The horrendous abuse by Barry Bennell has been making news headlines in the last few weeks. Andy Connolly, Chief Executive at SurvivorsUK has written a thought-provoking article for The Guardian, ‘If the abused can’t speak, we need other routes to their pain’. Andy discusses why the victims didn’t speak out earlier about the abuse and it has inspired me to put my own thoughts down in this blog.
Where you stand regarding the case will be influenced by your own experience. It’s a topic that we’ve discussed in Family Group. Many have questioned why so many have kept quiet for so long. Others have wondered how these revelations would impact on all the other perpetrators yet to be unmasked. I'm with this group, waiting and hoping that the shaming of Barry Bennell will enable other victims of childhood sexual abuse to conquer their fears and unmask the perpetrators.
I went to university in Aberystwyth. In the pub one evening with a group of close friends, the subject of sexual abuse arose. In the ensuing conversation, it emerged that half of our group had been sexually interfered with or assaulted in childhood.
Some years later, I was working as an educational psychotherapist in a mainstream school. The classes were small and about evenly split by gender. My work became targeted towards a particular class where behavioural and emotional problems were very evident. By the end of the year, I was working with five girls who had been sexually abused - about 40% of the girls in the class. In one case the perpetrator was convicted and imprisoned; another abuser fled the country.
So, I'm with Freud before his 1896 recantation, when his work began to confirm the psychic impact of the horrific sexual and physical abuse of children that his mentor, the neurologist Professor JM Charcot, and Charcot's colleague, Professor Brouardel, studied and wrote about. Up to this point, the condition 'hysteria' was a label applied to women considered to be inferior, weak, seducing, narcissistic liars. Freud broke the mould, noting that in the first 18 cases of 'hysteria' he investigated, he uncovered, in all cases, a link with sexually abusive events in childhood. (Peter Gay, The Freud Reader, 1995 WW Norton p. 109).
Recent research published by the NSPCC makes shocking reading.
- 1 in 3 children sexually abused by an adult did not tell anyone
- Over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew
- Over 54,000 sexual offences against children were recorded by the police in the UK in 2015/2016
So what lessons can we learn from the Bennell case? We know that victims of child sexual abuse are not coming forward so we need to create an environment that allows for these difficult conversations to take place. Therapy is sometimes characterised as fluffy, indulgent and irrelevant to life in the real world. Our therapeutic work is far from this caricature. We start with behaviour - and we believe all behaviour has a meaning. And we work with the reality and consequences of a range of traumatising experiences.
Of course, not everyone has access to therapy services so we need to be much more open as a society to talk about child sex abuse. This change is happening. The recent #MeToo campaign has helped to start the conversation about sexual abuse. Awareness days such as #PurpleFriday and articles such as Andy Connell’s specifically focused on the abuse of boys, all help to create open lines of communication about this once taboo subject. In order to help victims to speak up, we cannot view child sex abuse as taboo anymore. It’s happening and we have to confront it.