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Attitudes on Sexual Abuse and Blame
July 18, 2019

Children are not immune to the cultural messages we share about who is to blame when it comes to sexual abuse, shame, and sex trafficking. When we say “she was asking for it,” children are listening.

A large and important part of trafficking prevention involves raising awareness about what trafficking and child sexual abuse and exploitaiton is. We hold regular workshops in the community about trafficking, and our “3-3-5” workshops teach students to identify and protect themselves and others from child abuse. In a recent survey of our students, a majority (59%) said they had attended one of these workshops. Of those who had attended at least one workshop, over 77% said they had attended multiple workshops.

Almost all of our students (90%) agreed that both boys and girls can be victims of sexual abuse, and over 86% could correctly identify situations of child sexual abuse.

However, when we drill down deeper into attitudes and beliefs, some other things emerge.

  • When asked, “If someone my age dresses inappropriately (sexually), or likes to flirt a lot, or engages in sexual behaviour, then if someone forces her, it’s at least partly her fault,” 22% agreed, 18% were neutral, and 3% said they didn’t know.

  • Then, when prompted with the statement, “It’s every person’s responsibility to never dress or act in a way that might lead to sexual abuse,” 69% agreed or even strongly agreed.

  • And when prompted with the statement, “If someone my age engages in sexual acts with someone much older but does it knowingly for money or affection, then it’s not really abuse,” there was a lot more uncertainty. Only 36% disagreed with the statement. Thirty-six percent felt neutral, and 20% said they didn’t know. Thankfully, only a minority agreed. 

Cultural Beliefs about Victim Responsibility and Shame

In most cultures around the world, there is a lot of messaging around the importance of female modesty and how if you dress in a sexy way, then you might be “asking for it.” It may seem like common sense that one wouldn’t want to dress or act in a way that provokes a potential attacker.

However, there are glaring problems with placing guilt and blame on the victim. Sexual assault intrinsically involves guilt and shame. Adding any more makes it that much harder for a victim or survivor to come forward, making it that much more likely the perpetrator will continue to attack others. To send the message that it’s possible to be “asking for it” will lead victims to agonize over what they did wrong instead of being clear about what wrong was done to them. 

In trafficking situations, if it seems like the victim is getting something from the deal, like money or affection, it makes it that much harder for them to see themselves as a victim of trafficking. Children who are doing it to bring money home for their families, or for their own survival, or kids who found solace in the attention of a “friend” they met online, may be especially prone to believing they are making a fully consensual choice. But it’s not a fully consensual choice. They do not see the larger structural problems that are constraining their options, and they’re not fully aware of the power dynamic someone older and who has access to things they need have over them. Paying children for sex is trafficking full stop.

We have to be clear that sexual assault is a crime. We have to be clear that children are not responsible for the actions of adults who ought to know better. 

The alternative, when we leave this unclear, is what this recent article in The Atlantic shows: that women are not believed when they say they are raped, that DNA evidence gets shelved without being tested, that men who rape once often continue to rape and commit other crimes and there is very little difference between the man who commits acquaintance rape and the one who rapes a stranger, investigators sometimes spend more time investigating the victim than the perpetrator, and that only perfect victims have a chance of seeking justice.

Consider the following quotes from the article: 

“Vulnerable people—drug addicts, prostitutes, people living in poor neighborhoods—are the ‘canaries in the coal mine. If you’ve got a serial rapist out there, who does he hit first? He hits the vulnerable people.’”

“At the end of the day, it was: She was there, she was available, she was alone. Those were the criteria.”

“Why would officials decide not to pursue these cases? Campbell and Lovell point to the same factor: law enforcement’s abiding skepticism of women who report being raped.”

“We heard over and over detectives use the term righteous victim,” she told me. A woman who didn’t know her assailant, who fought back, who has a clean record and hadn’t been drinking or offering sex for money or drugs—that woman will be taken seriously. Spohn recalled a typical comment: “‘If I had a righteous victim, I would do all that I could to make sure that the suspect was arrested. But most of my victims don’t look like that.’

Recall that often traffickers lure children by building a relationship and trust with them first. The question that should haunt us is: how many traffickers go free because a child believed the sexual abuse was their own fault?

We continue to work with our students to educate them on consent, trafficking, and exploitation, and we try to guide them to understand abuse. This is the deep work of prevention: attitudes can be slow to change and take time. 

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