By London Feminist blogger Julian
Julian is a London blogger who describes herself as a “lawyer, an armchair politician, activist, wannabe writer… [and] a member of London Feminist Network [and] the UK Legal Feminist Group.”
Last month, I began an impromptu campaign on Twitter using the hashtag #ididnotreport. It arose after I blogged about the Mumsnet campaign “We Believe You,” which focuses on the response of blanket disbelief to reports of rape and sexual assault. I’d also seen a recent opinion piece in a newspaper about street harassment, which also touched on lack of belief as a reason not to report assaults.
There have been over 20,000 tweets using that hashtag. I had imagined a few women joining in to share experiences of street harassment, but what I saw instead was an outpouring of accounts ranging from low-level harassment to vicious rapes, from a huge variety of people – female, male, old, young, of all backgrounds. Perhaps the most striking, and certainly the most shocking, were those which detailed child sexual abuse:
#ididnotreport being sexually assaulted as a 12year old because I didn’t know it was an option. A year later, he raped my friend.
[Same poster] That was reported. She was blamed & social workers told her she’d be sent away to a children’s home if she prosecuted. #ididnotreport
#ididnotreport because I was a child and I didn’t understand that I had no reason to be ashamed.
#ididnotreport because who would I report to? It’s hard when you’re 11 and you know you’ll never escape and no one is on your side.
#ididnotreport because I wanted to protect my family. The ones who shouldve been protecting me. I was a child.
#ididnotreport because I didn’t know it was rape. And because I was 14.
Those are just a few of the tweets that came in on that hashtag. Paradoxically, child sexual abuse is a very adult subject and it was heart-breaking to see the very adult reasons that children gave for not reporting. The primary reasons were fear of disbelief, lack of options, lack of understanding and shame. These were identical reasons to those that adults gave for not reporting attacks. How much harder is it for a child to identify a place of safety and make that first step into the unknown territory of reporting abuse?
Women and children have historically been regarded as inherently less stable and less truthful than adult men (who have their own set of problems when it comes to reporting sexual assault on them, but that is a topic for another post). The inheritance of that still pervades our society: children’s reports may be dismissed as “fanciful” or “imaginative,” while young women in their teens are often regarded as jezebels or hysterical. It takes very little in the way of media reports about hysterical fantasists to tell young people that there is a real risk of not being believed if they make a report.
Shame and lack of understanding can be more easily tackled. Children have the right to know what their body parts are, what they are called, what they are for, and which bits are private. How can a child exercise bodily autonomy if they don’t know what is happening to them? Teaching children about their own bodies in a neutral, age-appropriate way is crucial to empowering them to know about good and bad touch, and their own ability to say no. Teaching kids to say no might sound like a nightmare to harassed parents just wanting to get vegetables into their offspring’s diet, but it is key to telling children that they do not always have to do what adults say.
Lack of options is the hardest reason to deal with. If a child reports familial abuse, what options are open to them? They can’t go to stay with a friend or sibling, or get a non-molestation order, or go to a domestic violence refuge, as they could if they were an adult. Social services accommodation works all too often as a threat rather than a safe haven.
For me, the tweet of the moment regarding children came from @julietm:
RT @julietm: #ididnotreport makes me think no age is too young to teach children how to recognise and speak up against abuse.
Children and young people experiencing sexual assault need the security of knowing that if they report abuse, they will be believed. They need a place of sanctuary if the abuse comes from within their home. And they need to know that the only person who should be ashamed of child sex abuse is the abuser.