• George Harvey

Why Speaking Out Will Always Be Brave

If you type the phrase “ripple effect” into Google, you get hit with about a million different “inspirational” quotations on top of stock photos, each one slightly more cringeworthy than the last. Which is a shame, because the ripple effect is a genuinely great concept when you think about it - it feeds into the idea that a single person can perform an action which has far-reaching consequences, no matter how insignificant they may feel at the time.

Ok, turns out it’s really hard to avoid making it sound cringeworthy. Apologies.

Still, it’s an especially important point at this moment in time, as the last two months have seen over 450 men speak out about the sexual abuse they experienced in youth-level football. Since former footballer Andy Woodward, 43, broke the silence by waiving his right to anonymity on November 16th, each passing week has seen more and more men step forward.

Whilst the scale of abuse is horrifying, it is at least somewhat heartening to see that so many individuals are now able to receive the support they need.

Woodward’s role should not be underestimated. It showcases the ripple effect in full force: One person made the decision to speak out, which gave hundreds more the courage to do the same.

Unfortunately, the past few weeks have also shown how this concept can operate in a negative way, especially in the age of social media.

One of the biggest positives of social media is also its largest drawback - everyone gets to have their say. Now, for subjects such as lie-ins, cute dogs or the cost-effectiveness of your meal deal, social media remains a relatively harmless and typically positive addition to daily life. The real problems begin when the subject matter is sensitive or controversial. Suddenly, a platform built to help develop a sense of community and belonging becomes incredibly toxic.

Yet unbelievably, even the recent discovery of decades of child abuse within the world of British football isn’t exempt from such pernicious discussion. Somehow, people can still end up on the wrong side of what should be an overwhelmingly one-sided debate. Scooping the unwanted prize for the most notable example was former darts player Eric Bristow, who managed to offend millions of people over the course of an increasingly incoherent Twitter rant last month.

The tweets - which have since been deleted - were built around the idea that the survivors of the abuse were “wimps” for not speaking out soon enough or for deciding against tracking down their abusers and “[sorting them] out”.

Whilst it should be noted that Bristow has since apologised and clarified his remarks, it’s hard not to feel as though the damage is already done.

In the first instance, it’s incredibly upsetting that such phrasing exists at all, yet it’s even more worrying that these sentiments were then aired on a national stage. Perhaps the only upside of the entire sorry story was that a number of high profile figures condemned the remarks in an attempt to counteract at least some of the hurt caused by Bristow’s words.

Why are such remarks so troubling? Simply because it’s already incredibly difficult to get survivors of sexual assault to come forward - only 10% of male survivors will tell the police, and the equivalent figure for women is a worryingly low 26%.

Furthermore, according to figures from the NSPCC in 2014, 83% of children who experienced contact sexual abuse from a peer didn’t tell anyone. When such abuse was committed by an adult, 34% of children were unable to speak out.

This is why Bristow’s comments are so concerning - they help to perpetuate a long-standing climate of under-reporting. If a small number of former professional footballers reporting abuse can cause several hundred to come forward, then comments such as Bristow’s can certainly play a role in silencing others. These are not the kind of the ripples that should be made in modern society.

Did Bristow mean to perpetuate this culture of voicelessness? I highly doubt it. In fact, it’s easy instead to see him as yet another man caught up in the old-style masculinity that stops so many men from reporting abuse.

This is especially pertinent within the realms of sport and even more so within football. As Simon Hattenstone recently made clear in The Guardian, football has a masculinity problem, which contributed to the silencing of hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse.

This is why it’s so important that Andy Woodward broke the silence. In the weeks since, both the England manager Gareth Southgate and his captain, Wayne Rooney, have commended the bravery of those who have spoken out. Suddenly, the previously impermissible subject of male sexual abuse is being discussed and understood on a national level.

More importantly still, this discourse is occurring within the world of football, which has so often shied away from such subject matter. As Martin Daubney stated in The Telegraph, “football’s darkest hour could be masculinity’s brightest dawn”.

Speaking out about abuse is never easy. Not only is it an incredibly brave thing to do, but it can also have wide-reaching effects that can inspire others to act. We must create a culture in which survivors of abuse feel capable of coming forward, no matter when the incident occurred.

The bravery shown by Woodward and the hundreds who have come forward since has made a huge contribution towards this, one which stretches beyond the world of football. If these ripples continue to form, these survivors may soon be making waves.


This article was written by George Harvey, who handles digital engagement at Stay Brave UK. It's George's job to make sure we stay in touch with our supporters and inform them of the work we do.

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