This column first appeared in Malta Today
Two headlines this week have perturbed me considerably, not only because of the stories they refer to, but because it points to an alarming inability by some fellow members of the press to comprehend how important it is to report sex abuse stories using the right terminology.
This is not about being ‘politically correct’, which has become a hackneyed phrase, and is often being used with negative connotations, much in the same way we sneer at people for being ‘snowflakes’, i.e. overly sensitive and easily offended.
No, the issue here is that the way certain headlines are phrased, and the choice of language in the reporting, filters down to the public which is all too ready to blame the victims instead of the culprits.
iNewsmalta.com came out with this gem: “Raġel jistenna li jgħaddi ġuri dwar sess ma’ tifla ta’ 11-il sena” (Man expected to stand trial for having sex with 11-year-old girl”).
LovinMalta, not to be outdone, wrote this headline about the same story: “Preteen Rabat Girl Sexually Abused By 31-Year-Old ‘Family Friend’ She Met At A Party”.
An 11-year-old cannot “have sex” with a man because this is not some romance novel we are talking about here. How many times does it need to be emphasised that a minor cannot consent to sex and, without consent, it is statutory rape? When this Government lowered the age of consent from 18 to 16, a decision I strongly disagreed with, I knew that it would only give licence to all sorts of predators to feel that they could get away with abusing children even more. At 16 we are not adults, and although physically our bodies tell us we are ready to have sex, emotionally and psychologically most cannot handle it and it often leads to dysfunctional sexual relationships for life in girls who confuse lust and physical gratification for the need to be loved. One also has to look at the context: if it is two teenagers experimenting with one another for the first time that is one thing, but if the other person in the picture is much older and sexually experienced, then the balance of sexual power is shifted, and it becomes what is known as ‘grooming’. If the other person is not only older but a figure of authority or a trusted friend or relative, the damage it causes is irreparable, and almost irreversible.
The “preteen” referred to in the above headline is an 11-year-old CHILD, and the careless use of the word ‘preteen’ word speaks volumes. The message it conveys is, oh, she was almost a teenager so you know, she was not THAT young really.
But 11 is young, so very young that it makes you want to weep, and anyone who does not think so either does not have their head screwed on straight, or has never had any daughters, sisters, nieces or cousins of that age. It is true that by the age of 11, girls are already yearning to be grown up; some have reached puberty and are already very aware of their looming sexuality. But that period between the ages of 11 to 16, and even up to the age of 18, is the timeframe which is most worrying for parents of girls. Fathers especially start looking at their blossoming daughters with apprehension as they realise that the day is fast approaching when boys will start coming into the picture to take their ‘little girl’ away. The battles of what to wear will soon begin: she will want to look older, while her parents try to keep her looking her own age. Make-up, high heels, nail polish, ‘sexy’ clothes: what woman reading this does not remember all those arguments about when we would be allowed to wear them, marking a rite of passage which is inevitable?
However, for now, they are still little girls, no matter how precocious or mature they might seem to anyone with a perverse, twisted mind. In this case, the 31-year-old family friend took advantage of a situation which was ripe for abuse. Many of the online comments have blamed the mother for allowing the child to visit him unaccompanied, and for the fact that the child had access to social media which allowed him to make contact with her and exchange nude photos. Be that as it may, it is the adult man who is the real guilty party here, and for the life of me I don’t know why it is so much easier to blame everyone than the actual sexual predator. The ones who really bowled me over however, were those who blamed the child, who “should have sensed something was wrong and not gone back.” Oh really now? If they are imagining some sort of Lolita situation, that says a lot about them.
This (convenient) grey area in people’s minds about consent can also be seen in the case of the pedophile priest who was found guilty for sexually abusing a teenage boy, aged 13. The abuse occurred when this boy and another two minors went on retreats with the priest because they had expressed a vocation to enter the priesthood. When he appealed his three year sentence (hardly enough for ruining the boy’s life), the former priest argued that the sexual contact had been consensual. Thankfully, the appeal was not upheld, but to even consider saying something like that in one’s own defence, when as a priest you are a figure of authority whom these young boys looked up to, is beyond despicable. According to the report by Malta Today: “He also argued that corruption of minors must be “examined in a relative context” to the person concerned and not “arbitrarily concluded that a 14 year old… will be corrupted.”
I don’t know about you, but I have no words to express my reaction to this kind of reasoning. Does this grown man, now nearing 50, seriously believe his own argument, or is it his way of salving his own conscience to avoid grasping the magnitude of what he did to the boys entrusted to his care?
Incidentally, it did not go unnoticed that the iNewmalta.com headline treated this story differently because it read, ‘Eks-kappillan ħati li ġiegħel ġuvni jimmasturbah” (Former parish priest forces youth to masturbate him). There is no talk about ‘having sex’, as it did with the 11-year-old girl. Why is there such a difference in the way these two stories were reported? I think newsrooms need to undergo some serious sensitivity training on this issue to re-examine the way they are reporting these stories and what they all understand by the word consent.
When sexual abuse occurs, we need to stop putting the onus of the blame on women and girls, who are the real victims in the story. We also need to have a real conversation about why the automatic reflex reaction is to try to find a justification to exonerate the predators who are the guilty party. Is it because in our mind’s eye, on a subconscious level, the female is still considered to be the wily Eve from the Garden of Eden, who tricked Adam and led them to be both banished from the Garden of Eden? Everything is the woman’s fault, the poor guy just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Incidentally I do not agree with those who claim this is unique to Malta, because in every country where there have been stories of sexual abuse, harassment and even rape, the tendency has been to blame the woman for ‘provoking’ the behaviour (what was she wearing? why was she there alone? why didn’t she just leave?). There is a marked reluctance to empathise with the woman, which is what prevents many victims from speaking out and which has, in turn, led to the #metoo movement, as women who have experienced some form of abuse reached out to each other, ripping down the wall of silence and gaining strength in numbers. And if women face this verbal onslaught from society, one can only imagine what a young girl must feel about speaking up when something like this happens to her.
When it comes to young children who have been exposed to sex, we must also be concerned about what happens next and how this emotional trauma will colour their future.
In her paper, “An overwhelming sense of injustice? An exploration of child sexual abuse in relation to the concept of justice”, L. Green (2006) points out that “…sexually aware children are at risk of being judged as ‘damaged goods’ and no longer in need of protection.”
Another publication, this time by J Pearce, (2013) “A Social Model of Abused Consent. In Critical Perspectives on Child Sexual Exploitation and Related Trafficking”, looks into the way consent can be abused in cases where children and young people appear to be consenting to sex. She introduces the notions of ‘coerced consent’, ‘survival consent’, ‘condoned consent’ and ‘normalised consent’, all of which are relevant to the experiences of children and vulnerable adults experiencing exploitation.
Sexual predators have always existed, and in the case of the notorious Jeffrey Epstein for example, he operated with impunity by procuring underage girls for prostitution, even as he socialised with the rich and famous. But if we do not call these scumbags out for what they are, if jail sentences do not reflect the gravity of the crimes, and if we persist in trying to shift the blame on the young girls, mere children, instead, then we will be failing these victims all over again.