THE LOG BOOKS
Season 3 Episode 3 - “Not an easy call at all”
Presenters: Tash Walker, Adam Zmith
Contributors: 1 (Richard Desmond), 2 (Elaine), 4 (Lisa Power), 5 (Monty Moncrieff), 6 (Anne), 7 (Oliver)
Producers: Shivani Dave, Tash Walker, Adam Zmith
Music: Tom Foskett-Barnes
Artwork: Natalie Doto
AZ: This episode contains stories of paedophilia, rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, suicide and archaic language around transgender identities.
Log book reader 1: This is a log book entry from 26th January 2001.
‘Long call from 35 year old in Manchester who regularly attends group sex parties. Recently two 13 year olds have been attending parties and he has had regular sex with both. Rang up to justify his actions went through power abuse angle and legal angle, but refused to accept either difficult caller. Look out for him.’
AZ: Wow, you can really see that the volunteer listened and tried to speak, but that sounds like a really tough call.
TW: Yeah, you never know who you're going to speak to when you pick up the phone as a volunteer at Switchboard. You have to adapt. You have to take calls from people who you might not feel comfortable with, or on a topic that's really very difficult.
AZ: You're listening to The Log Books, stories from Britain's LGBTQ+ history and conversations about being queer today, in partnership with Switchboard the LGBT+ helpline.
TW: In this season, we're reading through the notes made by the volunteers who took calls between 1992 and 2003. I'm Tash Walker.
AZ: And I'm Adam Zmith.
TW: Episode three, "Not an easy call at all"
AZ: When we were looking through the log books, we found a lot of calls in every decade, but especially the 1990s, that are clearly about paedophilia, sexual abuse and harms done to young people. Unfortunately, we have to talk about it.
TW: Using log book entries as usual to illustrate the theme, we're focusing on the experience of volunteers taking these difficult calls. So in this episode, we're hearing from those Switchboard volunteers. So just a reminder, Switchboard volunteers are non judgmental. They're trained in how to really listen, just as this volunteer did.
Log book reader 2: This is a log book entry from April 30th 1998 at 9:15 in the evening.
‘Guy from the South West, 30, says he's called before but not about this. He’s having strong sexual desires, fantasies, about his 11 year old nephew. This only happens when dressed in certain clothes. Worried that he may do something with him, but aware of the consequences. Lives on his own, seems quite a loner. Suggested clubs, bars, social groups, pen pals, etc. He says he'll call again, at least he's talking to someone.’
Richard Desmond: When we were handling calls about abuse, the constructive summary is a really powerful tool. It is saying for the caller they've been heard, but it is repeating back what they've said.
So you're saying to the caller, ‘And you said you would do this to a child?’ And they say to you ‘Yay or nay’. In this in this century we have referrals we can use, at that point there weren't. It inevitably was referrals to counselling organisations and we're always both anonymous and confidential.
It is our role to talk to people about whatever they need to tell us and if we are talking to perpetrators. How our role is to listen and to make sure they know they've been heard and we know exactly what they're doing and we’re not in favour of it. But we can't judge, we can't say that. What we can say, is what they've said and we tell them they can call back.
Because we don't know, a lot of the time what we get is fantasy. If we could stop the fantasy becoming a reality by pointing out that he's talking about hurting children.
I said ‘he’ but that's generally who phones us, then we would have made a difference. It would have helped. But it's something that I would talk to volunteer support about. I would talk to other Switchboard volunteers about it if it happened.
Log book reader 3: This is a call from April 1999.
‘Just had a paedophile call, a guy abusing his friends, eight and ten year old sons. Talks to him about the children's feelings, the law and gave him the Tavistock number. Possible he may call back, seems genuine and upset. I found the call very difficult and it was my first call on shift. He said it had gone too far and he wanted to stop. Another volunteer has written a note saying, I spoke to him last Thursday and he said he'd raped one of the boys then hung up. I felt too distressed to make a note of the time and I went home. And that's from a woman volunteer.’
Contributor 2 (Elaine): I thought back to times when I was on an adult helpline.
Hello, my name is Elaine and I'm 76 years old, not that I'm boasting. And yes, I'm very privileged to have this opportunity to have some of my views put forward in this wonderfully progressing world. Someone would phone in with a problem which we would define as, a problem with being a paedophile or having paedophile thoughts, not necessarily acting on them. And how difficult it is for people that have that sort of problem to deal with. That it does take a lot of understanding and acceptance, to just imagine what it must be like and how we can help those people to not offend not to safeguard children, but also to realise that that person is a human being with a very difficult situation to deal with. I think there is maybe a little bit more help around but I don't think that there is as much help as it should be out there for people that don't want to offend, that have these feelings, don't know where to speak to and quite honestly have a lot of suicide thoughts that go along with it.
Contributor 3 (Judith Skinner): The issue of paedophilia I think, is a very difficult one and and I think and hope that we all have different approaches to that now than perhaps we did in the early nineties.
My name is Judith Skinner. I was a volunteer at Switchboard from 1990 to 2001. After I joined Switchboard, I never heard anybody say that it was okay for 48 year olds to be having sex with 12 year olds. And that's you know, that wasn't the issue with the age of consent, I absolutely supported the lowering of the age of consent to 18. And personally, I think, you know, 16 year olds can certainly consent to sex. But I think there are issues with huge age gaps and there is a power imbalance, which also needs to be thought about.
TW:Thinking about how Switchboard handles these sorts of calls today, we have a lot of practices around safeguarding and if a caller gives us enough information, we have a responsibility to tell them that we will report that information,, not always necessarily to the police, but maybe to a local authority. But if they don't provide us with enough information, we're there to just listen.
AZ: And that practice has developed in Switchboard over years, right, because of expertise and institutional knowledge. So we're going to hand over to Lisa Power now who can speak more on how Switchboard handled and continues to handle this difficult subject.
Contributor 4 (Lisa Power): We had a rather nuanced position, which was that there were differences between genuinely consensual relationships, which breached the age of consent, and relationships where the older person was in a position of authority or power or influence over the younger person.
Now, of course, some might argue that any old person is in a position of influence over a younger person, but we did, I remember us getting calls from teachers who had crushes on pupils, youth leaders who had started a relationship with somebody who was coming to their youth club, those kinds of things and I can remember being quite firm with them, that this was not sensible or healthy and that they were going to get into trouble over it if they weren't very, very careful.
But also, if you talk to the young person in that situation, you had to be supportive and sympathetic around the fact that, you know, they were gay and of course, all of us felt they had a perfect right to express their sexuality, but the law was the law. There was that thing of, you know, not only could the older person get into trouble, but the younger person too, you know, they were criminalised as well.
The problem that we had for many years in the queer movement - and there's a hangover today of not understanding how things were in the seventies, eighties and nineties - is that homosexuality and paedophilia were equally illegal and homosexuality had been equated with paedophilia for many years.
The two weren't distinguished between in the eyes of people who hated us, at all. And therefore, you now see newspaper reports about how an MP for example had given the home office a list of paedophiles, it's claimed now, and actually, you know that given that MPs homophobia at the time, actually, what they probably handed over was a list of suspected homosexuals, but it's been turned into, because it will have been mixed in with paedophiles, it's been turned into something that is still hated today.
Whereas, it would have been much more resisted by all of us then. That's why you also get a long wrangle, where paedophiles were part of the same activist movement as LGBT people. And, you know, NAMBLA, and PIE, and Fallen Angels were all organisations which came to and tried to become part of the LGBT movement during the seventies, eighties and it all got disentangled in the nineties effectively.
TW: Just to interject here for a second the organization's Lisa's referring to NAMBLA, stands for North American Man Boy Love Association.
AZ: And PIE stands for Paedophile Information Exchange and she also mentioned Fallen Angels, so these are three paedophile networks.
Log book reader 4: This is a log book entry from January 12th 2002.
"Took a very heavy call from a 30 year old guy whose boyfriend had found a load of child porn on his computer, the caller started talking about his own fantasies with young boys, and then completely broke down. And it transpired that he had been abused sexually when he was aged from four to 14. Caller is very emotional, his boyfriend is trying to help him through it. They've tried survivor's, but they're not open until Monday caller or his boyfriend may call back. Lots of tears, lots of guilt, lots of shame, and suicidal thoughts. Not an easy call at all."
TW: Not an easy call at all. It's just a caller reaching out for help and the volunteer listening. You know people like this, they reach out because they recognise their behaviours are bad and they want to change.
AZ: Yeah, and I think that most people don't think about callers like this as being unwell or as struggling with this. They think of them just as evil and we have to remember Lisa's point from earlier about the history and this idea of homosexuals and paedophiles both being evil and seen as equal. You know, that's where this idea comes from.
TW: I think there's something here around the recognition of humanity. And as Switchboard’s work so often shows, the problem impacts not just the person calling but those around them and of course, any individual who is harmed as with this next log book entry.
Log book reader 5: This is a log book entry from 6th January 1994.
"Night Shift. Very long call from a boy in Dundee. Same as previous call on 22nd December, except he was 14, 15 instead of 18. I actually believe he was 14. I spoke to him for nearly two hours and got a lot of rather horrendous detail about abuse from his brother and other men that his brother brings home. I think I remember having spoken to him before. He was very drunk. His brother more or less forced his booze on him. I believe every word he says, I can't really go into detail, because I promised him that I would make no record of what he said. But he is a lovely, intelligent, sweet guy. And it was possibly the most harrowing call I've taken yet with a lot of issues involved. Be nice to him. He needs love."
Contributor 5 (Monty Moncrieff): This is a log book entry from 26th October 2002.
“Call via Get Connected. 15 year old male, school found out he was gay and inform parents who are fundamental Christians, and now verbally abusing him and making him feel suicidal. Many issues in the call the lack of access to support lack of resources, money etc. to contact services. School very unsupportive citing Section 28 as a barrier to tackling the abuse.”
Contributor 5 (Monty Moncrieff): That is a hard log book entry to read back. It's an entry I made and I remember that call very, very clearly.
Hi, I'm Monty Moncrieff. I was a volunteer at Switchboard between 1996 and 2005 and I remember feeling quite helpless at the time because the caller had so little of their own agency. They had so little access to support because of the resources that they had, but also because of their age and the fact that at that age, you would need parental consent. Anything referred through to social services even and those circumstances just felt really helpless. I'm quite moved reading that back actually. I guess one of the things of Switchboard is you so rarely know what happened to somebody after that event and you just hope that things turned out better for that caller than they felt at the time. Gosh, it's really quite profound.
TW: Monty took that phone call all those years ago and when he put the phone down he didn't know what happened next and he still doesn't know, all these years later reading that back. It reminds me a lot of what's been happening over the last year at Switchboard and the calls that we've been taking over the lockdown period where people are still being kicked out, being kicked out for living with family members who don't accept them for who they are kicked out under lockdown. I don't know. It just makes me think how much has actually changed? How much do we still need to push against and the calls that we've seen to Switchboard over the last year just demonstrate that
AZ: The thing about this type of call and behaviour is that it's always happened. Switchboard's taken calls like this for decades, coming in waves up and down and we still don't know whether that's to do with more courage or ability to report or better language or something else. And we covered some of this in Season Two, Episode 9, "No reason whatsoever to doubt."
TW: It's such a difficult problem, to know exactly how to address it, but we do know that Switchboard is always there to listen to those difficult calls, as in this log book entry.
Log book reader 6: This is a log book entry from February 26 1994.
"TS called Rachel rang tonight very distressed, was gang raped and is too embarrassed to go to police or anyone in authority. Met through a contact add, someone who seemed really nice and it went wrong. I encouraged her to ring again, she will need lots of support."
Log book reader 7: This is a log book entry from December 30 1993.
"Just had a call from a 17 year old who has left home after sexual abuse from his father. He's now in a hospital and had to ring off because he's not allowed to use the phone. He says he'll ring back later on."
Contributor 6 (Anne): I think the difficult calls are interesting because they tend to be much longer and so in some ways, they're very satisfying.
I'm Anne, I was a volunteer at Switchboard from 1997 to 2012 and I'm 68. I would say that one of the things that I realised late on in my time at Switchboard is that they'd had a big effect on me as well. They'd made me more politically aware, more socially aware and sometimes quite angry about how people were treated, because inevitably we would get calls from people who had mental health issues, had physical health issues, were really struggling with legal issues as well.
And that was the time when a lot of funding was being cut back towards, I would say, 2006, 2007, 2008. And that was really difficult because there was no one nowhere to send anyone. I mean, previously, at the start of my time at Switchboard we'd had London Lesbian and Gay centre, people could go there, there were lots more support services. That was cut back during that late period of the Labour government and the new Conservative government, that had a really big impact on a lot of our callers.
AZ: The log book entries only run to 2003 but Anne moving us forward in what she just said, going into the austerity period after the economic crisis of 2007, 2008 when public services really started to be cut by government.
TW: Yeah, I remember joining Switchboard a couple of years later in 2011 and the treasurer standing up at a general meeting and saying we have one or two years left to run on the reserves that we had, because we had had such a big cut in funding from the government.
Wow. It's an ongoing struggle that so many organisations and charities have or that we have in society to how do we take care of people going through these difficult things still being impacted by the shifting tides of the economy and politics. But, 10 years later Switchboard is still here we have managed to survive, we are surviving and we are continuing to apply our fantastic training to our amazing volunteers.
AZ: So we wanted to hear from one of them today. Oliver, who takes calls on his Switchboard shifts, and reflects here on handling the difficult ones.
Contributor 7 (Oliver): My name is Oliver, I'm a listening volunteer at Switchboard. I've been with switchboard for two years. I take phone calls and I do instant messaging and emails. Sometimes calls feel sad because someone wants something from you that you can't give them and they normally know that you can't give it to them but they're really in need. And they're phoning you because they don't have anyone else to ask and it feels it feels hard to, it feels like you're letting people down even if it's not your job to find them housing or help with their finances or whatever.
The training at Switchboard is really thorough and we talk a lot in training about how to deal with all kinds of calls. The training takes account of the main fears that people are going to have which are dealing with difficult calls. I think we all probably come in imagining that the the easy calls the 'Ehere can I go to meet people?' or, 'I'm struggling with my relationship' or 'I'm not out at work' or whatever. Those things feel probably quite accessible to most of us, but people are less and less confident about dealing with the harder things. If people are really angry, if they're just treating you like a phone sex line, if they're in pain. I think the training gives you a lot of confidence in dealing with those things. It's not the same, I suppose it's it's almost like driving, you don't really learn to drive until you've passed your test and you're out on your own doing it, but the training gives you a really good grounding, and you've always got the listening skills to fall back on.
So you don't feel like you're really ever lost in a in a conversation with a caller. It's a really initial fear that people have when they volunteer for a helpline. They know that people phone helplines when they're feeling suicidal, and they don't know how they will deal with that. Because it's one thing to have training in it and it's another to actually talk to someone who's in that much pain. I think we have really thorough training in Switchboard around that and personally I've felt really, it sounds strange to say, I feel good about talking to people in that situation. I feel privileged to be with someone when they're in that much pain. I think if people are phoning when they're suicidal, then they want some company, some people want to be want to have their mind changed, or they want someone to tell them not to do it. But most suicidal callers I've had just want somebody to be on the end of a phone and as soon as you realise that, the fear goes away, because you realise that it's not your job to stop someone hurting themselves but it's your job to be with them while they do whatever's right for them. I guess at the at the other end of that is people who phone up and they're really angry. They're often angry about things which aren't us, but they want to express that anger to us. Sometimes they're angry with us, because we've become a symbol of things which don't help them or which hurt them. And those can be really hard to deal with. Because as a volunteer, you're there because you want to help and you want to feel good about your contribution. That can really undermine that sense of being helpful, If somebody's unpleasant to you on the phone.
I've just remembered the most difficult call that I ever had, which was while I was training and it was a mum of a trans child who didn't want to accept that the child was trans and didn't really believe that that was a thing and thought that the child was, had been just hanging around with the wrong people and had caught these feelings from YouTube or whatever and that was really difficult to deal with. But the way that I dealt with it was by was by engaging with what she was saying and acknowledging her fears. And I didn't, it was really comforting to think that I didn't have to, I didn't have to change her mind and that she was phoning us. Like, she phoned us she didn't phone Samaritans or whatever, she phoned an LGBT helpline, so she must have she must have wanted to understand in some way. And I was really glad that I spoke to her.
I was really glad that I spoke to her.
At Switchboard one of the one of the core requirements or, or practices is that you try and keep yourself out of the call, because the person you're talking to is what the conversation is about and t can be derailing to bring your own personal experience into it. And sometimes that's quite difficult because some callers are very curious about who you are and they want to know more about you. But in this particular situation she didn't know that I was a trans person. I don't know if she even knew that she would definitely get through to an LGBT person. She didn't know that I was a trans person, so she felt safe to say all the things to me that she might feel uncomfortable saying to someone she knew was trans. And while that is difficult to deal with, I feel really good about the fact that that I could be the person who heard those rather than somebody else. Because I have the training and the skills to deal with that and to respond to that and to engage with her fears, on the level that she was that she was feeling them. So, there are lots of ways, getting challenging calls is part of Switchboard's life, so everyone is quite used to them and there are always people that you can talk to about them.
When we're in the phone room, often there are other volunteers there, so you can like have a little debrief and make a cup of tea and chat about it. Over COVID and still, now when a lot of things are remote, we've got a Slack channel, which people use to talk about what's going on in their shifts or technical issues or all sorts of stuff. And we have what we call 'The Sisters' who are volunteers who are on shift are on call to to support you if you have any needs during your shift after your shift. So if you get a call, you can phone them or text them or email them immediately after you've got a call or later that day or the next day. They're sort of like a safety net, I think, if you have complicated feelings about any Switchboard experiences you have as a listening volunteer. They're there and they sort of they use the skills that we that we've all learned as listening volunteers to help us work through those feelings.
[piano and string music]
TW: This was difficult and heavy. So Adam what’s next?
AW: Well a bit of a change in tone Tash because we also found loads of logbooks entries that are about television in the nineties so that’s going to be the next episode.
TW: Calls to Switchboard are confidential, so to bring The Log Books to life we’ve changed callers’ details.
AZ: The Log Books is produced by Shivani Dave, Tash Walker, and Adam Zmith, in partnership with Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline. And supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
TW: If you think other people would like The Log Books, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. These ratings and reviews really help others to discover the show. You can send us your feedback and stories to email@example.com, or join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #TheLogBooks.
AZ: Our music is by Tom Foskett-Barnes, and our artwork is by Natalie Doto.
TW: Thanks to…
AZ: Stef Dickers, and the team at the Bishopsgate Institute. The folks at Acast, Content is Queen, David Pye, the staff and volunteers at Switchboard, and everyone who shared their stories with us.
TW: Switchboard continues to take phone calls from 10 am to 10 pm, every day. If you’re affected by any of the issues in this podcast, or need to discuss anything to do with gender identity or sexuality, you can call Switchboard on 0300 330 0630, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or instant message via switchboard.lgbt, where you can also donate money, or time, to help.