One surprising thing to me about the flood of historical child sexual abuse allegations now emerging from numerous UK football clubs is how un-surprising it all seems. There’s a painful sense of familiarity and inevitability to the whole thing. The apparently indifferent selfishness of the perpetrators and the damage done to those who were abused (I hate the connotations of the word ‘victims’, although that’s clearly what they were) by now begin to sound like an unremarkable continuation of the kind of abuse cases that we in the UK seem to have heard so much of in recent times.
I struggle not to feel a kind of ‘outrage fatigue’; and resist the temptation to turn away from it all — on the radio or in my head. What, more than anything else, has been preventing me from doing this, has been the immensely courageous, moving and powerful – and very public — testimonies of former footballers, describing the betrayal of the trust they experienced as boys, from men they thought were mentors and advisors. Whatever long-overdue healing comes to these men from disclosing the secrets they have kept in shame all these years, it must cause anguish to their families, who will wonder if they could, or should, have done more to protect them.
The tearful revelations of these former princes and role models from the manly game of soccer could be one good thing to come out of the whole process. Their opening up feels like a game-changer; shifting the frame of what is considered acceptable when it comes to men admitting vulnerability and sadness – on a par with the powerful impact that sports stars coming out about their homosexuality had on mainstream male attitudes towards the gay community, although it’s still a way from complete acceptance.
There will be sleepless nights for those football club officials who, while not being directly involved in abuse, must know in their hearts they could have done more to protect the vulnerable young boys who were in their charge. It seems likely that in several cases they knew exactly what was happening, and did what they could to cover it up — sometimes paying victims to keep quiet, and continuing to employ men who they knew were active paedophiles.
But I also feel pain as a man when I hear these revelations: partly because of empathising to some extent with the victims, and partly because, at a deep level, I feel a certain amount of shame that reasonable-seeming men could have abused vulnerable youngsters. And anger that the high priests in the ‘church’ of football, who professed to be horrified by the activities that took place on their watch, simply looked the other way or held their noses, rather than take the kind of immediate and abrupt action that was required.
Either they didn’t think it was important enough, which is dismaying in itself; or they couldn’t face the reality that a small but significant proportion of men are, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to stop themselves using an opportunity to sexually abuse vulnerable children, and the implications this has for how society regards male sexuality and behaviour in general.
Since Freud, we’ve become used to the concept of a murderous id (or, according to some, the ‘reptilian’ part of our brain) lurking under a veneer of socialised niceness, which will emerge to act homicidally under the right conditions. But while most of us can come to terms with the idea that, in the right circumstances and with the right degree of need, we’re probably all capable of extreme violence – and there has been plenty of evidence that this is true throughout human history — this doesn’t extend to us having much interest in the psychological make up and motivations of individuals who seem to need to commit sexual abuse.
Most men behave decently and reasonably most of the time. It’s what makes our society a tolerably safe place to live. With the current allegations of historical abuse in football, there has never been a better, or more urgent time to face the reality that when men are left alone in positions or power with vulnerable others (whether it’s in a football club, a church, the police or the BBC, to mention some recent examples) some will use their position to abuse the very people they are supposed to be helping. Only a small percentage, but this is still a significant number.
Demonising perpetrators but offering them very little in the way of counselling or support, then locking them up in prisons where they are likely to be abused themselves rather than any attempt to understand why these self-evidently damaged and inadequate individuals express their sexuality in such a harmful way, is clearly not working, because the rates of child and other sexual abuse show no signs of dropping.;
The hatred that comes up in reaction to child abusers, while understandable at some level, is getting in the way of us carrying out the level of research needed to understand why some men behave this way, and what can be done to deter them, or any other men with the same problems. Many of them may know their behaviour is contemptible and unacceptable –and we know that many abusers were themselves abused as children — but aren’t able to stop themselves. Branding them as evil and making them the repository of our projected sense of guilt and fear, is not going to enable or encourage them to seek the help they need.
If we want to create a safer society for the most vulnerable, these men must be understood and helped so that we know how to intervene, and change, their behaviour. We need to find out what social and personal factors have shaped how they think and feel in relation to power and sex – and whether wider social ideas about masculinity and male sexuality are contributing at all to this problem.
Perhaps there’s a fear that by investing time and in understanding this type of abusive behaviour will be seen as in some way condoning it. We owe it to our children overcome our shame and bring this problem out of the shadows, so that we can find out what action is needed to create a world where they can always feel free and safe to follow their dreams and interests, sporting or otherwise.
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