the politics of de-gendered innocence

by tobybee

If you haven’t heard about it, you must be living under a rock – a few days ago the ever-ridiculous and purposeless Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O harassed a 14 year old young woman on live radio, forcing her to tell them that she had been raped. There are a million descriptions out there on various newspaper sites and blogs of what happened.

Over the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about the politics of the way what happened is being talked about. The metanarrative, it seems to me, is one of child abuse: the mother abused the child by not listening to her when she said she’d been raped two years ago, and continued that by taking her onto a radio show, allowing her to be attached to a lie-detector, and encouraging the radio hosts to question her about her sexual experiences; the radio hosts are abusive for strapping a child into a lie detector and asking her those questions; Kyle S. is abusive for framing the child’s rape as just another ‘sexual experience’. All of these aspects of the story frame the story as about childhood innocence, which is something we’re meant to all be able to agree upon: that children are innocent and vulnerable. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that, but what’s grabbed me is what that story obscures.

A young woman was raped. But the mainstream media isn’t talking about that. In an op-ed in The Age today, Caroline Taylor explains that if children report that they have been sexually abused and no one listens and responds, then they learn not to tell. And that knowledge circulates, so that other children learn not to tell. But that’s not unique to child sexual abuse: it’s true of all sexual abuse. Taylor talks in a manner which is degendered: there’s no young woman in her story; no politics of gender, where women are much more likely to be raped than men; no history of men treating rape as just another sexual experience; no sense of the lack of language and understanding in society about how to respond to and work to eradicate sexual assault and rape. And no sense of the gender dynamics and politics which completely produced the situation.

One in three women in Australia has been sexually abused or raped. One in three. If that doesn’t ring true in your experience of talking to family and friends, then ask yourself why. Is it because the statistic is inaccurate, or because women generally are told over and over, in so many different ways, that they should not speak publicly about being raped? I think the latter is true.

For me, it’s not (just) that a desexualised, ungendered, innocent child was raped. It’s that a young woman was raped. And it requires much more of us to deal with that. It’s a problem much larger than the idiocy and harm caused by one mother and two radio hosts.

If you want to think more about the politics of discourses of child sexual assault, abuse and rape framed in terms of childhood innocence, read an article by Steven Angelides, “Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality,” GLQ 10, no. 2, (2004): 141-177. It’s challenging and thought-provoking.