The former darts world champion, Eric Bristow has lost his role with Sky Sports after suggesting that the footballers speaking out about being victims of childhood sexual abuse are not “proper men”.
It’s a shocking fact that between 2011 and 2015 there were an estimated 679,000 sexual assaults on men and boys in the UK and 96% were not reported to the police. Yet according to media reports, Bristow said on twitter that footballers are “wimps” and that the victims should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror for failing to get revenge on their abusers as adults. In contrast, Bristow said that darts players are “tough guys” and that he “would have went back and sorted that poof out”, later claiming he “meant paedophile not poof”.
In response to the comments made by Eric Bristow, the Sussex-based charity for male victims of sexual abuse, Mankind, issued the following statement “as a way of gaining greater understanding of some of the issues that Mr Bristow raises”. The statement says:
We recognise that Eric Bristow’s comments on his twitter account were unhelpful and could be received as deeply offensive by the courageous men who have agonised over whether or not to come forward and share their stories of historic sexual abuse. We also feel it is useful to separate the behaviour from the man. Over the coming days and weeks, Mr Bristow will no doubt be pilloried in the press. Sometimes this public shaming of people who express their misunderstanding of a social issue is just as unhelpful as the ignorance of their poorly conceived comments.
Let’s take a moment to unpack some of Mr Bristow’s misconceptions about how an individual responds to sexual abuse in the moment and how they choose to heal from this experience later in life. Mr Bristow’s twitter feed would suggest that in the first instance a child is fully in control of their faculties to resist a sexual perpetrator. Secondly, he implies that as a survivor matures to adulthood, they “should” seek out their perpetrator in order to take their violent revenge.
Both of these assumptions are often untrue for survivors of sexual abuse. Sadly, Mr Bristow’s views are not held in isolation. At Mankind, we regularly hear from our clients about a general lack of understanding about the impact of sexual abuse on an individual and the pain caused by friends and family members expressing unhelpful comments like “why didn’t you fight back?” and “surely you could have done something about it!”.
So let’s look at Mr Bristow’s first assumption, the idea that a young person can choose to fight off their perpetrator when the abuse is taking place. A crucial problem with this assumption is the idea that a person faced with trauma has full resource of their brain. When confronted with a traumatic event, the back brain referred to as the limbic system takes the lead. This part of the brain is unconscious, automatic and invested in survival. It is this part of the brain that will determine a person’s response when confronted with a serious threat. The front brain or neo-cortex where thinking, choosing, planning and reflecting takes place is bypassed. Accordingly, at the moment of trauma, the individual does not choose how to respond and may be surprised by the response of their body to freeze, take flight or fight.
When the fight or flight systems cannot be activated or escape is impossible, the limbic system can simultaneously activate a different branch of the autonomic nervous system, causing a state of freezing called “tonic immobility” – like a deer caught in headlights. There could be many reasons, both physical or relational as to why fighting or fleeing are not viable options, particularly if the traumatic threat is prolonged.
Now let’s take a look at Mr Bristow’s second assumption, the idea that a survivor of historic sexual abuse “should” want to exact violent revenge on their perpetrator. From our experience of working with men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, we have seen that fantasies about taking revenge are common. These thoughts can sometimes be all consuming and can swallow up an individual’s every waking moment. However, these thoughts often remain just that; thoughts, re-occurring fantasises of what revenge might feel like. As clients begin to recover from their experiences and grow in different areas of their life, they tend to be less interested in revenge.
A far greater need is often their desire to be heard, believed and understood by their community. On another level, Mr Bristow’s comments about seeking revenge underestimate the potential complexity of a survivor’s relationship to their perpetrator. In the tabloid press, sexual perpetrators are often presented in cartoonish form where they are stalking strangers who were “born evil”. In reality, the majority of individuals who experience childhood sexual abuse are abused by a member of their own family, a trusted family friend or a person in authority. In the case of the footballers, their abusers had significant influence and power over their lives and indeed the continuation of their careers.
If we imagine a scenario where the perpetrator is an aunty, much loved by the rest of the family and celebrated for her superb community work and social standing, how easy is it for the survivor to seek revenge? For this survivor, to speak out may risk a huge rupture in the family. Worse still, what if they are not believed or their experience is denied? Where the perpetrator is viewed as a sinister male stranger who exists in a vacuum and was simply born evil, Bristow’s idea of a survivor seeking violent retribution is perhaps easier to understand. The idea of an adult survivor paying a visit to their aging aunt who abused them 30 years ago with the aim of beating her up is perhaps a less palatable concept.
It is all too easy to shower Mr Bristow in shame. Perhaps, it is more helpful to unpack some of the stereotypes and prejudices that are contained in his words. These are the views that persist in many sections of our society and act as a barrier to men in coming to terms with their abuse and finding a way forward that works for them .
Mankind is a Hove-based agency that offers support to men who have experienced sexual abuse at any time in their lives. All of its services are by appointment only and details can be found on the website www.mankindcounselling.org.uk.
For more immediate assistance for men who wish to talk about their own experience of sexual abuse, there is a national helpline run by Safeline www.safeline.org.uk who can be contacted on 0808 800 5005.