This is our truth, tell us yours
I listened to the account of her abuse given by one of the Rotherham victims on Radio 5 Live yesterday.
What struck me first was how typical it as of the stories told by many young men I know who were abused by other men when under age. The process of identification, of grooming, and of violence if necessary, was all achingly familiar. That made me thing not about how exceptional this case might be, but about the patterns it reveals.
What has also struck me as I have read more and more of the media coverage of the Jay report is how little attention has been paid to the culture of the abusers. Not their cultural heritage, or background, but the culture of abusers – or sub-culture, if you wish.
Reading the idiocies below the line,and the superficial outrage above the line in so many newspapers, it is impossible not to conclude that the writers and commenters believe there is a homogeneity to the behaviour of the abusers that means that the failings of Rotherham Social Services are all the more culpable. Listening to the nauseating stupidity of Yvette Cooper re-enacting her husband’s scapegoating of Sharon Shoesmith and demanding a scapegoat be made of the Police and Crime Commissioner it is hard not to conclude that she has learned nothing and forgotten everything.
The carnival of contempt that has been the celebrity paedophilia trials of Hall and Harris, and the dark operatic enormity of the Saville affair has, in part, blinded us to the reality that these appear to have been exceptional cases. The offenders operated with impunity as a consequence of their privilege as celebrities, and, it appears, alone.
Rotherham on the other hand is another example of a place where some if not all of the abusers knew each other, and moved through a community in a sub-culture where knowledge about who could be victimized, and how best that could be achieved, appears to have been shared, whilst the police and others looked away or discounted the reported behaviour as normal for the people involved, both victims and abusers. Othering them, as some papers seem keen to do, may actually reinforce that offending sub-culture rather than weaken it,and may propagate it in new locations.
Much of that sub-culture that I’m describing from my understanding of what went on in Rotherham imperfect though that is, resembles my experience of being abused by men as a child. My albeit anecdotal understanding of such groups is that they were informally hierarchical, and frequently featured men I now think of as the super-abusers, the nodes where several groups of abusers might intersect, or who might facilitate the sharing of victims and perpetuate the abusive culturebu sharing knowledge or justifications of such behaviour. The opposite of the super-abusers of course were the men who passed through the abusive sub-culture then, for whatever reason, left it behind. We know even less about them.
Nothing I have read in the last 36 hours appears to suggest we are prepared as a society to explore those sub-cultural issues. I grew up knowing, better than many of my age, about the risky venues and locations. I knew for instance that fairgrounds were places where sexual exploitation took place long before I’d heard of Sidney Cooke. I knew about the bus station cafe and adjacent public toilets in a nearby town as a place where rape of boys like me was normalized because one of my abusers warned me that I wouldn’t like it there, and that I was too good for the kind of men who hung out there. Some of them apparently, were ‘darkies’, and we all knew that being a black man’s bum boy was a fate worse than death in the world I grew up in. Like his warnings to me that I would end up in a childrens home where I’d be beaten as well as buggered, the knowledge and the fear served to frighten and isolate me. I knew about amusement arcades in cities and the dead spaces around shopping centres where people like me seemed to congregate in a way that made me wary of being abused by those who would not be as careful of me as my abusers, who regarded themselves as exclusive, and better than the rest. I heard all these fears and stories, and the homophobia of my family, the fear of being cast out, in the voice of the Rotherham victim on the radio, far more than I heard or recognised as significant the race or religion of the abusers.
I have sung the praises here before of Nick Davies’s book Heart of Darkness. I get no sense reading the news coverage of Rotherham that we are prepared to go beyond the othering of the sub-cultures of abusers, and to look to explore the similarities of method, intention and motivation between the different groups of abusers we encounter. Equally, I see no willingness to address the fear and shame of victims who do not disclose because they fear the responses, the contempt for their marginalized status, the cold stare of the policeman who believes that you have been raped because you’re one of them, because you’re a poof or a slag or a chav, and that’s the way they conduct themselves. Nor indeed are we prepared to set aside the debate about better police training now for a moment to consider the kind of informal training that must have gone on within South Yorkshire Police to inculcate their officers with the belief that only certain types of girls in certain circumstances could be raped, or that certain communities should be left to police themselves.
It is almost as if the decline of ideology as a pursuit for grown-ups has been paralleled by a decline in sociology as a pursuit for those who would shape and deliver better public services that seek to address causes, not categorize effects. And that is, after all, all we are doing in Rotherham. We are moving incidents from the box labelled not a crime, to the box labelled crime, and excoriating the police and childrens services for not doing so more quickly, in the vain and frankly hopeless belief that abusers are deterred by the prospect of being caught. By the time we find out if that is true it maybe too late for the wave of victims currently moving through the experience of being abused.