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It has been 8 years since the death of Jimmy Saville and the subsequent publication of details of his crimes. The revelations shocked those not old enough to remember the rumours about his conduct which persisted during his life. After his death came a wave of allegations in the UK against other abusers who, like him, had fame, power and influence and had until then escaped any real scrutiny.

Since 2012 numerous public figures in the UK and indeed globally have been accused of, and often prosecuted for, sexual assault or abuse of multiple young or vulnerable people. They managed, often for decades, to abuse and manipulate without consequence.

How did they get away with it?

In an attempt to answer that most frustrating question it is necessary to look at what stops survivors speaking out against their abusers.

It is now fairly common to hear of a single news story regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct by a public figure, and 24 hours later to be reading the accounts of a dozen other survivors. Unfair criticism has been levelled at those who come forward with allegations against a particular abuser or abusers only after there has been significant publicity and complaints.

Various studies have explored what might stop people from reporting sexual abuse, whether historic or recent, and there are a few key responses which show up again and again. These include:-

  • The fear of not being believed;
  • Embarrassment or shame;
  • Fear of being misunderstood or questioned in relation to sexuality or gender norms;
  • Fear of being considered complicit or responsible;
  • Fear of the abuser and their perceived power or authority;
  • Fear of threats or violence; and
  • Simply not knowing how to communicate what happened or who to communicate it to.

Each of those creates huge internal conflict for survivors and the courage it takes to make an allegation cannot be over-emphasised.

Social media has created a hugely important platform for survivors to share their stories and to support and empower each other. The #MeToo Movement took its current digital form in 2017 following the very public downfall of Harvey Weinsten (although it already existed, having been created in 2006 as a way of connecting and empowering vulnerable young women) and became a global movement which campaigned to bring to justice hundreds of other abusers.

In looking more closely at just a few of these abusers it is clear that the fears which stop survivors coming forward are founded in reality and lived experience.

An example of this is Jeffrey Epstein, the recently deceased financier with whom, it seemed, justice had finally caught up. In 2007 he arranged a non-prosecution agreement in relation to trafficking teenage girls and was given a 13 month prison sentence with “work release”. Other than this small hiccup in his by then established course of conduct his crimes went unchecked.

In 2017 Kevin Spacey brushed off allegations of sexual assault as “drunken inappropriate behaviour”. Since then more than 20 men have made similar allegations which continue to be denied amid criminal proceedings.

In 2018 Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer stated that many of the women who made allegations of sexual assault and rape were lying, and that others were simply involved in consensual acts to which they gave their informed consent. 

Bill Cosby has faced allegations spanning over 50 years, and has responded with angry denial, accusing survivors of lying.

Larry Nassar was able to abuse more than 250 girls in his care as a gymnastics coach because of the failings of numerous authorities to act on reports of sexual assault made about him, and his only response was a letter read out by the judge at his sentencing hearing in which he accused his victims of attention-seeking.

All of these abusers, and the countless others accused of similar crimes, are powerful, wealthy, sometimes famous, and entitled. They show by their actions and words following allegations and indeed prosecutions that they feel they are entitled to the servitude of others without consequence. Recent history has shown that the tide is turning and that they will be brought to justice, and we can only hope that survivors continue to speak out with the grace, dignity and bravery which they have demonstrated so far.

Blog by Shona Cocksedge, Specialist Historic Abuse Solicitor

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