I do work hard. Yes I do. Really. But in the middle of an important meeting, I found myself considering what we really mean when we talk about a taboo. It is broadly defined as a “system of prohibitions connected with things considered holy or unclean”. I’m no social anthropologist or sociologist, but it seems clear to me that even when we collectively uphold something as a taboo, it’s not actually a prohibition; it simply stops us talking about it.
Child sex abuse is a taboo; within the confines of trusted structures – such as family or school or religion – even more so. This is quite right. Yet although we operate this “system of prohibitions” it doesn’t translate into action from us, as a society, to prevent it in the first place. This is because where abuse is concerned the actual taboo is talking about it, acknowledging and confronting it.
It’s unsurprising, I suppose. We are frightened of taboos; how they challenge us, what we might need to do to stop them. Take death. Since we left the Victorian theatricality surrounding death behind, it is high up on the list of taboo subjects. We can’t talk about it. We deny it and at best address it euphemistically. But this doesn’t stop it. It just means we aren’t prepared for it. Of course, this is where that comparison must rightly stop. Death from natural causes is inevitable, child abuse is not. However until we break the talking taboo childhood sex abuse will continue and will remain inevitable.
You see the things that start at home – private, unshared, tacitly understood – are perpetuated. A taboo, such as family abuse, is a crime committed, known about, but rarely talked about. The more trusted, tightly wrought and familiar the institution, the greater is the taboo surrounding revealing any deviation within its confines.
Recent high profile celebrity abuse cases are really helping us to peel back some of the layers here. The reporting is so often skewed, but the conversation has started however uninformed and misguided it may sometimes be. Like Sophie Heawood in her column I too punch the air when another case is revealed because some fresh air has been blown into the musty long held secret. But I also have to temper my exasperation. The bind is that a concept such as ‘celebrity’ and the notion of an ‘institution’ enable us to put a distance between these horrors and daily family life. This is what gives it license to continue, unchallenged. We speak out about the famous, but we can’t speak out about our families. The more we know about it, the more we defend against it.
The family is our smallest unit of society – many would see it as a fundamental building block of society. In so many ways it forms us, teaches us, sustains us. We are taught to trust it and everything that happens within it. The rules learnt within the family – including what you do or don’t talk about – are virtually impossible to break as a child or an adult. If you experienced something hateful, perpetuated by someone you trusted and actively or passively sanctioned by those you loved, how on earth do you know it is wrong and how on earth do you summon the resources at any point in your life to speak out? Society at a macro level can’t believe you and society at a micro level, your family, may well reject you. The talking taboo is an important contributor to this.
Twitter is alive with the fact that the Home Secretary’s long promised inquiry into historic child sex abuse has been kicked into the political long grass with the substantial controversy surrounding its new chair, Fiona Woolf. This, I believe, is a living, breathing example of my point. We know it’s happening, at scale, but we can’t talk about it, for fear of what might ensue and what it might unleash. It is, in fact, too close to home for everyone.
The inquiry matters for all sorts of reasons: first it was promised by the Government and the Government needs to follow through. Second it would send a message to those who have suffered and are suffering abuse that this issue will be taken seriously. Third, and most importantly, it would mean talking about abuse. Although the inquiry will focus on institutions, it should shine a light on the fact that it happens inside families, outside families, in institutions, by those we trust and don’t trust, in every class, faith, colour, and household, and make it part of our discourse. Only in this way can we take some small, firm steps towards putting an end to abuse.
I am not living embodiment of what I say here. I am not out of that particular closet: I was abused for a long time as a child. I write about it, think about it, have opinions about it, take medication because of it, feel huge empathy for others who are suffering and admiration for the struggle of survivors. However talking openly is still a taboo for me – I blog anonymously and I share my experiences with very few people.
In my family the abuse is known about but not talked about or acknowledged. It remains a silent, living secret…although the perpetrator is dead.
So, the taboo of talking is created and reinforced in families from the bottom up. I’m usually of the opinion that small scale action leads to big scale change. But in this case I believe a top down, national inquiry, signed up to by politicians of all persuasions and supported by all agencies, with survivors and their representatives at its heart, would start to create a discourse that might help permeate every layer of society. This could outlaw the taboo of talking about childhood abuse and enable us to focus on stopping the real taboo – the abuse itself.