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Told and Untold Stories

By Karen Boyle, University of Strathclyde

For more than 20 years, the Women’s Support Project have hosted a Screen Debate at Glasgow Film Theatre each September. The Screen Debates use films and television shows about child sexual abuse as a launchpad for typically wide-ranging discussions about media responsibility, public attitudes and the experiences of victim/survivors. For us at Gender Equal Media Scotland, this offers a useful space to reflect on the role of the media in challenging and changing (or condoning and perpetuating) men’s violence against women and children.

When the Screen Debates started, finding a suitable film or television programme to screen could be something of a challenge. Child sexual abuse is never an easy thing to represent on screen, for reasons which are ethical and legal, as well as commercial. Yet, in the UK context, the range of dramas, feature films and documentaries focusing on child sexual abuse has exploded in recent years, not least as a result of the Jimmy Savile case. This year’s event took that case as a starting point, with a screening of Olly Lambert’s documentary Abused: The Untold Story, first shown on the BBC in the weeks following the 2016 publication of Dame Janet Smith’s report into Jimmy Saville at the BBC. It is an incredibly powerful documentary, centring the experiences of those abused by Savile and his associates.

When the Screen Debates started, finding a suitable film or television programme to screen could be something of a challenge. Child sexual abuse is never an easy thing to represent on screen, for reasons which are ethical and legal, as well as commercial. Yet, in the UK context, the range of dramas, feature films and documentaries focusing on child sexual abuse has exploded in recent years, not least as a result of the Jimmy Savile case. This year’s event took that case as a starting point, with a screening of Olly Lambert’s documentary Abused: The Untold Story, first shown on the BBC in the weeks following the 2016 publication of Dame Janet Smith’s report into Jimmy Saville at the BBC. It is an incredibly powerful documentary, centring the experiences of those abused by Savile and his associates.

Where celebrity perpetrators are involved there is always a danger that is their story that is told. As Melody House argues in her blog for GEMS earlier this month, a “himpathetic” media response asks us to care more about what happens to the “good name” of alleged perpetrators, than about the physical and emotional harms of sexual violence. Abused reminds us that a similar approach was in evidence when the story about Savile broke. We hear callers on radio phone-ins questioning the motivations of the women coming forward, angry at the damage being done to Savile’s “good name” and the charity work he had done in his lifetime.

It’s important to be reminded of this, not least because as the scale of reports against Savile mounted he relatively quickly became a monstrous figure. With his odd appearance and mannerisms, the implicit thrust of much media reporting seemed to be: but just look at him, how couldn’t we see it before now?

There are, of course, important questions to asked about the way Savile was allowed to abuse women and children, sometimes in plain sight: touching women on his shows without their consent, “joking” about “sex” with underage girls. Power, celebrity and gender inequality all combined to allow Savile to get away with it for so long. If we fail to see this, then we can too easily reproduce the conditions that enabled him. But one of the dangers of the “in plain sight” narrative is that is too easily tips into victim-blaming: “but just look at him, they should have known this would happen”. We’ve seen this in the Harvey Weinstein case too and it’s not irrelevant here that both Savile and Weinstein don’t fit the industry’s beauty norms. They make easy monsters.

If rapists all had horns how much easier things would be. But they don’t.

Most victim/survivors of child sexual abuse are not abused by famous men. They are abused by men in their families and communities. As well as giving voice to those abused by Savile and his associates, Abused features a contemporary rape trial, following Katy, a victim-survivor who reported her own experience of non-recent child sexual abuse to the police in the wake of the Savile case. Katy’s abuser wasn’t a celebrity, but a young man in her community.

Katy’s story took me back to the first Screen Debate I participated in, in 2002. The screening that year was from EastEnders’ first child sexual abuse storyline, when Kat Slater revealed that she had been sexually abused by her Uncle Harry as a child. John Yorke, who had been the executive producer of EastEnders when this story was developed, was on the panel and recounted how, when the child sexual abuse storyline had first been considered, the plan had been to centre it on long-standing characters, Janine Butcher and her step-father Roy Evans. However, the team decided that the revelation that a character they had known for years was a child sexual abuser would be too traumatic. In contrast, Kat’s Uncle Harry was in the show only for the duration of this storyline.

I’ve found myself returning to this story a lot in recent years, first in the context of the Savile case, and more recently in the wake of the Weinstein story. In some ways, these celebrity cases have functioned in the way Yorke predicted in 2002. It has been a traumatic reckoning for viewers who have been invested in these men’s careers, programmes and films. But, as Katy’s story reminds us, this is a reckoning which goes on daily in families and communities, and which impacts those families and communities in painful ways.

Making visible the connections between the high-profile stories and the typically less newsworthy realities of many victim-survivors lives has been one of the key changes in media reporting since Savile, and particularly in the wake of #MeToo. Media interest in child sexual abuse – as with other forms of sexual violence – has historically focused on personal stories, as though telling these stories publically is an end in itself. In contrast, feminists have long recognised that speaking out about sexual violence in all its forms has a political purpose when these accounts can be brought together so we can see what they share.

The media coverage of celebrity-cases is partly what allowed Katy to report her abuser. For victim/survivors and those working with them, media visibility be a double-edged sword. When done well, these programmes can be an important element in raising awareness, as well as in enabling victim/survivors to speak out within their own communities and to seek support or justice, as Katy did. But the wall-to-wall media coverage of cases like those involving Savile can also be retraumatising, something other women attest to in the documentary and Isabelle Kerr from Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis echoed in this year’s debate.

These examples remind us that speaking out is never a destination in itself, nor should it ever be an imperative. Survivors do not owe us their stories. But when they decide to trust us with them it’s what we do with those stories that matters. Firstly we need to listen. Then we need to learn. These stories won’t all sound the same, because all victim-survivors are different. But what they have in common can help us understand child sexual abuse, and so work more effectively to challenge and ultimately end it.

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