Friday, 9 August 2013

Sexual abuse and gender stereotypes

There has been quite a lot of coverage today about the judge who described a 13 year old girl as a predator. It is a depressing case but the ensuing outcry has at least reassured me that there is a greater understanding today of the complex effects of sexual abuse and a clearer understanding that culpability has to lie with an adult rather than a minor. It is not uncommon for children who have been abused to display sexualised behaviour and I would expect a judge who deals in abuse cases to understand this and exercise caution in the use of his or her language.  I remember a conversation I had over twenty years ago with a survivor of abuse who told me that one of the effects of her abuse was that she would "target" men, not, as she explained, because she particularly wanted them but more because this was all she knew and also because she was "testing" them to see if they would take the opportunity to abuse her.  I think this made her lost and damaged rather than a predator.
Many commentators have expressed an opinion  that the judge's language reflects sexist attitudes, whereas others claim the comments do not reflect misogyny and  if a teenage boy had been sexually provocative with an adult woman would it be misandry to call him predatory? I think this misses the point and I feel that gender stereotypes and expectations do play a part in this case. Firstly, it is  less likely that a teenage boy would be described as predatory (and equally wrong if such language was used about a male victim), secondly  boys who are abused are also often described in ways that reflect gender stereotypes - arguably more so than women are.

When girls are abused, it is not uncommon, although thankfully rarer than it was, for them to be depicted as temptresses leading men astray, or as one judge put it, "no angel." I think this does reflect the idea that women should be moral guardians, that men can't help themselves and that women are more culpable if they are involved in a sexual act that breaks social mores. However, boys and men who are sexual abuse survivors also suffer from terribly damaging stereotypes based on notions about gender. It is not at all uncommon for men who have been abused to be told that they should consider themselves "lucky" because a woman initiated sexual contact and that this was an exciting opportunity. So, some men who come forward about abuse are dismissed, if they are believed, they can then be regarded as "weak" for not having been able to control or prevent the abuse. 

 A man seeking help because they were  abused as a child  will typically describe the same feelings of shame, self loathing, loss of identity, as well as anger and rage which can result in depression, self destructive behaviour and the abuse of drugs and alcohol to blot out pain. As a society, we are not particularly aware of the abuse of  boys, or of the fact that gender stereotypes contribute massively both to the fact that men are much less likely to report or seek help for abuse or to be able to speak about it freely.  Is misandry to believe that men must always be tough, in control and sexually voracious? Well, yes, just as much as it is to believe that women must be either whores or angels and must be sexually inhibited. We will not achieve gender equality until we challenge our stereotypes about men as seriously as we do our stereotypes about women, and until we teach men that it is alright to be vulnerable and that they need not be afraid to be tender.

Fortunately, attitudes to those who have been abused are changing, although this case does make you wonder if we will ever quite get there... A further point I do want to make though is that adult survivors of abuse can face to a range of stereotypes and misapprehensions. People can be suspicious when they find that someone has been subject to sexual abuse and may fear that they will be scarred for life, volatile and unpredictable, manipulative, needy, have broken relationships or mental health problems. All of these are, of course, common effects of childhood abuse, however people are sometimes less aware that survivors, if they have had support and love, can often be very stable, resilient, empathetic, and even display post- traumatic growth - something I have become very interested in recently although it is perhaps the subject of a different blog post.

In short, there is little room for stereotypes or for sentimentality but a great deal of need for sensitivity and common sense when dealing with and talking about this difficult and painful issue.