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Lolita's Not To Blame


new internationalist
issue 240 - February 1993

Illustration by CLAUDIA SCHMID
not to blame
Only recently has it become recognized that the impact on the
sexually abused girl can last a lifetime - especially if she feels that
somehow she was to blame. Roxanne Snider reports.

ONCE seen as confined to a handful of crazed paedophiles, child sexual abuse is now recognized as endemic to society. Only very recently have we begun to acknowledge and address the unthinkable proportions of this problem.

By far the most abuse - a term covering everything from suggestive petting and fondling to penetration and rape - is against girls. Statistics vary, but the widely accepted view in North America is that one in four girls and one in eight boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Unlike boys, who tend to be abused by a teacher or coach outside the family, girls are usually abused by someone within it: fathers, brothers, male partners of their mothers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers. Only 10 per cent of child sexual abuse is at the hands of total strangers. Over 90 per cent of the offenders are men.

Just as every occurrence of sexual abuse within families - incest - is characterized by secrecy and suppression, so has the history of this reality been subjected to the most rigorous denial. Widespread incest was first uncovered in 1896 by Sigmund Freud who, in The Aetiology of Hysteria, concluded that the origin of the then most common female psychiatric complaint was childhood incest. A year later he repudiated this theory entirely, claiming that his female patients had lied to him and were merely projecting their incestuous fantasies. Apparently the prevalence of child molestation in upright, bourgeois Viennese families was too high - and too awkward - to be believed.

No less repressive an attitude was to be found 50 years later in the US, when Kinsey's 1953 report Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female also uncovered widespread girlhood sexual abuse. Kinsey did not deny the findings but he assured the public that the girls concerned would not be seriously upset by such experiences.

These reactions of denial and belittlement are still being played out in families and courtrooms today. At stake is the sanctity of the family as a social ideal and the time-honoured notion that whatever goes on inside its boundaries - whether wife-battering or incest - is none of society's nor the law's business. Behind the smokescreen of 'keeping the family together at all costs' lies the true stake: men's inalienable rights to do as they please sexually and in other ways within their domestic fiefdoms.

Sexism and sexual abuse are linked. Father-daughter incest frequently occurs in families where sex roles are rigidly divided and where men exert strict control over, the lives of wives and progeny. Incest families are also often characterized by marital discord, a hostile mother-daughter relationship, and lack of a strong, supportive mother. When children are reared by subordinate women a psychology of male domination and female victimization tends to be reproduced in their offspring.

Girls in such families are primed very early to become pleasing and compliant. Survivors of incest often recall being enrolled as 'little mothers' - their task that of 'keeping Daddy happy'. When this began to entail sexual favours many believed that this was one more aspect of their duty to please and part of their responsibility to calm family tension.

Only recently has the true impact of incest on children and adult survivors been analysed - and found to be far from Kinsey's 'not very upsetting'. Sexually abused children are prone to a huge variety of psychological and behavioural problems: bedwetting; nightmares and sleep disorders; depression; anxiety; running away from home; multiple personality disorders; precocious sexual behaviour or its inverse, extreme inhibition; low self-esteem; inability to experience feelings.

Unless the child receives prompt support and treatment upon disclosure, much of this havoc may carry over into adulthood. Ninety per cent of women in Canada's mental-health system and 80 per cent of women in prison were physically or sexually abused as children. A high percentage of women in prostitution or with histories of substance abuse experienced incest in girlhood.

One of the most damaging effects of sexual abuse is the child's own sense of responsibility for what took place. The Lolita syndrome - the idea that little girls seduce older males - shifts much of the responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim. And indeed, the circumstances of incest can easily give young girls the sense of being to blame.

If not outright force, men will use bribes, threats or trickery to get what they want. Any child who accepts a lollipop for fondles may imagine she has agreed to what follows. A guilt-ridden abuser often tells a girl that it was 'all her fault', that she was 'bad' or 'dirty'. For some the abuse is the only form of attention or 'affection' they get. Finally, because children are essentially powerless, assuming they have some influence can give a much-needed sense of control - however illusory. Anything rather than think that the adult they trust and depend upon could be so bad. How else to explain the six-year-old who says: 'It was my fault 'cos my eyes were open?

Virtually all sexual abuse takes place behind a wall of secrecy which is usually maintained by threats: 'If you tell, you'll be sent away', or: 'I'll be sent to jail and you'll starve'. Growing public awareness is gradually changing attitudes towards girls who speak out - but most are still disbelieved. Disclosures are still met with accusations such as 'liar' and 'little whore', or greeted with more threats, silence or the injunction never to speak of it again. After girls 'tell' they're usually very fearful and feel they've committed an awful betrayal.

Because of the enormous pressure on children not to disclose, most reports are made to child-care authorities by teachers, doctors or relatives. Virtually all men deny their culpability - to their families, the child-care agencies and in court if it gets that far.

Very few cases of child sexual abuse end up in court. Despite progressive changes in 1988 to Canada's Criminal Code, there is still widespread doubt regarding the legal system's ability to handle these cases. One children's advocate with 20 years' experience of abuse cases complains: 'The court system is antiquated. It was established on the basis of protecting men's property and is ill-prepared to cope with crimes against women and children. Everyone is psychically overwhelmed by the legal implications of incest, and kids simply don't get a fair shake.'

As far as testimony is concerned, the word of a young girl rarely carries the same weight as an adult's. This is shored up by the popular belief that children cannot distinguish reality from fantasy and by the pernicious pseudoscientific proposition that there is such a thing as 'False Memory Syndrome' which is used to discredit as fabrication many accounts of abuse.

No less odious is the pressure often put on children to 'recant' their accusation. Parents or relatives will offer rewards if only the girl will 'tell the lawyer she was lying'. When charges are laid in incest cases the stakes rise considerably, for if a father is sentenced the family's economic security may collapse. In such cases family and friends will sometimes rally around the offender in order to save the family from public disgrace or lifestyle disruption.

The good news is that the legal system - flawed though it may be - is far better than it was 10 years ago. Amongst the judiciary there are mixed feelings about how serious a crime child sexual abuse is. Recently some stiff sentences of 8-10 years for sexual assault and incest have been upheld in the Court of Appeals, although average sentences tend to be two to three years: the same as for bank robbery.

A breakthrough came this year when Canada's Supreme Court ruled that adults may file lawsuits years after the event, after the usual statutes of limitations have expired. Headway is also being made through court preparation programmes for children. Beginning in Toronto this March, a special courtroom will be set up to meet the unique needs of children in sexual abuse trials.

In the past five years there have been major changes in the therapeutic understanding and treatment of sexually abused children. One clinical worker who trains therapists across North America observes: 'The shift has to do with understanding sexual abuse from a trauma perspective. The crucial thing is not so much what happened, but how that event was experienced.'

Leading-edge thinking focuses on four key factors: the age of the child (the younger, the greater the impact); whether sadism was involved (ritual abuse tends to cause the most severe effects); whether there was support around disclosure and, perhaps most important, the degree to which the girl or woman blames herself for what happened. 'When kids can't believe that it's not their fault, healing is next to impossible,' said one child therapist.

Working with a small girl's visual images, through drawing, painting or sculpting, seems to be effective. Where the abuse takes place when the child is still in a preverbal phase the experience is not rooted in language. The story of what happened is also difficult to 'tell' because it is frightening and humiliating. Drawing it - showing what they see when they close their eyes - allows them to externalize the image in order, hopefully, to be free of it.

For adult women survivors therapy usually begins with the basic, yet terrifying, act of remembering. Decades may pass before women - some in their 50s and 60s - surmise they were sexually abused as children. For some, entire blocks of personal history are beyond recall: 'I remember nothing before the age of 12,' said one. 'Major parts of my memory are totally locked with abuse. It's like a virus in a computer - you just lose stuff.'

Recall can begin with flashbacks or sudden unbidden flickerings of memory. It can be triggered by such disparate occurrences as hearing or reading an account of abuse; making love; the death of a parent; a tactile experience in some way related to the abuse. It can come with the breaking of an addiction: alcohol and drug abuse are often means of holding down awareness and pain around incest. Revelations are almost always followed by a psychic upheaval, leading to intense feelings of terror, denial, shame, grief, anger. At this point, finding a therapeutic setting where she can go through these feelings in an atmosphere of safety and affirmation becomes crucial to healing. 'What I needed most of all,' said one, 'was someone who would really listen. So I could tell this story over and over, get bored, and then tell it over and over again. The goal was not to let it have any more power in my life.'

The vast majority of women incest survivors find 'off-centre' - non-medical, non-Freudian - therapists with strong feminist perspectives to be the most helpful. Despite the flood of information to the contrary, there is still a tendency by mainstream psychiatrists to downplay the emotional significance of sexual abuse. Said one survivor: 'It's really important to define for ourselves what the experience was about. Feminist thinking has given us that space. For myself, the most helpful thing was figuring out how to work on this - to take charge. That very act stands against the old pattern of powerlessness.

The feelings of power that many survivors speak of are feelings they never had access to as girls. If, instead of rewarding young girls for cuteness and compliance, we encouraged confidence and the right to set and defend their boundaries, maybe the cycle of victimization might be broken.

Roxanne Snider is a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in cultural and social issues.



Jailed for being raped

MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES Under the Hudood Ordinances promulgated by General Zia ul Haq In 1979. a woman or girl who reports a rape is liable to find herself accused of the serious offence of zina - adultery. The rape survivor is assumed guilty of 'illicit sexual intercourse' unless she can prove innocence. This requires producing, as witnesses to the act, four Muslim adult males of good character.

In 1984 a 15-year-old parentless girl called Jehan Mina was raped by her uncle and her cousin while staying at their home to tend her sick aunt. Later, when she showed signs of pregnancy, she confessed to another uncle that the rape had occurred. He went to the police and a case was set in motion. Jehan Mine had to be protected from the accused uncle and her grandfather who wanted to Kill her.

When the case came to trial the accused men were acquitted. Not surprisingly there were no 'tour adult male witnesses to the crime. And the court found that the men could not be punished merely on the basis of Jehen Mine's statement, which had thrown the entire blame of adultery on the 'other two co-accused'. Her pregnancy was seen as a confession of zina and she was sentenced to 100 lashes, the maximum penalty.

On appeal the sentence was mitigated to three years' imprisonment and 10 lashes. She was not acquitted because the court found It unsatisfactory that she had waited until her pregnancy became apparent to make the accusation against her uncle.

Jehan Mine served her sentence and gave birth to her child in jail. Although no woman has since been sentenced to the maximum penalty for adultery, the number of imprisonments under the Hudood Ordinances is rising: 738 In 1990, compared to 503 in 1984.

Maria del Nevo in Lahore.

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