The Philip Schofield affair has seen right-wingers trying to promote dangerous myths linking gay men to child sex abuse, writes Colin Wilson. Those myths can lead to attacks on LGBTQ people – and can make it more likely that actual abuse will go undetected.

NEU members at London Pride 2022 – photo by Steve Eason

It seemed at first absurd that stories about a daytime TV presenter dominated the front pages for days earlier this month. Out of the celebrity gossip, however, an important issue emerged – the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults. But the discussion that happened did very little to inform people about abuse and make it less likely to happen – instead, it bore all the marks of a homophobic witch hunt.

Let’s recall the facts, as far as we know them. Philip Schofield had a sexual relationship with a junior staff member, whom he first met when that person was 15. When the young man was 19, Schofield helped him get a job on This Morning, Schofield’s TV show. They had sex for the first time when he was 20. Schofield was a big star, so inequality was built into the relationship; in that sense it looked exploitative and may well have been so. But both people were adults. Despite this, photos of Schofield and the 15-year-old circulated, implying that Schofield had sought to seduce a child. The word ‘grooming’ was used, and comparisons with Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris made, including by people on the left.

It’s important to be clear how irresponsible and dangerous this was. The old myth that gay men abuse children has not died out. It was only in 2000 that the age of consent for sex between men was equalised with that for straight sex – for thirty years before that, the gay male age was higher so as to protect teenagers from the supposed threat posed by older gay men. Tory MP Jill Knight defended the homophobic Clause 28, passed by the Tory government in 1990, with the claim that public money was being spent ‘teaching children homosexuality in our schools’.

Not only are these myths still around, they are actively promoted by the American right. Republican presidential contender Ron DeSantis initiated a bill which has banned all discussion of LGBTQ issues in primary schools, and other states are doing the same. Transphobia is also justified by claims to protect kids. Protesters at drag queen story times claim that trans people are ‘grooming’ children. Right-wingers present gender affirming care for trans children – such as social transitioning and puberty blockers – as child abuse. An extraordinary 491 anti-LGBTQ bills are currently proposed or have passed in the United States.

In Britain the climate is quite different. But we’ve also seen the rise recently of a new generation of the homophobic and transphobic right. Trans people have faced years now of relentless attacks in the media. Drag queen story times have come under attack, as at the Honor Oak pub in South London – where on 27 May, I’m happy to report, the far right were outnumbered by at least ten to one.

These transphobic initiatives typically claim to be about protecting kids from abuse, and are beginning to merge with attacks on lesbian, gay and bi people. For example, the Telegraph, condemning the depiction of a non-binary character on the TV show Casualty, complained this week that it had been shown while children might be watching, and quoted transphobic feminist claims that ‘safeguarding’ was an issue. Right-wing campaigner Laurence Fox, who has a weekly show on GB News, tweeted on 31 May that ‘I’m done with the normalisation of child sacrifice and mutilation. Fuck Pride’ – and got 13 thousand likes.

In the context of this kind of bigotry, it’s no wonder that hate crimes against lesbian, gay and bi people increased in 2021-22 by well over a third, and those against trans people by over half. But what’s just as appalling is that the right are promoting myths about child sex abuse which misrepresent it and so make it more likely to go undetected. The behaviour of Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris was appalling, but most abuse is carried out by individuals who appear very ordinary. Despite claims – for example, by Suella Braverman – that South Asian men commit many of these crimes, in fact the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are white.

Most children are abused not by strangers, let alone a glamorous media star – children’s charity the NSPCC estimates that 90 percent are abused by someone they know. Researchers based at Barnardo’s suggest that two-thirds of the child sexual abuse reported to the police takes place within the family. This abuse may go on for years and is likely to go undisclosed because children may fear their abuser or not want them to get into trouble. Abuse by a family member, the researchers comment, ‘may be particularly traumatic because it involves high levels of betrayal, stigma and secrecy’ and is linked to lifelong outcomes including ‘poorer physical and mental health, lower income, relationship difficulties and further violence and abuse.’

We can start to understand this if we remember that it’s not just child sexual abuse that all too often takes place within families. One in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and of women killed by men, over half are killed by their current or former partners. Work, money worries and many other problems place a huge burden on millions of people, who hope to find love and support in the family. Some families succeed against the odds, but others simply can’t meet their members’ needs and become emotional pressure cookers.

Higher pay, higher benefits, better housing and better health care would start to relieve some of those pressures. A better understanding of domestic violence and child sexual abuse would help protect women and children in the short term. Finally, the only solution is to move beyond the family to a society where people have a much wider choice of living arrangements, and where care is everyone’s right and not a matter of privatised provision in the family.

But doing anything that might reduce child sexual abuse in reality is very far from the minds of right-wing journalists or politicians. The capitalist strategy has always been to preserve the family as the cheapest way of reproducing the workforce and caring for those who cannot work – so it’s useful to stigmatise people outside the family or who don’t live by the dominant gender norms. This scapegoating is all the more likely, and dangerous, at a time of economic and social crisis – especially as the Tories need to deflect attention from their multiple failures. The good news is that, while a bigoted minority is gaining in confidence, overall acceptance of LGBT people is greater than ever before, as this long (and possibly incomplete) list of Pride events this summer shows. We need to make sure that this acceptance keeps growing, and to reject these bigoted myths about child abuse.

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