Colluders in sexual violence: don't let them off the hook

Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, recent events within the Socialist Workers Party: all four cases show how socially powerful figures can benefit from a 'culture of collusion' perpetrated by those around them.

How many people knew or suspected that Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith were sexual predators and serial abusers? The recent reports from police and other accounts show that these men’s activities were "common knowledge” in some circles. So what sustained decades of inaction and let these persistent abusers carry on with such impunity?

Met police Commander Peter Spindler spoke of Savile having ‘groomed a nation’. Seized on by others to explain how so many blind eyes were turned, the notion of Savile grooming the nation should be treated with caution.  The phrase implies that the whole country was a victim of this creepy entertainer’s manipulative techniques, which lets those who saw or knew and did nothing – the colluders – off the hook.  

As the police/NSPCC reports on Savile acknowledge, power and status are useful tools for sexual predators.  They undoubtedly knew that most of their victims would be too frightened, confused or ashamed to speak. That is a common reaction to sexual violence: assaulted on such a deep and intimate level, survivors often want to keep it quiet. Some try to make themselves believe that what was done to them was less awful than it actually was; or they blame themselves, as if they caused the abuse by their own fault or naivity.   Rapists and abusers rely on pervasive patriarchal attitudes that mean that the testimony of women and children will be treated as suspect, and many victims will fear the exposure and consequences of going public, increasing the likelihood that they keep quiet.  The more clever and manipulative predators deliberately target people who are less likely to be believed, such as troubled children, youngsters excited by fame, and people in a junior or supplicant position in organisations where the predator holds status and authority. 

This explains why many victims keep quiet, but a central question that seems to have been submerged in much of the handwringing and column inches is why so many others who ‘suspected’ or ‘knew’ about patterns of abusive behaviour failed to take action.  How many colleagues were aware of inappropriate, predatory or illegal behaviour but chose to look the other way? What really went through the heads of those who knew or heard about an abuser’s activities and did nothing or, worse still, suppressed evidence and silenced the victims?  How many of these were in positions of authority or connected in professional or personal capacities with the abusers or the workplaces and institutions that were used to gain access to vulnerable girls and boys?  When considering why predators like Smith and Savile were able to be so confident that they would not be held to account or punished, we have to look at the attitudes of others with relevant influence and authority.  The various reports detail how some investigators played into the abusers’ strategies by undermining rather than supporting victims and whistleblowers.  Patterns of abusive behaviour were ignored or overlooked as allegations tended to be treated as isolated, one-off events.  One of Savile’s accusers was coerced into silence after being told that lawyers would make “mincemeat” of her.   The most vulnerable – children in institutions, as targeted by Savile and Smith – were even punished for lying.   Such systemic cultures of collusion facilitated the decades of serial abuse.  Despite years of persistent rumours and concerns, how many people who should have rung alarm bells continued instead to give Savile and Smith protection, status, accolades and other benefits?  Such trappings of fame and power help serial abusers to avoid scrutiny and gain greater access and power to abuse more easily.  

There may be a number of different reasons why some people choose to collude rather than speaking or acting to expose inappropriate and harmful behaviour that they see or hear about.  Some may be afraid of the consequences of rocking an important boat, while others may enjoy the attention, flattery, friendship and other personal benefits they receive directly or indirectly from their proximity to a famous man.  Several decades after feminists began challenging “casting couch” harassment whereby producers or professors (usually male) considered it a right and a perk to “have” their pick of fledgling students and actors (usually female), the dynamics of power, gender and vulnerability are still manipulated by sexual predators, aided and abetted by colluders who maintain the cultures of impunity that allow serial abusers to feel confident of their power to evade punishment.  Some of Savile’s colluders seem to have viewed his crimes as normal for the swinging sixties, “a bit of fun”, or even to have admired him for getting away with it.

What of the others who were aware of  Savile’s “dark side” and Smith’s “predilections” but chose to turn a blind eye?  Some, worse still, sustained them with public awards, facilities and positions that gave them even greater access to their unfortunate prey.  Were these colluders also victims, seduced by the charm or celebrity these high profile, famous men exploited, as implied by the “grooming” explanation?  Were they awed into keeping quiet because “Jimmy” raised so much money for charity and “Cyril” was a “well-respected” MP?  Did they actively collude, or were they just cowards who didn’t want trouble, who perhaps felt that they needed first and foremost to preserve their own jobs, institutions or causes?

Some staff reportedly tried to help or protect those in their charge.  They  knew enough to be concerned. Surely they knew that abusing children was not only abhorrent but illegal… so how is it that they could not get the perpetrators stopped and brought to justice?  Some apparently tried to blow the whistle, so why did they give up?  Savile and Smith couldn’t ensure such silence single-handedly. It appears that at least some who sought to expose them were ridiculed, threatened and bullied by colluders in positions of influence.  If so, these intimidators chose to become accomplices. Through them, the cultures of collusion and impunity were perpetuated at all levels.

Some in positions of authority have justified their inaction by claiming there was insufficient evidence to be sure of getting a conviction.  Yet in these cases there appears to have been more than enough evidence to justify acting to prevent harm to potential further victims.  Even if Smith and Savile denied wrongdoing or tried to turn the tables by accusing their accusers (familiar tactics that they employed with bluster and indignation),  it is now clear that if those in authority had chosen to investigate more seriously, there were plenty of grounds to have cut Savile and Smith off from the positions of power, access and influence that gave them impunity.  Actions to sideline and deny access to the predators could well have encouraged other victims to come forward, thereby providing sufficiently clear evidence for a court to convict.

Last year’s scandal involving the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn illustrates other aspects of collusion by friends and colleagues of high profile abusers. When Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for raping a hotel maid in New York went public, it transpired that he was widely recognised in certain French circles as a sexual pest and predator.   It is necessary to state that I am not claiming that Strauss-Kahn was guilty of rape in New York, as the case never came to trial. Echoing the reasons police gave for not pursuing charges against Savile and Smith, the New York prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Strauss-Kahn on grounds that the maid, a recent immigrant from Guinea, might not make a believable witness.  However, as stories about Strauss-Kahn’s “libertine” obsessions and other alleged assaults and “harassment” of women had been circulating for years in France, there appears to have been a pattern. After he was arrested, some of the “open secrets” went public, and the mother of one, Anne Mansouret, a senior figure in France’s Socialist Party, admitted that she’d persuaded her daughter not to tell the police of an attempted rape by “DSK” some years before, in case it might damage the Party.  According to the Guardian, although colleagues were well aware of Strauss-Kahn’s “rather pathological relationship” with women, they turned an indulgent eye and protected him because he was regarded as a Socialist star and a “bright man with a future”.

It is important to recognise how the collusion of patriarchal institutions and sycophantic colleagues enables some abusers to get away with sexual violence all their lives.  Unlike the furtive perverts that expose their penises by school gates,  Savile, Smith and Strauss-Kahn had large egos and were plausible liars and risk takers. As politicians or entertainers they made their livings as fast-talking communicators, exercising means of ingratiation, flattery and charm.  Skilled and manipulative enough to rise up the ranks, they may well have gained extra excitement from their risky behaviour, testing those around them to see what they could get away with. It is arguable that each time they persuaded or intimidated others into silence or collusion their success amplified their belief in their own superiority and untouchability, feeding their pathology and making them bolder and more dangerous.

In our celebrity-obsessed societies these big, confident egos drew others to provide them with access, camouflage and protection, whether wittingly or not. Strauss-Kahn’s admirers openly called him a “seducer”, a word associated with sexiness rather than abuse of power, thereby distracting from the techniques of manipulation, coercion and aggression employed by such men, who leverage their position, fame, eccentricity, public skills and other attributes to render themselves untouchable. In these high profile cases, the tools that facilitated their abuse included their status and engagement in causes and good works, such as charitable fundraising or political campaigns.

Class, age and power, as well as gender, are major factors in the calculations of sexual aggressors that count on getting away with their crimes.  It is perhaps unsurprising that such people are most likely to be protected in the testosterone-filled competitive worlds of politics, entertainment and diplomacy. That so many colluded isn’t about a magical ability to ‘groom a nation’, but about patriarchal power and the structures, assumptions and prejudices of misogyny.  From casino banking to arrogant politicians and entertainers, patriarchal systems have always rewarded certain kinds of dominant and risk-taking behaviour equated with constructed masculinity.  In her 1979 anthem “Reclaim the Night”, Peggy Seeger made the connection between male violence and the “system” that gives “prizes” to those that exploit and trample on oppressed and vulnerable people.  Such prizes may be direct and literal – public awards, knighthoods, high office – or indirect and institutional – Savile and Smith were given public respect and accolades for helping vulnerable teenagers and then appointed to positions in care homes, hospitals, reform schools and other public facilities that gave them special access, thereby facilitating their abuse. 

Such prizes and positions provide tools to gain greater access to potential targets. They are also useful for intimidating witnesses and whistleblowers by threatening jobs or legal suits, for example. In addition, these worthy causes and public prizes are often evoked by colluders to justify their own behaviour in enabling the abusers to evade exposure and justice.  While some colluders may be passive because of fear, others may genuinely believe that it is right to say nothing in order to protect a cherished organisation or movement from being attacked by political adversaries.  It is also important to acknowledge that a lot of colluders enjoy the proximity and benefits they can gain from facilitating these important, famous, risk-taking male egos.  Whatever the reasons, however, sacrificing the rights and safety of the vulnerable can never be justified, regardless of whether the perpetrators happen to be socially powerful men or leaders in causes that we support.  

Let’s be clear, I am not arguing that people who are accused are automatically guilty.  The point is to bring accusations into the open where they can be properly investigated.  If there is initially insufficient evidence to bring suspects to justice,  it is important – at the very least – to show increased vigilance, limit their access to vulnerable people, and make the environment safer for potential targets than for any abusers.  Such measures are not tantamount to finding someone guilty before trial; each allegation should also be properly investigated – but with due regard for the fact that lying, silencing and bullying are part of abusers’ manipulative tactics, which often include isolating, ridiculing and accusing the accusers and witnesses who raise the alarm. 

Anyone who thinks it prudent to conceal abuse for the sake of some noble cause or cherished institution needs to learn from recent events.  Sexual predators are willing to risk others as well as themselves.  As the BBC has recently discovered, covering for them will taint and tarnish the institutions they operate in far more than if their abuse is responsibly exposed and addressed, no matter how famous or important they may appear to be.  That is a hard lesson to learn, but people in peace movements and progressive parties need to stop the double standards that justify and collude with sexual violence in our own organisations. As illustrated by recent attempts by Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to avoid dealing responsibly with allegations of rape by a senior party figure,  progressive movements need a clearer understanding of how sexual predators operate, how they choose their targets (which in the case of political parties or movements may well be new recruits or young, idealistic women who want to join, learn and help the cause), and also how they camouflage their abusive behaviour and find colluders willing to turn a blind eye because of their “good work” for “the cause”. 

If we care about building more democratic, just and participatory movements, then we have to put principles such as diversity, nonviolence, and opposition to sexism, racism and other forms of abusive discrimination into practice. That means not being afraid to challenge and expose the perpetrators and the patriarchal practices that collude with abusive behaviour.  Since evidence of sexual harassment and abuse is often obscured because victims are left too scared to speak publicly, it is important to recognise and act on patterns, signs and signals.  One ugly story may be malicious or unfounded, but it should still be checked out. When someone’s name is linked with more allegations or persistent rumours of inappropriate, predatory and coercive behaviour, it isn’t a joke.  It’s a potential threat. It warrants investigation.  If you don’t take these indications seriously you may be perpetuating and colluding in crimes against vulnerable people.  Abusers don’t only destroy innocent lives.  If you ignore or enable them, they may also bring you and your cherished cause crashing down.

About the author

Rebecca Johnson is the Executive Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and Co-Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).