Abuse Survivors Blog

Why does sexual abuse in the entertainment industry happen?

Written by Tracey Emmott on 01 Sep 2017

Sexual assaults in the entertainment industryIn our blog series we have focused on institutional abuse - abuse in sport, abuse in religion and abuse in the military.

The entertainment industry is another forum which has had the spotlight on it, exposing the prevalence of sexual abuse and sexual assaults. Here I look at both perpetrators and victims of institutional abuse within the seemingly glamorous world of entertainment.

The wide scale media coverage given to the Jimmy Savile scandal triggered a flood of allegations made by hundreds of victims, many of whom were children, throughout 2011 and 2012.

For so many of Savile’s victims their experiences had been their own ‘dark secret’ for decades as they were convinced that no one would believe them. And they were probably right. The dazzle and power of Savile's fame paralysed and blinded everyone.

Indeed it was the Jimmy Savile revelations following his death in 2011 which became the trailblazer for disclosures of sexual abuse and assaults on a herculean scale, extending deep into the entertainment industry, and beyond.  

Perpetrators and victims

Perpetrators included: Rolf Harris, previously the darling of family and children’s TV, who was disgraced when sentenced to nearly 6 years in prison on being found guilty of 12 indecent assaults against four girls. In 2013 and 2014 the ex BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall was prosecuted for similar offences against girls. The public relations guru Max Clifford was found guilty of eight charges of indecent assault against women and girls as young as 15 in 2014, the offences having taken place years ago, between 1977 and 1985. Gary Glitter was jailed at Southwark Crown Court for 16 years in February 2015 for sexually abusing three young girls between 1975 and 1980. 

Other stars have been at the receiving end of sexual assault allegations but have not been convicted – Coronation Street actor Bill Roache was acquitted after trial, and more recently across the pond, comedian Bill Cosby’s trial for aggravated sexual assault ended when the jury could not reach a consensus.

Celebrities who have been found guilty of sexual offences, or against whom allegations have been made, are simply too numerous to list.

Taylor Swift ranks as one of the notable recent victims of sexual assault. She famously recently won a civil case against an ex-DJ David Mueller, who she alleged grabbed her bottom under her skirt during a pre-concert photo shoot in 2013.

She was awarded a symbolic $1 in compensation, and has pledged to donate to organisations that help defend sexual assault victims. Following the civil trial her lawyer Douglas Baldridge said of it: “It gives courage and inspiration to people, not just women, to have the courage to draw a line, and know where those lines are, of mutual respect to all people”.

He said that Swift asked only for $1 because she did not want to bankrupt Mueller, but rather use this case to send a message to all women that “they will decide what will be tolerated with their body”. Such intention is indeed commendable.

Drama clubs and TV/theatrical production companies

But abuse in the entertainment industry is not limited to the higher circles of those who hold celebrity status. Drama clubs, TV and theatrical production companies can also hold potential for abuse of a sexual nature.

This firm has acted for a victim who was groomed by her drama teacher, almost 20 years her senior, from the age of around 12. She finally entered into a sexual relationship with him at 14, which continued for about 5 years.

The ‘relationship’ stifled the victim’s normal teenage development, and caused an adjustment disorder with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Such a scenario is not uncommon.

Why does it happen?

The Dame Janet Smith report, published following an independent inquiry set up in 2012, found that a ‘climate of fear’ and a ‘macho culture’ of sexism and sexual harassment at the BBC accounted for the proliferation of abuse by Savile and Hall. She referred to the ‘highly competitive environment’ and many people not having the security of an employment contract as contributory factors to a culture where sexual assaults were not reported. Worryingly, she found that those who worked at the BBC were still worried about reporting potential abuse.

It is clear that many institutions like the BBC have self-servingly turned a blind eye to sexual abuse and assaults. High value entertainers have been protected to ensure programmes get aired, viewing figures are sustained, and ratings are high. It was this culture that enabled someone like Jimmy Savile to be labelled by the police as the most prolific paedophile in British history.

In the context of drama clubs or theatre companies, the relationship between the teacher or producer and the pupil is often allowed to develop in one to one sessions (preparing for exams, say), and can become intimate and intense. There is plenty of scope for physical contact, and emotional vulnerability. Residential trips, and intense rehearsal time present opportunity too.

Adult entertainers, leaders or teachers in the entertainment industry have unfettered access to children, many of whom aspire to be successful like them, or simply want their approval. This relationship allows some to exploit the power they hold as gatekeepers to fame and fortune.

Ultimately, sexual abuse in the entertainment industry is yet another abuse of power as well as a betrayal of trust.

The ’Savile scandal’ effect

Because of the courage of those Savile victims almost five years ago, so many victims felt, for the first time, empowered to speak out about their experiences.

Prominent players in the entertainment industry who have found themselves victims of sexual assault, like Taylor Swift speaking out about her own experiences, will hopefully fuel the courage of those who are on the brink of disclosure, whatever the context of the abuse.

Entertainment industry to be the subject of an inquiry?

Recognising the entertainment industry as fertile ground for paedophile activity, the Royal Commission into Institutional Response for Child Abuse (set up by the Prime Minister of Australia in 2012) specifically called for people with information about child sexual abuse in that industry to come forward, stating institutions within the Commission’s scope may include ‘TV networks, film and TV production companies, theatrical production companies. Dance, drama and performing arts schools or colleges, casting agencies or any other company, agency or organization, public or private involved with the entertainment industry’

Such recognition for the broad arenas within the entertainment industry in which sexual abuse can occur is testament to those who contributed to the Commission’s terms of reference.

So far as I am aware our own child abuse inquiry IICSA has not yet made a similar call. On the basis of the evidence as outlined in this blog, I urge it to do so.

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Topics: Compensation

Tracey Emmott

Written by Tracey Emmott

Tracey Emmott is a solicitor with over 25 years’ experience in personal injury law. Previously she was a partner of a regional firm in the Home Counties.