Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Celebrity, Sexual Abuse and Societal Reaction

One of the biggest issues in sexual violence research, especially child sexual abuse research, is the lack of a coherent baseline. We read research like David Finklehor’s telling us that sexual abuse is, statistically, on the decrease (NY Times) while at the same time we are confronted with ever increasing media stories about the escalation of the reporting and unearthing of sexual violence cases.  The fact that sexual abuse has been under reported and under recorded historically, although this is starting to change in recent years (NSPCC), means that we never really, accurately,  know whether there has been an increase or decrease in recent years. This is stated even with the proviso that there are other data capture techniques which can be used in conjunction with police recording including, medical reports, social work reports and school reporting.  Hence, it difficult to truly get to grips with the nature, extent and reality of sexual violence in modern society and that is just focusing on westernised and developed countries, never mind developing nations. This knowledge vacuum has been, in part, replaced or supplemented with soft, experiential evidence provided in large part by the media, especially the television and print press. The ever increasing reporting of sexual abuse cases, particularly child sexual abuse cases, results in an ipso facto understanding, especially among the public and politicians, that there is more offending; for if offending was not increasing then there would be nothing to report? However, this is not necessarily the case, for as Greer & Reiner (2012) state the media can often misrepresent the abnormal as normal, therefore in their over reporting of unique cases they give the impression that there is more offending. Child sexual Abuse is a particularly potent case of this as it meets all the core components of newsworthiness generally containing, either, (1) a visible/spectacular act, (2) graphic presentation, (3) deviance, (4) sexual/political factors, or (5) individual pathology (Chinball, 1977).  The lack of a sexual violence baseline and issues in media reporting reach almost perfect storm portions with celebrity sexual offending.

In recent years, especially the last 10 years or so, there has been an onslaught in the reporting of, recording of and high profile media discussion of celebrity sexual abuse cases, on both sides of the Atlantic. It seems that since the Michael Jackson and Gary Glitter (Paul Gadd) cases in the late 90’s/early 2000’s there has been an increase in the reporting of sexual abuse by celebrities, historical and current, with a flood gate being opened. In the USA the big cases of Late has been the Jerry Sandusky, Steubenville, OH, and the Duke Lacrosse team, where in the UK there has been a number of historical (Jimmy Savile; Rolf Harris; Stuart Hall) and contemporary (Ian Watkins)individual perpetrator  cases as well as the suggestion of a cover up of sexual abuse by members of the government. This raises an important question, relating to media coverage and the lack of a baseline, has there actually been an increase in the rates of sexual abuse by celebrities or is it just that victims feel better able to report and police forces feel more confident to pursue these cases?  This piece will now discuss the central parts of the argument in turn,

(Sexual) Abuse by celebrities: There is no reason to believe that celebrities would be any more or any less susceptible to being perpetrators of sexual violence comparable to the ordinary members of the public from whence they came. However, what we do know is that celebrity is often linked with cognitive distortions, aspects or narcissism; where often times there whims maybe more likely to be catered to and aspects of transgressive behaviour (i.e., drugs, sexual promiscuity, minor offences, etc) either facilitated or tolerated. This means that being a celebrity can result in the person being treated differently than a “normal” non-celebrity individual. In addition, we know that “celebrity” sells papers and that there will be increased and in depth reporting of celebrity sexual abuse scandals.

Celebrity Culture and Celebrity worship: One of the big questions surrounding celebrity is why should we trust celebrities more than other people? Research has shown that Celebrity status holds a particular sway in modern society (McQuail, 2010). McCutcheon, Lange and Houran (2002) developed the “absorption–addiction” model of celebrity worship which consists of three levels;

1.       “Entertainment–Social” – whereby the individual discusses the behavior and attitudes of their favorite celebrity, this is a low level form of worship that is ultimately social and non-problematic.

2.       “Intense–Personal” – whereby the individual consistently thinks about their favorite celebrity, even at inopportune times, and this is an intermediate level of celebrity worship.

3.       “Borderline-Pathological” - whereby the individual is completely infatuated with their favorite celebrity and would do anything that they asked them to do. This is an extreme version of celebrity worship.

Additional research by North & Hargreves (2006) identified a fourth factor,

4.        “Deleterious Imitation” – whereby the individual is completely infatuated with their favorite celebrity and would go as far to mirror all their behaviors, including their illegal and transgressive ones. This, again, is an extreme version of celebrity worship.

Maltby et al’s research (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007) goes on to state that there is a relationship between celebrity worship, especially extreme celebrity worship, and mental illness. Individuals with tendencies towards extreme celebrity worship have been shown to have higher levels of vulnerability, personality problems, anxiety disorders, self harm and suicide. Which ties into issues surrounding celebrity and sexual abuse, for as we know vulnerable individuals are more likely to be targeted by sexual abusers, more susceptible to grooming and less likely to report abuse, especially in cases of child sexual abuse (Harrison, 2010). This becomes more problematic in regard to the reporting of these cases by victims because the victims who may report can be, certainly historically and less so now, be seen as problematic and unreliable witnesses by the police because of their vulnerabilities. The Ian Watkins case crystallized these issues with a series of unreliable witnesses (an ex-girlfriend who was a prostitute) as well as dedicated and obsessed vulnerable fans who where co-conspirators to his abuse who where in fact groomed and manipulated by him. The participation of vulnerable fans in abusive practices, although condemned by the press and the public (see the article and message board  responses below), ties in with research indicating that extreme celebrity worship, vulnerability and potential for delinquency all tie together (Sheridan, North, Maltby & Gillett, 2007).

Policing & celebrity sexual abuse: One of the main questions which has arisen as a result of the perceived increases in celebrity sexual abuse cases is the role of the police investigation. This is particularly salient in cases where the police are seeing to be complacent, complicit or absent from these cases. If you look at two cases from the UK (Jimmy Savile and Ian Watkins) you see evidence of a lack of police follow through at times, whereby people will report instances of abuse or suspensions to the police and they have not followed this up properly. In the Jimmy Savile investigation this lack of follow through can be explained, in part, by the societal attitudes to sexual abused at the time, Savile’s status as a celebrity with power and influence (i.e., closely tied to the establishment with high profile public supporters including high ranking police officers) and his personality all of which can been seen to intimate and dissuade investigations (Erooga, 2013). Over time, especially since the 60’s and 70’s, policing has changed and improved; however, the recent Ian Watkins case highlights that there are still issues with evidence indicating numbers reports to the police over a period of time and problematic online behaviour in open internet forums, which has resulted in an IPCC investigation into three police forces . There needs to be an open culture surrounding the policing of celebrity transgression, whether it is minor or serious, with police forces not being afraid to make difficult decisions, but as always these need to be based on evidence because false allegations can be as damaging as real ones (i.e., Michael Le Vell).

The recent high profile discussions of celebrity sexual abuse are important conversations to have, but we need to have them in the context of the role of celebrity in society, vulnerability amongst victims of this abuse and how to better prevent this abuse; how do we realistic manage and respond to celebrity in the culture of celebrity that we live in? The one thing that we need to be careful of is knee jerk political and public reaction, especially in terms of policy for as we have seen in the past with sex offender disclosure and now with anti-pornography legislation, this needs to be coherently through through.

 Kieran McCartan PhD


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Erooga, M. (2013). The SAVILE Scandal: beginning to understand. NOTA News, 70, 8 – 11.

Greer, C., & Reiner, R (2012). Mediated mayhem: media, crime, criminal justice. In Maguire, M, Morgan, K and Reiner, R (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of criminology (5rd ed.), (376-416). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harrison, K. (2010). Dealing with High-Risk Sex Offenders in the Community: risk management, treatment and social responsibilities. Willan: Cullompton.

Maltby, J., Day, L., McCutcheon, L. E., Gillett, R., Houran, J. and Ashe, D. D. (2004). Personality and coping: A context for examining celebrity worship and mental health. British Journal of Psychology, 95: 411–428.

Maltby, J., Houran, J., Lange, R., Ashe, D. and McCutcheon, L. E. (2002). Thou shalt worship no other gods – Unless they are celebrities: The relationship between celebrity worship and religious orientation. Personality and Individual Differences, 32: 1157–1172.

Maltby, J., Houran, M. A. and McCutcheon, L. E. (2003). A clinical interpretation of attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 191: 25–29.

Maltby, J., McCutcheon, L. E., Ashe, D. D. and Houran, J. (2001). The self-reported psychological well-being of celebrity worshippers. North American Journal of Psychology, 3: 441–452.

McCutcheon, L. E., Lange, R. and Houran, J. (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship. British Journal of Psychology, 93: 67–87.

McQuail, D. (2012). Mass Communication Theory, 6th Ed. London: Sage Publications.

North, A. C. and Hargreaves, D. J. (2006). Problem music and self-harming. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36: 582–590.

Sheridan, L., North, A.C., Maltby, J. and Gillett, R. (2007). Celebrity worship, addiction and criminality. Psychology, Crime and Law, 559-571.

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