Child Sexual Abuse Allegations Are About More Than Your Heroes
'Leaving Neverland' and other recent documentaries are trying to tell a story about survivors, not about whose art you choose to engage with.
James Safechuck, left, and Wade Robson from Leaving Neverland (Photos by Dan Reed/Amos Pictures via Channel 4)
Trigger warning: sexual assault and child sexual abuse
At one point during an hour-long BBC Radio 1Xtra talk show about celebrities and cancel culture, you hear a guest try to contort themselves around the topic of child sexual abuse allegations without instinctively blaming the victims. It lands around the 29-minute mark, when 1Xtra Talks host Reece Parkinson passes the mic over to Michael Jackson fan and BBC Asian Networks DJ Shraii (who features on the show as a guest, rather than a co-host). Like so many of us, Parkinson and his three guests—including writer and progressive UK black Twitter mainstay Haaniyah Angus—are verbally working through their thoughts on the sexual abuse allegations showcased in HBO’s recent documentary Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me.
For those who missed it, the two-part, four-hour documentary from filmmaker Dan Reed presents the testimony of two men, Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 41. Both allege that Jackson sexually abused them when they were children, for several years. They present grim and specific details in their allegations. Elsewhere the film hears from their family members, though—crucially, in terms of the backlash to this film—not from Jackson’s family or close contacts.
That’s where DJ Shraii, a self-professed MJ fan, comes in. On 1Xtra Talks he asks why “people”—namely, Robson and Safechuck—are surfacing with allegations now, years after they say they were abused. “There’s no hard evidence that he did anything wrong, legally,” Shraii says of Jackson, before going onto add: “I just find it a bit strange how certain people have come out recently.” It’s one of many moments during the show, first broadcast on Sunday 10 March, that highlight just how far we as a society have to go in contextualizing and understanding the complexities of historic child sexual abuse allegations.
Since Channel 4 broadcast the doc in the UK after the HBO premiere last week, you might have found yourself in the crossfire of conversations about the King of Pop’s legacy. You may have fielded, or asked, questions like “can I still listen to his music?” or “wasn’t he found not guilty of this in the 90s?” Maybe you too, like DJ Shraii, asked yourself or others why Robson and Safechuck waited so long to go public (Robson first did so in 2013, speaking to now-disgraced anchor Matt Lauer). Most coverage of the films so far, from the music press and wider press, has tended to follow a line of logic from the allegations to processing them to what to do about Michael Jackson.
Yet this misses the point. To focus on Michael Jackson as a cultural figure is to misunderstand the story Reed aimed to tell entirely. As Dan Reed told Channel 4 in January, in the lead-up to the program airing in the UK, “this is not a film about Michael Jackson. It’s about two very ordinary families whose paths crossed with Jackson’s, and the incredible aspirations that he represented.” And yet so much coverage on the film has centered on questions around whether the writer can still enjoy MJ, whether you, dear reader, can still enjoy MJ, whether MJ is too famous to be cancelled entirely.
I have something simple to say: you are not the most important part of this story. You can listen to whoever you want, if you’re able to justify it to yourself. But Leaving Neverland and other recent stories about child sexual abuse deserve our attention so we can best equip future generations with the vocabulary and knowledge to pinpoint the grooming of children (and their families) before more children are traumatized by sexual abuse. At the risk of sounding glib: this isn’t about you, in any capacity beyond being an ally for survivors or, devastatingly, as a survivor looking to work through their pain. It may be hard to hear that, as someone who’s grown up idolizing or simply respecting a celebrity. But your relationship to their art is actually tangential to a more urgent issue.
According to the NSPCC, as per a 2011 report, 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused. And that figure is likely an under-representation, since their research also shows that only about one-third of sexual abuse survivors ever tell anyone what happened to them. A 2016 Office of National Statistics survey found three in four people who’d been sexually abused during childhood didn’t tell anyone at the time. Set aside, for a moment, your personal thoughts on Jackson. As Robson alleged in Leaving Neverland, he didn’t identify what he says had happened to him as abuse for several years.
It’s well-documented, in accounts from survivors, that abusers use secrets (often after isolating a child) to bury the abuse as something shared, and special. Research by Jennifer M Foster and W Bryce Hagedorn, in a 2014 study, confirms this. According to child protection UK charities Stop It Now! and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, in their Parents Protect guide for parents looking to talk to their children about enacting boundaries around their bodies, abusers often create a veil of secrecy. “Some secrets, like surprise parties, can be good,” their guide reads. “But adults should never make a child keep a secret that makes them feel worried, sad or frightened. Secrets are often an abuser’s greatest weapon. Phrases like ‘it’s our little secret’ are their way of making a child feel worried or scared to tell.”
Leaving Neverland raises a similar point. Reed told Channel 4 that he spoke to a California investigator who’d looked at more than 4,000 child sexual abuse cases (including the 1993 LAPD investigation into Jackson). As Reed said, when the investigator considered Robson and Safechuck’s testimony, he deduced that they “describe the classic, step-by-step playbook: you insert yourself into the family so that you can ultimately isolate and separate the child. You charm the parents, usually flattering the mother while keeping the father at a distance until you can substitute yourself.” Once these steps, mirrored by the NSPCC’s warning signs of potential abusers, have been enacted, it is in fact possible for parents to live with a child who’s being abused and never realize.
Taking all of this into account, Leaving Neverland paints a similar picture to that of the seemingly outrageous Abducted in Plain Sight Netflix documentary from earlier this year. Or 2006’s Deliver Us From Evil and 2017’s The Keepers, both about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In all cases, a trusted, beloved figure is accused of manipulating families to access their children. So instead of wringing your hands about Jackson’s musical imprint on the world—an uncontested, indelible mark—future generations depend on us thinking instead about how to help children understand consent, and their bodies as their own.
Child sexual abuse can take decades to reckon with. It can appear confusing to outsiders, who may not see how a survivor could still love or respect their abuser. We should support those who’ve endured trauma, with the facilities to guide them through their healing. We have to empower children today, and those who’ve yet to be conceived, with the tools to turn to the adults they trust when they feel they’ve been hurt. Those adults should learn to listen, and believe the children. Governments have to take on the responsibility of thorough sexual consent modules in compulsory sexual education. Doing so will invariably be messy and difficult—there are no easy solutions here. But considering playing Michael Jackson at your wedding? That’s up to you. There’s a bigger fight to win now.
We've contacted DJ Shraii for comment and will update this piece accordingly. You can support organizations like the NSPCC , the Lucy Faithfull Foundation , Survivors UK for male survivors of sexual abuse, Safeline and RAINN in the US.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.