By Amanda Harris, Australian National University
WHEN entertainer Rolf Harris was convicted of 12 cases of indecent assault there was first shock from his many fans in Australia and overseas, then a sense of disbelief that a man who won the hearts of millions could have got away with the abuse for so long.
Both his fans and his victims are affected by his fall from grace – though the impact is far greater on those he abused and there may be further charges to come as others prepare to speak out about the fallen entertainer.
But as we have heard in the recent reports emerging from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, there has been a historical tendency to not want to hear about child sexual abuse, or to turn a blind eye and pretend it is not happening.
It is confronting to think that children are being abused and harmed. It brings up a lot of difficult emotions in people, from disgust and horror through to the fear that the same things might happen to them, their child or their grandchild.
And sometimes it touches on a long, buried memory that this has already happened to them.
We know from the research that when a child is not believed or listened to when they disclose abuse, it is likely to be more traumatising for them.
This can lead them to feel shame and that there is something inherently wrong with them, that adults can not and do not want to keep them safe.
We know the sexual and physical abuse of children can have a huge impact on their mental health, physical health and wellbeing across their lifespan.
It is certainly likely that the media coverage of the trial and conviction of Rolf Harris is likely to have brought up strong emotions for many people, as well as a sense of relief and validation for those who have finally had their stories heard and believed.
The public’s response
Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to reflect on how the public responds when a celebrity is accused and found guilty of abuse.
And stories have been emerging of others within the entertainment industry who may have committed abuse.
What impact has this had on the community as a whole? On those who have enjoyed being entertained by these celebrities over the years? If we look at the response on social media to Rolf’s conviction, it certainly seems that people are shocked, dismayed and angry.
We also saw this after the revelations about Jimmy Savile. Many of the public became very angry and directed this towards the BBC, where Savile had done much of his work.
About 49% of respondents in a survey said that they had less trust in the BBC than they did before news of this broke.
The celebrity idol
People often build an emotional connection to celebrities. They may idolise or idealise celebrities, especially those who present themselves as caring, trustworthy, funny and family oriented.
The positive memories and emotions we have of our favourite celebrities often become intertwined with phases of our life, such as our childhood. People often form what is called the “ideology of intimacy” with celebrities, a feeling that we are somehow a part of their life and they are a part of ours.
Sometimes they may also represent a person that we strive to be – funnier, better looking, with a more interesting life!
So when we discover that they have abused their trust, and that behind their façade they were living a much more sinister truth, it is natural to feel shock and disbelief and to make attempts to reconcile that with the image that we once held.
For many people the revelations about Rolf Harris’s abuse of young girls will forever taint the work that he has done. Many will no longer listen to his songs, or view his artworks in the same light. The story about Rolf has changed.
Thanks for the memories … now what?
This doesn’t mean that our the memories of the happiness we may have originally felt when we listened to Rolf and his wobble board need to change.
These happy memories were formed in a time when we were not aware of what was really going on, when we thought that Rolf was just another entertainer.
It is not us who have committed these crimes, or covered them up. We have all been deceived by a man who, it seems, was an expert at deception and betrayal.
We do not need to feel guilty about the happiness that he once brought to our lives and do not need to try to push these memories out of our minds. Rolf is the one who needs to carry all the guilt in this situation.
As was noted in a recent publication about institutional abuse, the issue of child sexual abuse is not new. Children have been abused at around the same rates worldwide for a very long time.
It is brought to the front of our attention when this has been perpetrated by a celebrity or in an institution. But we know from a lot of research now that the sexual abuse of children is most often done by family members or close friends.
Rather than feeling that the world is less safe when we hear about such cases in the media, we should be grateful.
Maybe we have finally reached a point where child sexual abuse will no longer be covered up by families and institutions.
What happened in the UK after Jimmy Savile was that more and more people came forward to tell their own stories of abuse.
This can only lead to better outcomes for all of us: better outcomes for those who can now come forward, to be heard and be believed, and better outcomes for all children, when the perpetrators of abuse have fewer shadows to hide in.
So rather than feeling betrayed when a celebrity such as Rolf Harris is found guilty of such crimes, we should take hope that it may lead to justice for other victims.
If the victims of such high-profile celebrities can have their cases heard, believed and prosecuted, then maybe others will be believed too – whether their abuse is by another celebrity or someone closer to home.
Amanda Harris does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.