Campaign can help sweep aside long-standing taboos

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In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, yesterday saw the launch of a new campaign to protect vulnerable children from abuse. Sarah Freeman reports.

For the staff who man the NSPCC’s helpline, October 3, 2012, proved to be a watershed moment.

That evening ITV screened its documentary Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. In less than an hour the reputation of the man who had styled himself as a Great British eccentric was systematically dismantled as five women testified about the abuse they had suffered at the Leeds TV presenter’s hands. By the time the end credits rolled, one thing was already clear – this was just a snapshot of Savile’s calculated grooming of young, vulnerable victims which had spread over decades.

The NSPCC had been contacted by police prior to the screening of the documentary and had drafted in extra staff to deal with a likely rise in the number of calls to its helpline. Yet no amount of planning could have prepared them for the scale of the abuse which has since been laid bare.

As Operation Yewtree gathered pace and the likes of Stuart Hall – recently jailed for 15 months after admitting 14 offences that occurred between 1967 and 1985 – fell spectacularly from grace, more and more victims found their voice.

In the final months of 2012 calls to the helpline doubled, rising from 1,200 in the July to September to more than 2,500 in the final three months of the year. The Savile revelations, it seemed, had given other victims of abuse the confidence to come forward and according to figures released last week, the number of sexual offences recorded by police rose in West Yorkshire by 66 per cent year on year, up from 938 offences in the six months to April 1, 2012, to 1,560 in the same period a year later.

Across the country there was a nine per cent rise in the number of reported cases and the Savile effect is one of the reasons why the NSPCC has today launched one of its most high-profile national campaigns in years.

With many of those who came forward talking of the stigma of abuse, the charity is now hoping its six-week awareness drive, which includes a high profile advertising campaign, will help to sweep aside those long-standing taboos which have prevented victims speaking out before.

Centred on what it’s calling the Underwear Rule, it comes after the charity commissioned a YouGov poll which questioned more than 2,000 parents about the advice they have given to their own children about protecting themselves against sexual abuse.

“Half admitted they had never spoken about the issue and those that had said the conversation had been difficult or they felt they had handled it badly,” says Will Shaw, manager of the organisation’s ChildLine schools service across Yorkshire and the Humber. “I’m a parent myself and I know how daunting it can be to broach the subject. It can be incredibly hard to know what words to use.

“We all feel comfortable talking to children about the dangers of crossing the road and bullying, but we tend to shy away from talking about sexual abuse.

“Parents fear that by talking about it they are somehow robbing their child of their innocence. I can understand that and it’s why we were really keen to promote the Underwear Rule. All you have to do is tell your child that no one should ever ask them to touch or look at parts of their body covered by underwear. You don’t even have to mention abuse or sex at all.”

The campaign, which has the tagline Talk PANTS, is being backed by Netmums and had been designed in collaboration with a number of parents groups.

“There are five key messages we want to get across to children and we have worked hard to ensure that it is in language they understand,” says Will. “Prevention is at the heart of this campaign, which is why we want to educate children that their body belongs to them and that no means no, but if something bad does happen to them it’s important that they feel able to confide in someone.

“We already do a lot of work with schools encouraging children to confide in someone they trust if anything has happened to them which makes them feel uncomfortable or uneasy.

“However, for most children the adult they trust most is their parents and if they have never raised this issue then it can be difficult for them to broach the subject.”

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about abuse is that for the most part the perpetrators are strangers.

However, statistics show that one in 20 children will be the victim of abuse and nine times out of 10 the perpetrator will be someone known to them.

“The shocking case of Jimmy Savile has horrified many parents and understandably it has heightened concerns around sexual abuse,” says the NSPCC’s CEO Peter Wanless. “But most abuse is closer to home and if we are to tackle this issue we must prevent it before it even starts. To do this we must educate our children about staying safe and speaking out.

“Most parents still think that stranger danger is the biggest threat facing children, but most abuse is committed by someone known to the child and actually stranger abuse is very rare. Traditional messages like, ‘don’t take sweets from strangers’ are important, but don’t work for much of the abuse that is occurring.

“We don’t want to upset or scare families and we definitely don’t want to make children feel they can’t accept a hug or a kiss for an adult, but from an early age it is important that they are aware of line which shouldn’t be crossed.”

It is the first time the NSPCC has produced guidance of this kind for parents and hope it will act as an antidote to the secrecy which the charity says is often the abuser’s greatest weapon. “I talk to my children about most things, but I haven’t yet talked to them about the danger of sexual abuse,” says Amy Wilson, mother of three children under eight-years-old from Leeds. “I guess like a lot of parents I haven’t been quite sure where to start and the last thing I want to do is terrify them.

“Sexual abuse is still taboo, but having something like the Underwear Rule to refer to is helpful. It’s simple, it’s straight forward and it’s easy for children to understand.”

Every day, the NSPCC comes into contact with those who bear the scars of sexual abuse and the psychological damage is often compounded by feelings of isolation.

“Looking back, I realise my dad started grooming me from a young age,” says one victim who wished to remain anonymous. “He wrote a list of things that he didn’t like about me – I used to love singing, but he always used to say I was no good at it.

“He knocked me down so he could build me back up again and I was happy when he started to give me attention. What little girl doesn’t want their dad to love them?

“My parents split up when I was 12 and he started to sexually abuse me when I stayed with him. It went on for over a year. The first time he raped me he said afterwards, ‘Well it was better that it was with me than some random person in a hotel’.”

It was not until two years later that she felt able to tell anyone what had happened, partly she says because she was initially unsure whether a line had been crossed.

“Mum hadn’t spoken to me about sexual abuse and what type of touching was acceptable and what wasn’t. I didn’t realise it was wrong at first and then when I did, I didn’t know how to broach the subject. Telling my mum was the worst conversation of my life. I sat down with her and couldn’t get it out at first. Then I just blurted it out. I’m sure that had I spoken out sooner and stopped the abuse earlier I would have recovered much more quickly.”

Her father was eventually jailed for nine years, but for many victims the emotional fallout from abuse lasts a lifetime.

no means no - the five rules

The NSPCC’s new Underwear Rule campaign is centred around five key messages:

P – Privates are private.

A – Always remember your body belongs to you.

N – No means no

T – Talk about secrets that upset you.

S – Speak up, someone can help.

Factsheets to help parents talk to their children about sexual abuse are available online at www.nspcc.org.uk. 
Adults concerned about a child can call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Children can call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or online at www.ChildLine.org.uk