Language used about child victims of CSA/CSE
This post was submitted to us by email, anonymously.
There has arguably, never been a time as good as now for victims of sexual abuse to report their experiences and to have them taken seriously. Whilst this is a good thing, there is still a long way to go and the use of language to describe them or their experiences can be a defining factor in how well supported they feel or, more importantly in whether they disclose in the first instance.
A good example of this is the use of the term "child porn" often proliferated in the media. This relates to images or videos of children being abused and when you compare this fact to the general use of the term "porn" to describe adult, legal pornographic material, it is all too evident why someone who has been photographed or filmed whilst they were being abused, may be distressed at having these images described as porn. On other occasions, there have been various alternative terms being used, including "indecent images of children" "documented abuse of children" and many others, all of which are more accurate and understanding than the use of "child porn".
It is encouraging that this debate is beginning to surface in the media. Campaigners such as Sara Payne and Sky Keenan (amongst many) have been very vocal in raising this discussion to a platform where many mainstream commentators are acknowledging the points raised. A number of media outlets are making conscious efforts to avoid the use of the term "child porn", although others are dragging their feet and frustratingly trot out this misnomer at every opportunity.
The use of language though, goes much wider than just the use of the term "child porn".
In the description of the actions of victims through their abuse, many commentators are apportioning responsibility for the abuse on the one person who should take none - the victim. A defence barrister in the Operation Bullfinch trial of girls sexually exploited in Oxford is reported to have asked "Are these just naughty children playing at being adults?" Of course they aren't, but putting responsibility on the victims in this manner will do nothing to encourage victims of sexual violence to disclose.
Another example is that of an investigative journalist who presents as an expert in the field of child protection. During a television programme he created, he reports on the victim identification team at interpol and the need to be able to identify children who are depicted in child abuse images. The purpose of the programme is clearly to emphasise the need for the provision of skilled and specialist services to protect children and pursue offenders. The first of those two points, however, is hugely hampered by the archaic use of language to define the experiences of the victims, being dealt with by the team.
At one point, the reporter speaks of an image that the investigators are dealing with at the time and describes a female child who appears to be around six years old, "performing oral sex on a man". In normal terms, this phrase would be used to describe consensual sexual activity between adults and in no way can be used to describe what was happening to this child. In more accurate terms, this child was being orally raped. She was being abused and the language necessary to describe her experiences should in no way reflect or imply any level of consent or responsibility, which the reporter's use of language does.
Further on in the same feature, the reporter passes comment that the child is being made to "commit offences". This is as inaccurate as it is ludicrous. As the six-year old victim of sexual abuse, it is inconceivable that she could have committed any offences within her victimisation. That resonsibility lies solely with the adults. The wider argument, however is the impact of this misuse of language upon victims.
This is not just an intellectual debate about politically correct language for the 'flavour of the month' issue. We know that there are a number of reasons why victims of abuse do not disclose at the earliest opportunity. One of those reasons is that many victims feel complicit in the abuse they were subjected to, or feel that they are the person who has offended. How difficult would it be for someone to report abuse, if they felt that a consequence of doing so was that they themselves would be in trouble?
Anyone who speaks to, or on behalf of victims of sexual abuse - including media organisations and self-titled experts - has a duty to ensure that the language they use apportions blame where it should rest and does not add to the complexities of guilt, self-blame and fear of reprisals that prevent those people who have been victimised from speaking out about their abuse.
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