It began with one ex-footballer in the United Kingdom, sitting down to tell his harrowing story to a Guardian journalist.
As a teenager, Andy Woodward was repeatedly sexually assaulted by former football coach Barry Bennell. Bennell terrorised him, and manipulated him. He offered Woodward a dream life as a footballer for compliance. And he threatened him with nunchucks, in a bizarre Chuck Norris-style demonstration of virility, if he spoke out.
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Bennell then began dating his older sister, and used the visits to try to abuse Woodward again. As it turned out, Woodward was far from being his only victim.
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These were, said Woodward’s interviewer, “unspeakable horrors”. It is an apt phrase. Consistently, child abuse is unspoken, for decades, until the dam finally gives.
And once people start to speak the unspeakable, you never know where it will end. Within less than a month of Woodward’s interview, a national scandal has unspooled, with former players reporting childhood abuse implicating 55 British football clubs. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reports over a thousand calls to its hotline, a flood of long-repressed testimony made possible by Woodward’s stance.
This is far from being an isolated case. Since 2012, Britain has been plunged into a series of national child abuse scandals, one after the other. The vast sprawl of police investigations covering allegations of elite paedophile rings, celebrity rapists, institutional child abuse and official cover-ups extends back decades in scope.
In most of these examples there were warning signs, early reports, aborted inquiries. Crewe Alexandra, the football team for which Bennell coached, knew that something was going on. They held a high-level meeting discussing him, but kept him in his role.
Even after Bennell was prosecuted and convicted of several assaults, the Football Association was remarkably complacent. Asked to investigate, they replied with a three-line statement saying they had concluded that “there is no case to answer“.
This is the first reason why abuse is unspeakable. Children do sometimes tell on their abusers, or try to. But often no one is listening.
Even if someone hears you, you may not be properly listened to. One of the biggest factors stopping children from speaking is that they fear losing control of their words, once spoken. They fear that adults will embark on processes that make matters worse – perhaps even whipping up a lynch mob mentality – rather than listening to what they want.
If not deterred by institutional deafness, people can be shamed into silence. Girls can be slut-shamed, stigmatised as cunning seducers who brought it on themselves.
For boys, shame plays on their desire to be men. There are some things real men aren’t supposed to talk about. Especially anything that smacks of vulnerability.
“It was hard,” Woodward says, “because us footballers are supposed to be butch and strong, aren’t we? It’s all banter and changing-room jokes, supposedly. But I’d been having a mental breakdown.”
For those coming forward now, escape starts with speaking. They are having their say, at last. This should be an opportunity to rethink, if we don't want to be here again in 30 years. It is no good oscillating between prolonged silences and sudden moral panics that help no one.
Former Newcastle United player David Eatock, who was sexually abused by his coach, describes the same terror. “I’m not homophobic by any stretch of the imagination but I was worried that people were going to think I was gay and that I must have encouraged it.”
Darts player Eric Bristow paid tribute to the cult of testosterone when he claimed that the football players now talking abuse were “wimps“, and that if he were in a similar situation, he would have “[gone] back and sorted that poof out” – no doubt, with nunchucks to hand.
It’s all too easy to see Bristow’s bluster, conflating child rape with homosexuality (and thus, by further obnoxious implication, with effeminacy), as a kind of war waged on one’s own vulnerability.
One fantasises about responding to abuse with violent aplomb, because the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. Or, evidently, speaking about it – as if masculinity itself is a conspiracy of silence.
Real men are some of the most terrified people on the planet.
But there is another dimension to the silence. One of the terrible secrets of child abuse is guilt.
Repeatedly, when people finally begin to speak, they start talking about their guilt. Eatock speaks of “this awful feeling of guilt and shame”. A witness to Australia’s royal commission into child abuse said that he “felt dirty, and thought it was all his fault”. The NSPCC stresses that the guilt of the abused is a key reason why they don’t speak out (PDF).
What does an abused child have to be guilty about? Why do children who are abused often take on the guilt of the abuse, blaming themselves, and bearing abuse as a type of punishment? The answers are complex but, wrenchingly, one factor is loyalty and love. Children often idealise their abusers, and want to go on idealising them.
An anonymous former youth footballer describes how he and fellow players had seen their abuser as a “demigod“. It was hard to separate fear and love: “I didn’t just want to please him; I feared him.”
And it isn’t just the abused. Once institutions have decided to protect abusers and suppress knowledge of abuse, guilt becomes an adhesive. It binds them together around their dirty little secret.
The art of escape
When abuse can’t be spoken, it speaks in another language. Annie Rogers, author of The Unsayable, describes how in such circumstances “terror marks the body and then becomes invisible and inarticulate”.
For Woodward, terror marked his body with panic attacks, anxiety, suicidal ideation. For Eatock, it manifested as agoraphobia and mental breakdowns. They are accomplished adults, and they still aren’t entirely free of the abuse. The arts of escape turn out to be more complex than we’d like to think.
For those coming forward now, escape starts with speaking. They are having their say, at last. This should be an opportunity to rethink, if we don’t want to be here again in 30 years. It is no good oscillating between prolonged silences and sudden moral panics that help no one.
If we want people to speak, we need a society that knows how to listen.
Richard Seymour is an author and broadcaster based in London. He has written for The Guardian, the London Review of Books and many other publications.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.