While feminists have sadly become all-too-used to the victim-blaming and shaming enacted upon women who are brave enough to speak out about sexual assault, the extension of this tactic to sexually abused children represents a new low point in our culture's unwillingness to blame the perpetrators of sexual violence. Following on from the horrendous attempts to blame an 11 year-old for her own gang rape, some of those by supposedly respectable media outlets, a report on child sexual exploitation in the UK has uncovered horrendous attitudes towards the victims, from both carers and police.
The Times today reports that "girls aged from 13 to 15, groomed and used for sex by men, are viewed as making a 'lifestyle choice'". These are terrifying words, but are sadly reflective of beliefs held by far too many in a culture which holds, at best, utterly confused views on women and sexuality, and at worst, dangerous beliefs that uphold a rape culture. It's not that great a leap, in a nation where a survey found 1/3 of respondents considered flirting or 'sexy clothing' as making a woman partially responsible for being raped, from blaming women to blaming children. Especially female children.
This is not to detract from the male children who suffer abuse and exploitation. But the way in which girls are still held responsible for the abuse that happens to them is peculiar to their sex. Male victims of abuse are not likely to be "dismissed as promiscuous "slags"", as the Times report their female counterparts are. I can't think of any cases of male sexual abuse I have read where a boy is described as having 'consented' to sex with an older male, or where this is cited as a mitigating factor in defending the abuser. I can't think of any cases where a boy's clothing, behaviour or previous sexual behaviour is used as justification for an adult man having sex with him. But if even the New York Times is happy to report on child rape as if it is something an 11 year-old girl can 'consent' to, then there's clearly a serious asymmetry in the way we treat the abuse of girls.
And that's because society still just doesn't know how to deal with women and sex. Society is totally unwilling to award women any sexual agency unless it is to blame us for bringing sexual assault upon ourselves. Women aren't expected to like or want sex on any terms except those entirely dedicated to pleasing men, and any woman who is a sexual being in her own right is viewed with suspicion. As soon as sexual violence comes into the picture though, suddenly the script flips. She knew what she was doing. She wanted it. She chose to wear that dress. The rapist's behaviour is still far too regularly absent from our culture's examination of rape - why else do newspapers always report rape in the passive voice - 'A woman was raped' - rather than putting the perpetrator in the picture and telling us the truth, that 'A man raped a woman'?
And now our treatment of adult women is coming back to bite our children as well, as vulnerable girls - many of them victims of multiple abuses - are treated as complicit in their own abuse by the very employees of the state paid to protect them. They are dismissed as "white trash" (a police officer's description of a victim), as deserving of abuse, and if they have already been victimised, they are too often labelled damaged goods deserving of further exploitation. This is the shame of a society that still cannot accept who is truly responsible for sexual violence - men who continue to go largely unpunished - and is a failing for which everyone who has ever espoused a rape myth holds responsibility.