Around the time the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress came to a close, the news about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein paying off sexual harassment accusers was breaking. The story has developed, and different reactions have emerged online, especially on social media, resulting in much news and a lot of commentary. What began as a US news item is now also replicating outside the US, for instance, in the European parliament. Although it seemed, at first, that the exclusive focus was the abuse committed by adults in power positions—among others, photographer Terry Richardson and movie director James Toback—in recent days, reference was made to accusations of systemic child sexual abuse that had actually been alleged quite some time ago, but the allegations were either discounted or silenced.
Some actresses, who have spoken about the abuse they suffered, have done so without providing details about their age or about concrete circumstances, perhaps out of fear of legal repercussions like Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) or fear for their careers. Like any victim of abuse, they may hesitate to reveal the details of a troubling experience given the personal exposure that it implies.
It appears that one can assume that sexual exploitation of adults in a rather closed environment (like Hollywood appears to be) may go hand in hand with other kinds of abuse, including Child Sexual Abuse, physically and online. Below are some different areas of concern that have surfaced over the last two weeks, along with some relevant reports, sometimes quite elaborate, that have been published.
Child Sexual Abuse Can Sometimes Begin a Life Pattern of Abuse, Can Have Long-term Effects
Millions have now joined the social media conversation using the hashtag #MeToo, or its equivalent, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—women (and also men) denouncing harmful sexual experiences. The movement originally took form to express solidarity, and people spoke out to show support for victims, many revealing for the first time, via social media, their own stories. While the majority of those sharing #MeToo stories are adult women, a large number of the shared stories reveal sexual abuse that began when they were still minors. Here are a few examples:
- Oscar, Emmy and Globe winning actress Reese Witherspoon tweeted #MeToo and spoke publicly for the first time about having been sexually assaulted by a director when she was 16, adding that this “wasn’t an isolated incident in my career.”
- Another A-list actress, America Ferrera, tweeted #MeToo with a photo of her text: “First time I can remember being sexually assaulted I was 9 years old. I told no one and lived with the shame and guilt thinking all along that I, a 9-year-old child, was somehow responsible for the actions of a grown man. I had to see this man on a daily basis for years to come. He would smile at me and wave, and I would hurry past him, my blood running cold, my guts carrying the burden of what only he & I knew- that he expected me to shut my mouth and smile back. Ladies, Iet’s break the silence (…).”
- Actress Pauley Perrette joined #MeToo and retweeted a post in which she revealed she was raped in high school by a member of the football team. She explained, “My rape led me into a series of abusive relationships, terrible self worth and self blame, dismissing a few groping incidents, allowing myself to be bullied by a powerful man by way too long.”
- Model Nikki DuBose tweeted #MeToo, saying “I was raped by my mother and a male family member, sexually assaulted as a model, sexually harassed by the director of my agency.”
- Multiple gold-medal gymnast, Olympian McKayla Maroney tweeted #MeToo and a screenshot text, revealing for the first time: “I was molested by Dr. Larry Nassar, the team doctor for the US Women’s National Gymnastics Team, and Olympic Team. Dr. Nassar told me that I was receiving ‘medically necessary treatment that he had been performing on patients for over 30 years.’ It started when I was 13 years old, at one of my first National Team training camps, in Texas, and it didn’t end until I left the sport. It seemed whenever and wherever this man could find the chance, I was ‘treated.’ It happened in London before my team and I won the gold medal, and It happened before I won my Silver. For me, the scariest night of my life happened when I was 15 years old. I had flown all day and night with the team to get to Tokyo. He’d given me a sleeping pill for the flight, and the next thing I know, I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment.’ I thought I was going to die that night.” A week after sharing her story, it seems she has deleted her Twitter account, one indication of how the disclosure may have affected her.
Hundreds of thousands of people, including many celebrities, sharing personal stories of sexual hurt—indeed many publicly revealing their stories for the first time—is big news. That many of these people are revealing stories that involve adults who preyed upon them when they were minors, and how it went on to impact their lives, is an additional aspect of this story. That leading voices in Hollywood are openly admitting to systemic problems of abuse where minors are at risk is yet another newsworthy element of this moment. That no one knows the long-term personal impact (good or bad) of such social media sharing of intimate life stories, or exactly how to respond to it, is one more question raised.
The Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors in Hollywood
In the wake of these events, another story is emerging and gaining ground: the story of those who have not been listened to in their attempts to speak about child abuse in Hollywood. In the 2015 documentary “An Open Secret,” a film about Hollywood child sexual exploitation, Amy Berg shows the systemic nature of abuse, which includes perpetrators in the roles of talent scouts, directors, producers and actors. Others are now raising questions about how the safety of children is guaranteed:
- Hollywood sex abuse: Are the kids alright?
- Hollywood agent fired after sex abuse allegations surface
- Will people now believe Corey Feldman about Hollywood abusers?
Sharing Stories of Abuse on Social Media
Then there are the victims for whom this is a vivid experience, those who cannot access the internet without confronting some traumatic aspect of this story. Personal stories about abuse are being shared on social media as never before. It does not subside; it continues to evolve as more and more people come out on all sides. The positive or negative effects of such intimate public sharing on the lives of the persons who choose to share their stories are still unknown. The emotional power of this issue becomes transparent when one follows the news and sees the approaches that different victims take or seem to take (some speak out, some make allusions, we can assume many don’t speak or wrestle with the idea of speaking).
What can in all probability be gathered is that the different types of reactions and actions have to do with the kind of relationship patterns and the manner of boundary-keeping these victims of abuse have developed. Stories of serial abuse can indicate an early history of abuse, which had an effect on abused persons in so far as sometimes they could not develop safe enough boundaries for themselves. This is not to condone in any way what some call “victim blaming.” When children are abused, protective defenses against aggressive behavior may not develop in a way that will help these persons stop predators at a later time. Those who share their experiences on social media are also vulnerable. While it takes courage to share, it also takes wisdom to accompany those who disclose trauma and to encourage them to seek what will bring further healing.
Safeguarding Minors: The CCP’s Outlook
The Centre for Child Protection is committed to research and education in all that pertains to safeguarding minors. It will continue to follow these events as they unfold. Especially after the very encouraging experience of the Child Dignity Congress, which has shown that collaboration between different sectors is possible, we can hope for greater contribution on the part of academics in researching the open questions regarding these issues, namely the systemic aspects of the sexual abuse of minors; the role of the internet in facilitating abuse and crimes against minors; and the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. Moved by the stories of victims, we know more needs to be done. Safeguarding is and remains our commitment.