Blaming child sex abuse victims is shameful

In recent years, media coverage of child sex abuse has been credited with breaking the taboo and encouraging victims to contact police. But too often news reports use language that shifts blame on to the child, perpetuating ways of thinking that normalise and trivialise abuse, argues Deborah Cameron
Blaming The Victims Of Sex Abuse Is Shameful
Deborah Cameron


Blaming child sex abuse victims is shameful

The sexual abuse of children is an endemic problem, affecting an estimated one in six children between the ages of 11 and 17. In 2016, when the annual Crime Survey for England and Wales asked adult respondents about their experiences of abuse in childhood, 11 per cent of women and 3 per cent of men reported that they had been sexually abused by relatives, family friends or adults in positions of trust. Three-quarters of these survivors had told no one.

Media coverage of the issue, which has increased exponentially in recent decades, has been credited with raising public awareness and enabling more children to report abuse. But, while more open discussion of a once-taboo subject is a positive development, the language the media use to discuss it has some serious shortcomings. The sexual abuse of children - especially girls - is persistently represented using language that downplays the gravity of the offence, excuses the perpetrators and blames or shames the victims.

One common problem is the use of words that covertly ascribe adult status to children and adolescents. Earlier this year, when the US financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on charges of child sex-trafficking, some reports described the girls he allegedly exploited as "young women". Almost all of the alleged victims were minors, and some were as young as Courtney Wild, who was still in middle school when she first encountered Epstein ("I was 14," she recalled. "I had braces on"). As the anti-trafficking campaigner Swanee Hunt said: "When I was 14, I was not a woman. When my daughter was in ninth grade she was not a woman. When my granddaughters got braces they were not women."

Language can also obscure the reality of child abuse in less obvious ways. For instance, a recent local news story on the BBC website was headed: "Havant teacher who had sex with four pupils jailed." The common phrase "had sex with" may appear to be a neutral description, but in this context, its implications are not neutral. It is an example of what linguists call a "reciprocal" expression (if A had sex with B, then it is also true that B had sex with A), and as such it suggests a consensual encounter between equals.

That does not fit the facts of the Havant case, in which most of the pupils involved were below the legal age of consent. A 37-year-old teacher who "has sex with" a 13-year-old might more accurately be said to have "abused", "exploited" or "raped" her.

Sometimes media reports confer legitimacy on to abuse by using the language of romantic love. Adult-child relationships are referred to as "affairs" (or, if they're short-lived, "flings"); in cases in which an adult persuaded a child to run away with them, the "couple" may be said to have "eloped".

Another problematic term is "child prostitute" (or "teen prostitute"). According to the definitions used by the UN, the EU and the US, there is no such thing as a "child prostitute"; so-called prostitutes under the age of 18 are legally defined as victims of trafficking or exploitation.

Yet references to children as "prostitutes" remain commonplace in news reports. The BBC used this terminology when reporting on the Charity Commission's investigation of alleged sexual misconduct by Oxfam workers in Haiti. And the term's appearance in that particular story probably wasn't coincidental: the casual adulting of abused and exploited children is most marked when those children are impoverished, non-white and located in the Global South.

'Bunny boiler'

US litigation lawyer Tamar Holoshitz and I analysed the representation of sexual violence in news coverage of the prolonged civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A major focus of this coverage was the mass rape of women and girls, which armed militias used as a tactic for terrorising civilians.

These militias engaged in other forms of sexual violence, including the abduction or forcible enlistment of girls who were then repeatedly raped. But although these girls were both underage and under duress, news reports avoided naming what was done to them as rape. The New York Times described them as being "trained … to provide sex to militiamen", as if they were participating in a job-creation scheme.

There's a clue as to what might be behind this in The New York Times' coverage of reports from young Congolese girls that they had been raped by UN peacekeepers. One such report reads: "In the corner of the tent where she says a soldier forced himself on her, Helen, a frail fifth-grader with big eyes and skinny legs, remembers seeing a blue helmet.

"The United Nations peacekeeper who tore off her clothes had used a cup of milk to lure her close, she said in her high-pitched voice, fidgeting as she spoke. It was her favourite drink, she said, but one her family could rarely afford.

"'I was so happy,' she said. After she gulped it down, the foreign soldier pulled Helen, a 12-year-old, into bed, she said."

Though the description of the girl emphasises her vulnerability, the way her account is presented invites a degree of scepticism. Was she really raped, or was this more like an economic transaction? As the reporter goes on to present other girls' testimonies, always including details of what they were given by the men who allegedly raped them, it becomes evident that these Congolese children are being seen in a way their Western counterparts would never be: less as victims of exploitation, and more as rational actors maximising their assets.

The equivocal language reflects the idea that children in places like the DRC "grow up faster" - a common trope not only in war reporting, but also in the self-justifying accounts offered by sex tourists in Asia or the Caribbean. If the 12-year-old you've bought isn't really a child, then maybe you're not really a child rapist.

The DRC report also illustrates two more general patterns in the reporting of child abuse. One is the use of words and phrases implying seduction rather than coercion. The UN peacekeeper is said to have "pulled Helen … into bed". "Pull" suggests urgency but not force, while phrases that include "bed" (such as "go to bed with") often function as euphemisms for consensual sex.

The second pattern relates to the linguistic attribution of agency. It is common for language to be used in a way that emphasises the agency of the girl while downplaying or denying that of the man. Later in the DRC report, the writer discusses the young Congolese girls who "spend time with" (a euphemism for "get paid for sex by") UN soldiers. These girls, he reports, are "actively looking for foreign boyfriends".

This emphasis on the agency of girls is also a feature of many British press reports. When a 36-year-old teacher appeared in court following a relationship with a 17-year-old pupil, the Evening Standard used the headline "Schoolgirl who had affair with married teacher 'acted like a bunny boiler'". This focuses attention on the actions of the girl, giving the impression that she was the initiator of the "affair".

The report goes on to quote the teacher's claim that she prevented him from ending the relationship by threatening to ruin his career ("bunny boiler" is a reference to the character played by Glenn Close in the film Fatal Attraction). Though it was the teacher who was on trial, this language presented him as the victim, entrapped and then blackmailed by a predatory and vengeful teenager.

The question here is not whether adolescent girls ever make sexual advances to adult men - sometimes, clearly, they do - but why it should be assumed that whatever happens next must be the girl's responsibility.

In 2015, the judge in another case, against a 44-year-old teacher who had sex in a school storeroom with a 16-year-old pupil, said the teacher had been "led on by an intelligent and manipulative girl", adding: "If anything, she groomed you."

The Lolita effect

Such overtly victim-blaming comments are almost invariably made about girls. While boys may also be abused, it is rarely suggested that they manipulated or provoked their abusers. Partly this is because of the assumption that the men who abuse boys are homosexual, whereas the boys themselves in most cases are not.

But it also reflects more general beliefs about "normal" masculinity and femininity. Whereas boys are thought of as awkward and immature, girls are seen as naturally precocious, flirtatious and manipulative, using their feminine charms (and later, their sexuality) to attract and gain power over men. These stereotypes explain why abusers of girls are so often able to convince the courts that they were not fully responsible for their actions.

Not all victims are treated as blameworthy. The media makes exceptions for very young children, for those who are murdered by their abuser and for those victimised by "deviant" individuals of the type the tabloids call "beasts", "monsters", "perverts" or "paedos".

But this perpetrator-blaming language is not unproblematic either. For one thing, it tends to give the impression that most crimes against children are committed by serial predators like Jimmy Savile, when in reality such prolific offenders account for only a tiny fraction of reported cases. The great majority of abusers are ordinary: hard-working dads, married teachers, men who are regarded as pillars of their communities.

Calling perpetrators "monsters" or "perverts" is a way of making them other, and so denying that they have anything in common with the rest of us. That, however, is a convenient fiction. Child abusers, like the rest of us, are products of the society they belong to. They may express it in ways we consider unacceptable, but their view of children is one many "normal" people share, because it is deeply embedded in our culture.

Consider, for instance, the status our culture gives to the archetypal figure of the sexually precocious and provocative girl-child. She is ubiquitous in art, literature and mainstream popular entertainment. Think of Nabokov's Lolita, of Jodie Foster in the film Taxi Driver, of Britney Spears in school uniform singing "Hit me, baby, one more time".

Outside the realms of fiction, think of the pre-teen wearing sexy lingerie, the five-year-old contestant in a beauty pageant, the infant whose parents have dressed her in a pink babygro emblazoned with the words "Little Flirt". In these everyday forms, the sexualisation of girls is seen as harmless, even cute. But what message does it send, both to adults and to the girls themselves? Is it not essentially the same one we hear from every abuser who has ever maintained in court that his seven-year-old victim flirted with him?

When the media use words that turn children into adults and their exploitation into something more benign, like a romantic love affair or a mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services, their reporting becomes part of the problem. Whether they mean to or not, they are perpetuating ways of thinking that both normalise and trivialise abuse. If they want to be part of the solution, they need to think harder about their language, and do better.

Deborah Cameron is a feminist linguist and Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Worcester College, Oxford

This article originally appeared in the 30 August 2019 issue under the headline "Blaming child sex abuse victims is shameful"

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