Listening to the Vanessa Feltz program this morning on BBC Radio London, I heard a very difficult interview with the most calm, decent and eloquent man named Arthur regarding terrible sexual abuse to him as a child by a teacher at Christ Hospital School in Sussex.
Arthur was riveting. Not because of the horrible details of what happened to him, but in the brave, articulate and resolved way with which he discussed it. It was a brilliant, emotional program and worth tuning into.
By talking about it, you are taking back the power the abuser stole from you.
But while I was listening, I was also thinking about the various stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the news recently by powerful and influential men in Hollywood and journalism. I can’t think of anything more atrocious than being abused as a child – it really is undeniably the most heinous of things. But hearing him speak about the abuse of power and society and the way he dealt with it, I couldn’t help but draw some similarities to the young women being preyed upon in offices across the globe.
He said so much worth repeating. I was driving at the time so I might not have the details perfect, but Arthur was abused as a child between the years of 1970 and 1973 by a man named Peter Burr. As Arthur says, he didn’t have the vocabulary or words to describe what was happening to him but he just knew it was wrong. In 2003, he gathered up his nerve and called the police and spoke to someone there. They didn’t do anything and he wasn’t taken seriously. He doesn’t blame them. He said “I bear no resentment. There was no language in society, no understanding, no compartment to put that information in, and I did as much as I could.”
The abuser was facilitated by a system that encouraged silence
Fast forward to last year and he was listening to the Vanessa Feltz show about Jimmy Saville and abusers and it spurred him to get in touch with the producers. Paraphrasing: “You store all of this up in a box. You tuck it away. After hearing the BBC London program about abuse and Jimmy Saville, I realized there were other men and girls now who were children who commonly had the same experience. I heard that program and thought more had to be done.”
So he got in touch with Gemma the producer who said perhaps we can help and asked him to go back to the police. He went on to say “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society. For the first time in my life, I had a story to tell, a complaint to make, and the police listened and they acted and society supported that action. At last, justice is done. I am grateful for that.” Peter Burr pleaded guilty and last week was convicted on 9 counts and is serving 4 years in prison.
But what really got me is somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 AM (about 1:15:00 into the program), he said a few things that rang so true to my experience and the experiences of others who were young women working in offices of powerful men. I’ve been grappling with why I feel guilty about not coming forward earlier. I know the man who tried to attack me ended up harassing and abusing women for 20 years. I feel lucky in that I got away before any real damage was done. I was attacked, I fought him off, I got away. Others weren’t so fortunate. And that makes me cry and makes me very, very angry.
Arthur said the man who abused him and other boys was a man who was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence”. This couldn’t be more true of the nature of newsrooms and Hollywood and frankly, everywhere else where there were predators. He also said the man is like many predators who are “exercising their complete power of control over you for their own sexual gratification. Utter power over you.” The conversation revealed that Peter took gratification by abusing the power of his position. He was a man in a position of power and authority and his gain was taking away the power of others. But it was also the culture at the time. Arthur recognizes this. He said “attitudes of the police have changed so much. From the 1970s, 80s, even 10 years ago. The time is now.”
Later in the program they had experts on to talk about this further. Power in relationships is the key. Underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this. In this case, it could be young boys abused by teachers, or young women abused or harassed by powerful, influential, sometimes famous men whose authority and power in the office atmosphere is very apparent. It is very hard to take BACK that power, as the panellists on Vanessa’s show said: “They are very clever and manipulative people who know they can dominate and that’s the reward for them. The sexual predatory behaviour is the result.”
Arthur said that by talking about it, you’ve taken back that control that people had over you. Talking about it is empowering, he said. You are not alone and you realize that when you hear other stories. Even if you can’t go through the court process just sharing it with others brings back control. You’ve dealt with it.
He said “I know that justice has been served. I know I’ve done all I can do.” I agree with him when he says that the time is right. Now, in 2018, wider society says this is wrong. Abuse of power and predatory behaviour is wrong. There is a big sea change.
I have heard from women who are raw. Who were attacked, who were abused, who were harassed, who were taken advantage of. They were young, they didn’t know how to react, they were paralyzed with fear. They did not know who to reach out to, how to report, what to report, what the repercussions would be. Many feared for their jobs or the fallout from being the “problem” person in the office. Many thought they were the only one harassed (myself included). Others were so traumatized they left news completely. They changed careers. How sad a state of affairs that young women journalists starting out in their careers and arriving at the bright, brilliant allure of the all-powerful television news networks ended up fleeing in fear and pain because of the men who abused their trusted power. Worst still, others did report the problems and little was done.
I agree with Arthur: The time is now. As part of an organisation of women whose mission is to change the newsroom culture, I hope we can pave a smoother path for future generations. Our culture, our newsrooms, our offices, our police, our superiors, our leaders all recognize that enough is enough. There is a new cultural awareness and a new intolerance. Change is here. Finally, thankfully.