OK, perhaps “silence” is a bit strong but……I can think of no other example of oppression where the left has had so little to say beyond broad generalisations and an embarrassing mish mash of reactionary ideas and “class politics” dressed up in Marxspeak. The left was almost completely silent on the issue before the Cleveland abuse cases meant sexual abuse finally entered public discourse. But even now, with the issue in the public eye more than ever, there seems to be an inability on the part of the left to provide an in depth analysis or offer a practical guide to action we should be taking.
There have been many “scandals” recently involving politicians, expenses, phone hacking, institutional racism, and bankers bonuses.The scandal of child sexual abuse reveals the multi-agency cover-ups and a society in which the most powerful groups of men in that society will be protected as they rape and abuse society’s most vulnerable children.
Shouldn’t we be more enraged by the cabinet protecting child rapists than by journalists listening to private ansaphone messages?
Shouldn’t the left be attempting to lead action on this as well as pensions and Gaza?
Shouldn’t we be able to analyse the complexities of child sexual abuse and point to a solution in same way we analyse declining rates of profit and declining empires? Surely the fact that Marx had little or nothing to say about rape and sexual abuse doesn’t mean we can’t.
I’m not really qualified to fill the gaps in left theory. I can only attempt to point others in the right direction. I find the subject too difficult; I don’t have time to read/research much; and until I started this blog I’d not written anything apart from the odd letter and leaflet since I finished my finals three decades ago.
This blogpiece is more of a plea to those who can study and analyse, to those who critique, to those who plan action :- Please can we reflect on our weaknesses and come up with some ideas to put the left at the centre of the fight against all oppression.
Towards a Historical Materialist Understanding of Child Sexual Abuse?
The sexual abuse of children is probably at least as old as class society, though a historical understanding of abuse needs include the huge variations in societies’ understanding of both childhood and sexuality.
Many so-called primitive, or tribal societies have view and practices of childhood and work that we would find impossible to understand. Some initiation ceremonies would be seen as sexual abuse in Western culture. Other societies would be horrified by our culture of violence, rape and sexism. Perhaps for fear of “cultural racism” there is a reluctance to discuss issues such as Female Genital Mutilation. (Left Unity’s women’s caucus broadsheet is a rare exception).
Ancient Greece and Rome have been widely written about, and the openess of gay male sex has been held up by both socialists and the Gay Liberation movement as proof that it is homophobia, not homosexuality, that is unnatural. However, it is only a few articles, such as Norah Carlin’s excellent 1989 ISJ piece, “The Roots of Gay Oppression“, that include the dynamics of power, class and gender in a historic understanding of sexuality.
In medieval societies the “Droit de Seigneur”, the right of the feudal lord to have sex with any lower class woman before her wedding, was an accepted norm. During slavery, the owner, his children, or overseers could rape any slave woman without any come back. Modern DNA analysis is now revealing the extent of this, including the story of Mrs Obama’s 15 year old great great great grandmother.
And who knows how many women and children were raped in the workhouses and servants quarters in Victorian England? Even Downton Abbey dealt with the issue, though this was too much for the Daily Heil.
Early capitalism’s view of childhood was that children, like adults, were simply “hands” for factory work. Just smaller and so potentially more useful. Despite changes in the West, there are more children working in factories than ever before. In many situations, the use of violence as a punishment at work, school or in the workhouse helped create a culture where men with power could rape, abuse and sexually harass at will.
As the last workhouses closed in 1946, the practice of deporting those children born outside of society’s sanctioned relationships continued. By the 1960s over 150,000 children had been deported to the colonies, essentially to work as slaves and to increase the white “stock” of places like Australia. As films such as The Leaving of Liverpool make clear, physical and sexual abuse of these children was far from uncommon.
On many levels, most people have always understood that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations felt this but often felt powerless to challenge this. Despite the apparent decline in class consciousness, British social attitudes surveys still show that the majority of us still feel this. So perhaps the recent abuse revelations shouldn’t be surprising anyone. But, as with many things, the 1960s began to challenge our deferential attitudes as well as attitudes towards sexuality, rape, childhood and power.
The impact of feminism
As the “second wave of feminism” included women discussing power, sexuality and personal politics on various levels and as consciousnesses were raised, rape and child sex abuse became something that could be talked about openly as a political issue. In 1969, the book that Michael Gove wants to make sure British schoolchildren don’t read, Maya Angelou’s “I know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, was one of the first autobiographies to describe the experience of being raped as a child. Over the next few decades more and more survivors organised and spoke out. Feminists and survivors fought to get the state to take sexual violence against women and children seriously.
By 1987, the uncovering of sexual abuse in Cleveland led to a shift in the culture of how the state dealt with children who’d been sexually abused. I remember Beatrix Campbell shocking a sympathetic audience at the time with photos in order to get us to accept that this really happened and we had to start believing children. She quoted a police inspector who summed up official attitudes at the time “Sexual abuse is like a corpse on a slab, saying nothing. You’ve got nothing to go on. It’s a police officer’s nightmare. You just want it to go away” Thankfully, 25 years on, an awareness of the scale of abuse, the need to believe children and an awareness of the serious long-term damage such abuse can cause are much more accepted throughout those working in child protection.
By the time that Jimmy Savile had been exposed as a rapist (though he’d essentially boasted about it in his autobiography) it was accepted that as many as five million women and half a million men had been sexually abused in some way when they were children. This means that everyone knows people who’ve been abused as children, and that there are survivors in every workplace, union branch, political party who need our sensitivity, support, and respect.
When Savile had boasted that he’d take others down with him if he were charged, it was obvious that many others would be implicated in a large scale cover up. It was also obvious that with so many survivors with untold stories, the sensationalist news coverage would lead to many more allegations. It has also led to thousands of survivors being forced to relive their experiences with little or no support and sometimes with unaware friends and family making remarks about golddiggers/”making it up”/”too long ago to remember”/”teen temptresses” etc.
The media today and homophobia
Not so long ago, British newspapers (many of whose staff were well aware of the rumours about various politicians and “celebs”) were leading the denial that sexual abuse was widespread and essentially witchunting those like in Cleveland in 1987 who attempted to uncover it. They were happy to focus on supposed “satanic abuse rituals” but didn’t want to know that normal men sexually abused children in their family networks. The Daily Heil’s attitude to young girls being abused by older men seems to have been that it was the girls own fault. So for example when a 19 year was convicted of unlawful sex and indecent assault on two 13 year old girls the Mail’s headline was “Tube girls who look for sex”. And even today, papers like The Star will feature sexualised schoolgirls alongside articles about paedophiles!
The current scandals are a scandal sheet’s dream. Understandably, those journalists who sat in the pubs around Fleet Street in the 1980s watching their stories about a paedophile government minister/MP/celeb mysteriously disappear will now jump at the chance to finally tell their stories. However, not many were investigative reporters like Paul Foot who always tried to uncover injustice and abuse perpetrated by the powerful, as well as giving the powerless a voice. Their agenda today appears to be more about sensational scoops and who they can name rather than what abuse is like for those at the receiving end. Furthermore, there seems to be a nasty homophobic undertone to some of the reporting. Most men who rape boys are not gay anymore than anal sex is an exclusively gay male thing. Some like nothing better than to make a spurious connection between gay sexuality and child abuse while at the same time ignoring that nearly all sexual abuse is carried out by men, often within the family.
The failure of The Left
It goes without saying that it the establishment, their media, their police, and their politicians that have failed the children of this country by tolerating, covering up or enabling the sexual abuse of Britain’s most vulnerable children. Over time, I hope this leads to “our” establishment being seen in the same light as the Catholic church is now seen by many in Eire. However, my concern here is with the response of those are against the establishment and claim to be on the idea of the oppressed. or even their “tribunes”.
The Labour Party
While some would expect nothing different from such an establishment party, we do need to look very honestly at how the abuse by powerful figures in the Labour Party was covered up by senior figures in the interests of the party. Its no good pretending, as one Labour member recently told me, that the whole scandal is about the Tories and the The Party has done nothing wrong.
I don’t believe for a minute that no one in the Labour movement knew of the allegations against their leading figures such as George Thomas. Cyril Smith was a Labour councillor and mayor in 1960s Rochdale. Did everybody in Rochdale Labour party really know absolutely nothing? I have a photo of myself as a child with George Thomas, and leafleting for him in 1979 was one of my first “political acts”. I knew nothing of the allegations, and my parents, labour activists in Cardiff at the time, can’t remember anyone discussing them. But again I find it impossible to believe that everybody in Cardiff Labour party and Parliament knew absolutely nothing.
While Labour could stand to benefit by continued revelations about Tory MPs, Labour has been remarkably silent. (In fact it reminds me of the silence of the Socialist Party as the SWP’s rape scandal was being exposed in early 2013.). The Labour Party must look honestly at themselves and explain how they ignored or covered up child sex abusers in positions of power in their own party, and why they covered up, and what action they’re planning to take to ensure it will never happen again. Until they do this the Labour Party has no right to expect to be treated any differently from the Tories, UKIP and the Libdems; no right to speak on behalf of survivors; no right to comment in any inquiry.
The Blogging Left
With the internet, maybe we don’t need parties and newspapers to get a story out. When sites such as Socialist Unity had a phenomenal amount to say about an SWP leaders alleged rape of a teenager, you might have thought they’d have even more to say about children being raped by the political establishment and by members of the party some of their writers are members of. But in fact there has been nothing like the attention devoted to the SWP. Just one or two pieces. Why not? Perhaps its the same reason I couldn’t entice SU to respond to my piece about the Red\Army rapists. All That is Solid” has written a little more, but to me seems equivocal on too many issues, and its comments thread can be dreadful.
For all the free thinking and questioning the internet can open up, it looks like bloggers are wary about challenges to their own structures, parties and long-held beliefs. But perhaps I haven’t been googling correctly. Perhaps that Marxist analysis and those honest, self-critical Labour supporters, and a plan to take action, are all out there somewhere in cyberspace. If so, I apologise – and could somebody please send me a link!
Given that the Leninists have newspapers, journals, theorists, and an answer for everything, surely we can expect more of a response than the Labour Party, more plans for action, more theory. Yet here too there is little being said relative to other issues. Socialist Worker for example gave far more coverage to the Levenson enquiry into phone hacking than the Savile revelations even though they both revealed similar corruption and cover ups between police, politicians and newspapers. Which was most important? Socialist Review has had just one article in the last 4 years, which while just about OK in itself addresses few of the points raised here. Over at the Socialist Party site, we can see they have 5 articles on child abuse since 2000 in The Socialist. But this compares to 55 on football and 470 on TUSC. Again, what is more important?
However, its not just the relative silence. Its the banality. The focus on nasty Tories rather than the survivors. Its the inability to go beyond “child abuse is bad – capitalism/the family is to blame – aren’t the Tories nasty – symptom of a sick society – only a socialist society can stop child abuse“. Articles rarely mention that 93-97% of child sex abuse is carried out by men. Unlike other campaigns against oppression, nothing practical is proposed beyond opposing austerity cuts.
Worse still, some of what is claimed as “socialist analysis” is simply nonsense that makes it harder to uncover abuse and prevent future abuse. For example, The Socialist Party recently ran a long article in which it is unbelievably claimed that since “the sexual abuse of children is fundamentally about power, it is to be expected that it is more common amongst those who hold powerful positions in society“. Apart from being a reflection of their argument about the crisis being caused by the rich and powerful simply being nasty and hoarding money, it encourages the myth that the danger to children is strange men outside of normal society. (The author has pointed out to me that the article does also say, like the SWP say, that sexual abuse of children occurs amongst all classes)
Socialist Worker on the other hand has tended to take the opposite view, repeating the claims of some middle class social workers who say child sex abuse is more prevalent in working class families. Perhaps this says more about the different views of class-as-identity between these two left parties, but such a view is also unhelpful to those struggling to expose the reality of widespread abuse by all types of men. Far worse though was Lindsey German, writing in response to Cleveland. Amongst the other cliches, she chose to focus not on the increasing number of stories and studies showing how widespread abuse is, but instead cited one report downplaying the extent of abuse, claiming it wasn’t necessarily harmful! Lindsey’s more recent pieces on counterfire are much better. She also pointed out the number of articles on child abuse in older Socialist Review (which I think she edited at the time), which stands in contrast to the one since 2010.
Finally, it must also be said that because these parties weren’t able to investigate abuse allegations against their own leading members, they are not in a position to fight for openness in the Labour Movement or the rest of the political establishment. SWP members may have been able to force their leadership to hold special conferences after their national Secretary was accused of raping a teenage girl, but the attitude of the leadership was identical to the Conservatives, UKIP, the Libe Dems and Labour. Having said that, some groups on the left ( see this document from the “Fourth International” in 1979 ) did attempt to get to grips with these issues decades ago. Anarchist, syndicalist and libertarian groups seem at least to be honest and attempting to confront sexual violence inside their groups.
So What Are We Fighting For?
Before the left can seriously start campaigning around sexual violence against children, we need to admit our past mistakes and give feminist theorists and activists the respect they are owed for bringing this issue to the fore. We don’t have to have a perfect theory ourselves, though we do need to be able to explain why it is nearly always men who abuse. We do need to explain why we have got it wrong in the past, why our organisations have behaved almost identically to the established parties and institutions. And we have to explain what we are going to do to change our practice. Once we have done this, we need to be sitting down with feminist and survivor campaigns to look at both what we can realistically fight for and how we can mobilise people. What we are able to fight for in the here and now depend on what other forces are part of that fight.
A Public Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and Institutional Cover-Ups
We should be campaigning alongside MPs like Tom Watson and Simon Danczuk. It should have full powers to call witnesses who speak on oath. We should also demand that people like Butler-Sloss are too close to the suspects to pass judgement. Those who protected fellow cabinet members, senior social workers, police chiefs, bishops, rock stars etc should be shamed and sacked. Part of me would have Thatcher brought back to life and put on trial. But I also feel that we need to move away from guessing names of abusers and focus on the abused.
Justice for survivors
While many people on the right of politics make a great show of wanting to punish paedophiles, it has to be up to those who have been abused to say what justice for them would mean. I’m happy for the likes of Rolf Harris to be jailed just as I would cheer if the killers of Stephen Lawrence were sent down. But assuming the Pope’s figures of 2% of priests being paedophiles is correct, it’s probably similar across society. Does each of the millions of survivors want to see 500,000 abusers jailed? Maybe, but I don’t feel that is something the left can campaign for, and in any case since we wouldn’t argue for life sentences then we also need to argue to spend money on the difficult and costly work of rehabilitation.
When sexual violence is endemic, it cannot be dealt with by the criminal justice system alone. I hardly think its the role of the left to demand more jails. As for debates such as whether to make covering up child abuse a criminal offence,, I’m not sure if we’re even qualified to make that judgement.
Survivors have a right to proper support
As each new old revelation hits the headlines, more buried memories are brought to the surface. More important than naming names or jailing scumbags, there needs to be a huge expansion in the support available to all those who need it. More counsellors and therapists need to be trained now. Mental health services will need extra funding. teachers and other childcare workers need more training and support to encourage and deal with more disclosures. Everyone of the millions of survivors needs to know they have somewhere to go, someone who’ll believe them, someone who can help them deal with the consequences of what happened.
Already, abused women are three times as likely as other women to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders and 70% of women psychiatric in patients have histories of physical or sexual abuse. This is far more than saying no to austerity. We are demanding that society spends the huge sums of money needed to begin to heal the damage done after society has let so many people down so badly. There are many socialists and feminists working in child protection and mental health services – could the left bring a network of them together to work out better than I can what we need?
There has been some discussion about whether demanding more money would be possible in a time of austerity. I think only those who accept the austerity agenda that there really isn’t any money in this country should have trouble with this. others have raised the idea that it is problematic demanding resources for an issue that only affects a minority. While I can understand this argument, it could also be said that public sector pensions affect only a minority, as do anti-racist issues or LBBTQ issues. A socialist viewpoint surely is one that sees fighting all oppression as a necessary part of building a united working class movement. Perhaps I’m just becoming a bit liberal in my old age, but I find it impossible to accept the idea that society can be responsible for so much damage to people yet leave them alone to foot the bill.
I feel its generally counterproductive for the left to demand laws about what newspapers should print. Britain’s newspapers will happily sell sexy images of schoolgirls alongside angry rants of middle aged men against “the paedos”. As much as I’d like to see every story of the latest star/minister being accompanied by information on support networks, legislation isn’t appropriate. We may wish them to focus on how to help survivors, but even when they do print stories from those abused it’s more about some celeb abuser really.
However, the representation of abuse in the arts, especially soap operas and children’s dramas really must give a voice to those who’ve been silenced for too long. There are of course storylines about abuse. But in no way reflecting the real scale of abuse or the familiarity of the abuser, or representing the abuse as a long term secret. Perhaps we should all be going back to the BBC after our Gaza pickets to demand visibility as a reparation for their cover up of Savile and his mates.
Teaching our children and giving them power
More work needs to be done in schools to support children. More resources. More training. And legislation. We should support the work of groups like Yes Matters who do practical work in schools teaching about sexuality, consent, gender-stereotypes and pornography. They have also campaigned against the House of Lords attempt to keep these subjects out of school. In fact in 2013 the Lords voted against having Personal, Social and Health Education, a compulsory part of the national curriculum.
Teaching children about their bodies and their rights has come along way since the Jimmy Savile supported Stranger Danger campaigns, but we will have to fight to ensure that our children are aware that anybody could be an abuser and that nobody is too powerful to be challenged. Any situation in schools or wider society where children are made powerless makes abuse easier. Socialists should be looking at ways of ensuring that all children grow up learning to feel that they have some power in whatever situation is appropriate. This can sometimes help older children protect themselves from abusers.
Speaking Out and Coming Out
The left already works in the unions to encourage decent whistle blowing policies to allow all workers to speak out against any bad practices. Thousands of lower paid workers in social services, hospitals, the BBC and the celeb industry knew about the sexual abuse going on in these institutions, but were either too scared of senior managers, or brushed off at a low level and unable to take it further. With stronger unions and workers rights, perhaps some of the cover ups could have been prevented. Though unions also have a duty to give members accused of abuse fair representation, and cannot be the sole forum for whistleblowers. (And of course unions need to be open about how to challenge abuse within their structures too)
Coming Out as a abuse survivor is something many would dread. Nobody should feel like they have to go public, and those abused by those with high-profile media status may find this even harder. Socialists should do whatever we can to make speaking out easier for all our colleagues, comrades, friends and family. We need to be sensitive, and believing, respecting confidentiality. We can encourage people to speak out as every survivor who speaks out makes it easier for the next. Invisibility is part of the problem, and we all have role to play in overcoming the silence.
Autonomous Youth Movements
While the word “youth” is a bit dated, the concept of young people organising independently of adults is an important one. It was part of the Bolshevik tradition and many other radical movements, and it is important to allow older children and young people to discover their own ideas, their own power and build their own support networks. We should argue for the right of people under twenty to meet as an autonomous part of any campaign, union or political group.
Age of Consent
Traditionally the “extreme” left has opposed the idea of the capitalist state having any control over our sexuality, and with good reason. Clearly the existing 16 rule protects few and causes other problems. Peter Tatchell has recently been in the news for arguing for 14 as a more appropriate age. Perhaps more importantly is the size of the age difference, and the power relationship between two people. In terms of proposing laws, much of the left may not want to go there, but surely we need to take sides in these debates.
I’ve already talked about how hard it can be for survivors to be completely public about what happened to them, yet any action around any of these issues must be initiated by survivors themselves. Just a small number of people taking a public stance for more help, support and justice could make a big impact on the public, as well as perhaps helping removing the shame and guilt that secrecy encourages.
just imagine if when Butler-Sloss was announced as boss of an enquiry, dozens of survivors and their supporters were on TV picketing the House of Lords demanding she was placed and demanding a full public enquiry. Or when a police force was shown to have ignored abuse allegations, or a social services department implicated in a cover up , meetings of the bosses were met by pickets demanding their resignation. Or when budgets were set, survivors were part of the public campaign not just against cuts but for the support that was needed.
Revolution as the Festival of the Oppressed
For all my issues with those articles explaining that only socialism can rid the world of child sex abuse, I feel I must state that there is at least some truth in the idea that the endemic nature of child sex abuse is completely tied up with how class societies have oppressed women and children.
The kinds of demands listed above (and it is by no means exclusive – please add more) can only be won through serious action. We may want to take part or initiate a range of actions and protests around whatever we can. However deep lasting change in society will only come when those at the receiving end of exploitation and oppression actively and consciously try to effect that change, and change themselves in the process.
Such a revolution will have to include women and men who’ve been damaged as children. And it must include children not long out of primary school. The process of taking real power should lead to a greater sense of self worth for everybody as we begin to free ourselves of deeply ingrained attitudes and practices. As well as dancing in the streets with the Emma Goldmans, a revolution must also see the beginning mass collective healing of the pain of ages. However, if we simply concern ourselves with declining profits and empires our revolution will be far more limited.
Will There be Sexual Abuse Under Socialism?
A final question to which I give no answer. A society based on extreme democracy, on the removal of power differences, on equality would surely have no space for men getting off on sexual violence. But we don’t know, and of course many of the children currently sexually abused are too young to either be a conscious part of a revolution or be free from adult power in any society.
If such abuse continues, would there be punishment? Marge Piercy’s novel “Woman At The Edge Of Time” is far more thought provoking and insightful on these questions than any manifesto or programme. I don’t believe that men are programmed to abuse, rape or dominate in anyway. But until we have tried to live free of a society based on dominance of one person over another, we will not be able to fully imagine a better world.
This piece began life as my final meeting to my SWP branch in December 2012. I was dissappointed with my party’s response to Savile and intended to raise it at the forthcoming conference. Then I found out the SWP was part of the problem.
I hope this article leads to other people expanding on the themes outlined here.
I’m sad that I had to write it as it all seems obvious, but so few people seemed to be saying it