Monday, 20 February 2017

Why I left the Boy Scouts

There's a been a lot of talk about abuse in churches. Are they bad places for young people? Well, here's a story that may surprise you. It happened to me. Perhaps it happened to you.

My parents were outdoor types, and wanted me to enjoy the same lifestyle.  So, at an early age I was enrolled firstly in the local Cub Scout pack, and that inevitably led on to my becoming a Boy Scout. You might know the drill - learning how to cook over an open fire, lots of games, an easy discipline,  and learning about self-reliance and teamwork. That's what it promised, and that's what it often delivered. I climbed mountains, went on expeditions and camps, canoed down rivers, embarked on long hikes across the countryside, and even performed in musical shows. This was all well and good. The volunteer leaders were keen and enthusiastic, our parents were impressed, and there was a waiting list for places.

But there was another side to it, a darker element- and it came from the older boys when we went away on camps. Have you ever heard of 'pegging out'? Let me enlighten you. It involved a group of older boys choosing one victim, then fixing him to the ground, stretched out, his arms and legs pinioned by ropes and tent pegs. Once helpless, the victim was publicly stripped part naked, exposing their genitals. These were then smeared with anything to hand. Waste food. Boot polish. Mud. After that, they were left there for a few minutes until finally being released. What larks, eh?
This was a regular practice at every camp, and it was visited on just about everybody. The Scout leaders just let it happen. After all, boys will be boys. The subject was never mentioned in negative terms to the older boys who were patrol leaders, it was never forbidden, and never challenged, except in one case that I can remember.

Once a 'pegging out' took place, a curious psychology occurred. I had my own public humiliation in the back of a truck taking us all home from camp (no pegs, just stronger hands holding me down). Immediately afterwards, I was demanding that somebody else I disliked should get the same treatment. Fortunately, I was ignored. But that, I suspect, is the pattern repeated in so many ways around the world, in different guises. Once the unwanted club membership has been painfully forced on someone, the victim wants to drag others in as well. (Why should they escape if I didn't?) We never told our parents - or if we did, it was probably dismissed as good laddish fun, so stop making a fuss. It's all part of growing up.

In a way, it was similar to circumcision- except that the purpose here was ritual humiliation, not celebration. To be become truly one of 'us' as a Scout, you had to be mildly tortured. Now, 'initiation rites' go back a long way in human history, and there's probably something psychological hidden away inside the rituals, about painfully becoming an adult. But in our Scout troop at that time, 'pegging out' was simply a brief moment of mob rule, a pointless chastising that took pleasure in the embarrassment of others. Looking back now... it stinks. Our leaders should have been protecting us from each other, but most of them didn't. I still don't understand why.

To everyone's surprise, I left the Scouts at the age of 14. Our local church youth group had girls (who I was beginning to find much more interesting), and it was run by caring adults who showed us respect, encouraged us to read, to think, to question what we were told, and to treat others with respect too. In many ways, I was a pretentious seeker-after-truth who made lots of mistakes- but thanks to those people, I learned to see the world differently to most of my peers, and became the first in my family to go to university. That evangelical Anglican Church was good, and it made a positive difference to the lives of hundreds of young people. The Scouts claimed to be doing that, but actually lived by a different ethic.

So when you read newspaper headlines about the past abuse of young people and children in the Christian church, don't forget that this kind of behaviour was widespread. That doesn't make it any better, and of course, the Churches (of all people!) should have taken better steps to stop it. But I'm not sure we can blame any particular philosophies or theologies for encouraging it or making it possible. Abusers will always find an excuse, no matter what their station or situation. I'm sure the Scouting movement's approach to child safeguarding has improved since the 1970s. Perhaps my experience was unusual for its time- but somehow, I doubt it. Looking back, I'm so glad I left when I did.

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