Sunday, 26 October 2014

Child abuse at my school - a new hope?

I started writing a post a couple of years ago when increasing attention was being paid to alleged abuse of children by TV celebrities that spanned several decades. Most of us were somewhat sceptical – after all, how could our beloved childhood heroes have possibly been evil? But what with the recent convictions of British media giants such as Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford, Dave Lee Travis and others, and the condemnation of the late Jimmy Savile, it is clear that from the 1960s onwards the systematic abuse of youngsters, and the cover-up, in the British media was overwhelming.

Since then, and in the light of abuse involving other organisations, notably the Roman Catholic Church, other police investigations have been opened into abuse by politicians, and abuse in schools, children’s homes, etc. The detective in charge of the investigation into politicians has already been removed and, given the British establishment’s brilliance in protecting its own, I doubt anything will come of that.

Over the last few months I have been I touch with Scotland Yard, London’s police headquarters, about systematic abuse at my own school, one of hundreds such. I have also spoken to all my friends who went to school in the same era, just to compare experiences. The results of my chats were astonishing.

Sexual abuse at my school

In my response to Lynn’s “Our Different Story” questions
I said school wasn’t great but I survived and it was hard to be enthusiastic about it. I’d like to expand on that.

My school educated me, and did so pretty well, in fact, but it was a place to survive and tolerate rather than be inspired by. Why? Because the abuse was extreme. I survived it, others less well. But then I never suffered – thank God – a direct sexual assault, unlike dozens of others who went there.

Like so many British educational establishments, it was a single-sex school. I’ve never been clear why the British consider separating girls and boys to be such an important thing when educating them, but that is the fact in this country. I went to a boys’ school, therefore. As a transgender ‘boy’, this was an unhappy situation. But the idea is to be educated and, to be honest, I didn’t resent boys' things. I just liked girls’ things, too. So it was toy soldiers in public, dollies in private; footballs in public, skipping ropes in private; shorts in public, dresses in private. And wishing I could be a ballerina as well as an astronaut. That sort of a life.

Clearly, because of the way the law is framed (and because of prurient British interests in sexual matters), the police are looking into sex offences. There were plenty, and we youngsters all knew about them at the time but a conspiracy of silence accompanies all institutions and it is only now, decades later, that we seem to be able to talk properly about our experiences. The mafia word omertà is much used in this year’s media reports about this. Or, as would have been said in my day, “Gentlemen don’t tell tales”. It is right that sexual offences should have priority. Being ‘broken into’, as they say in Essex, is the ultimate violation of a person’s dignity and rights as well as their person. I do feel, though, that the emphasis on this alone risks covering the fact that sexual violence is merely one aspect of a wider culture of violent and psychological abuse. Recall how rape was used twenty years ago in Bosnia and Rwanda as part of an overarching process of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and domination.

All of us were given genital inspections on a regular basis. Or just ogled in the showers. For most of us, that’s as far as it went. But I am sorry for those children at my school who were raped and subjected to humiliating sexual treatment at the hands of many evil teachers (and one or two other boys), most of whom have now died and so evaded justice. Offering children money for sex does not make it OK. Offering sexual alternatives to due punishment under school rules is not OK either. I am even more disgusted that those who ought to have dealt with the abuse correctly – especially headmasters – saw fit to act by quietly moving offending teachers out (only when caught) and giving them decent references for other schools, thus shifting the problem off themselves and onto other establishments who, in their turn, appear to have taken the same approach. I remain furious, after so many years, that parents such as mine assume that children are incorrigible liars and that authority is, by definition, automatically right.


But I mentioned a wider culture of abuse. That would be the violence perpetrated against us by our teachers. On the physical level, we had official corporal punishment occasionally, and detentions were also a popular form of punishment, but that was a system that was regulated, at least in principle. The only system that was. Teachers were no longer allowed to use the cane themselves but were to refer gross misdemeanours to the headmaster. But only if they felt like it, which simply gave the abusive teachers the power to use their inventiveness on matters that they elected not to refer to the headmaster. Any system of discipline must be that: a process with clear rules so that those who commit offences under those rules may know what to expect in the way of reparation. It won’t do to give teachers free reign to be judge, jury and executioner according to their whims. You soon learnt what it was that set a particular teacher into a fury: this one hates sneezing in class (yes, really), that one cannot tolerate slouching, the other has random hates and you don’t know where you are from day to day. And that teacher there, well, he has lighted on that particular boy on whom to take out his hatred for the whole class. He’s the whipping boy for the lesson, or the week, or the term.

Gym shoes, spiked football boots, cricket bats and rulers all work very well on young bottoms, a wooden board rubber aimed at the head can be very effective especially if it raises a red bump or a black eye. Best, of course, is the unflinching use of hands and feet. A good crack round the chops (repeated at will) … or a firm punch anywhere on the body. Best of all, though, is kicking. A rain of kicks on the shin will render even the toughest boy to a crying wreck and leave bruises and a limp for days – nothing like seeing your victim in real pain, is there? The humiliation is a given, of course. Which means you can then, in addition, tease the boy for being a wimp. We’re talking of boys aged mainly from 9 to 12 here. It would be a brave teacher who took on a 17-year old, 14-stone rugby forward who might be thinking of a career in the army, so as we got older the teachers knew they could touch us less and less. One teacher famously missed a kick at a boy’s backside and broke his foot on the boy’s chair and hobbled around on crutches with foot in plaster for several weeks, such was the force of the blow he aimed. We didn’t know the word karma in those days, though. (Incidentally, the boy would have been aged around 11.) Just grab a boy and throw him across the room, bash his head on the desk or crack it against his neighbour’s. Repeat as required. The sound is satisfying. Go ahead, teacher, that’s what you’re here for, to satisfy your lust for power over the powerless. Justice never seemed to come into it. What with this and the hate-driven religion I was brought up in (more on that another day), I have never been able to equate punishment with justice as a result. The basic aim of school was to be punished or avoid punishment. You learnt the teachers who liked punishment and any especial things that they would punish you for. Not the same as what other teachers would punish you for, of course. You had to guess to start with and learn the hard way. Of course, a really great teacher keeps the boys guessing. All the time. And so has the satisfaction of brutalising someone in every class every lesson. The school law is like that of Sparta, unwritten and hard to know, and, like Sparta, the culture is brutal and physical. So keep your head down and your nose clean and never ever catch anyone’s eye. If you lucky, though, your teacher, who has just drawn your blood, will be oh so remorseful and maybe start caressing you. How nice and kind of them. Really lucky boys get invited to teachers’ homes and studies where they are given a direct demonstration of what a grown-up boy looks like and what a grown-up boy can do with his manhood. Nice.

Shouting at full volume at a boy is, of course, expected. Calling him names is pathetic but, hey, you’re the big important man who’s standing at the head of the class. Get the boy to stand up all lesson and make him answer all the questions. It’s a slap for every one he then gets wrong. Stand outside, stand in the corner, stay behind. And so on. “No, Sir, I don’t know the answer to the question. I don’t think we’ve been taught this yet and, no, I can’t guess it yet. Stand Up? Yes, OK. Sorry, didn’t mean to slouch. Biff! Again, I don’t know. Pow! Don’t snivel? No, Sir. Kick!” Later, much later, we see Mr Blonde taking his satisfaction of a trussed-up cop in Reservoir Dogs. That brings back memories. There’d have been a gasoline shower for us, too, if the stuff hadn’t been so expensive in the ’70s. We read school violence in our weekly comics and kid’s books (The Bash Street Kids in the Beano or the suitably illustrated ‘plain blip for numskulls’ and ‘headshave with ruler’ in Molesworth), so we assume that’s what school is. You get through it. Some boys have to suck dick, too. It’s just life and you’re glad that particular task wasn’t yours.

The reverends were almost the worst, men obsessed with punishment and the need to control and who used sexual brutality and humiliation as a weapon on many. Of the three I recall as being title Reverend, two have been investigated by the police and described as “serial paedophiles”. But they’re dead now. If you want to classify it by subject, those who taught Latin, for some reason, were the worst. Maybe they dreamed of running a school for gladiators or something, where only ruthless training makes for the best bloody spectacles. (Whereas French teachers, for instance, seemed a bit weak. We took advantage of them; I guess it was a relief to know you weren’t going to get it so badly in their class.) Worse even than the reverends were those who were known to be freemasons. They seemed capable of unrestrained malice, yet always kept just within the law, such as it was. The few women teachers were generally OK. Well, less nasty than the men. It’s all relative, of course.

The brutality from above rubs off on the boys and they come up with inventive tortures, like Sadistic Black Jack, or wedgies applied at any time and for any or no reason (or just a good kick in the nuts – it’s not considered sporting, but it’s a regular way of solving a fight – and once in a while boys are hospitalised after such damage), or the ‘paddy whack’ (you pass between two lines of boys who thump you, a bit like the traditional punishment in the Prussian army), or the classic wet towel whack, or the ‘sting’ (a downward flick of the fingers onto the buttocks – more painful than you’d guess), or the ‘operation’ (hold them down, remove their shorts and underpants and punch them in the bits – if they need anaesthetic gas, get someone to fart in their face first); there was indeed an elaborate system of warding off or awarding punishment for farting – list the names of ten brands of cigarette or titles of porn mags whilst your arm is vigorously thumped as hard and often as possible. Chinese burns, ear tweaking, the sharp bit of a compass in the fleshy bits (or even the face on occasion). Heat something up in a bunsen burner and apply the hot object to the seat of someone’s pants. The yelp gets them into trouble. Scratch another boy’s name into a desk and see them get sent to the head. Why not fold someone into the waste paper bin so they can’t get out before teacher walks in to take the lesson? Watch them get into trouble for that or any one of a thousand other japes. Or just lay into each other with the contents of a cricket bag – bats, stumps, hard cricket balls. A cricket stump rammed in the belly is pretty effective. But it’s OK, folks, at least it’s not the sharp end. Slam inattentive fingers in the window (seriously exquisite pain guaranteed). We give, we receive, we invent and apply. We learn to dodge and skyve and cheat. …We survive. 

I mentioned Reservoir Dogs. Actually, it's more of a cross between Lord of the Flies and Scum (a film of the era set in a boys' borstal, except we hadn't been convicted of anything).

It’s the abuse of power that disgusts me most. We went to learn stuff in good faith and instead we ran the gauntlet all the time of seemingly random beatings, punishments and abuse. Given with impunity. And many, many pupils were sexually assaulted, too. Those teachers who are still alive are being arrested and charged for the latter issue and there are already some in jail. Most have long since died, praised as war heroes and, naturally, great paedagogues.

I survive. I keep a low profile. I learn what sets each crazed teacher off and avoid it, do just enough work to avoid serious punishment … and quietly, at home, I create a different life. I make friends and we do support each other in the face of a greater enemy. I am not so badly treated as others, I can’t say that I am really bullied by my peers and I generally hold my own, but some terms I can’t help but feel that dying would be better than living.

Wider environment
Not all that far from the school were two men’s public toilets that we are told to avoid. They are a notorious pick-up place for men, and boys. We aren’t told that, but we know.

Not all that far from the school was a children’s home. You can guess the rest. 

Not all that far from the school was a gay and paedophile brothel. The gay bit is fine in my view. The paedophile bit is not. The police are still working on that one. The kids who disappeared will obviously never know justice, and I doubt their parents will. Especially not those kids who paid the ultimate price of high art by starring in paedo snuff movies. It is believed that such films were made there.

Not all that far from the school is a park where women get attacked and raped virtually every week. Streakers (this is the ’70s) regularly run naked up the path behind the school. Plenty of yobs do, too – skinheads, punks wielding bike chains, biker boys with flick knives. The whole area reeks of sleaze and violence, as does the school. But that’s what we were used to and we just assumed that was life, then and for ever. Britain in the ’70s and early ’80s was in economic crisis and our society was tormented and violent. We at school were just a microcosm of Britain as a whole, perhaps. Maybe that’s why Jimmy Savile’s behaviour was never really questioned at the time, nor that of his peers. Things were different back then, we are told. They were, but does that make those things OK?

I believe that 30-40 years on now, life is much better. There’s much less fear, worry, conflict and violence in our society. We can talk about things like this. Not perfect, of course, but a great improvement.

What’s this got to do with trans matters, and justice?

I left school at 18 and have never been back there. Why would I? They educated me; job done. When I first started going out in public as a woman I wondered if I should go to the school’s annual Open Day as an ‘old girl’, as it were. But then I had to ask myself what my motive was. I couldn’t think of one, so I didn’t go. There must be other ‘old boys’ there who are now also ‘old girls’ like me. I’m not sure how to get in touch with them.

I never mentioned out loud then that I’d have preferred to be a girl. Not openly. Just in slightly cryptic pencil annotations to schoolbooks, or quietly graffitied in dark recesses of cupboards or hidden areas of toilets where badly-drawn phallic images proliferated.

I have been chatting to my friends since the storm broke about six months ago. Their experiences of school, while not always fun, are totally different. Some went to single-sex schools, others to mixed schools; some went to public/private schools, most went to state schools. Nobody else experienced this sort of treatment, neither excess punishment and violence, nor abuse; and, with one minor exception, there was no sexual mistreatment. I feel resentful now that I should have been subject to this injustice, and that I couldn’t come out as trans, at least to my peers, when I was younger. Why did I, of all people, have to end up in a culture of macho violence, sadism, abuse and brutality? I assumed that everyone who went to school had similar experiences. This is not the case at all. I notice lots of kids these days saying they enjoy going to school. And I think: what’s wrong with you?! You’re not supposed to like school. It’s somewhere you go to be disciplined and educated, nothing more.

I don’t know what justice will be done. As I said, most of the perps are dead now. Maybe the school will be a much better place from now on. Or maybe it will close as a result of the bad publicity. I’m doing what little I can to assist the police, though I know others have much worse and more effective tales to tell. The violence is not prosecutable at this length of time later.

As for being trans, well, that’s something that’s had to be a quiet thing virtually all my life for fear of the consequences. Stunting people through fear is the way to control them. Institutions like governments, religions, schools, homes for children and the elderly do that very well. Such organisations should be avoided.

I am still thinking about how I feel about all this. I felt at the time that life was random, cruel and nasty. There’s one law for the powerful and a very different law for the rest. But I realise now that it’s only particular environments that create that feeling. I am curious to know more about how other people, especially trans people, felt about school. I do have two trans friends who were subject to sustained, appalling sexual abuse as children and the perpetrators did go to jail. But no jail term ever repairs a life that’s been ruined.

I half-drafted a post about the religion I grew up in and how that affected my perceptions of myself as a trans person, but I found it distressing even after all these years and stopped writing. But publishing that may serve a purpose, too, as the feeling of injustice is similar.

Thank you for reading all this way down. I have tried as much as possible to be positive in this “Sue’s news and views” blog to encourage other trans people to live a life nearer to the one they would like, and to that end it’s been much more news than views. And I suppose this whole issue illustrates how really important it is that you must not allow other people to dominate and destroy you. And we must all fight the brutality of the domineering, the cruel, the abusive and the criminal.

[ADD: 27 October: In the light of Demi's thoughtful comment below, I am still trying to see how different my experience was to that of other children of the era, in Britain or elsewhere. I would find your comments helpful.

We who seek justice must always be just. There are people who are sexually attracted to children. This seems to be a fact, presumably in the same way that many people are attracted to people of the same sex as themselves, or to particular types of people, or have a fetish or fascination for a particular kind of thing (for instance, BDSM - something I don't understand either -  is so common it may be considered mainstream). It's how you go about satisfying your need for what you love that distinguishes you. I do feel that a proper, rational, adult discussion on paedophilia needs to be undertaken, rather than knee-jerk reactions so as to avoid miscarriages of justice. My gripe here is that the sexual abuse of children at my school had little to do with sex but was merely one tool in a whole armoury of repression and brutality. I don't think paedophilia ("love of children", to translate it) ever really came into it.]

Contact the police if you feel that you were abused as a child (or even later). There are many investigations on the go with different names and different detectives and, of course, Britain has local police forces with their own arrangements. But Scotland Yard can be contacted on 020 7230 1212 and they can pass you on to other local forces when matters are not being dealt with by them at national level.
The next post will be jolly.

Sue x


  1. Sue,

    A difficult read, and so different from my experience of a Catholic boys boarding school in the 1970s. University contemporaries of mine, educated by other orders, described experiences comparable (though not as extreme) as yours, while at my place neither abuse nor brutality were ever to be seen.

    That didn't stop a witch hunt twenty years later. Allegations of historical abuse were made against a very popular member of staff, and the local police force mobilised. They set up an operation that, in the end, cost over £1million as they tried to uncover a "paedophile network" among the staff at that time. A number of arrests were made, each resulting in the immediate suspension of the person concerned. In the end, those of us who found the allegations unbelievable were proved right: the only conviction was immediately overturned on appeal; two other cases reached a non-guilty verdict and the other cases were dropped.

    But in the process 8 careers were ruined, lives changed. None of the accused and suspended staff ever returned, or worked in education again. The school acted as it had to, but middle aged bachelors who had given their lives to the education of boys, who lived in tied accommodation, had their job and their homes taken away from them overnight.

    There *had* been cases of abuse in the school. Some years previously a priest had been convicted and sent to prison, with the help of the school and the order. And as the 70s ended, a member of staff who we were uncomfortable around had been dismissed for "unprofessional conduct". But the network of systematic abuse that the police were so sure they had uncovered simply wasn't there.

    Perhaps this history has made me too ready to dismiss historic accusations, or at least to adopt a highly sceptical stance. Perhaps your piece has helped rebalance that, and reminded me that there were places that were as brutal and unsavoury as mine was principled and structured.

    D x

    1. Thank you, Demi, for taking the time to share your immensely valuable insights. You are right that witch hunts can often destroy lives and careers and that we must always, in this country at least, uphold the principle that you are innocent until proved guilty.

      I am sorry to hear of the damage caused to good men and competent teachers, and to the taxpayer, because of hysteria around this subject. The convictions of several teachers at my school have, in a sense, vindicated those of us who knew there was much wrong there. Those who have been caught up but are innocent should be reinstated and reputations salvaged and promoted. One man was indeed investigated a while ago (he's dead now), but the police decided not to prosecute. We suspect their decision would be different today. It's all very difficult, and as I emphasised, the focus purely on sexual misdemeanour skews the investigation. Some truly evil men who were bad teachers will remain forever unpunished because they lie within the law. Some gentle, kind, competent teachers will be jailed for peccadilloes and foibles. I see little real justice either way. Ultimately, the fact remains that we children were not well-treated.

      Sue x

  2. I must admit when I first saw this post, I decided to move on quickly, may be lack of time or other reasons but I did finally come back to reading it - I had too! First, I am really sorry that you had to endure some abuse although as you said, not as bad as other pupils but still dont justify it regardless. It is so wrong but it had been going on through the ages but many many people were either oblivious to it or choose to turn a blind eye. However I think the big difference these days is "communication" and the many many ways that people can use it, in this respect technology has actually played a part in finally bringing this matter / subject out into the open and made people realise they were not on their own. Unfortunately in alot of cases, the abusers are either passed away or time, or lack of evidence has got them off! At least now, that wont be the case and that is some form of progress.

    From a personal point of view, I was never subjected to any sexual / personal abuse at school or otherwise but was subjected to the occasional "pump", "ruler", "cane" and yes even the flying rubber board dusters but never thought twice about it as it was "normal" for this to happen in school! Well if you mis-behave, you expected it. If anything else happened in the school, I was not aware of it or may be naive? As for my "femme" thoughts, they were always kept to myself - it made life so much simpler.

    Anyway, thank you Sue for taking the time to write about your experiences and thoughts on this subject, it obviously was not easy but you done it - no mean achievement to say the least. However, and unfortunately I dont think we as human beings will ever totally eradicate this issue but certainly there should much less of it in the future, surely that is some progress of a sort?

    PS: Deleted previous post due to spelling mistakes, hence repost! Oooops.

    1. Thanks for your comment, honey. This sort of treatment is not normal in schools now, but I assumed it was normal then. But from what I now gather, it wasn't the experience of most people. I am hoping that, although it's now too late for most of my contemporaries who suffered quite badly, this issue being raised will make school life better and more productive for future generations. Sue x

  3. I had started to put being lost for words, but that's not true. The difficulty, is having the right words to say.

    It sounds hellish, not to exaggerate what went on. It sounded like the worst parts of the 70s and if anything good can come of it, would - IMHO - be measures to ensure such things cannot happen again.

    Hope you're okay <3

    1. Thank you, Lynn. You are right, what we want now is for children to learn in a safe environment. What we learn at school is not just stuff like maths and geography but how to interact with others and, when necessary, how to fight. But when there's so much unjustly weighted against you, your outlook becomes skewed. You are kind to ask after me. In all truth, though, I'm not really okay and I and my peers are coming to terms not just with the injustice at the time but the fact that it's taken 30-40 years before our complaints have been taken seriously. Sue x

    2. I'm sorry to hear that, Sue. If you feel like a chat, you know how to get in touch <3 I can only hope you find something good in all of it.
      L x