07:34pm Friday 10 July 2020

Celebrity culture forces abuse victims into silence

DR Lisa Oakley, programme leader for BA (Hons) Abuse Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University – the only course of its kind in the country – has been discussing with her students the effect of celebrity culture with reference to the case of Jimmy Savile. She says that celebrity status gives a special sort of protection to people who break the law.

“DOES celebrity status confer a level of protection for people who want to break the law? Even if those crimes are as horrific as those of Jimmy Savile?

“This is the question I have been asking my students to think about.

“The Jimmy Savile case has raised a number of issues about sexual abuse and disclosure. Often as a society we focus on the individual who is responsible for the abuse. We live in an individualistic society and Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo would say we constantly feel the need to ask the question ‘who is to blame’.

Cultural context

“Our assumption is that the blame for any bad or evil behaviour is squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.

“While we have to acknowledge this is true, that individuals are responsible for their own behaviour, and that any individual who abuses another must be held to account for this, we also need to understand that all behaviour takes place within a cultural context.

“Zimbardo uses the analogy of the bad apple and the barrel. We focus on the one bad apple but fail to examine the barrel in which the apple resides. If we look at the case of Jimmy Savile there are clear parallels here.

“Of course his decision to abuse is his choice and we should never ignore that in a broader examination. However, we have structured society in such a way that individuals with celebrity status are in a particular position of power.

Power and abuse

“Wyatt and Peters, who have done some important research into child sexual abuse, suggest that abuse is about power. In our culture, celebrities have a lot of power, which makes it difficult to speak out when abuse has occurred.

“Many individuals may feel they will not be believed if they do. They occupy a lower power position and this makes abuse possible and disclosure unlikely.

“Further, we have rules about adults and children and there are also power relations here. We teach children to do what they are told by an adult and to trust adults. These may indeed be good rules but when the adult turns out to be abusive they can lock children into a cycle of abuse.

“Children do what they are told and don’t speak about it because they are told not to.

Celebrity power status

“If you put celebrity power status together with societal rules about the position of children you see a situation in which the abuse by Jimmy Savile can occur, and disclosure does not happen until after his death. This is a ‘safe’ time when stories of abuse can be told.

“So, while we have to hold every individual responsible for their own behaviour we also have to ask questions about the way we structure society and how this impacts experiences of abuse. Maybe it is better to think of a bad apple and a bad barrel.

“However, it would be unfair not to state that it is possible to be a good apple in a bad barrel. There are many who have the status of celebrity and do not abuse the position they hold.” 

Manchester Metropolitan University is a leading university for the professions and a powerful driver of the North West economy.

The University educates and trains large numbers of the region’s legal and business professionals, scientists, engineers, teachers, health workers and creative professionals. It enjoys an excellent reputation for teaching and applied research and is a recognised innovator in partnership working with its local communities. The University is currently investing almost £300 million in its estate and facilities.

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