Thursday, May 19, 2011

Abstinence, Victim-Blaming & Female Empowerment

So if anyone had any doubts how messed up we are about sexual violence, this was the week to learn otherwise.

Earlier this month, a bill passed through the preliminary stages of parliamentary process to teach abstinence to 13-16 year old girls in UK schools. The bill is unlikely to become law as it was proposed by Nadine “70% Fiction” Dorries who has throw a lot of issues around porn in newsagents, sexy children's clothes and all sorts into the debate about Sex Education. Then on Monday, she gave an interview on daytime TV in which she said
“ of the reasons for [the push for abstinence] is that some of the evidence that I’ve heard is that if a stronger just say no message was given to children in school that there might be an impact on sex abuse. Because a lot of girls, when sex abuse takes place, don’t realise until later that that was a wrong thing to do. [...] Society is so over-sexualised that I don’t think people realise that if we did empower this message into girls, imbued this message in schools, we’d probably have less sex abuse.”
which didn't so much take the biscuit, as gobble a whole packet of ginger nuts. And a box of crackers. And half a dozen custard-creams.

Much of what needs to be said about this was covered by last Monday's post about Slutwalk, except before Monday, Dorries wasn't talking explicitly about rape - although the implication of her proposal to teach abstinence to girls only is that girls are gatekeepers and boys are beasts and so it is up to girls to take responsibility for everything.

Some bloggers have written about their experiences of childhood sexual abuse and how very deeply offensive – and damaging – such comments are. To have a serving politician suggest that there was something these children could have done which they failed to do, to throw discussion of sexual abuse in with girly magazines and masturbation is utterly perverse. This especially in the light of recent major child rape scandals like say, within the Catholic Church, where children undoubtedly talk of nothing but putting condoms on bananas.

It is difficult not to get very very angry with this individual. But I'm sure she didn't really think about what she was saying – she's thrown in so many issues in with her crusade against our over-sexed society that she's probably lost track (I know I have). She also has a history of tackling highly emotive subjects without research and she will probably issue a statement along the lines that what she says in interviews is 70% nonsense (fiction suggests at least a modicum of creative process).

Instead of getting angry (or more angry than I am), I wanted to talk a little about empowerment.

When it comes to child abuse, the single most effective way of protecting any given child is by instilling him or her with confidence and trust in other people. This isn't to say that confident and trusting children will never be harmed, but they are difficult to manipulate and silence and are thus very unattractive to abusers. The same goes for adults. One of the great tragedies for abused children is that they are much more likely to be abused as adults. Similarly, once a woman has experienced rape, she becomes statistically more likely to be raped again. This isn't because abused people take undue risks, but because these people are vulnerable, their self-worth and trust in others is damaged, and such vulnerability is very attractive to abusive people.

Cultural anxiety around sexual behaviour – including sexual abuse – can be damaging to the children it seeks to protect. And this is where a cultural obsession with sex is a problem – but Dorries is part of that problem. Attitudes like hers makes sex into a big bad shameful thing. When you grow up understanding sex to be dark and shameful, it is unsurprising when you have sexual experiences which make you feel unhappy and ashamed. The message that girls are corrupted little temptresses for whom sexual expression is dangerous is a very useful one for abusers. This is one of several reasons why abuse carried on for so long in the Catholic Church; if sex is horrible sinful thing, then children can be made to feel guilty and thus silent and co-operative about anything sexual that happens to them, even when it was utterly against their will.*

Our culture has messed up with this stuff too. The level of anxiety around paedophilia, the amount of scrutiny levelled at adults – especially men – who work with children, as well as things like the “no touch rules” which discourage supervising adults to physically comfort children might not be doing any good. Children who have good relationships with a variety of adults and experience appropriate touch from people other than their parents are going to be quicker to identify relationships and behaviour that don't fit. There's anxiety about a lack of male role models for boys, but I think they are just as important for girls – girls who have good relationships with men growing up will better know what men are like (i.e. they vary a great deal and anyone who mistreats you and excuses himself on the grounds of gender is a problem).

But when it comes to those things that girls do have control over, we need to teach girls that there is much more to them than sex. To use an old feminist concept, Dorries condemns woman to being the Sex Class every bit as much as the padded-bikinis and the sexualised images of women we see everywhere. A girl can either have sex or abstain from sex, and what sort of girl she is, what sort of life she has, depends on that decision. Sex is all about girls and girls are all about sex.

The single greatest thing we can do to help girls and women avoid making bad choices is to empower them in every aspect of their lives. When I was a teenager, the principle difference between those female friends of mine who became sexually active early on and took risks (the two did seem to go together) and those who waited longer and were then very careful was how they saw themselves – it had nothing to do with their knowledge of or interest in or moral ideas about sex.

Some of my friends had ambitions, hobbies and a lot of things going on as well. It wasn't that they were being kept busy or that they were any less hormonal and horny, but the way they saw themselves meant that boys might be lovers and some of these relationships were serious, but none were all-consuming and having a child was utterly unthinkable that side of twenty-five. For some of my friends, boyfriends and the soap opera style intrigues of teenage sexual shenanigans were all that was going on. One such friend said, aged fifteen, “Of course I don't want to get pregnant, but if it happens, it happens.” Poor lass needed something to happen.

Another difference between these girls? Massive social and socio-economic privilege on the part of that first group of girls. Not intelligence or temperament, but big difference in education and thus life prospects. But that's a rather trickier political matter than “Just say no”.

* Obviously part of that scandal was the great number of children and their families who weren't silent but were ignored anyway, but my point still stands. I should also add that I realise that very many Catholics think sex is a wonderful heaven-sent gift.


Catherine Roy said...

Great post. As someone who has been there, I can attest that the victim is indeed usually blamed and relied upon to take responsibility for other's actions. It is disheartening to see we have not come such a long way after all.

Anonymous said...

Wow, just so wow. I almost cannot believe that I am able to read my own thoughts from someone else. Particularly as I've been so diffident about expressing them myself, for fear of being judged as being pro-sexual abuse. I'm completely blown away. Thank you.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you both very much.