Posts Tagged ‘child sexual exploitation’

Avoiding the perils of firsthand victim stories

September 12, 2011

This fall, I’ll be part of a workshop for advocacy and service groups at ECPAT International’s general assembly in Paris. ECPAT is a global network of more than 81 groups in 75 countries that work on the issue of child sexual exploitation. I’ve been asked to offer suggestions about how to engage adults to tell their stories about sexual exploitation in their childhood or youth. Getting former victims to share their stories publicly can be hugely effective in terms of generating media attention, public awareness and action. It’s not risk-free though, for the organization or the former victims.

As a child welfare social worker turned PR professional, I have approached the prospect of using firsthand stories from two perspectives. My public relations work involves helping organizations get their stories told in a way that is compelling. I know the best way to do this is through firsthand stories.

As a social worker who has worked with children and families who have lived through sexual abuse, I realize that going public with this kind of victimization is a huge step and one that needs to be considered very carefully.

There are a number of potential pitfalls for both sides—the former victim and the advocacy or direct service organization. There are some measures organizations should take to increase the likelihood of a successful collaboration with former victims.

  1. Find stable participants – Those willing to come forward don’t always have the necessary emotional stability and grounded perspective on their past experience. That can cause problems for both the participant and the organization. Connect with a support group facilitator or therapeutic helper to find participants who have achieved the stability necessary to go public.
  2. Screen for ability – Not everyone is suited to tell his/her story in public, whether that be through a media interview, speaking at a conference or in a video. The participant needs to have the confidence to take center stage, to speak clearly and tell his/her story in a way that is compelling. Once you have a roster of potential participants, interview them yourself and determine if they have what it takes. Some coaching may be required.
  3. Do perspectives align? – Organizations working with abuse victims or advocating on their behalf usually have a specific position on the causes of the problem and how, as a society, we should deal with it. Be prepared that the participant you are considering may not share those views. Even if you’re not asking them to comment in public on their views, the topic could come up, especially during media interviews.  Ask the potential participant about your organization’s perspective, ask them for their thoughts. Determine if there is a match or in the case of differences, whether you can live with them.
  4. Be transparent – The potential participant must be fully aware of the expectations and purpose of his/her participation. This is important not only from an ethical point of view but also to avoid having the participants back out when they discover they are not comfortable with what’s being asked of them. A contract is a good idea because it forces you to spell out exactly what’s involved and protects both your organization and the participant.
  5. Be realistic – If you’re asking the former victim to tell his/her story to the media, know that ultimately you have no control over how that story is going to be told. The participant needs to be aware of this. You can try to guide the journalist involved in terms of preferred language to use (e.g. “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitute”) but there are no guarantees.
  6. Be prepared if things go wrong – Think of the risks involved ahead of time. What will you do if the media coverage is not what you or the participant expected? What if upon telling or viewing the story, the participant experiences post-trauma? Think it through and have a plan.
  7. Don’t forget legal considerations – In addition to having a contract, consider having a legal representative review the firsthand stories before you use them. If the participant is identifying his/her abuser, even in an indirect way, make sure there won’t be any legal repercussions. Fact check convictions, sentencing or court procedures the participant refers to for accuracy.

Has your organization used the stories of former victims in its advocacy work? Please share what steps you’ve taken to ensure success by leaving a comment.

Related post: Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work

Communicators as advocates – Watch your language

November 20, 2007

If you’re communicating on behalf of your non-profit’s clients and/or stakeholders, you’re often taking on the role of advocate. When this happens, what you say and how you say it takes on increased significance. As an advocate for children and youth who are sexually exploited, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, and arguing about, language.

For the past several years, I’ve been involved with a group trying to change the way child sexual exploitation is represented in the media. The group is called MAISEY (Media Awareness Initiative about Sexually Exploited Youth).

In a nutshell, this group has been encouraging the media to use the term “child sexual exploitation” rather than terms such as “child/teen prostitute” or worse, “teen hooker.” Why? Because these terms are victim blaming and imply a degree of choice on the part of the child. Other forms of sexual abuse don’t carry the same pejorative meaning (e.g. incest, sexual assault).

Critics of MAISEY have accused the group of arguing over semantics that really don’t have a negative result. Those of us who have worked with youth who are healing from sexual exploitation are keenly aware of the effect these terms have on them. Working through their deep level of shame and self-loathing requires them to be able to redefine what happened to them as abuse rather than it being their fault. No matter the behaviour on the part of the young person, it is wrong for an adult to have sex with a child.

We also know that sexual abuse offenders rationalize their deviant sexual fantasies and actions by telling themselves that their victims either deserve what they get or in reality wanted it to happen. These thoughts are part of what enables them to continue to offend. By using more accurate terms to describe sexual abuse, we avoid reinforcing the offender’s errors in thinking.

MAISEY’s focus is on the media because it is a conduit to our community. We beleive that media content both reflects and shapes our perceptions and attitudes about the world around us.

Many members of the media have done exceptional print and broadcast stories that manage to raise public awareness of the very complex, psychological, environmental and societal components of this massive human tragedy that destroys many young lives.

Award winning journalist Julian Sher, for example, has written extensively on the issue including commentary advocating for a change in language away from the term “child pornography” to “child abuse images”. He points out that the countless photos exhanged by sex offenders over the Net are “crime scene images” not pornography which has the connotation that they are just harmless pictures.

We need to do more, however, to ensure that children who have been sexually victimized are not re-victimized in the media. We need to guard against subtly, and sometimes overtly, blaming the child for his/her own abuse. Let’s stop coverage that emphasizes the “lifestyle” of the young person without providing the context that has placed him/her in harm’s way. When there isn’t the air time or page space necessary to do this, using terms such as “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitution” can provide some context while meeting the often overriding need for brevity.

Is a change in language going to eradicate the sexual abuse of children through prostitution? No. The issue is complex and as a society we are far from placing a priority on the antecedents of abuse such as violence, poverty, addiction, mental health issues and incest, for example. However, perhaps a change in language will make it more difficult for us to discard the victim and the issue.

The bottom line is that the old terms aren’t appropriate/accurate when referring to children. Would we accept labeling someone with a developmental delay or handicap as being a “moron” or “retarded”? At one time these terms were perfectly acceptable. Did changing these terms make a difference with respect to the integration of affected individuals into full community life? I believe it did play a part in our changing perception and was also a reflection of our changing perspective.

Language evolves and as communicators and advocates we must choose our words carefully to ensure that we are representing clients and stakeholders accurately and with respect.