How Britain forgot about sexual abuse

How could this possibly happen? The answer lies in why you forgot it

WARNING: This article contains distressing and triggering content.

It’s late November, 2009. The temperature hovers at 5°C as you make your way home from work. You’ve got your headphones on, and the treble rattles off into the dark. You’ve always walked back this way, down the main roads to the big converted Victorian factories, red brick illuminated in the yellow of the lamp posts. Young women in cheap coats lined in faux fur crowd at the traffic lights, armed with the weekly shop. An older man, thin and unshaven, leans forward and grabs at the buttocks of one of the women. She’s about 17. He leers at her as she cries out, before trundling away into the dark. Everyone sees. You do. But you keep walking. 12 years later, you won’t even remember it ever happened.

There are thousands of moments like this that will litter your own past. You might deny it, hide it or try to forget it, but they exist. Some moments will be so minor you might have rinsed them out with the grime of the commute by the time you get home. Others might cling to you, looming in the shadows of your guilt at 4am. More still you’ll brush off as none of your business. A harmless grope. A random creep. A man who had a few too many at the bar that night. But we all did it. We all witnessed abuse, and did nothing.

If you asked me to document all the times I was groped, upskirted, molested or touched inappropriately by the time I turned 15, I don’t think I could remember them all, far less write them down. The worst part of that story is that I don’t consider myself an abuse survivor. I didn’t have a monstrous teacher grooming me, or a pedophilic stalker. I was just a normal schoolgirl growing up in the 2000s in a rural town. My abusers and harassers weren’t powerful billionaires on luxury islands, they were schoolboys from nice families, and creeps at bus stops. The fact that I could have experienced so much sexual harassment and abuse before I reached the age of consent might be astonishing to think about in 2021, but back then, it was something so normal society didn’t even notice.

Am I exaggerating? No. I’m going to ask you to do something that might be psychological difficult for you now, if you’re a woman reading this. I’m asking you to remember every time you had your clothing ripped off you or pulled up. I’m asking you to remember every time the boys in your class forced their hands inside your tights. I’m asking you to remember every time a strange man pinched your buttocks. I’m asking you to remember every time a grown up slid his hand up your leg and made you feel uncomfortable. I’m asking you to remember every time a male teacher called you sexy or discussed your body in class. I’m asking you to remember every humiliating question you received as a child on fellatio, sexual intercourse and erotica from men or boys who wanted to humiliate or sexualize you.

And I’m asking you to acknowledge that all of that, however minor, was all abuse.

I’m ashamed to say that as angry as I am that teachers did nothing to protect me from being groped or having my skirt pulled up in class, I saw it happen and did nothing too. A sick part of me was just relieved that for a few moments, I was safe, and it wasn’t going to happen to me. I saw girls in my class being forcibly shown pornography, having their nude photographs leaked against their consent to humiliate them or pressure them into sex acts in order to keep their ex-boyfriend’s silence, being sexually assaulted while drunk and harassed over their sex lives. If I stood up against it, it was only once or twice. The abusers always knew, with a flicker of an eye, to silence me. They’d turn, grin at me and ask me if I wanted to give so-and-so head, or if I wanted to have my sexual history leaked too. For little 14 year old boys, they were remarkably good at creating an atmosphere of fear. One boy even told me he’d kill me if I didn’t sext him: I remember being overjoyed when he lost interest in me.

But still, I should have done something. We all should have done something, whether we were teachers, schoolgirls, doctors, lawyers, directors, reporters, historians: we should have done something. We all knew it was humiliating, scarring and distressing to be touched, groped and sexualized. We all knew it was bad. I’ve been littered with apologies from those boys who are now men, good men: bankers, musicians, dentists and solicitors. As hard as it is to understand, I’ve forgiven them all long ago because in truth, that happened in the 2000s. It was so normal then that they didn’t even get a detention for assaulting a girl in front of a teacher. How can boys, in that environment, have a strong understanding of consent or abuse? I can’t recall one lesson on consent in sex education. HIV, yes. Creeps online, yes. Pregnancy, yes. Sexual autonomy? No. Nothing. Radio silence.

As guilty as those boys are for what they did, I also participated in that culture. I was part of it. I was quiet, I looked the other way, I was ashamed. We cannot talk about a culture of abuse without acknowledging that predators and abuse doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In 2009, an abuser was a man in an anorak who pretending to be 13 year old boy on Facebook. We had no idea that it could be that 13 year old boy in our class. That as a concept just didn’t exist. A front page headline in The Daily Mail of ‘boy, 15, arrested for grooming 13 year old into oral sex on camera before distributing child porn’ might be shocking in 2021, but that happened at my school without so much as a local report in 2011. The local plod turned up and spoke to the little bastard for all of 20 minutes, telling him not to do it again. Not even a caution. It would ruin his life, right?

So yes, it’s hard to understand the ‘how could that happen’ at a glance. I too have days where I’m just staggered by how much I survived through, how much I endured, and how much I managed to switch off as a little girl. But the reason it’s incomprehensible is because things have got better. In ten years, we’re now in a society where a 14 year old boy would face jail time for sexual assault, not a disapproving ‘stop messing about, Dave’. We’re now in a society where seeing a teenager groped in public wouldn’t have us looking the other way, but calling for the police and filming the suspect on our phones for evidence. We wouldn’t laugh off our sons watching sadistic porn as a ‘silly jape’ and we wouldn’t let our daughters grow up without knowing that an abuser can be anyone, not just the dreaded stranger.

Things have got better. And, like with so many traumas, it’s become easy to forget just how incredibly bad things were, even a decade ago.

25 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk