Victim Blaming, Language & The Media
The evidence given at the Old Bailey in the latest child sex abuse ring trial was so horrific that some reporters on the Press benches estimated they were able to report only around 15 per cent of it in any detail. The case was not unique.
Beyond the sheer brutality of the physical abuse, one of the worst aspects of what the victims suffered was way they were made to feel that they deserved it. They were made to feel that they were complicit in the abuse and that they were to blame for it. In at least one case, the victim was still calling her abuser her “boyfriend” until shockingly late in the timeline of her abuse.
It now emerges that the approach of some newspapers to another child sexual abuse case ignored this issue altogether. The newspaper which commissioned and ran an interview with a girl who claimed to have groomed her teacher after he was jailed for sexually abusing her as a child ignored one of the central features of child sexual abuse: the victim is habitually made to believe that they consented or even asked for what happened to them. The age of consent exists to protect them from that.
It may not strictly be victim blaming in its most blatant sense, but it is at best failing to protect the victim from the psychological attack they have come under, at worst helping to compound it and remove its fear factor in others' eyes.
The job of a reporter is to bring stories like those of the six victims in Oxford trial, and in many others, to the public’s attention in a clear, concise, and often unavoidably shocking way. That is in the hope that society will be so appalled that the crimes will be eradicated.
That said, one of the most important aspects of the culture which allows these shocking crimes to be perpetrated is the willingness of so many people to believe almost anything other than the complaints of the victims. England’s Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz has said that some councils still believe children can work as prostitutes as a “lifestyle choice”.
It is the responsibility of newspapers to avoid the danger of inadvertently reporting cases of child abuse in a way which allows the culture of victim blaming to fester.
The issue is something close to the hearts of the Independent and Independent on Sunday and conversations with the editors of both papers show they are working hard to make sure it does not creep in to the pages of either. Lisa Markwell, editor of the latter, tells the story of pulling a headline recently which had the phrase ‘child porn’ in it.
In the debate which erupted on Twitter, around a report I wrote, the accusation was that phrases such as ‘child prostitute’, and ‘child sex gang’ normalise sexual abuse and blame the victim of it. Those arguments have some merit. But in those two specific cases, they can nevertheless be useful phrases.
Firstly, their very illegality is contained within the term because they are specifically defined in law. There can be no question of either being acceptable because the whole concept of consent to both is non-existent. That is clear in the text. Frankly, if someone cannot spot the uncomfortable nature of a phrase which mixes the words 'sex' and 'child', then we really do have problems.
The Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the sale of children said that the terms ‘child prostitution’ and ‘child pornography’ “do not adequately express a child’s experience of force, exploitation”. How can that be true when their inherent illegality is indicated by the word ‘child’?
The phrase ‘sex gang’, however, leaves the possibility of consent. For the avoidance of any doubt, I would prefer to use ‘sex abuse gang’, if the term is accurate at all. The term ‘rape’ is even stronger but refers only to the specific crime of rape, where sexual assaults may also have taken place.
The very idea that a child can be working as a prostitute or sexualised by a person or a gang is incongruous to me. It is a natural juxtaposition which jars and makes the reader uncomfortable. The reader’s disgust is what the writer seeks. Reading about CSE should never be confortable; if it is, I have failed.
If a reader bumps into too many long-winded or overly complicated phrases, they are more likely to stop reading. And a writer can publish 1,000 of the most brilliantly illuminating words, 800 of which are no use to anyone if the reader drifts away after 200.
Secondly quite apart from any semantic issue, there is the legal use. Reporters are inevitably bound by certain restrictions on what they can say when writing about events in court; the main restriction usually being the Contempt of Court laws. A gross divergence from legal reporting could prejudice and potentially derail a whole trial. No one wants that. Therefore, they tend to stick to things they have absolute privilege over, like quoting evidence heard by the jury and referring to defendants as “an alleged <whatever the wording of the charge on the indictment is>”. It is almost always better to stick to wording used before the jury to avoid the risk of prejudice proceedings. If a reporter uses the phrase 'child prostitution' in a court report, it is almost certainly because that is the wording of the charges being tried by the jury.
People who have not experienced sexual abuse find it difficult to understand the concept and what it does to a victim. But they can both empathise and sympathise. Unwittingly blaming the victim is is something I agonise over every time I write about the subject.
The sexual abuse of anyone is something the world needs to rid itself of. Each person can play their role in doing that. I see mine as accurately and concisely reporting its realities so that people will fully understand its evil.
One of the worst circumstances of that is that the first person to be hurt is the victim. It is one more twist of the knife. The victim is abused. The victim, many of whom I have heard testify as to their misplaced shame at their own abuse, is asked to recount the trauma to police, then to a packed courtroom. Then their abuse is replayed in the newspapers and on the television.
An investigation into the examination of victims has been ordered and we must be agreed that anythin which makes it easier to prosecute abusers must be a good thing. Tragically, the weight is bound to fall most heavily on the shoulders of those who deserve it least: the victims. Let’s not burden them any further by also making them complicit in their own abuse.