Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University

Many of us are once again reflecting upon modern day sexual predators following the recent investigation into Jimmy Savile’s activities in NHS organisations and the conviction of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of indecent assault. We continue to express our shock that these men could have done such terrible things, and got away with it for so long. I believe there are two sociological concepts that may help us make sense of this and promote the kind of change that may prevent such crimes taking place in the future.

The first concerns presentation of self, a topic eloquently explained by Erving Goffman in his 1959 book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”[i]. Goffman argued that the way we present ourselves to the world is akin to a theatrical performance. We are actors, performing different variations of ourselves to different audiences. We adjust these performances depending upon who our audiences are and our audiences respond to this performance, reinforcing it through the way they behave towards us. One example is of someone attending a formal event at which they are striving to present themselves in a positive light. When this individual trips up on a rug, the other attendees may pretend not to notice. In so doing, they are helping this person to maintain the self being presented by not drawing attention to an inconsistency or flaw in the performance. Similarly but much more sinisterly, it could be argued that as Savile and Harris performed the roles of eccentric, quirky, harmless children’s television presenters, their audiences pretended to avert their gaze when confronted with behaviour that did not fit this act.

But why keep this to themselves? A second factor that might be helpful in answering this question is the concept of denial. This was explored by the late Stanley Cohen in his 2001 book “States of Denial”[ii], in which he identified three varieties of denial; literal, interpretive and implicatory.

In literal denial we simply refuse to accept the evidence and facts in front of us and outright deny that Savile or Harris could do such a thing. One statement that springs to mind was recalled by Charlotte, a victim of Savile who received the following response when complaining about Savile’s behaviour, “Uncle Jimmy does nothing but good for the school and he was just so wonderful and me, I needed to retract what I’d said, I needed to apologise”[iii]. Literally denying sexual abuse may stem from a genuine ignorance or a deliberate avoidance of the issue, either way – it very effectively protects people from the consequences of accepting that it has taken place.

In interpretive denial, we accept the evidence and facts, but we interpret them in a way that justifies not acting on them. The case presented by Harris’s defence team that he was a “touchy-feely sort of person”[iv] is very much in keeping with interpretive denial – yes he touches children and young people but it’s ok because it’s not meant in a sexual way so there’s nothing to worry about.

Implicatory denial is perhaps the most disturbing – here it is the implications that are being denied, playing down the significance sexual abuse or taking an indifferent stance on it in order to protect ourselves from the consequences of acceptance. The reports into Savile’s behaviour in NHS organisations are littered with references to implicatory denial. One victim was 16 when Savile assaulted her during her time as a patient at Leeds General Infirmary, “when she tried to tell nurses they started laughing, making her feel she couldn’t finish…she added ‘everybody knew’ what was going on – yet staff, porters and patients at the hospital all accepted it”[v].

Sexual abuse is not hidden – it is denied. The evidence presents itself quite clearly but audiences too often refuse to act on what they have seen, continuing to support and reinforce the self that the abuser is performing to the world. Savile and Harris were able to abuse because of an embedded culture of denial, no matter how brazen or prolific their abuse became, no one was about to expose them because it was easier and more socially acceptable not to.

If such cases of sexual abuse and predation are to be prevented we need to remember these cases, not sweep them under the carpet a few years from now and carry on as ‘normal’. We need to confront the void between what we know and what we do, become much more challenging of our own and other people’s behaviour around children and vulnerable people – no matter who they are, and realise that the consequences of denying sexual abuse are much more damaging than the consequences of acknowledging it.

[i] Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
[ii] Cohen, S. (2001). States of Denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons.
[iii] Edge, S. (2012). How did Jimmy Savile get away with it for so long? Express Online, 2nd October.
[iv] Phillipson, A. (2014). Rolf Harris: I am a ‘touchy feely’ person. The Telegraph, 27th May.
[v] Norton, J. (2014). ‘Staff knew what was going on. They just accepted it…’: Four vulnerable victims reveal their ordeals at the hands of Jimmy Savile, Mail Online, 27th June.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.