Academic Opinion: Why the surprise over Rolf is part of the problem

Posted by sb661 at Jul 14, 2014 03:35 PM |
Dr Clare Gunby talks about the culmination of the Rolf Harris trial

Last month saw the culmination of the Rolf Harris trial, found guilty on 12 counts of indecent assault and sentenced to five years and nine months imprisonment - a too short a sentence for some, and one that has already been referred to the Attorney General’s Office for being ‘unduly lenient’.

Harris is one of a long list of ‘celebrities’ or ‘powerful men’ whose abusive indiscretions have been pushed to the forefront of public consciousness following the Yewtree investigation, sparked by the equally prolonged line of sexual offences perpetrated by Jimmy Savile.

A frequent reaction to the Harris verdict, evident amongst social media discourses and echoed by tabloid and broadsheet print media, has been the: ‘surely not Rolf Harris?’ perspective, or the, ‘how could you Rolf? You didn’t came across as that type’ – as though in 2014, the assumption still rings true that the average sex offender must be distinguishable via some overt characteristic, defect or perhaps, the all-incriminating raincoat. If the fallout of the Yewtree investigation teaches us anything, let it be the recognition that sex offenders come in all types and forms, although all too frequently, they reside in positions of privilege and power within reputable institutions.

Perhaps it is this elevation to privileged status and assumption that popular and reputable men ‘do not do that type of thing’ that underpins the ‘not Rolf’ reaction.What is clear however is that the anticipation of such a reaction is instrumental in preventing a victim from disclosing their abuse in the first place. If everyone else finds it so difficult to comprehend that they were the perpetrator, it certainly contextualises why victims so frequently remain silent about these abusive experiences, as much to friends and family as to the police.

The culture of protecting powerful men from the consequences of their abusive behaviour is another factor which inevitably deters victims from reporting, or only finding confidence to report in adulthood, or after other men and women have disclosed abuse at the hands of that same perpetrator.

The belief that nothing will be done or that a victim will not be believed is a fear that is well founded. That reality has again been brought to the forefront of public thinking in recent days with the news of over one hundred documents detailing stories of child abuse by British MPs in the 1980s having ‘gone missing’.
Whilst this culture of scepticism is gradually changing and powerful men are increasingly being held to account, we will only speed up the process if we begin to readily acknowledge that power and celebrity do not make anyone immune from perpetrating sexual violence.


Dr Clare Gunby is a lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester.

The views expressed above are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

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