Written by Jessica Eaton
I remember knowing what rape myths were before I ever had a label for them.
I remember arguing with people that short skirts didn’t cause rape and that women should be able to go out for a few beers without being blamed for being sexually assaulted. I remember the fury of reading headlines which described the clothing or the personality of a woman as the reason she was murdered and raped. I remember arguing with police that no physical injuries does not mean she made it up. I remember falling out with my oldest friend when she told me that women who stay in abusive relationships want to be abused and stay there because they enjoy it.
I’m talking maybe ten years ago or so. I knew those views were wrong. I knew they were harmful. I knew they were in some way linked to a hatred of women but I didn’t know how yet (ah naïve-little-not-yet-feminist-me).
What I don’t think I was prepared for however, was how rape myths were applied to children. I guess in my head, children weren’t blamed for rape because they were children, and who the bloody hell would blame a child for being raped? I guess I thought rape myths didn’t apply to children, because there would be no myths surrounding the culpability of a child, right?
My learning curve began when I left my jobs in the criminal justice system (rife with victim blaming) and rape centre management (working with women and men who had been blamed for abuse, rape and assaults) and moved into a job in a child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse charity in around 2014.
I very quickly learned that rape myths were definitely being applied to children (mainly girls) – and that in a horrible way, it was much worse to hear these rape myths applied to children than when I had ever heard them applied to adults. Hearing defence lawyers, police, social workers, doctors, therapists and family members utilise rape myths to discredit or challenge someone who had been raped was bad enough for an adult, but I was shocked to hear rape myths being used with children who were not even old enough to consent to sex in our country.
To be clear, a ‘rape myth’ is generally defined as a set of incorrect beliefs about rape, victims of rape and offenders of rape, that are harmful to the victim. Examples of work on rape myths come from authors such as Payne, Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1999) who wrote the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (IRMAS), McMahon and Farmer (2011) who updated and retested the IRMAS recently and Gerger et al. (2013) who developed the Acceptance of Modern Myths About Sexual Aggression (AMMSA) scale. My own work will soon be added to this list in late 2018 and early 2019 as I publish pieces of work from my PhD on the psychology of victim blaming of women and girls.
Rape myths tend to be split into sub-categories (or sub-scales if we are talking in psychometrics) and measure the most common types of rape myths such as ‘she was asking for it’, ‘she enjoyed it’, ‘she lied about it’, ‘it wasn’t a real rape’ and so on. Below, I am going to discuss some of the rape myths actively used against children under the age of consent and children who are under the age of capacity (which should technically result in statutory rape charges with no judgement simply based on being under 13 years old).
Rape myths used against children in CSE
She dresses provocatively and shows too much skin
This one is the top of my list because ‘dresses provocatively’ and ‘sexualised dress’ are actual real risk indicators used by professionals all over the UK to ‘assess’ girls. I have talked and written about CSE risk toolkits not being fit for purpose, as have Brown et al. (2016;2017), but here we are most of the way through 2018 and they are still being used in almost every region of the UK. As part of the risk assessment process, professionals are asked to tick whether they feel the way the child dresses is a factor for why they are being, or may be raped. In the midst of constant arguments over girls’ school uniforms, showing their knees, collarbones and bra colours through their shirts, its pretty clear that female children are being sexualised by us as professionals. The rape myth that men rape women and girls because of what they are wearing has been fiercely fought by womens’ services, rape centres, charities and even Amnesty International (2005) – but it is being used to assess ‘risk’ of children being raped. Why?
She must enjoy it
This comes from my own anecdotal evidence and real case records I have read in the last few years. The one that stands out for me is a case from the midlands of a very young girl who was being sexually exploited and trafficked, in which a female police officer said to me, ‘we asked her repeatedly who was doing this to her and she wouldn’t tell us. In the end I told her that if she wouldn’t tell us who the perpetrators were, she must enjoy it.’ When I bit back and said, ‘maybe she was terrified, or under threat,’ I was looked at like I was confused or a bit naïve. The child we were discussing was under 13 years old and the force were using emotional blackmail to try to get her to disclose the names of the perpetrators. In the same case, the officers attempted to guilt trip the child into disclosing by telling her she would be to blame if other girls were raped by the same perpetrators. Clearly, this is a horrible example, but it is not a one-off. I have asked professionals to leave my classroom before for saying that some girls enjoy being sexually abused. We must begin to consider why professionals feel so comfortable expressing these views in a classroom setting. Where does that confidence come from?
She lies about being raped
Unfortunately, many of you will know this to be true. We know from the serious case reviews, from the research and from listening to victims and survivors from Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby, Birmingham, Coventry and so on. Rather than assuming that children were not coming forward at all, it is important to remember that plenty of children disclosed to professionals but were not believed. It reminds me of one of the worst ‘found notification’ I have ever read in my entire career. I read it in 2015 and I have never seen anything like it. A found notification is a report written up and submitted by police officers when missing persons are found after a period of missing or absence. The child was being sexually exploited and trafficked around a region in the UK and after a few nights missing, the child was found by officers. She disclosed multiple rapes. The found notification written by the officer used the word ‘liar’ and ‘lying’ eleven times, and the officer expressed his view that the child was a ‘compulsive liar’ and that nothing she says should be believed. He even recorded on the found notification that he had advised the parents/carers to ignore any further rape allegations. Yeah. That’s real. 2015. He then signed the report off as ‘NFA’ (no further action) and in the concerns/safeguarding section he put ‘none’.
She brings it upon herself by the way she acts
Many of the rape myths used against adult women are about the way she acts. Was she drinking? Was she flirting? Was she too confident? Was she out with friends? Was she alone? Was she in a taxi? Was she walking somewhere? Too outgoing? Too trusting? Too opinionated? Too challenging? The list is ridiculously endless (I’ve written a huge literature review about this which will be included in my new book).
So how is this used against children in CSE? Well, in exactly the same way actually. Pretty much all of the above have been used against children. One that springs to mind immediately is from a local authority which allowed me to look through their CSE case records for victim blaming language in order to use those real examples to retrain the staff. We found a lot. One such entry was on a very young child’s file who was under 13 years old at the time of entry. She was being sexually abused by male family members and the social worker had written a large paragraph claiming the girl brings the sexual abuse on herself by ‘prancing around wearing high heeled shoes’ and by ‘sitting on the laps of her male family members’. When I was given permission to share this passage with social workers to train them, no one believed it was a real entry. One woman was so upset with me, she accused me of making the entries up for effect and refused to believe any professional would write such a thing. I had to get their manager to confirm that I had taken the records from real files with their assistance and permission.
I also remember an argument which led me to ask a professional to leave my classroom after she put her hand up and announced that any children who lied about their age on Facebook deserved to be raped for lying. I gave her the option to retract or rephrase or explain herself, but she simply said that children who lie about their age on Facebook who are then sexually exploited online or in contact, deserve everything they get for lying in the first place. I asked her again if she was absolutely sure she felt that way. She said yes.
Friends, I’m good but I’m no miracle worker. She was asked to leave.
She didn’t say no clearly enough
This one is subtler. We do see this being used in the courtroom if the child is over 16 years old and the defence can attempt a ‘consent’ argument for their client – but we technically should not see arguments about whether a child said no clearly enough or not, if they are under the legal age of sexual consent. However, when it comes to what is known in CSE as ‘direct work’, many children are prescribed sessions about consent and even programmes entitled ‘Yes means Yes, No means No.’ There is nothing wrong with teaching children about consent. There is however, a fundamental problem with teaching rape and abuse victims about consent after they have recently been raped – their consent was irrelevant.
What I mean by this, is that it wouldn’t have mattered if they said no fifty times, a rapist is a rapist, they don’t stop when someone withdraws consent. Rape is sex without consent. Teaching kids about consent a week after they were raped is a patronising, unethical, insensitive waste of time.
This has links to studies and programmes of an approach called ‘sexual refusal skills’ in which authors suggest that the reason women and girls are raped is because they haven’t developed good enough ‘sexual refusal skills’ to say no to rapists. Yah, I know. Bollocks, innit?
So, as you can see, I have learned over the years that rape myths are certainly being used against children. It doesn’t seem that even being too young to consent to sex can protect you from the misogyny and rape myths rife in our society. It really does come to something where I end up having to ‘facilitate’ arguments between professionals who are debating whether girls wearing belly tops will cause them to be raped. It’s so hard to continue to work in a field in which people are having serious conversations about whether girls are bringing sexual exploitation on themselves due to their personalities, characteristics or behaviours. Its exhausting to have to listen to people claim that 12-year-old girls lie about being trafficked and raped.
We must begin to see CSE through the lens of violence against women and girls. CSE still disproportionately affects girls and is disproportionately perpetrated by men. The rape myths are based in misogynistic views of girls and women and of the objectification of girls’ bodies. We must teach professionals about rape myths and the way they affect our practice, risk assessments, theories, decisions and policymaking. Rape myths are harmful to all victims, but we know the majority of these myths are a stick used to beat women and girls with.
Even children aren’t safe from these harmful messages. If you work in a job where you can challenge rape myths, please do!
Jessica Eaton is an international speaker, researcher and author in the psychology of sexual violence and victim blaming and the founder of her company, VictimFocus which is dedicated to challenging victim blaming and improving practice.
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