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.


  1. There are several points concerning the barrister’s and judge’s comments in the recent trail that raise real issues about the worldview of people in very powerful positions in our society.

    Woman/girls in particular are singled out as a locus of contagion and moral blight. It is almost 20 years on since the ‘Age of Consent’ debates, when the age of consent for homosexual sex was lowered from 21 to 18 and then to 16. I would argue that the different ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual sex is clear evidence that this belief men need to be protected more than women has been an ongoing part of our culture.

    Men are seen as victims, women as tempters. Eddie Shah has now come out as saying that teenage girls under 16 should be seen as taking part of the blame in an underage sex or rape case, as ‘obviously’ they have led the man on...

    My answer to this is to ask why we don’t see under 18s on the jury? Clearly we believe young people under the age of 18 do not have the ability to make informed judgements about right and wrong in the same way as someone 18 and over. Yet here is Mr Shah saying teenage girls (and as you rightly note it is always girls who are singled out) are culpable if they have sex with an older man.

    A few years ago I was staying with some friends of mine – their oldest son was at the time 14 years old. It just so happened the pair of us attempted to push through a door way at the same time and the boy push himself up against me in a manner that could be seen as provocative. I presumed this was just some clumsy, ambiguous attempt at initiating a sexual advance. I ignored him and toddled on – yes as someone on the wrong side of 40 it was rather flattering to be the object of a teen boy’s affections, but I also knew the boy was just on a testosterone fuelled sortie into unknown territory, I did not for one minute think the boy was (to borrow from Quentin Crisp) a coot-queer – merely a Kinsey-queer, so I sought to protect him rather than take advantage. Moreover I like my men big and butch and whatever, I would not betray the trust placed in me by my friends and my partner.

    Similarly my partner and I were en route home from the Proms last summer when a group of teenage boys came and sat in our carriage on the train – they were clearly under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis (tho’ not excessively so). They got chatting to us – obviously aware we were a same-sex couple – they were nice lads, a bit boisterous, but not offensively so. My partner and I knew that at least two of their number were very interested in experimenting sexually as they made some very leading remarks (no doubt skunk and booze lessening their inhibitions). Again, we chose to protect them from themselves and ignored their gawky attempts at seduction.

    I am sure as a teacher you have had similar maladroit attempts at passes from students. Young people can be manipulated and can be manipulative. Yet this is not an excuse for adults to abuse them. Any responsible adult has to also take responsibility for their own actions and to protect younger people. And of course anyone who has spent time with even quite small children knows they can be sexually inappropriate at times. As adults we protect them and guide them in how they use their relationships and their bodies – we don’t take advantage of them for our own selfish ends.

    The fact certain elements within our judiciary and legal system (not to mention celebs) can’t see this says something rather nasty about their worldview and their view of young people and children and young women and girls in particular. It is a sad state of affairs that hopefully, now it has come to light, will result in some form of redress.


  2. Excellent post. Thank you.
    The despair I felt when I heard of this Judge's assessment of female/child 'culpability' and collusion in their own sexual abuse, was deep and intense.
    I worked for almost 10 years in child protection law - taking cases to court; preparing witnesses for the misogyny and the attacks that would take place. I was lucky that the judges I dealt with were largely insightful and sensitive (though there were moments...). If there were problems it was very often with the attitude or tactics of defence agents who would question the character and conduct of the child victim.
    It's a fact that attitudes take a very long time to change.

    1. Hi Mujerlibre (other reply is for P.D) and thank you for your contribution, it is interesting to hear about your experience of this area. Attitudes do take a long time to change. I hope it is happening!

  3. I've just read the comments by Shah, again pretty depressing as it doesn't matter what someone under the age of consent *does*- they are still under the age of consent. I've personally never known a small child act in a sexually inappropriate way - I don't count naive comments about anatomy or curious questions as inappropriate. I've known primary school teachers who have known very young children who did display sexualised behaviour- such children have usually been abused. Of course, one of our biggest taboos is around children who abuse other children. Again the abusing child has often (but not always) been abused. Those abused by other children also face real problems being taken seriously and of course the fact the abuser is a child has to be factored in to the way the situation is dealt with. The whole area of teen behaviour is a very difficult and complex one, for example whether and to what extent teens should be prosecuted for "sexting" - see link below.

  4. This case has been appalling, and the same judge has been involved in the review - he should have been replaced. When a barrister claims a 13-year-old girl 'forced' an adult male to have sex with her, and the judge sees nothing wrong with that claim, there's more than ignorance at work there. It's at best, a wilful blindness. Makes me think the judge and barrister might warrant some investigation.

    Many years ago a respected vicar assured me that teenage girls 'ought to be able to try their wings' sexually. It seemed an odd comment, coming from an otherwise conservative churchman. He has just been convicted of attempting to rape those same girls (among other offences).

    And yesterday a woman told me that as a teenager she had been a witness in the prosecution of a man who had raped a schoolgirl friend. In that trial the judge had intervened in what he considered to have been unjustifiably harsh cross-examination. Even so, the case left an indelible mark on both her and her friend.

    It seems the prosecution are duty bound to disclose any factors that might help the defence, so in effect they are not there for the victim. In that case someone ought to be there as the victim's advocate. In the case we're discussing, the girl was not represented at all since the assailant pleaded guilty; everyone else has been free to attack her character and she has had no one to represent her, and no right of reply. What does that do to someone...?

    The system has got to be changed.

    Iffy Vicar