While developing a report on child sexual abuse and exploitation, I have been fortunate to benefit from the advice of a group of survivors who can speak to failings in our system with an expertise we all wish they did not have. Brave and brilliant men and women from all walks of life pulling together to try to drive up standards for the children of today. I have developed nearly 100 policy recommendations to improve our response to these awful crimes with their support and guidance.
We have discussed at length the public conversation on sexual violence that has taken place over the last few weeks: the outpourings of testimony from women and girls on violence and abuse they have endured, the desperate statistics on charging and conviction rates, the shared grief at the scores of female lives cut short by male violence. We were disappointed but unsurprised to see social media littered with the angry retort: what about men? On this we are clear: if you are only speaking up for male survivors of sexual violence when you are interrupting abused women, do not fool yourself into thinking that you are doing anything to help. The pain of these men is not a clever retort to shut down women and their suffering is cheapened when it is used this way.
Statistics for the year ending March 2019 indicated that 92 per cent of those who had been sexually abused in childhood were hurt by men — 700,000 of those victimised were little boys. If you care about these children, you care about male violence. This is not to say that we do not need to be concerned about female offenders or that those abused by women matter less. We all recall with horror the crimes of Vanessa George, the nursery worker in Plymouth who harmed countless infants and toddlers. The overwhelming majority of child sexual offenders are men however and we must tackle that head on. Confronting sexual violence and trying to cut it out at the root creates a safer society for everyone — men and women.
So, what can we do to better recognise the needs of male survivors of sexual abuse? First, call out homophobia wherever you hear it. Three separate male survivors on the group shared that boys were often frightened to disclose sexual abuse because they were worried this would lead to aspersions being cast about their sexuality. Let us make sure we are not adding to the shame and secrecy felt by many abuse survivors by allowing homophobia to thrive. When your friend makes a cruel joke about gay men — challenge them. In doing this you are helping to end a culture that silences abused boys. Eradicating stigmatising and mean-minded attitudes on homosexuality is the right thing to do in and of itself. It also will help break down a barrier to disclosing abuse facing little boys.
A crucial source of support for survivors of sexual abuse are independent sexual violence advisers. These professionals are there solely for the individual and help them through criminal justice processes with information and advocacy. Research from the University of Bedfordshire makes clear that having such an adviser can vastly improve outcomes for survivors, from the likelihood of seeing a perpetrator charged right the way through to getting a successful conviction.
Government has recognised the value of these advisers with a cash injection for expanding the service. This funding is hugely welcome but must be used for plugging gaps that exist in this workforce. These crimes are sensitive and complex so some male survivors would, of course, prefer to work with another man. But only 3 per cent of this workforce is male meaning that this very often is not an option. To redress this imbalance, the government should ring-fence a proportion of this money and ensure it is going towards training up male advisers for men and boys who have been abused. Perhaps some of those who have been so keen to impress their solidarity with male victims upon us in recent weeks could step away from Twitter and consider training up — check out The Survivors Trust for more information.
The male survivors I have worked with are funny, warm, erudite and empathetic. They have greatly enriched my work and become dear friends. They deserve support and recognition, not for their suffering to be used as a comeback designed to undermine women sharing their experiences of sexual violence. We should be looking to improve access to support and justice for all cohorts of survivors, not tearing down female victims because male victims also exist. Let us raise the bar for everyone.