As I mentioned in Part 1, off the top of my head, I think the main ways in which communities can help prevent child sexual exploitation are these:
– helping the children to be less vulnerable
– making the perpetrators more visible
– providing support and challenge to the professional bodies tasked with protection functions
– addressing cultural issues that help to sustain abusers and minimise abuse
Yesterday I reflected on the first of these. I’ll now turn to the second, but what follows shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. There’s probably more.
Making the perpetrators more visible.
Did yesterday’s suggestions for helping children to be less vulnerable seem hard or easy? Either way, I think community action to make perpetrators more visible is harder, because it involves confronting power.
Abusers need an imbalance of power in their favour in order to abuse at all. The power differential can be real, or imagined. An imagined imbalance has just as strong a hold over a victim as a real one. Abusers may work hard at cultivating an imagined power imbalance by lying about their own strength: I will kill you, kill your sister, kill your whole family, have you thrown out of home, school, your club, your job. Or by lying about their victim’s weakness: no one will believe you; you are ugly; you are worthless; you got what you had coming to you; no one cares; no one can hear you.
The simple truth of the power imbalance at the heart of abuse is why children are still most at risk from close family members. In these circumstances the abuser needs power only over the abused child (although in some cases they will hold others in their grip). However serial abusers and those who work in concert with others need their power to extend further, in order to bind others in silence. They achieve this in a number of ways, most notably by being so likeable that no one can imagine they’re an abuser, by being so frightening that people know full well that they are abusers but feel powerless to challenge them, or by being the key to accessing something that those others consciously or unconsciously value more than the safety and wellbeing of a hypothetical abused victim.
The consequence of this influence over others is that the silence becomes a cloak of invisibility and continues to reinforce the invisibility, strengthening it all the time. The longer the silence persists around the apparently personable individual, the more others will doubt those odd pricklings of discomfort about that person’s behaviour – after all, if that person was an abuser, they would surely be less well liked? The longer the silence persists around the fear-monger, the less someone fresh to the issue will believe they can challenge this monster – after all, if these strong, forthright individuals haven’t managed to bring the monster down by their collective action before, what chance do I have? The longer someone remains the go-to conduit for free gig tickets, a safe seat or even the most fun table at the office Christmas party, the more people will rationalise to themselves – I don’t really know anything for sure, do I, and that kid is a bloody nightmare at the best of times, so what? This latter piece of thinking adds a second layer to the cloak because, most poisonously, if the charmed and charming one is an abuser, and the other person has turned a blind eye, it makes the other person complicit, which gives them a vested interest in seeing no evil, hearing no evil and therefore speaking no evil.
The important thing is that the abuser needs this power only within the context in which they are abusing. So, though there are politicians and celebrity DJs known or alleged to have abused children, and we can readily see how people might fear them, or desire their access to the limelight, we also have examples such as the nursery worker who was the abuser uncovered in a Plymouth nursery and described in this extract from the resulting Serious Case Review:
The report goes on to suggest that staff may have felt unable to challenge her behaviours because they in due course became complicit in the inappropriate behaviours (though not the actual abuse) and therefore lacked the moral authority to speak up. It is probably easiest to feel most self-righteously critical of those people who were neither afraid, nor seduced, but simply valued e.g. being part of a clique more than the wellbeing of a child in their care. I wonder though how many people we “give the benefit of the doubt” to without even realising we’ve made this subconscious calculation. Our misjudgement only becomes apparent once the abuser has been rumbled.
This outline of how power works to sustain and conceal abuse contains two causes for hope for our community response to child sexual exploitation. The first is the imagined nature of many power imbalances and the second is the hypothetical value of children’s wellbeing.
I’ve explained that even if a power imbalance is imagined, its impact is real, granting perpetrators impunity as long as it is believed. Communities therefore need to choose not to sustain the power of the imaginary powerful. This means no more freebies. No best tables. No VIP areas in clubs. No upgrades. This means no queue jumping, no special attention, no autograph hunting. This means no cliques, no “insiders” and “outsiders”. You see, I said it would be difficult. This means those who shout the loudest don’t get the most, best, biggest or first. And nor do the most charming. Or the most beautiful. Or the most famous in your country or notorious in your neighbourhood, or the longest serving in your organisation. This means puncturing pomposity, rolling our eyes at arrogance, resolutely holding onto the thought that what matters is beauty on the inside, not looks on the outside. This means no special treatment. It means saying no unapologetically when a ‘request’ is unfair. It means sharing and using resources more equally and fairly because nobody intrinsically ‘deserves’ more than the next person. It means challenging received wisdom. It means healthy scepticism and “respectful uncertainty”. It means being willing to challenge what you thought you knew about your friends, your acquaintances, your family members, and the people you dislike.
It means asking yourself: “What am I not seeing?” And then when you’ve worked it out, doing something about it.
It means not automatically believing the great and the good over the bad lot, the sober over the drunk, a man over a woman, an adult over the voice of a hurting child.
This last links to the hypothetical value of children’s wellbeing. Take a look at this list of characteristics of children at higher risk of sexual exploitation:
Tell me where these children sit in a pecking order (which usually has my child at the top). Do we love runaways? Do we value the children who bunk school, or are excluded? Do we tell refugee children how much we want to help them? Do we value children with learning disabilities, befriend children in gangs, hold a hand out to ‘delinquents’, get to know the parents with mental health difficulties? Or do we cross the street to avoid them? Do we badmouth them to our own children and describe them as a bad example? Or do we smile on children who lack friends and big up those with low self-esteem?
Once you value these children as much (or realistically, ever so nearly as much) as your own, you’ll be forever less likely to consciously or unconsciously trade them off against other “benefits”.
To close the gap between the powerful and the powerless you have to burst the balloon of the former, while puffing up the latter. Then the cloak of invisibility flickers and starts to disappear; either because a child builds enough trust to speak up, or because frightened or dazzled associates become willing to speak out and both know the sound of their voices will have consequences, because the community itself will press for them.
And if you’ve picked up a whiff of the truth of an abuser, long before victims are taken into care (or onto a witness stand), or the abuser is prosecuted, you can take your own stand. “I will not use this taxi/fast food business, and I will say why not. I would not not let a child go to this event, and here’s why. That’s a hotel with a bad reputation. Don’t use it. That man shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children.” Communities that do this consistently, collectively and honestly will be better able to protect their children.
It’s worth giving a mention here to the twin perils of racism and so-called political correctness in the context of power imbalances.
All the evidence points to the UK being habitually racist in its attitudes and behaviours and institutionally racist in the way the state carries out its functions. Despite equality and diversity policies and practices, ethnic minorities remain more vulnerable than the white majority, and if you look back at the list of characteristics which make children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation you’ll see that being from a minority ethnic background is one of them.
You can see from the example in the collected tweets above that if a person is powerful and connected an accusation of racism can’t touch them. Conversely, if a person who has more power than you wants to block or slow down your actions and an accusation of racism will do the trick, they will use it. If abusers in #Rotherham hadn’t had community links to the power of councillors (by which I don’t suggest especially corrupt links, merely community interest) rumblings of possible racism could have carried no weight at all. (As it is, the report makes clear there was no evidence to support any allegation that accusations of racism affected the conduct of individual cases). This is why post-investigation allegations of “political correctness” slowing the investigations should be viewed sceptically. There is nothing “politically correct” about failing to protect children and girls in particular. But there is much that is familiar in councillors (of any race or political persuasion) protecting those that voted for them. and of course the children have no vote. Such allegations of political correctness therefore benefit only those who would like investigators of abuse to focus solely on minority communities; in other words, white abusers.
Sexual abuse is a function of power, and specifically of power imbalance. If you want to take community action to make perpetrators more visible, follow the power, don’t follow the bullshit.
And never stop asking yourself: What am I not seeing?