It’s time we had an open, frank and honest discussion in society about sexual abuse

It’s time we had an open, frank and honest discussion in society about sexual abuse. We see chasms in British politics, in global politics, as though abuse were a Left/Right issue not a humanity issue. Not so long ago, I’d have been able to say things like ‘all sexual abuse is bad’, ‘people are innocent until proven guilty’, ‘false accusations are bad’, ‘sex abusers should be locked away for the protection of the public’, ‘an oops-my-hand-slipped consent violation is very bad, though still lower on the scale of seriousness than a stranger raping someone at knifepoint’, ‘whether someone’s guilty doesn’t depend upon their political beliefs but their actions’ and so on, without batting an eyelid. To paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence, those truths really should be self-evident. Yet, in our increasingly-polarised society, they don’t seem to be.

This isn’t a theoretical discussion. This isn’t something rare, happening to people you’ve never met. In my (largely people from outside politics) circle of friends and acquaintances I know several
women and a couple of men who’ve been seriously sexually assaulted; others who’ve experienced harassment; people whose lives have been torn apart by false allegations, and situations where a manipulative thankfully-now-ex partner has threatened to make false reports of sexual abuse as a means of exerting control over the relationship. When I was teaching, I thankfully never personally knew a case of abuse – but friends of colleagues and colleagues of friends did. Many teachers live in constant fear of false accusations being made by someone not yet fully cognisant of the gravity of the accusation they’d be making. Careers ruined, families torn apart, yet child protection must rightly always be paramount.

We should all be on the same side. There cannot surely be more than one person in a thousand who could possibly disagree that we should render the innocent blameless and punish the guilty; society should be united. Yet it isn’t. Nor is everything quite black and white; take the Ched Evans case for example: found guilty of rape, but overturned and acquitted on appeal. His actions deeply immoral, but legally did not meet the requisite standard for a conviction on the offence of rape. Is the law wrong? Is it outdated?

Conviction rates for rape are appallingly and terrifyingly low; recent cases show the dangers of trying to artificially increase them. When documents demonstrating innocence fail to find their way into the hands of the defence, it shows something wrong with the system. Jimmy Saville never had to live with the consequences of his serial sexual offences; Cliff Richard must forever live with the consequences of false accusation and trial by media, reputation forever unfairly tarnished.

In America, battle lines were drawn on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. The Left condemned him guilty as charged; the Right claimed evidence exonerated him. Rewind 20 years for the converse: remember the Right condemning Bill Clinton; the Left defending him? Should your views on the behaviour of Trudeau or Trump really depend upon political allegiance rather than facts? Shouldn’t the outrage be proportionate to the offensive behaviour, not to the colour of the rosette? Power corrupts; positions of power create potential abuse of that power. They attract potential abusers. Genuine – serious – abuse by MPs and MEPs goes unpunished; yet, colleagues who’ve tried to dismiss an underperforming or disloyal staff member frequently find themselves instant subjects of retaliatory accusations.

What should be legal, and what should be illegal? How to react to those behaviours which aren’t illegal per se, but are socially unacceptable? For anyone who struggles with the concept of this immoral/illegal distinction, imagine a serial liar: immoral, but hardly a criminal. How can we balance protection against false accusations with condemnation of true ones? How do we deal with the fear of coming forward when convictions are so difficult, yet maintain our proud national tradition of innocence until proven guilty? How do we stop innocent people like Cliff Richard being condemned in the court of public opinion, whilst the guilty all too often fail to face a court of law?

Worse still, we can’t consider any of these questions in a vacuum. They’re all intertwined with each other. How do we cut the Gordian knot and make sure we only condemn the people who deserve it, without ruining innocent lives in the process? I don’t have all the answers but one thing I do know: this matters. A lot. And the way we’re going about it is only going to make matters worse, not better.