**TRIGGER WARNING FOR SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AND THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN BLAMED**
In the wake of the guilty findings against Rolf Harris, he who clearly saw the bodies of women and girls as his personal sexual smorgasbord and relied on his celebrity to get away with his odious sexual abuses, people online have questioned why a 13 year-old victim kept returning to the Harris home, thus “putting herself in that position repeatedly.”
I cannot speak for Harris or this young woman specifically, but I will make some educated assumptions based on knowing hundreds of survivors of sexual assault, being a survivor myself, and a working knowledge of the way predators operate.
Before we proceed further, Reader please note that this post is NOT an attempt to justify victims of sexual assault to people who want to blame them, and who aren’t really interested in answers – they insist that poor old Uncle Rolfy has been “witch-hunted” and are busy weeping buckets of blood – as well as slandering the survivors – on his behalf. Sob, how appalling it is that somebody could be found guilty on these women’s say-so and all that. There’s a particularly irritating, arrogant and condescending note of these people fancying themselves as the lofty voice of moderation in a world where those of us with the gall to deplore Harris’ disgusting, sleazy predations are hysterics sharpening our pitchforks and lighting our torches – as though holding somebody accountable for their crimes is in some way unfair. I’m not interested in explaining anything to those who think that because they don’t see how a 7 year-old could be publicly molested, she wasn’t. I don’t debate with mentalities like this – he was found guilty, get over it.
However, I believe that there are also people who genuinely want to understand how a young person could return to a situation of abuse. This post is for them, and it is also in support of survivors – Harris’ and other – who may be being hurt by such commentary, and who may even still blame themselves. I hope it is useful at some level.
The Harris case has caused me to do some thinking as I have related to the survivors at different levels, and been annoyed by ignorance in the aftermath. In 1979, when I was 13, I was sexually abused by a family friend called Bill for a period of several months. Here is the only picture I have of myself at this age:
I babysat this man’s children and also attended social functions at his house with my mother and sisters. And I kept going back, again and again; he assaulted me again and again. In the years of healing and learning, I have discovered that the repertoire of manipulative tricks Bill used on me, are extremely common and classic abuser behaviours (You can find further reading at the end of this post). I’m going to go as far as to venture a bet that Harris employed similar tricks.
“Grooming” was mentioned at the Harris trial. If you don’t know what that means, it is a series of ploys an abuser engages in to get their victim’s trust and ensure obedience, and to draw them further and further into sexual abuse. Grooming tactics often ensure that the child becomes confused about the abuse and is less likely to tell. (See below for an article on grooming if you would like to know more.)
Bill’s grooming worked like this – and as you read, bear in mind that grooming involves many ways of getting victims to “accept” abuse; the following methods are all forms of it:
Selecting the vulnerable: Abusers commonly pick children who may be lacking affection or care, as their crimes are less likely to be detected. It also opens the way for an abuser to pretend to fill unmet emotional needs. My mother was a physically abusive drug addict with psychiatric problems, my father had been dead for years and I was what some might call “affection starved.” I trusted very easily if somebody was “nice” to me. Am I to blame? No; I was a child, and Bill used my circumstances against me. Abusers are efficient at sniffing out the vulnerability that suits their purpose. Like vultures, really.
I had also been sexually abused earlier in my childhood; this made me vulnerable to further exploitation. I believed it was my fault.
Couching the abuse in affection: As he abused me, Bill would tell me how much the loved me and that I was special to him. I was special to absolutely nobody; if a child is dying of thirst, he or she will drink from a poisoned source. I hated the touching, but I liked the affection. At some level, I knew that Bill’s “affection” depended on my accepting the abuse, and I did not know how to free myself from that trap. I simply listened when he told me that he did it because he loved me.
Building up the abuse: In grooming, many abusers will “test the waters” to see what they can get away with. It may start with creepy talk: For example, Bill would call me “sexylegs” and say “I bet you’ve got lots of boyfriends.” One day, I was watching something on TV about learning to play the piano, and I said “I wish I could learn an instrument.” Bill said “You can play my instrument anytime, sweetheart.” He liked to say, “Come and sit on my knee and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” I was disgusted and embarrassed, but was too shy and frightened to say so.
So, should a young girl tell an adult making suggestive comments to fuck off? In an ideal world this would be great, but in the realm of child sexual abuse, this does not often appear as a real possibility. It is thus important that we educate our kids away from unconditional obedience just because somebody is an adult. At the same time, we need to be wary of talk about what victims “should” do, remembering that the perpetrator alone is responsible, and that they have already established a power differential between themselves and their victims – one that both perpetrator and victim are aware of.
Abusers use these tactics as a measure of whether they can safely continue.
Then, Bill started showing me pornographic pictures, and telling me how much women like to be touched in those ways. That progressed to touching me; creeping up behind me to grab my breasts, rubbing his groin against me, sucking my neck and more and worse. I remember that I would stiffen and become frightened, and Bill kept up this constant patter: “You know your uncle Bill loves you, dont’cha darlin’? You know your Uncle Bill would never hurt you.” I did not feel any sense whatsoever of having choice, and this is, of course, what Bill and other abusers intend.
“Normalising” the abuse: Like Rolf Harris did to some of his victims, Bill did some things to me in the company of other adults. It involved “wrestling” where he would tackle and then touch me. He groped my backside; he picked me up to throw me in the family swimming pool, surreptitiously slipping his hand between my legs while people watched – and laughed. His wife (who was complicit and his co-abuser but that’s another story) would be folding washing, and he’d pick up a rolled pair of socks and tickle me between the legs. She would laugh. If nobody else seemed to see anything wrong with these things, who was I to protest – despite how I felt?
The things is, that even when people do see these things, the abuser can make out it’s a joke, or that they’re overreacting by objecting. Other adults witnessing these acts, may prefer to assume that they are “silly” or perhaps inappropriate but not necessarily abusive. They must consider that these abuses may be part of grooming a victim; that man who pinches a 12-year old girl’s backside is not just engaging in “harmless fun” but may be relying on your acceptance and silence to persuade the victim that there is nothing wrong with the abuse. It is imperative that the child hear from others that it’s unacceptable.
Of course other adults may not see, and the thrill for the abuser will lie in getting away with it in plain sight, as Harris did to so many women and girls. Doubtless, it increases their sense of power and omnipotence.
To normalise the abuse is also, paradoxically, to obfuscate the nature of it as this confuses the victim. In a reading of the Harris case, it seems to me that this was a favoured tactic of his; dressing perverted behaviour up in “bear-hugs” and wet kisses so that victims wondered if it was just “his way” or whether it was abuse.
Ascribing adult responses to the victim to justify the abuse (or pretending it isn’t abuse): The sexual abusers of even very young kids justify the assaults by acting as if the child has a choice. Bill tried to make out that his abuse of me was an “affair”. He would touch me, and say “You like that, don’t you?” I was, as he well knew, much too frightened to tell him I hated it. Some abusers will deliberately induce a sexual response in their victim as evidence that the child “wants” it. Survivors feel terrible shame and blame themselves (Here is an article for more on this: Sexual Arousal & Sexual Assault). Bill would tell me how wonderful it would be if I “let” him “make love to me.” Abusers do this to foster a sense of (false) complicity in their victims.
Abusers try to act like their victim is in control, when in fact the abuser always is. An abuser behaves as if a terrified and manipulated victim is giving “consent” – for example, when I displayed fear or disgust, Bill would pull a sad face and say “What’s the matter, sweetheart? Don’t you love your uncle Bill?” I could not – did not – have the voice to tell him that I didn’t want him to touch me – and since I couldn’t say it, he used this as evidence that I was “letting” him do it. I felt helpless, and I was. I was his victim. The shame was very very deep; I would not have chosen to speak to anybody about it because I was sure they would blame me as I blamed myself.
Blaming their victim: An abuser might say things like, “You must want this or you would say no”, or like Bill, “If you weren’t so sexy I wouldn’t do this to you.”
It is all too often the case that the ultimate aim of a predator like Bill, is to use their tricks to strong-arm the victim into sexual intercourse – or, in the case of child sexual abuse, rape. Bill never got that far with me, but I believe he became tired of trying the “gentle approach” and one night when I’d been to the toilet at his house, he seized me in a dark hallway and pulled me into his bedroom. He covered my mouth and lay on top of me pulling at my underwear and his zipper. For whatever reason, I didn’t freeze and go silent, as I usually had done before and which Bill was in all probability counting on me to do this time too. I wrenched my head away and screamed; while he stopped attempting actual intercourse he dry-humped me violently until his wife and my mother burst in. I was terrified; he convinced the adults he’d just been “messing around”. After that, he never touched me again, and all pretense of affection promptly ceased. He and his wife agreed that I was a “slut.”
Bill’s sexual abuse of me was about power-over, and what I have written above is how he secured and consolidated that power. Abusers want to have power and they like that which comes from the vulnerable. Basically, they’re cowards.
So, why did I keep going back to Bill’s place? You know, it never once occurred to me that I had a choice not to do so. Not once. These are the things abusers rely on to cement their victims’ sense of entrapment.
I was a child of 13; our brains are not developed to the cognitive extent of adults and where there is nobody to talk to, there is nobody to counter the messages the abuser is giving. So, I believed those messages, and I felt very much to blame. It never occurred to me that I could stop it.
I know it was not in any way my fault; BILL exploited and abused me; BILL and Bill alone was responsible. Bill counted on my shame, fear, confusion, need for affection, self-blame and sense of entrapment to silence me and enable him to continue the abuse.
With respect to Rolf Harris’ victim, every time she returned to his home and he assaulted her again, ROLF HARRIS put her in that position again and again. It was his fault. She was a kid; nobody should blame her – even if she liked his affection; even if she responded at some levels. Harris was in control, and the predatory bastard knew it.
Before I conclude, there are other ways to groom than those I have outlined above. An abuser may use blackmail or threats – for example “If you don’t let me do this to you, I’ll harm your family” (Read Lloyd Jones’ Choo Woo for a particularly stomach-turning example of this and other methods of grooming similar to those above)
In Rolf Harris’ case, the fact that he was Rolf Harris may have been a form of grooming in itself. It’s horrible to imagine – but easy – that being assaulted by somebody with his social status would have been incredibly isolating. Whom could you expect to believe you? I am sure that it was difficult for some of the victims to believe it themselves and it was not only very young girls, but also numerous adult women on the receiving end of such a shock with it’s ensuing impacts. The power differential that benefits abusers was established by his very status.
For what it’s worth, I believe them; they have been very brave to come forward and encouraging others to do the same. I am glad that Harris has been put out of action, even if that comes at a time where he has had decades to enjoy his accolades, and now has one foot in the grave.
Don’t tell me about Harris’ “ruined life”, listen to women like Tonya Lee.
If there’s anything I think is quite sad, it’s some of Harris’ victims saying he ruined their lives. I have no right to tell other survivors how to feel, and I understand the appalling damage that sexual assault can cause. However, I do hope that Harris’ survivors will find that he doesn’t deserve the power to ruin their lives in total, and that they can take back at least some of that power. I think these women are much more powerful than they may feel. He’s a putrescent maggot; they are so much more.
I’m frankly jaded by people who identify and sympathise with abusers, and look for reasons to judge and disbelieve the survivors. Whether an abuser is the Great Rolf Harris, or a slimy little unknown like Bill, their tricks are similar – they are birds of a feather – birds of prey of a feather. And they are criminals.
Postscript: I walked into Bill’s family business 15 years ago and confronted him about his abuse of me. Like Harris’ response to Tonya Lee, he claimed not to remember me. It’s so arrogant, that, isn’t it? They do it and they move on, but WE remember and we have to live with it. I told Bill I was not there to argue since we both know it happened, but that I would gladly refresh his memory. By the time I left, the hands that had abused me were shaking. I have had him removed from a committee overseeing activities for teenagers, and the police in my hometown are aware of him. This is eminently satisfying to me.