Sexual abuse and culture

There’s an interesting article from Joseph Harker, essentially arguing that whiteness is invisible when we talk about sexual violence, a privilege not enjoyed by Muslim people:

Every day across Britain, it seems, there’s a new and horrific revelation of sexual abuse: last week we had the guilty plea of veteran TV presenter Stuart Hall, who confessed to 14 cases of indecent assault against 13 girls, the youngest only nine years old.  Days earlier the possible scale of child abuse in north Wales children’s homes was revealed.

But after the shock has subsided and we have time to reflect on these revolting crimes, the main question in most reasonable people’s minds must surely be: what is it about white people that makes them do this?

While Mr Harker has left alone the obvious male connection that all of these perpetrators – white and non-white – have in common, he raises a valid point, well.  And one which is just as relevant in Aotearoa, where as Moana Jackson points out the Kahui twins, Nia Glassie and James Whakaruru are household names, while the Nelson twins, Timothy Maybin and Samantha Nelson are not.

What I’m slightly disappointed by in Mr Harker’s article though is the lack of attention to power in other ways.  Sexual violence thrives in situations in which there are power imbalances.  Predators target vulnerable people.  Child sexual abuse perpetrated by adults is in the main not by “paedophiles” but by men who have sexual relationships with other adults as well as targeting children.

This power might be institutional – Jimmy Savile say, with his powerful role within the entertainment industry in the UK.  Where there seems to be a problem, given the Coronation St roll call of men accused of raping children is growing.  Institutional power within educational organisations, or community groups for children, or religious based organisations, or residential services for children, or facilities to care for children.  Social power that comes with adulthood, or being a caregiver, or helping out with babysitting.

We need to ask questions of culture if we want to prevent child sexual abuse, but they need to be much broader than racist deficit assumptions for Muslims, Maori or any other people of colour.  What was the culture in the British entertainment industries which has led to a Police investigation arresting  pop star Gary Glitter, comedian Freddie Starr, DJ Dave Lee Travis, publicist Max Clifford and comedian Jim Davidson, alongside of course the Jimmy Savile revelations and the recent arrest of Rolf Harris?

How many children and adults did these men sexually assault?  How many people knew about it?  What did they tell themselves?  How can we stop that happening again?

The Steubenville rape convictions put the spotlight on the inability of young sportsmen to identify sexually assaulting a near comatose young woman as something unacceptable.  One teammate of the convicted rapists who saw the rape and walked away had just moments earlier stopped another teammate from drinking and driving.  How do we shift those cultural norms, so that young sportsmen are just as determined to stop their teammates raping as driving drunk?

The most important issue, whenever we are talking and thinking about culture, is that the analysis – and the shift to building and supporting protective social norms – needs to come from within the group of interest.  I don’t know why the British entertainment industry has been providing such a safe place to abuse for men for decades.  But people working there will.

I don’t think we should be scared of talking and thinking about culture when it comes to preventing sexual violence.  In fact I think it’s imperative we do that work, if we want protective social norms which promote respect, safety, mutuality and consent as foundations.

We just need to be looking at our own cultural belongings first and foremost.  There’s plenty of social change to go around.

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