When a joke just isn't funny.....
I recently heard a joke about child abuse that goes like this: “what’s the reason for 99% of paedophilia cases? Sexy kids!” A bad joke by anyone’s standards but anything to get steamed up about? I think so because the underlying message of this joke, in common with other so called ‘rape jokes’ is one of victim blaming. So in this case the message is that it’s the fault of the child for being ‘too sexy’ that gets them abused and not the fault of the perpetrator.
We know victims of abuse, of any age, have a very strong tendency toward self blame. We also know that children, girls in particular, feel under tremendous pressure to look good. The recently published Children Society’s Annual Report found that the proportion of girls worried about their looks had risen sharply, with 34% of ten to 15 year old girls worried about their appearance and girls as young as three worried about their looks. So there is indeed pressure on children to ‘look sexy’ just like the pouting, bikini, clad role models they are constantly exposed to.
There are many psychological reasons why children may blame themselves for abuse, which could include:
If the abuser is a loved or trusted adult it seems more reasonable to the child to accept blame and feel that they must be ‘bad’ and caused the abuse than to blame the trusted adult.
If when a child tells about the abuse and they are met with disbelief or a reaction of horror or disgust this can reinforce a child feeling to blame for what happened.
Children need attention and physical touch. A child can experience sexual pleasure from abusive touching, particularly when they are insufficiently mature to understand what is happening. The feeling of sexual pleasure does not mean children are in any way to blame – it simply means that their bodies are wired up right and responding to a stimulus! But the experiencing of pleasure in an abusive situation can lead to terrible feeling of shame and guilt and adversely impact adult sexual relationships.
So just as society has rejected ‘bad’ jokes about racism and homophobia (understanding that they promote underlying messages of prejudice and hostility), we need to ensure that as a society we challenge jokes which promote a culture of victim blaming. Hidden societal messages all impact on our abused clients and their ability to place the blame where it should be – with the perpetrator.
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About Sally French
Sally French is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist. Prior to concentrating on her private practice Sally was a sexual offences specialist prosecutor, working for the Crown Prosecution Service for 25 years. Sally trains courses looking at societal rape myths, the legal system and understanding legal obligations working with a client pre-trial.