I heard Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Childrens’ Commissioner, on the radio on Friday night (Fri 11 Jan, PM at c17:10pm). She was talking about societal attitudes to victims of sexual abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal, and was asked how much society had changed since the era of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Her response was that things had changed but still not yet enough. Which is a fair point. But she gave an example of how it is unacceptable for social workers dealing with teenagers at risk of sexual exploitation to still to be referring to “risky choices” or to them engaging in “prostitution”. Those descriptors implied that such victims were complicit in their own abuse – precisely the attitude that led to victims not being believed in Doncaster. We should talk instead about exploitation, because that is what it is.
Now Berelowitz was talking in a particular context, and was making a valid point about our failure to listen to victims of abuse, our failure to believe them (and Paul Bernal’s recent blog post provides a helpful reminder about how far we still have to go vis a vis listening to and respecting young people). But something about that dichotomy set up by Berelowitz set me musing. Because on the one hand she is bang on that those terms are commonly used in cases involving teenagers (usually girls) whose parents or carers are struggling to keep them safe – exploitation, risky behaviour, prostitution, conduct disorder…. The thing is, they aren’t mutually exclusive, or incompatible descriptions of the same thing – they are different aspects of it. Sexual abuse, violence and exploitation is always an abuse of power, but it is far from homogenous. So for example, whilst many victims of sexual abuse or exploitation may be prevented from coming forward to report their abuse through fear as Berelowitz suggested, many others may fail to come forward because they do not understand their experiences are abusive. They think it is normal. They think they have exercised choice, although how real that choice is open for question.
But on the other hand…Yes, attitudes need to change – but, of all the things that could have been drawn out, why the focus on use of terminology by social workers exercising a child protection rather than a crime prevention function?
I got myself into a discussion on twitter recently about victim blaming in respect of rape. It was a rather wary, uncomfortable experience. In response to discussion about a public education poster campaign focussed upon date rape / stranger rape, I was trying to articulate that whilst a victim is not responsible for being raped, there are nonetheless ways in which an individual can make choices which are more or less likely to result in rape (at least in relation to certain types of rape – so called “stranger rape” which is of course only part of the picture). It’s hard to have those conversations without being accused of victim blaming. It’s a species of Godwin’s Law. The difficulty with the “either or” quality of debate about sexual or domestic violence on adults was brought into sharper focus for me, thinking about the implications of Sue Berelowitz’s criticisms of the use of terms like “risky behaviour”. Life can’t be explained in binary.
Teenage girls at risk of sexual exploitation need protection from predatory males or from criminal elements. But they are also young adults beginning to test out independent decision making, choice, sexuality – and as such they can be hard to protect. These vulnerable women also need to be helped to make good and safe choices – and when working with teenagers acknowledging their own choices and reinforcing their own sense of agency – of control over their lives – is crucial. The purist line that women should be free to live their lives entirely as they want uncurtailed by the threat of male (sexual) violence just doesn’t translate neatly here (if indeed it translates to any aspect of our imperfect society full of imperfect actors). We have to to teach these girls that the choices they make can make a difference to who they become and how they live their lives, give them a sense of agency. It’s not all about the exploiter. Keeping them safe is in large part about teaching them to keep themselves safe – and this is tacitly acknowledged in an adult context through programmes like Freedom that help women break patterns of forming relationships with abusers by educating them to make better choices. Whatever the theory, in practice some teens run away from home, walk out of placements or skip school, engage in all sorts of rebellions – and like every other person under the age of 30 they believe themselves to be invincible.
The objection to the use of the term “prostitution” appears to be that its use insinuates a lifestyle choice or a preference – the prostitute becomes actor not victim, the exploiter is forgotten. But of course the real target is the attitude (identified by Berelowitz as belief that victims are complicit in their abuse), not the term itself. In my experience those working in childrens’ services (if perhaps not always the police) fully understand that teens who are engaged in prostitution, or who are thought to be being groomed for it, are victims of sexual exploitation – but different tropes of sexual exploitation require different approaches by childrens’ services and other agencies, so it is important to be able to differentiate them. Any suggestion that use of the term prostitution is in itself somehow incompatible with proper recognition of abusive or exploitative behaviour can hardly be sustained : it is far from controversial to suggest that even adult sex workers are often exploited, coerced, vulnerable and that some may be forced whilst others exercise something far less than real choice.
So, this discussion about teenage sexual exploitation sort of helps me articulate how I feel about the condemnatory (over)use of the label “victim blaming” usually with respect to adult rape – its like a cosh to the back of the head of nuanced debate. Of course we mustn’t blame the victims of any kind of sexual exploitation or violence – be they teens, adults or children. Because it isn’t their fault – the blame lies entirely with the perpetrator, the holder of power. Who has free will and who has chosen to do this act. But that shouldn’t stymie discussion about these issues from a range of angles.
So. Two questions:
- If we can’t talk to young people about “risky behaviour” aren’t we failing in our responsibility to keep them safe from the perpetrators we abhor but whom we can never entirely eliminate from society?
Language is powerful. Words matter and powerful words can distort. We should be wary when language becomes so politicised that it begins to constrain debate and to limit nuanced understandings of complex matters and to shut down alternative perspectives.
- And if we can only articulate victims as a person bad things are done to, don’t we flatten them into 2 dimensions and tell them their voice, their choices are unimportant?
I see care mums all the time who sit and watch as life throws shit at them. The psychologists describe it as “an external locus of control”. The mums don’t believe they have any power to change their own fate: It’s not my fault. These things just happen to me, because I deserve it… And it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.