Stories of sexual abuse are everywhere in British life. We need to do more than condemn this behaviour. We must acknowledge it as the shadow side  our society

Weekend Word 11/07/2014


It’s almost thirty years since Esther Ranzen established Childline, and brought the sexual abuse of children more clearly into public awareness. For many years public discussion focused on the dangers posed by pedophiles in the community; and religious settings weren’t immune. More recently, following Saville, the revelations have become a flood, implicating celebrities and now, as we’ve heard this week, Westminster. What on earth is going on?

I find it hard to think straight about this subject. It provokes my instinctive desire as a parent to protect my son, and anxiety about potential threats. I want to remove those threats, destroy them. That’s the kind of thinking that makes us call offenders ‘depraved’ and ‘monsters’.

But as we learn the extent of abuse, and household names like Rolf Harris and Stewart Hall turn out to have been involved, we can’t avoid another thought. This behaviour is part of our society. It’s part of who we are.

Let me emphasise that I condemn abusive behaviour and the suffering it causes without qualification. But I’ve also known people who’ve been convicted of abuse and recently found myself working with sex offenders through the probation service. Most abusers aren’t strangers, they’re known to their victims. They’re ordinary people, and many are victims of abuse themselves.

The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, believed that to be whole and healthy we must confront all aspects of ourselves. Behind our bright and desirable features lies what he called ‘the shadow’: the parts we refuse to acknowledge. And when we reject or deny something it often comes out in a still more dangerous form.

In my work with sexual and violent offenders I ask them to look honestly at their experience using mindfulness practices that derive from Buddhist meditation. That means acknowledging their true thoughts, feelings and impulses, because only then can they choose not to act them out.

What’s true for individuals is true for society. Sexual abuse has for too long been denied and concealed. Discovering its extent is shocking, but it suggests that we need a more complete view of ourselves, including the shadows as well as the light. The new perspective may be disturbing; but we must stop abuse, not just condemn it.