Stories of sexual abuse told in public

She Said is a fast-moving account of investigative journalism contributing to the #MeToo movement. However, it is still first and foremost the story of “sexual harassment and assault of women by powerful men”. And the fear and intimidation used by those men to protect their very public reputations. The closing pages sum up the courage of women in the book whose stories are now on public record. The authors, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, cite this courage as being part of a genuine but incomplete realignment of societal attitudes. Clearly, there is an on-going need for such stories of sexual harassment and abuse to be told in both public and private.

In the UK, #MeToo sits alongside the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, now in its fifth year. And a series of disturbing revelations about child sexual exploitation. These stories are populated by scores of people who used their power, greater or lesser, over those they abused as the springboard for their crimes. So often, this abuse was enabled by the complicity or failure of institutions and industries. It was also embedded in a society that found so many ways of ‘not seeing’ what is happening in their homes, clubs and workplaces.

While such stories continue to emerge publicly through the bravery of their owners, so many more remain private. As She Said points out, why should it be the burden of those abused “to tell uncomfortable stories when they had never done anything wrong?”

Innocence, shame, anger and fear

As a teenager, someone with profile and power invited me to move to England and live with him. In my earshot, this man had effortlessly persuaded those in authority to leave him alone with me. He then segued seamlessly into a skilfully mixed cocktail of concern and empathy, flattery as to my potential, and a vision of the wonderful life I could have living with him. (He also dreamily described one of his fetishes in terms I did not then understand.) Today, we know this as grooming. He knew from experience he could do all of this with impunity. Fortunately, geography protected me from further contact and this was anyway the least of the sexual violence I would have to deal with in life.

Thirty-five years later, his prosecution (then jailing) for years of sexually abusing boys and young men stirred up in me a cocktail of feelings I had not felt at the time. Misplaced shame at being his naïve and unwitting target. Anger at the attitudes, ranging from naivety to wilful blindness, of those in power who protected him and not me. And fear, probably unfounded, at the thought of giving evidence, knowing that he was connected at the very highest level of the British establishment. I didn’t have to. Nonetheless, it took some conscious processing to deal with the legacy of even such a minor encounter. How much greater the psychological impact on those he succeeded in abusing?

Stories of sexual abuse told in private

Like the She Said cases which stand in for thousands of untold cases of sexual harassment, so the publicly and bravely told stories of sexual abuse and exploitation point to a multitude of stories that may never be heard. And while some people who have been abused go on, with or without support, to live emotionally healthy and fulfilling lives, many struggle with this. As a psychotherapist, I tend to see those who find it harder to do so.

Just as there is no time limit in the UK for the public prosecution of criminal offences such as sexual assault, there is fortunately no time limit beyond which talking privately for the first time ceases to be therapeutic. As a psychotherapist, I can attest to the still increasing number of people seeking help to manage the effects of abuse perpetrated on them in their younger years.

There is little other help for them frankly. And there can be no parade for those killed and injured in this way because there is no honour publicly attached to surviving abuse. There are only shame, anger, fear, damaged self-esteem and disrupted relationships. Therapy can help to mitigate all of these but, even so, all can linger for a lifetime.

What will ‘the Twenties’ bring?

“She Said” is set in a different country, a different industry and a different legal system. But the human parallels to the UK and other ‘developed’ countries are obvious. The enticement of a better life to those who don’t yet understand what danger they are in. Assault. Cover-up. And, long afterwards, abusers drawing on their networks to dodge accountability for their predatory, sexually-driven behaviours.

At this stage it is hard to know whether there will be a shift in law, institutions and societal attitudes on the scale that is needed to prevent all of this being repeated. Providing safe opportunities for those who have been assaulted or abused to speak out publicly is essential. Hearing and believing the stories of survivors both in public and in private must continue to be the oft-repeated ‘first step’ in breaking down the culture of impunity.

Closing She Said, I am aware I have barely begun to take in the depth and import of what is recounted here. I realise also that we are only seven weeks away from a new decade. Most likely ‘the Twenties’ will be turn out to be another gruelling chapter in this long-running story of sexual harassment and abuse of which #MeToo is surely just the beginning.

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twoey (Bloomsbury Circus, 2019).