The impact of words on child abuse survivors
Eric Bristow is a former darts world champion and sports broadcaster who recently posted a number of inflammatory and wholly inappropriate comments on his Twitter account about the recent stories regarding child abuse within football, stating that darts players were “tough guys” and that footballers were “wimps”, seemingly blaming survivors for not being able to disclose their abuse earlier and also conflating paedophiles with homosexuals.
He has since been fired by Sky as a sports pundit and he has subsequently apologised for his comments.
The attitude displayed by Mr Bristow and others like him and the words with which he chose to express his views contribute significantly, in my opinion, to survivors feeling unable to disclose the abuse they have suffered.
In my view, the phrases below are particularly damaging to child abuse survivors:
- Historic child abuse
- Child sex
- Child porn
Historic child abuse
This is a phrase that has always frustrated me as you never see the media referring to ‘historic murders’ or ‘historic robberies’.
It is a term that insinuates abuse took place in the past but things are different now, things have moved on. This is wrong and ignores the fact that abuse has far-reaching consequences, regardless of when it happened. A survivor may no longer be suffering directly at the hands of their abuser but they continue to be affected by the consequences of the abuse on a daily basis and it can affect the decisions they make as to how they live their life.
The phrase has a negative influence on survivors by making them feel that they are raising an issue that is “historic” and therefore no longer of relevance, or something that should no longer have an effect on them. The abuse may have taken place when they were children but many survivors continue to feel the impact of the abuse in their adult lives and the term “historic” is therefore a wholly inappropriate way to define these abhorrent crimes.
Child abuse is “child abuse”, regardless of when it happened.
I think the media has failed to appreciate the true significance of the phrase “child sex” when they are discussing adults who have had sexual intercourse with children.
Children cannot legally agree to engage in having sex with someone as they are below the legal age of consent. The age of consent exists for a reason – to protect vulnerable members of our society who have not yet developed the emotional or physical maturity to engage in sexual relationships. Child abuse survivors are often assaulted by adults who are in a position of authority, power and trust in relation to them and these adults are of course older and larger than them and possess the emotional and physical maturity to make a decision to enter into sexual relations. Without consent from both parties, the act occurring is rape, not sex.
Child sex denotes that the child participated in the act on a fully informed and voluntary basis. This ignores the element of grooming and manipulation that frequently takes place over a period of time to obtain the trust of the child and their family, friends and local community and the fact that a child lacks the maturity to make such a decision.
The suggestion of consent places a notional element of blame on many survivors, who question whether they led their abuser on or if they did actually want the sexual acts to take place and/or enjoyed them. The fact is they were children who lacked the legal capacity to give consent to having sex and they are actually survivors of child abuse.
The correct phrase to use is “child rape” rather than “child sex” when discussing incidents where adults have had sexual intercourse with children. This emphasises the seriousness of these offences and the lack of any possible legal consent on the child’s part.
By using the correct term of “rape” when an adult engages in sexual intercourse with a child, this may help better educate the public as to the fact that children cannot consent to taking part in sexual acts.
I strongly disagree with use of the phrase “child porn” as it ignores the survivors who are in these images and videos, instead focusing on the sexual gratification that child abusers receive when viewing this material. In my view, the term “child porn” diminishes the severity of such appalling content and instead normalises it by making it sound akin to general adult porn, which is not illegal.
The children who appear in photos and videos of a pornographic nature were unable to legally consent to these images and videos being created, usually by an adult in a position of trust. They are victims and survivors in every sense of the word, with this material being easily spread far and wide with them having no control as to where it is distributed.“Child porn” should be regarded as documentary evidence of the moment a child’s life is damaged, potentially beyond repair, due to sexual abuse.
The correct phrase should to use should be “child abuse images” or “child abuse videos”. This removes the sexual element of the material and refocuses the attention to the victims/survivors in the material, the immoral nature of the content, and avoids normalising the content.
The power of words
Survivors continue to struggle to disclose their abuse as they are worried how others will react and if they will be believed. The words surrounding abuse can add to these struggles if they focus predominantly on the sexual physical element of the acts instead of the psychological elements of the offence.
I urge the media and general public to consider these issues in the way we discuss child abuse because the longer we consider child abuse to be “historic” or just for sexual gratification, the longer we suppress the true impact on survivors and the reason why so many feel unable to disclose. This is a topic discussed on a daily basis in the news, each of us making these changes can have a wide and far-reaching effect on the way child abuse is perceived.
“If many start to whisper, together they’ll be heard.”
Dino Nocivelli is a partner in the Abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. If you feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Dino free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4887 or at email@example.com. Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Abuse team will contact you. Find out more about the Abuse Team.