This week the Economist said historians will look back on Britain’s public life at the turn of the 21st century as being mired in an “age of disillusionment”. They are most probably right. But for some people, it may well be remembered as a golden age when the most vulnerable people in society were finally given a voice and powerful abusers were brought to justice.

There are, of course, those who don’t believe anything good will come out of this at all. "Paedomania", "hysteria" and "witch-hunt" have become the common language of certain members of the commentariat. I wonder if any of them have ever met with victims of child abuse. The fact that 660 suspected paedophiles have been arrested this week suggests that far from over-hyped hysteria we’re finally confronting a massive crime.

The man in his 50s who I spoke to last week had been abused by the former MP for Rochdale, Sir Cyril Smith. He was one of many in a long line of poor, vulnerable people that have been treated as disposable goods by powerful figures like Smith. Back then the abuse of young boys didn’t matter and it was easily hushed up. Not so anymore. And as long as the gradual empowerment of victims continues then plenty of people across the establishment will continue to have sleepless nights and be forever looking over their shoulder.

 

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale and his book, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith, came out earlier this year, published by Biteback Publishing

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

Photo: Getty
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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.