Gary Glitter arrived back in Britain on Friday after serving nearly three years in a Vietnamese jail for sexually abusing two girls, aged 11 and 12. He tried very hard not to return home, but several countries refused to admit him. Instead of continuing his music career in Thailand or Hong Kong, the singer came home to intense media interest and the prospect of ongoing monitoring and surveillance by specialist public protection officers. He faces a wall of hatred and disgust from the public. We are appalled by him, but we cannot ignore him. Gary Glitter won't disappear from the news anytime soon.
Why does this man command so much interest from the general public? In Britain he was one of the most successful pop stars of the 1970s. And, until his conviction for possessing images of child abuse in 1999, his songs continued to be played in Britain – as they still are around the world today in countries that can forget that a child sex offender is singing them. Glitter was the glam rocker that everybody loved.
He was over the top, but not scary, not threatening. He'd been around for so long that we thought we knew him, we thought we were in on the joke. People had taken his songs into their homes and Gary Glitter into their hearts. So, when his crimes became public knowledge, his betrayal felt personal. His excess, once endearing, was now sinister. What we thought we knew hid a monster within. He is every parent's worst nightmare: a strange and odd man who has victimised children around the world. But we didn't know then, and couldn't tell. And it is this that makes us feel vulnerable.
Glitter reminds the public that abusers hide in plain sight. Abusers are most often people whom children know and like, and adults feel happy to leave their children with. They are friends and family: ordinary men with ordinary jobs. His stage persona may be extraordinary, but it is his familiarity that is unsettling. He represents the visible face of our private fears: how can children be protected when we fail to recognise the abusers who live among us?
Glitter, the abuser, was hidden in public affection. Now visible, he has been returned to Britain; he must sign the sex offenders register and make himself subject to monitoring and surveillance, but we can't lock him up (at this point) and we can't make him safe. He is the bogeyman for our times because child sexual abuse is one of the public's biggest fears. As the visible face of a largely hidden population, Glitter represents a target for all the anger and hurt that he and other (hidden) child sexual abusers invoke.
That he generates such strong emotions is both a function of his familiarity to us and, paradoxically, his distance from us. As suggested, his familiarity reminds the public that abusers are often popular, trusted and liked: indistinguishable from other ordinary men (and women) in our lives. This is terrifying, and this is why the public prefers to think that abusers are extraordinary – like a glam rocker: flamboyant, excessive, bizarre and uncommon. But being bizarre did not lead to Glitter's downfall (his collection of child porn was uncovered by chance by a computer repair man at PC World) and child sexual abuse is far from uncommon.
So what can be done to keep children safe? Glitter, like many child sexual abusers, has failed to demonstrate remorse for the sexual offences he has been convicted of, and as such he remains at a "high risk" of reoffending. The implication is that if he is not sorry for what he has done, he is more likely to do it again. This is why there is a need for systems and laws that can monitor the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders and restrict their access to children.
Since the Sex Offenders Act 2003, every convicted sex offender in Britain is registered. Sex offenders can live where they want to in Britain, but are legally bound to inform the police of their address. In addition, child sexual abusers can be made subject to "sexual offences prevention" orders that aim to stop abusers putting themselves in situations in which they can approach children. A "foreign travel" order can also be implemented, compelling offenders to inform the police of any intention to travel abroad and allowing the police to share this information with foreign colleagues. But these orders are seldom used: five were issued between 2004 and 2007.
Any system that aims to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse has to do more than monitor offenders: it must also provide treatment, in the context of wider-scale intervention. Back in Britain, Glitter will have access to a multi-agency team of professionals who will monitor and provide access to treatment services. But while there is some evidence that treatment can be effective, it will only be effective for those abusers who want to change their behaviour – and this is a minority.
It can therefore be argued that increased services for victims of abuse would represent a better use of limited public funds. If children are to be protected from sexual abuse they need a range of services and laws that safeguard their human rights. Too many women and girls around the world live in fear of sexual assault and other acts of violence. Sexual abuse of children is a global problem that requires global solutions.
Local laws need to be strengthened and supported by international treaties. The World Health Organisation has identified a range of priorities that are necessary to underpin safer relationships for children and women. International and local laws have to be implemented that prohibit violence against, and exploitation of, children and women. Victims need safe systems for reporting sexual assault, access to safe housing, and a range of support services thereafter.
Gary Glitter is one abuser who may or may not change. So it might be worth monitoring him, but it might be better to focus work and public funds on the many victims in Britain and throughout the world. Like the two girls in Vietnam, they want change and deserve better lives.
Dr Sam Warner is a consultant clinical psychologist and research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and a specialist in child sexual abuse