Between July 1963 and October 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley sexually assaulted and killed five young people between the ages of 10 and 17, and buried four of their victims on Saddleworth Moor in the South Pennines. At the time of the trial in April and May 1966, only three of the murders – those of Lesley Ann Downey, 10, John Kilbride, 12, and Edward Evans, 17 – were known. Further disclosure came when Brady confessed to two more murders, those of Pauline Reade, 16, and Keith Bennett, 12, in 1985. Bennett’s body has never been found.
A contemporary audience attuned to recent discourses of paedophilia and child sexual abuse might be surprised by the way that media groups represented the Moors murders. Press coverage of sexual crime in mid-1960s Britain was heavily coloured by allusions, euphemisms and displacements. Reports emphasized satanic, sadistic and homosexual elements of the narrative, which stood in for direct discussion of sexual crimes committed against children.
There has been a tendency in historical work to argue that the sexual abuse of children was ‘discovered’ in Britain (as well other countries) in the mid-late 1970s. Such arguments point towards both an increased awareness of the prevalence of abuse following feminist campaigning and qualitative research in that era, but also to the widespread use of terms like ‘paedophile’. However, if we step away from the current-day linguistic lens of paedophilia, it is possible to see that narratives of abuse have existed throughout the twentieth century but have taken on different forms during different moments. I explore here some examples of the forms of language used by the press, before locating these within a wider story of changing representations of child sexual abuse.
While contemporary reaction to the Moors crimes was extensive, the absence of the words ‘paedophile’ or ‘paedophilia’ in media reporting is notable and reflects the fact that the press and law enforcement only began to deploy these terms in the mid-1970s, after the Moors murders. The reporting on the Moors murders spotlights a process wherein the press and the general public developed a language with which to describe child sexual abuse. Much of the coverage suggests that reporters believed the case was incomprehensible to the general public. In order to make it legible, numerous articles gave Ian Brady and Myra Hindley psychological profiles. Brady, they explained, was cruel to cats and suspected by neighbours of decapitating four rabbits near his home at the age of nine. He was also obsessed with Nazism. Peers from school remembered Hindley for her manly features, for swearing regularly, and for her illicit nights out. Such traits pointed to the murderers’ childhoods in an attempt to find evidence that they had been born and raised improperly.
Dovetailing with this psychological profiling was the press’s deployment of demonic language and imagery. Examples include one News of the World tabloid article that detailed Brady’s ‘red and shifty’ eyes, as well as a ‘more than breathless’, ‘choking’ silence in the courtroom. Other pieces described the criminals in Gothic or diabolical terms, or focused on Brady’s reading materials and interest in Hitler and Comte de Sade. This emphasis on demonic themes and the unknown reappeared in the 1980s during press-fuelled panics around satanic ritual sexual abuse of children in the United States and the United Kingdom. Media writing on the Moors murderers from the 1960s laid the groundwork for later coverage of paedophilic cases, where the paedophile is often portrayed as a monster.
But also striking in the reporting of the Moors murders and the court proceedings was the lack of direct engagement with the elements of abuse itself. For example, when the prosecutor laid out the charges at Brady and Hindley’s hearing in December 1965, he instructed the female judge not to look at pornographic pictures of one of the child victims. The pictures had been found amongst Brady’s possessions and had been taken by him shortly before he murdered the girl. The prosecutor’s comments suggest an inability to face and engage with the details of the case. We also glimpse a reactionary element to a British court system trying to keep supposed nastiness away from the female eye. This finding echoes other contemporary cases, most notably the Wolfenden Committee on homosexuality and prostitution, where women made up only three of the fifteen-strong panel.
In the representations of the Moors murders, we have access to prominent examples of ways in which the media constructed narratives around child sexual crime in 1960s Britain. One potential response to these representations is that they reveal an absence of the languages of paedophilia and child sexual abuse. This absence appears to signal an inability – whether wilful or not – to directly engage with the sexual nature of the crimes. But such a conclusion reads these depictions anachronistically, expecting our contemporary language and terms such as ‘paedophile’ to be present in the recent past. There is a more nuanced position, which is that there were indeed ways of talking about child sexual abuse and crime that prefigured but also were different from current-day frameworks.
We must also consider that contemporary conversations about child sexual abuse have at their centre a profound relationship between past and present. Lawyers, legislatures and reporters are currently trying to address revelations about an epidemic of sexual violence in Britain’s recent past. The prevailing motif in contemporary conversations is that the past has been hidden and victims have always been silent and invisible. What the news coverage of the Moors murders reveals is not historical silences but sexual and linguistic codes. Currently, many survivors of sexual abuse are also engaging in acts of translation, using contemporary language to describe and make meaning of past sexual violence. While shame, stigma, and an unwillingness to listen no doubt hid from public view many acts of sexual violence, such framing passes over the ways (and spaces in which) victims, the press, and legislatures discussed and disclosed sexual violence. Framing the relationship between past and present as the difference between known and unknown, knowledge and ignorance, implicit and explicit erases the complex ways in which the state, the press and survivors spoke about sexual violence and how these conversations were processed.
Nick Basannavar is a PhD candidate in History at Birkbeck, University of London and has taught on Birkbeck’s British History undergraduate module. His research documents and historicises representations of child sexual abuse in postwar Britain. Nick also focuses on the philosophy of history, in particular the challenges historians face in crafting representations from subjective source bases and their own socio-cultural values and contexts.
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