Two months after my 13th birthday I got my first period. It was greeted with feelings of extreme terror. I didn’t want to be there. Not yet. I secretly still liked very childish things that I wasn’t prepared to give up, just yet. When I told my mum she shrieked, as only mothers can about such a thing, and immediately reported it to the rest of the household. “Oh my baby’s growing up! I don’t want my baby to grow up!” Neither did I. Thankfully, though puberty launched a full on assault on my body with its body hair, boobs and zits, it did little to deter me from my usual childish habits. It was okay, I wasn’t a woman- yet.
I and my friends would hang out in a large group, smoking and experimenting with clothes and make-up. Yet we also bought Barbie dolls from charity shops to whom we gave punk makeovers and bestowed names such as Barbierella. We made poesies and ran around in sprinkler systems. Yes, bodily we were growing up, but mentally and with our choices, we were experimenting with being grown-ups, but we were far from there. We had childish romances which we’d convince ourselves were oh so mature and serious, but really weren’t. A couple of friends of mine started to hang around with older guys who were between the ages of 19 and 21. Guys who seemed like the young adults we thought ourselves to be, but who were clearly so much nearer to the finishing line than we were- as two of my friends discovered in the worst possible way. Neither of them reported their experiences to the police.
A year later, I experienced this for myself. I never said yes, but I didn’t say no either. I was too scared to do anything other than sit rigidly waiting for the experience to end. Perhaps we accepted what had happened to us as if it was just “what happens to women”. Maybe we even thought it was our own fault for acting more grown up than we were ready to be. It would be of little surprise as the word “prick tease” had also entered our vocabularies that year.
Thankfully, since we were that age “consent” has become a much more important term in the words we use with young people. Organisations like the Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) are doing important research into young people and sexual consent. Including this survey for young people 13-18 http://www.givenget.info/ Child sex abuse cases are spoken about much more widely and programmes to support rape and sexual assault survivors are much better funded and accessible.
When I heard that a man who admitted to the sexual assault of a 13 year old girl had been allowed to walk free I wondered if I had slipped into a wormhole and found myself in the medieval ages. I thought the world had made progress since I was that age, and here we are hearing the most appalling regressive news imaginable. So, why has this man walked free? Seemingly because the judge decided she was a “sexual predator” who “looked older”. I think back to our 13 year old womanly bodies and childish minds and cannot help but shudder with unease. How is it that two decades later the messages which we read implicitly are being made explicit to the younger generation? What about all of the wonderful changes that have taken place in the intervening years?
Rape and sexual assault is still a massive issue in the UK. The Ministry of Justice and the Office of National Statistics joint report states:
- Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year
- Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year
- 1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.
- Approximately on 1 in 10 women who experience serious sexual assault – report it to the police.
The government literature goes on to assert:
“We are determined to support victims in reporting these crimes, and to make sure perpetrators are brought to justice. We all need to do more to prevent violence against women and girls happening at all.”
If that is the case, and not simply lip service, then Judge Nigel Peters’ decision making and the practice of the prosecutor Robert Colover is in need of urgent review. A petition has been started by Everyday Victim Blaming calling for action to ensure this can never be repeated. I urge you to sign this now http://www.change.org/dontblamethevictim
Below I’ve included a diagram from http://www.leftfootforward.org which details the shockingly low level of rape convictions in the UK. It is a startling reminder of how women and girls are being seriously let down by our justice system. Judgements such as that detailed above will only serve to make the 1 in 10 reported cases become a 1 in 20, or worse. We need to assure women and girls that they will not be treated like the guilty party if they report an assault to the police and the justice system needs to offer more protection by setting strong guidelines for how survivors (of any sex and any age) are to be treated during their involvement with the justice system.