The wrong kind of victim | Victoria Smith

When I was twelve years old, I knew two girls who were being sexually abused. We were in an adolescent care unit at the time. I said nothing unsure, as you are at that age, whether there was something about what I had witnessed that I had misunderstood. 

One of the girls told me she liked it; I felt gauche and confused, and not a little worried that expressing doubt would make me look “posh”. It was only as an adult, decades too late, that I reported what happened to yet another inquiry bent on establishing that the past was another country. 

Except none of it, from what I recall, felt very different to now. One of the things that stays with me — and bothers me more and more, the older my own children have become — is the narratives the adults around us constructed to justify what they, too, knew was happening. 

The girls were “difficult” adolescents; that was why they were in the unit. Underage sex was the kind of thing “those girls” — traumatised girls, as I now see it — would engage in, because they were so angry, so loud, so greedy for affection. 

“We don’t police the young people,” is a phrase I remember from that time, uttered smugly, as though it indicated a superior, more sophisticated moral awareness. Now what I hear in it is, “we don’t lower ourselves to intervene”.

This was the late 1980s. Since then I have lived through one great reckoning of child sexual exploitation after another: the Catholic Church, Jimmy Savile, Rotherham, Oxford, Telford, Rochdale. This week has seen the release of a report into sexual exploitation in Oldham, criticising the conduct of Greater Manchester Police and Oldham council. 

Many liberal people feel disgust towards child victims of sexual abuse

The report comes at a time when discussions of victimhood and trauma dominate academic, political and feminist spheres. One would hope this signals an end to how girls such as those mentioned in the Oldham report have been slipping under the radar. 

I am not so sure. Today, the same as four decades ago, I think we struggle to find a space for the victims whose stories appear too dark, or too marginal, or too damn inconvenient, to serve our own political purposes. There’s a brief moment of light, then darkness again. Child sexual abuse goes back to being political football; its real-life victims rarely gain centre stage in today’s trauma narratives. 

For a long time, I’ve wondered at the casual way in which those who claim to be most concerned about trauma pick up, then drop, child sexual abuse as a concern. Its status, compared to the sexual trauma experienced by adult women, a constant concern, is unusual. 

I sense, at heart, that many of the most liberal people do feel a degree of disgust, or discomfort, or antagonism towards child or teenage victims of sexual abuse. There is an urge to deny, cover up or project blame that is greater than in the case of older victims.

Just as I found when I was a child, young girls are positioned as “difficult”, with the symptoms of their trauma used as evidence that they cannot be trusted, or that they were willing participants all along. In relation to mainstream feminism, their very vulnerability makes them troublesome to a political agenda that restricts itself to championing consent and denouncing stigma. 

There’s no space in this for the weakest and the most desperate. The most marginalised girls pose too much of a challenge to the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of the great god Agency.

The idea that “abuse rings” even exist is seen, if not as completely fantastical, then certainly as an uncool subject of discussion. As Louise Perry writes in The Case against the Sexual Revolution, “there is something about paedophilia anxiety that is currently considered rather low status among the liberal elites […] Jimmy Savile abusing up to a thousand children on BBC premises would sound like a conspiracy theory if we didn’t know it to be true, just as Jeffrey Epstein supplying underage girls to famous and powerful men sounds like particularly bizarre fiction”.

That we now accept the importance of what happened in Oldham — and in Rotherham, Oxford, Telford and Rochdale — should not be used to suggest we are undergoing some significant transformation in our thinking. All too often, the recognition that some child sexual abuse exists somewhere becomes an excuse to pretend that if there were more of it, we’d know by now. It becomes an excuse to not bother looking. 

Today, when I express concerns about child safeguarding, “why do you even care?” has become the response that replaces “we don’t police the young people”. The implication is that I am prurient and judgmental, the posh prude that twelve-year-old me always feared becoming. I am othering individuals who, for all I know, want what is being done to them. This is a bad thing to do, until the point at which it isn’t (usually this point arrives when a suitable “blame the system” version of events has been constructed).

For those with the greatest need for protection, I sense a pincer movement. On the right, there is the trivialisation of trauma itself; on the left, the dismissal of child safeguarding as a needless moral panic, with sneery “won’t somebody please think of the children?” memes serving as the response to anyone who objects. 

Some feminism categorises trauma victims on their narrative usefulness

On both sides, there are actual abusers. Overlaying it, a culture that finds the abused child, the “damaged” girl, simply distasteful. Her trauma pisses on everyone else’s party. 

The attitudes that led a twelve-year-old girl to be raped multiple times after having visited a police station that same evening, persist not just in police forces themselves, but in how we talk about sex, trauma, coercion and vulnerability. 

That there are feminists who are willing to validate the trauma of Oldham victims, but baulk at the accounts of prostitution survivors such as Rachel Moran, is a problem. So too is the idea that Prince Andrew deserves ostracism, but a man visiting a seventeen-year-old student engaged in “survival sex work” must not be stigmatised. This is a feminism that categorises trauma victims depending on their narrative usefulness, not their actual needs. 

“It is very tempting,” writes Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery, “to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing […] The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain.”

Feminism has long complained about the need to dispense with the idea of “perfect victims”: victims who don’t get drunk, don’t wear short skirts, don’t sleep around. More troublesome are the inconvenient victims: victims who call into question your own priorities and solutions. 

It is not enough to support victims only when it is non-disruptive to your own political beliefs. It is not enough to wait for abuse to happen before deciding that in that case — and that case only — some safeguarding might have been a good idea. It is not enough to assess victim testimonies before deciding how useful someone else’s pain may or may not be to your cause. 

Stephen Watson, chief constable of Greater Manchester police, has accepted that there has been “a misplaced tendency, at least in the minds of some, to put first the organisational reputation”. I think this tendency lurks in all of us, whatever structures and beliefs we are defending. Victims of abuse are not our political tools. Their stories should be the ones that shape ours. 

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