Do you remember what it was like when you were 15?
A raging ball of hormones who thought periods were the worst things ever, who loved your parents but found them awfully embarrassing too, who had a taste in music that you deny now and who really really thought you knew everything to do with boys, but were really so emotionally stupid that you still probably don’t admit how stupid you were even now? Just the thought of 15-year-old me makes me want to curl up in a ball of sheer embarrassment at just how embarrassed I was.
The last few days have made me really worry that there’s a very troubling disconnect in the minds of us “grown-ups” about how we think 15-year-old girls are, and what the reality of being 15 is.
When we hear the moral panic talk about the sexualisation of young girls, we see headlines about pole dancing kits and padded bras. But there’s something else going on with that debate that doesn’t make the headlines. And that’s how we, as adults, sexualise teenage girls by refusing to believe that they are anything other than victims of sexualisation. We are so caught up in this panic (and, don’t get me wrong, there is reason to panic), that we have stopped believing that 15-year-old girls today are like the 15-year-old girls we were. And yet, likely as not, they are. Sure, different cultural references and god knows they are under different pressures to act sexual, to be sexual, before they feel ready for it, but really they are still, more often than not, the hormone-raging, embarrassed, naïve children that we were. We forget that, I think.
One of the things I find frustrating about the mainstream, non-feminist sexualisation debate is how we don’t separate out teenagers’ very natural and normal sexual curiosity, and sexualisation. The former is part of growing up, and might be fulfilled by bad snogs, fumbles or consensual sex with a partner. There isn’t anything wrong with teenagers having pleasurable, mutual consensual sexual activity. But there is something very wrong with the pressure on girls to be sexual all the time, the sexualisation of girls. Because that isn’t about want, or desire, or pleasure. I talk at length about this here - about silent bodies and the disconnect between embodied and performed sexuality. It all too often leads to abuse, rape and exploitation. The problem is that the idea of sexualisation of young women has meant that we forget to separate out the two, and so when we see a young woman in trouble, being forced into sexual situations she doesn’t want to be in, we shrug and think that’s just what teens do. In Emilia di Girolamo’s Law andOrder UK episode ‘Line Up’ she captures this perfectly, when the judge and defence lawyer accept that a gang rape is just how teens have sex in today’s modern world. We think they’re different from us. We treat them like aliens. And we don’t hear the cries for help.
In the Guardian today, they revealed the extent to which the police and social services failed the girls who were victims of the Rochdale gang. Girls like the 15-year-old, known to Social Services as Suzie. She was repeatedly raped by the gang for years, drugged and exploited by adult men. And when she and girls like her asked for help, they were ignored. They were disbelieved. In the end, looking for help seemed hopeless because no-one listened to the stories of these girls. They were called chaotic and unreliable and were blamed for this – as if a child who has been so horrifically abused might not feel and act troubled.
The CPS chose to dismiss the case, believing the girl to be unreliable. No-one acted on the 83 NHS referrals about girls they worried were being sexually exploited between 2004-2010. No-one acted on the 44 referrals the Crisis Intervention Team made to the police in the same period. These girls were judged to be “making their own choices” and “engaging in consensual sexual activity” when they were being repeatedly raped.
Making their own choices?
Or, as Oborne put it on Question Time, ‘sold their innocence for a bag of crisps’.
As I say, I believe that our society has become so overwhelmed by the idea that teen girls are sexualised with padded bras, that we’re ignoring what can happen when children are sexualised – abuse. We believe the panic, and process it to believe that this is what teen girls do, this is what they’re like. We decide that it’s their choice, and ignore the glaring obvious exploitation because that would mean focusing our attention on who is actually to blame.
This terrible human tragedy has been a classic case of victim blaming that has ignored the role the men played in grooming and exploiting very young women. Girls of 13, 14, 15. Children. Instead, services blamed the girls, shrugged at their ‘choices’ and let the abuse continue. It took four years between the initial report, and the girls actually being listened to. How many rapes in that time? How many lives ruined?
Blame is one aspect. Not believing is the other.
And not believing, not acting on the words of girls, is part of another case this week. The police, the school, even Michael Gove were warned about the 30-year-old maths teacher Jeremy Forrest. They were starting to act, but too late. Now he’s in France with a 15-year-old girl. Another 15-year-old that too many media commentators are blaming, are saying ‘made a choice’ – as if the adult is not responsible for his behaviour and a fifteen year old girl is.
The media doesn’t help of course. They call these abusive crimes ‘affairs’ and ‘relationships’ to cover the fact that they’re adult men choosing to sexually exploit a child. This builds a blame culture where a child is seen as being as responsible as the man – that it’s really mutual, really consensual, that despite being a child she has the same maturity as an adult man, sexually and emotionally.
By focusing all our attention on the girls’ behaviour in these cases, and across so many other cases of child sexual exploitation, we ignore the role their abusers play. And that’s rape culture, right? It’s the culture where it’s easier to blame a child for their rape, than to acknowledge that there are men who rape.
If as a society we believed women, if we truly and honestly and really believed women and girls when they say they have been raped and abused, then these cases would have been resolved when they should have been. At least four years earlier in the case of Rochdale. Before Forrest reached France in that case.
And for as long as our society refuses to believe women and girls, then men who choose to rape will continue to choose to rape.
Because we will have let them.
Rape Crisis Number: 0808 802 9999
Rape Crisis Number: 0808 802 9999