This guest post is by Lizzie Bottrill, written as background to a screenplay on child sexual abuse as part of a master’s degree in Creative Writing
No topic in the world seems to disturb the human heart so primally as the idea of harm being done to children. And yet, until twenty years ago, the topic of child sexual abuse was largely untouched in film and TV. In this essay I explore a few examples that reflect the growing cultural awareness around the topic, and the evolution of our outlook on victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation.
A modern approach towards rape is revealed in series like Broadchurch, Liar and Downton Abbey, which have tackled the issue in varying depth between 2013 and 2020. In these examples the victim blaming narrative is challenged. A friend of the rape victim in Broadchurch states to the police; “Trish just isn’t the kind of woman this sort of thing happens to,” and he is met with a defensive response from the detective; “What kind of woman is that then?”
The challenge comes not only through dialogue, but through characterisation. In each of these examples, the victim portrayed is entirely faultless, often a sensible character with upstanding morals. The stories therefore scream at us ‘this could happen to anyone!’ and devote significant screen time to showing how the trauma affects the victim’s day to day life, their wellbeing and their relationships.
Historic sexual abuse storylines
But we haven’t always been good at giving victims a voice. There was a time it seemed that a sexual abuse allegation was most often employed as a plot device in stories about good men facing the threat of character assassination. One famous example is Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. Now, there are two strong themes in this story; one of racial prejudice and the other of sexual assault. The story, set in 1930s Alabama, focuses on the just-minded, lawyer Atticus Finch. He’s a white man, who makes himself unpopular with the white community when he chooses to represent a black man accused of rape by a white woman. In a bitterly unfair conclusion, the accused is convicted by a white majority jury even though evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. As the audience, we are led to despise and disbelieve the woman, and empathise with Tom Robinson, the defendant.
As viewers, we are unfortunately influenced by media narratives that shame and doubt potential victims of abuse. To Kill a Mockingbird makes some imperative points about racism, however it is difficult to imagine a modern drama using a rape storyline as a secondary device in this way. Bustle offers a thought-provoking commentary on this paradigm shift:
With sexual assault victims increasingly speaking out about their experiences and the challenges they face, they’ve revealed a different culture of discrimination and equality, and started a conversation that is impossible to ignore. Sixty years ago, our culture was forced to re-evaluate how we treat African-Americans; today we’re doing the same with sexual assault and rape victims. Considering what we know now about rape investigations, do some of Atticus’s interrogation tactics seem extreme to a modern audience? Perhaps, but maybe it’s because we’re discovering better ways to handle these sorts of cases than we knew 55 years ago.Scatton, 2015
Part of the importance of the story, however, is that it forces us to reflect on the connections between race, prejudice, victim narrative, and justice. The prejudice of the all-white Jury in TKAMB influences the outcome of the trial, just as in real life situations, prejudice influences how we view and treat perpetrators throughout history. For example, today, the ‘Asian grooming gang’ narrative creates dangerous perceptions that all Asians are (or have the inherent potential to be) perpetrators of Child Sexual Exploitation.
The role of film and television in giving victims a voice
The gut-wrenching 1988 picture, The Accused, was miles ahead of its time. With a performance which won Jodie Foster the Oscar for Best Actress, the film opens with Sarah Tobias (Foster) going to the police after a brutal gang rape incident.
Her lawyer, the well-to-do Kathryn Murphy, takes one look at Sarah and doubts they could pull a case together. Sarah is chaotic; she was drunk when the episode took place, possibly high, provocatively dressed, and openly confesses she had fancied one of the men. We are faced with the idea that Sarah perhaps is ‘the kind of woman this sort of thing happens to’.
We are drawn into this victim-blaming narrative, right up until the point where the truth of what happened is revealed through flashbacks. By the end of the sequence, we are in no doubt that a horrific evil has occurred: Sarah was reduced to a limp doll, unable to move or protest, and the five-year prison sentence the perpetrators face is not nearly enough. The victim-blaming narrative is flipped on its head, and we see that all the aspects of Sarah’s character that make her an ‘unreliable victim’ are nothing compared to the intentional act of violence that took place.
Victim blaming within Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE)
Offscreen, the rhetoric that the vulnerable are somehow to blame even leaks into society’s approach to sexual violence against children.
The 2017 BBC Drama series, Three Girls, told the chilling true story of three teenage girls who were lured into prostitution by a gang in Rochdale. The series shows the inception of the grooming, the progression of the exploitation, the years it took for them to break free, and the pursuit of justice.
The real battle was persuading the police to take the crime seriously. After years of whistle-blowing herself hoarse, health advisor Sara Rowbotham finally gets them to wake up. She recorded and reported all her observations between 2005 and 2011 but was repeatedly ignored by authorities because they felt the girls involved were ‘too chaotic’; not the types of girls that will easily convince a jury.
When justice is eventually pursued, a court victory is won and there is nationwide reform on how such matters are handled. The series concludes with Rowbotham in front of a Home Affairs select committee in the House of Commons. They ask her if she thinks the failure in Rochdale was due to incompetence or indifference. She responds:
It was attitudes towards teenagers. It was absolute disrespect that vulnerable young people did not have a voice. That they were overlooked. That they were discriminated against. And they were treated appallingly by protective services. See, I think we need an absolute shift in what constitutes a reliable witness. As I’ve already explained, those young people do not present as clear-cut victims. They don’t clearly state ‘I am being abused’. They are absolutely entrenched in a horrible set of manipulation and coercion. They are living in absolute fear, so they won’t easily fit a box that allows judicial system to see that this is a child that is being abused.Three Girls, 2017
A harrowing watch but a critical piece of television, with the courage to ask, ‘what does a victim look like?’ While those dramas portraying ‘clear cut victims’ are so important, because these things can happen to anyone, dramas like The Accused and Three Girls introduce the complication of grey areas. What happens when a victim doesn’t show up the way we expect them to? Adults often focus on young people’s behaviour, misinterpreting signs of abuse and failing to perceive what is really going on. This is particularly the case where young people present risk-taking behaviour, are from families already known to social services or who have already experienced abuse at the hands of a carer, making them vulnerable to those who would exploit them. The focus always needs to be shifted back to the perpetrator.
I hear many say of sexual abuse dramas; ‘Sounds horrible, I don’t want to watch that’ and some question, is it right to create entertainment from a horrific situation?
My response is this: there is so much power in storytelling to generate empathy and awareness. We must keep doing it; courageously exploring the voices that are often overlooked. Through stories we can change the narrative around a topic, both reflecting and leading the way in terms of national discussion.
And the future? While we are getting better and better at telling the stories of sexual abuse victims, perhaps the next step for mainstream media is to explore diversity within these issues. Currently the vast majority of stories told within mainstream media centre around victims who are white and female. Does this narrow representation of what a victim ‘looks like’ inform societal assumptions, or does it reflect them? What does it look like for a victim to be male? Or disabled, or an ethnic minority? What does it look like for a perpetrator to be female? These are the stories we need to see more of going forward.