Risky Behaviour, blame and consequences

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.


5 thoughts on “Risky Behaviour, blame and consequences

  1. inflagratedilecto

    A very insightful and thought provoking piece.

    As someone who has undertaken a great deal of direct work with some of the most vulnerable children in society, I know how hard it is to convince young people about risky behaviour.

    Some of those children genuinely don’t care what happens to them, it’s just another manifestation of their place in society, in an unbroken line of ill treatment and abuse by adults.

    And this is where the opportunities to change risky behaviour fails….because largely these children have lost all faith in adults, the specific abuse has become generalised to all adults…we are all potential abusers. This is one of the reasons why children and young people in care test their carers to the limit and beyond….they need to know that the adults they are testing will do them no harm, no matter what.

    That abuse in childhood, infects and distorts the psyche is indisputable, and it seems to me that risky sexual behaviour is part of that continuum.

    I share Ms Berelowitz’ anger at the language of social workers who should know better, but this pales into insignificance when we examine the failures of professional services to care for and protect children, who need additional resources and exemplary people to work with them.

    It strikes me that Ms Berelowitz aims for easy targets, when she should be looking at service failure for these children….the failure of services that has been going on for over 40 years of modern social work…with no end in sight….In the late 1980’s I predicted that we would have children living on the street like they did in Brazil and other 3rd world countries.

    This prediction was met with disbelief by many professionals at the time, who relied on our socio-legal framework as their defence, that it could never happen here….well we now do have some feral street children who are living on the streets today and our socio-legal framework is slowly but surely being dismantled, from the provision of appropriate socio-legal representation at the point of coming into care, to the failure of leaving care services for those who manage to survive their care experiences, and all points in between.

    Ms Berelowitz has a lot to learn, and if she does she will not be all that concerned about inappropriate use of language, by a few bad social workers. Maybe, just maybe, she might develop and harness the righteous anger that should accompany the iatrogenic harm that is omni-present in some children’s lives.

  2. The Slutwakers’ slogan, more or less is “blame the roper for the rope” Where are we that we have to downplay a girl’s harsh experience?

  3. The point is that in vilifying social workers for using the term “risky choices”, we disempower victims of childhood exploitation further, by painting them as entirely passive, when they might be able to make choices that reduce the harm they are exposed to. These choices can range from using contraception to choosing not to enter into a relationship with a known sex offender. Part of the transition from victim to survivor is identifying positive behaviour and changing behaviour. In Rochester, it was the choice to give evidence against the perpetrators that led to their conviction.

    Obviously there are circumstances where it is not appropriate to talk about choices – for instance a child abused in the home by a family member has in reality no choice at all.

  4. Look, it’s all about two entirely separate concepts which some have wrongly conflated – risk and responsibility.

    If I leave my house without locking my door, I make it statistically more likely that I will be burgled. I have undertaken risky behaviour and someone may reasonably say to me, Jonathan, that wasn’t a sensible thing to do. And that, of course is true. However, when a burglar or sneak thief takes advantage of my absent mindedness, they bear the whole of the moral and criminal responsibility for the crime. I bear none. I should be able to leave my door unlocked without fear of theft. Realistically, given society as it is, I can’t but that doesn’t leave me with any responsibility for what another does.

    Likewise for anyone, child or adult, in the context of sexual offending. Certain behaviour may well lead to an increased risk of being the subject of sexual assault. That behaviour is unwise and can be described as such. A prudent person would advise another to avoid that behaviour. However, that behaviour does not bring the the victim the least scintilla of moral or legal responsibility for the crime inflicted on them, nor should it.

    The mistake we make is to presume that engaging in risky behaviour has a morally reprehensible dimension on a par with the criminal – in fact it doesn’t. We ought to be able to discuss risk without being seen as criticising the victim.

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