Cultures of Denial: What we Must Learn from the Exposure of Jimmy Savile


The several decades worth of pedophilia by TV celebrity Jimmy Savile revealed by ITV’s ‘Exposure’ constitutes a national tragedy. These moments must be recognised as opportunities for feminists to demonstrate the ways in which patriarchy works to cultivate cultures of denial. In the wake of this week’s ITV documentary, a thorough reflection on the social practices that allow children to be raped is necessary. 

One of the things that is so astonishing about the Savile ‘news’ is that so many people were not surprised. For this reason, the rapes and sexual assaults by Savile are even more culturally significant than the horrific sexual acts on the dozens of actual girls and the boys involved. What the BBC did by making Savile a celebrity was to legitimize sexual predatory behaviour and create a culture that perceived this kind of behaviour as inconsequential. 

Those who are lucky enough not to ever have been vulnerable to sexually violent behaviour might not recognize Savile’s attitude and behaviour as perverted and sexually aggressive. Certainly those with power in the media and political scenes who gave Savile his exalted position simply saw this kind of male bravado as humourous. Violent sexuality is not funny for its victims.

The explicit exposure of Savile’s pedophilia throws a revealing light on the entire media infrastructure that not only tolerates but celebrates and glorifies depraved behaviour. How many other children will abused because of the cultural values reproduced by Savile’s sexually predatory persona? The social practices that celebrate and protect ‘powerful’ men who commit these crimes may seem like a thing of the past now – only because we are looking at a historical case.

Girls and women (less often but sometime boys and men) who complain or attempt to make the ways in which denial functions in our society explicit are silenced. One girl on the ITV Savile documentary was locked away in a room on her own for several days as punishment for complaining when she was assaulted by Savile. 

This silencing is also performed by a social consensus on what are appropriate topics for discussion. Silencing reinforced a blanket refusal to engage in creating social practices that will break cultures of denial. I have to say this is my experience this week.  


The Savile case is a classic example of the ways in which denial functions in society to reproduce patriarchy – but ecofeminists analysis also draws a link to our relations to nature. People reading this blog will likely be at least vaguely sympathetic to this analysis, but it is only rarely that mainstream society recognises that issues of rape and sex violence are so contentious that victims are often dismissed (just like the problems with the natural world are dismissed). Ecofeminists argue that patriarchy is intertwined with the dismissal of ecological relations, what we see as a root cause of the ecological crisis. Those people and parts of nature that humankind can exploit and abuse are exploited and abused – whilst cultures of denial keep these dynamics carefully hidden. Historical moments such as this (i.e. the exposure of a celebrated pedophile) are potentially political and culturally significant: shocks that pierce the illusions of propriety. 


For more on ‘cultures of denial’ read Chapter Nine of my PhD: ‘Strategies and Denial of Ecological Self’ (which I will publish tomorrow along with a second blog post).

Top photograph of Jimmy Savile by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

5 thoughts on “Cultures of Denial: What we Must Learn from the Exposure of Jimmy Savile

  1. What’s interesting is that excavation of Saville’s crimes doesn’t include taking a look at what members of the hipster canon: David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Peel etc were doing in the 70s. Check out the photos of the ‘groupie’ children here: It seems it’s easier to put this down to the sexual revolution/ free love libertinism than call it child abuse. Hm.

  2. Yes certainly the swinging 70s seems to have broken many traditions, including traditions that protected children! It is worth looking at some of the other cases, but I am more interested in how these issues are investigated (or not) in the present tense. I mean, if we are now a culture ready to properly deal with pedophilia this evidence could have emerged before Savile died, so he could have been made to face justice. What other things are we not dealing with as a culture? How much a a shock does it take to make us start accepting some of the unpleasant realities that we prefer to deny?

  3. Pingback: Confronting Despair in an Age of Denial + Righteous Anger | EcoLabs

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