Content warning for discussion of child sexual abuse, rape, assault and victim blaming
Last year I typed out the words ‘The entire field of child sexual exploitation (CSE) is underpinned by victim blaming’ and tweeted it. Like everything that comes out of my brain in this field, some loved it and some didn’t.
For #CSEDay18 – I am writing this blog. It’s for the thousands of people who follow my work and are helping to change the field (Yeah, you rock! Keep fighting!). It’s for the observers and readers who never contact me but read every word I say, go away and have a think (Thank you for reading and thinking!). It’s even for the people who read my blogs and then spend months trying to discredit me and my work (You probably won’t like this blog either).
This blog is about highlighting what has been achieved by encouraging the field to become more self-critical and more evidence based than ever before. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees but the field has made serious progress in the last 12 months and shit’s starting to get exciting and innovative!
I’m a one-woman-whirlwind because something had to be done. I’m not the type to collude with, or observe bad practice or harm. Some people really like that and some people don’t. It doesn’t really matter if people like it or not. We have to put all that aside – because this is about stopping the blaming of children who are sexually abused and exploited.
So in one year, what has been achieved – and where is this movement going next?
1. Influencing the withdrawal of CSE risk assessment toolkits
I remember how pissed off people were when I started talking about CSE toolkits not working. When I started pointing out that it’s technically impossible for a boy to score as a high as a girl because the tools are female centric and that black and Asian kids are not identified using these tools, based on white teens. When I started saying that the categories made no sense and the indicators were evidence of harm already occurring to the child. However, we are a year on and people are really starting to get behind this now. Everywhere I go in the UK, more and more local authorities and national charities are realising that the tools don’t work – not only do they not actually work as they say they do but they blame children for being sexually exploited, abused, raped and trafficked by adults. Whether it’s ticking a box that says ‘sexualised dress’ as a ‘factor’ for CSE or whether it’s calling a child ‘high risk’ after she’s already been raped – it’s a mess. We have to face it. None of it makes a jot of sense and more and more influential organisations and individuals are spreading the word that we should not be using these tools. Lots of areas are ready to withdraw them for good and I am working with certain senior organisations to help everyone to withdraw them safely.
And loud and clear for the people creating and rolling out these tools with no empirical, independent evaluation – you should know better and you have the money to do better; so do better.
2. #nomoreCSEfilms campaign
That’s right, if I hadn’t pissed off enough people, then I accidentally created the #nomoreCSEfilms campaign (because I didn’t understand how to use hashtags and then everyone else started tweeting it lmfao) which led to hundreds of people writing to me about their experiences of harm from CSE films. Even though I had spent years being totally confused about why anyone would show a film of a child being raped to a child who has been raped, I had never had the chance to safely ask children about it. Plenty of professionals were telling the field that children thought watching child rape was really helpful (not surprising that these are the people still trying to sell and share these ‘resources’). One day last year, I listened to a completely organic conversation between children of different ages and sexes as they discussed their experiences of being made to watch films and drama that impacted them negatively. Very negatively. Even resulting in self harm and panic attacks.
That was enough for me. The first rule of our jobs is ‘do no harm’. These films had never been tested, evaluated or had any ethical approval and yet were (and still are in some cases) being used with tens of thousands of children.
Thankfully, the campaign really took off and influenced thousands of practitioners and organisations to withdraw all use of CSE films with immediate effect – to protect children from the potential of any further harm. Local authorities, police forces, national charities, residential units, private companies all wrote to me or called me in to help them stop using these resources with children. Two production/drama companies even commissioned me to help them rewrite and edit their work so they could make sure their resources were not harming children and were being tested properly before use. The CSE films report ‘Can I tell you what it feels like?’ was read by thousands of people and sparked at least 4 MSc dissertations and 2 PhDs to my knowledge. Thanks to thousands of my followers, to professionals in my networks and to people I have never even met – we have made such an impact this year that very soon, showing children a film of child abuse as an ‘intervention’ or ‘preventative’ method will be a thing of the past. Like frontal lobotomies of traumatised and oppressed people. We look back on it and think ‘what the fuck were we thinking?’ CSE films will forever go down in history as one of those things and soon, no child will be shown films of child rape, abuse and murder as an intervention.
3. CSE is CSA
Yep, another way of pissing off people who claim to be specialists in CSE is to remind them that CSE is actually just CSA and that describing CSE as an ‘exchange’ is just victim blaming. Nice, subtle, hygienic, palatable victim blaming. I started to question why CSE was defined differently to CSA when I was sitting discussing cases with people from around the country – and they all sounded a lot like child sexual abuse – and yet they didn’t seem to see the overlap. In fact, I noticed that CSE was being used instead of ‘rape’ or ‘sexual assault’ or ‘grooming’ or ‘abuse’ or ‘online abuse’ …and the acronym was becoming meaningless. What really peaked me was when I asked professionals what the difference between CSE and CSA was and all they could give me was media stereotypes about massive Asian gangs and teenage white girls. Not only that, but I watched over the years as experienced and skilled social workers were told they weren’t ‘specialist’ enough to do direct work in CSE and they had to pass it to the ‘specialist CSE team’ (who had been given 2 days of CSE training and gripped their CSE films and CSE toolkits for dear life because they were shit scared as well). What happens when you create a new form of abuse, that’s actually a very well researched and documented form of abuse and tell everyone it’s new and it’s on the rise?
Well, you get mass panic and then you get vultures swooping in and claiming to have all the answers having never actually read anything from the 4-5 decades of child sexual abuse literature we already have. You get people reinventing the wheel. You get politicians saying that we need to invest money into understanding CSE whilst completely ignoring CSA. You get people deskilling social workers and then selling their skills back to them with resources and training that’s based on anecdotes.
When I struck out on my own, I made sure that I was always reminding everyone from the general public to the heads of authorities that CSE is CSA and that by overcomplicating it, we had caused a victim stereotype in CSE that meant we were missing thousands of cases and mishandling the ones we already had. Not only this, but intrafamilial CSA became a thing of the past – everyone stopped talking about it. To the point where I now have authorities calling me to say that their staff have had 6 years of constant input on CSE and are now failing intrafamilial abuse victims as they’ve had no training or resources in CSA for years. Now, a year on – more and more authorities and national charities are moving back to CSA. I know the organisations who have set themselves up to be the font of all knowledge in CSE are reading this and are probably somewhere between furious and shitting it but this HAS to be what is best for children, even if you have to change your services or eat a bit of humble pie. Loads of services are already doing it and have done it very well actually – so what’s the point in insisting that CSE is a separate and different phenomena to CSA?
4. ‘Risks’ and ‘vulnerabilities’ in CSE are just more victim blaming of children
This one takes longer to unlearn and I am just finishing some of my most influential work on this. I must also say that it was RiP Director Dez Holmes who first believed in me when I said ‘I don’t think vulnerabilities or risks cause CSE, I think sex offenders cause CSE. Assessing risks and vulnerabilities of the child simply detracts from the fact that an adult is abusing them. I don’t think the evidence does actually show us that these vulnerabilities or risks lead to CSE.’ Dez and RiP as an organisation are extremely person-centred and evidence based and I was taken seriously. That’s how it ended up in the published revised evidence scope. That’s how it started influencing hundreds of organisations this year and last year.
However, it’s not easy to unpick embedded learning about risk and vulnerability. Many practitioners are taught that the child is targeted by a sex offender because of their vulnerabilities or risk taking behaviours and that by changing the child, changing their characteristics, personalities, behaviours and vulnerabilities, the sex offender will not abuse them. If you think that sounds a bit fluffy that’s because you’re right. Sex offenders who are abusing children do not stop abusing children because you’ve stopped the child wearing the ‘sexualised dress’ you didn’t like (which is usually crop tops and skinny jeans these days. Sounds like rape myths to me but hey-ho…)
The fact is, children can have ten vulnerabilities and still not be abused by anyone. Conversely, children can have zero vulnerabilities and still be abused. This theory that vulnerabilities somehow lead to CSE holds no water and yet we use it to judge children and their parents. All of our interventions are based on this deficit model of the child causing their own abuse.
Thankfully, this year is different and more and more organisations and practitioners are beginning to understand that the only person to blame for CSE and CSA is the sex offender. It does not matter how ‘vulnerable’ that child was, it was never ever their fault or their responsibility.
5. Trauma informed practice over educative responses to CSE
Over the years, standard practice responses to CSE have been raising awareness and then teaching the child about grooming, consent, healthy relationships, e-safety and some other useless shit you don’t want to hear about if you’re being abused every day.
I know that sounds harsh but we have to be more self critical. So many practitioners are being told to show children resources or teach them about E-safety and are then pulling their hair out because none of it is working the the child is still being sexually abused every day. If you were being trafficked and raped, given drugs or threatened not to tell – do you really think a professional sitting you down and telling you about consent or e-safety would change all of that for you? Even if you sat there and thought ‘oh shit, what’s happening to me isn’t consensual’ – how would you have the power to escape the abuser? Just because you now know that what is happening to you is wrong doesn’t make you powerful enough to leave abuse. After all, you’re a kid.
The problem is, that in CSE, education has been seen as the magic bullet. ‘If you educate children on CSE and grooming, they will be able to spot the signs and protect themselves from abuse.’ STOP. Stop and say that sentence to yourself again. No. It’s wrong. It’s victim blaming. Education is brilliant, I support sex and relationships education from the earliest age possible – but I’m also realistic enough to know that education won’t protect a child from a sex offender who is determined to manipulate them. You can’t put that level of responsibility on a child. It’s victim blaming.
All over the UK, specialist commissioned CSE services are paid to deliver 6-8 weeks of direct work with children who are at ‘medium-high risk’ of CSE (roughly translates to: already being abused, see other blogs for more detail). Those 6-8 sessions are educative in nature and the majority of all CSE victims receive little to zero therapeutic support in their processing of the sexual violence or their recovery long term.
When children disengage from the educative sessions, they are seen as problematic and can end up in trouble – sometimes even blamed for going back to the abuser. When children start acting out or start self harming – they are seen as mentally ill or disordered. When children withdraw from school and friends because of the impact of repeated rapes, we get all confused about why they hate school all of a sudden.
There has been very little trauma informed work in CSE at all over the years – and children have been penalised and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders simply for showing completely understandable trauma responses to extreme distress.
Last year I started to really push the messages about trauma, social models of mental health, anti-labelling and understanding sexual trauma in children. Hundreds of organisations and professionals have now changed their entire ethos of working with children – having gained vital knowledge and empathy for children who are showing extreme behaviours – which they now understand to be coping mechanisms or the expression of extreme distress – rather than behavioural problems or disorders.
This is a massive leap forward and there are influential organisations and large national charities now changing their practice towards a completely trauma informed, child centred way of working.
So there you have it – one year makes a massive difference.
#CSEDay18 will come and go but people like me and others in this movement will stay. The people who follow and agree with my work will stay. We are more than people realise. I’m the mouthy one doing all the speeches and the writing but thousands of people stand behind me. We will keep fighting the blaming of children who have been sexually abused. We will keep challenging untested and unethical practices with children. We will spread the word about trauma informed working. We will stop the use of prescriptive, untested risk assessments on children. We will challenge the victim stereotypes and the perpetrator myths.
Change should not be viewed as scary or challenging – it should be viewed as growth and evolution. We have made some huge mistakes in CSE but they are fairly easy to put right. We will make mistakes in the future too – and then we will be reminded by someone that there are better ways of working and we will stop, think, and then improve. Our theories, knowledge and practice will keep changing and keep developing over time. Now is not the time to stay static, clinging to old, untested ways of working. Children deserve the highest quality and the most evidence based way of working that we can possibly give to them – ways of working in which their needs and their potential is put first.
It’s been almost a year since I wrote that tweet and after a busy year, we are getting somewhere. Momentum is huge. Potential is enormous. Maybe next year I will write to you and tell you that the victim blaming of children who have been sexually abused is almost completely wiped out of professional practice, the toolkits are in the bin, CSE films got banned and children have access to ongoing therapeutic support.
Where is this movement going next? Who knows?
(Okay that’s a lie, I know exactly where it’s going and it’s fucking epic.)
Written by Jessica Eaton