Challenging settings where child sexual abuse can thrive

dogbod2017, blog

by Dr Sarah Nelson

CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson comments on the high-profile sexual abuse scandals being reported in the media and outlines what needs to change.

Sexual abuse scandals involving the leading American film producer Harvey Weinstein, British music colleges such as Chetham’s and Royal Northern College, and football clubs throughout the UK might seem to have little in common.

However a strong common thread runs through them all, giving us valuable clues to the types of settings and professional ethos where children and young people are especially vulnerable, where abuse can continue unchecked for many years. This, in turn, reveals where young people require especially active targeting for protection and prevention in future.

The film industry, the classical music industry and the football industry all share five common characteristics.

  • While they hold out the promise of fame and wealth, only a tiny percentage of their eager young students ever make it to the top of their profession.
  • In these cut-throat worlds, individual tutors, mentors and coaches have considerable power to determine or damage young people’s careers, and to select favoured protégés. Their special talents, mystique and alleged eccentricities have been used to ignore or excuse their behaviour.
  • The dream of success, nurtured and driven from early childhood, is so strong in the young people that there is great pressure for them and their hopeful parents to keep quiet, not to ‘rock the boat’ nor demand action when they suffer sadistic bullying or sexual crimes.
  • Since students are pitted against each other in a highly competitive, hierarchical atmosphere for the few top prizes, solidarity and common action against mistreatment are further discouraged.
  • The organisations, professions and clubs have kudos, and there is strong impetus to close ranks to maintain their reputations.

Outspoken critic

Dr Ian Pace, music lecturer at London’s City University and himself a former pupil of Chetham’s, has written and spoken widely in identifying all these dangers in the classical music industry, and in demanding a public inquiry into their practice along with future reforms. His insights are valuable for academics and practitioners alike in the effort to reduce childhood sexual abuse – not just in that profession, but in others with a similar ethos.

Pace has said: “It is well known within the music world that there are many other such stories involving a variety of individuals in positions of power at various music schools….many (victims) are extremely afraid to come forward with their stories, in a close-knit world of classical music in which careers are dependent upon the whims of a few powerful individuals.

“Musical institutions are often found to have dismissed allegations (and sometimes dismissed or threatened allegers) prioritising their own reputations, a pattern which continues following convictions. These institutions rarely reach out to the victims, who are as much a part of their legacy as the successful musicians who adorn their publicity materials.

“The perpetrators are also frequently found to be arrogant, narcissistic and bullying individuals convinced of their own superiority to other human beings… I believe that in this context, sexual abuse is often an extension of more widespread mistreatment and psychological abuse used as a strategy for domination. But all of this is frequently excused on account of the mystical aura of these musicians’ artistry.”

Sexism also common factor

Rampant sexism and misogyny have been powerful elements in the unfolding picture of a tarnished film industry, as allegations against Weinstein and other stars continue to grow. That this scandal and the music college scandals have chiefly involved female victims, in contrast to football clubs’ mainly male victims, might appear to undermine their commonalities. However, they have actually shared much in terms of sexual attitudes and ethos. These have also increased the risks of abuse and silencing.

Research with male survivors (see for example Lisak, 1995, Nelson, 2016) reveals that their perpetrators often displayed similar traditional, aggressive ‘macho’ attitudes and beliefs to the abusers of women. They promoted these values to victims, belittled them as weak and less than “real men”; and silenced them through fear of humiliation by other men if they spoke out: most of all in traditionalist male environments, such as professional football.

What needs to change?

While none of the three professions discussed can avoid a competitive element to their work, nor can they enable substantially more young people to reach top positions, their experience and vulnerability suggests an urgent need to make some significant changes. These would recognise the special difficulties inherent in ‘dream of success professions’ about speaking out, and in challenging powerful individual mentors. Do changes need to be enforced, rather than voluntary?

Amongst possibilities which require consideration are:

  • Collaborative discussion, heart-searching and joint planning for improvement among such professions, through mutual recognition of the common factors which make them dangerous.
  • Creation of a caring and protective environment for all young people in each institution or club, where child protection, bystander education and an ethos which challenges sexist attitudes and behaviour is taken seriously in the training and career development of all staff. This will include safe practice in one-to-one teaching and mentoring.
  • The provision of genuinely confidential and protected whistleblowing arrangements for staff and volunteers who witness abuse and ill-treatment, along with mandatory reporting for the most senior levels of staff and administrators.
  • The provision of genuinely confidential and protected means of reporting abuse and ill-treatment for all children and young people, which is clearly re-advertised to them and their parents at all stages of their training.

About the Author

Dr Sarah Nelson is a Research Associate of Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) and a research specialist on childhood sexual abuse and its effects across the lifecourse. Sarah’s book, ‘Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches‘, offers hope of more effective, imaginative means of protecting children and young people from sexual abuse

References; Both contain many examples of his writings against abuse in music, including cases of convicted abusers in these settings.

Lisak, D. (1995) ‘Integrating a critique of gender in the treatment of male survivors of childhood abuse’, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 32(2), 258-269.

Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support, Bristol: Policy Press: especially chs. 8&9.