When Emily’s* sexual abuser was sentenced to a fine and community service, she started a petition calling for mandatory minimum sentencing
This article contains details of child sexual abuse.
It took me until I was aged 24 to go to the police and give a statement about the abuse I’d suffered aged 10 and 11. It took me 13 years of guilt and shame to realise it wasn’t me who should be feeling either. It should have been him.
When I bundled myself into my clothes each day for school, scared that someone may notice my body in the same way that my abuser had, he was building a new life. A new life that would later help protect him from facing a custodial sentence for the crimes he committed. My eldest sister’s now ex-fiancé had been part of our family for six years and was loved by all of us. I trusted him – so when he restrained me by holding me so tight I couldn’t break free (no matter how hard I tried) I believed him when he told me he had just wanted a hug. I believed him when he told me I was the one being “mean” for fighting back as he forced me to masturbate him. I believed him when he told me my parents would be annoyed with me if they found out.
When he woke me up, aged 11, in the middle of the night and asked to come into my bed for a “hug” I said no. Saying no didn’t stop him. On the day of the trial he pled guilty to coming into my room on this occasion. He pled guilty to chasing me between two rooms as I tried to escape him by pushing a toy chest against my door. He pled guilty to grinding his penis against me while touching my vagina and nipples. He pled guilty to once again holding me down and forcing me to masturbate him. He pled guilty.
This month he walked free with a £500 fine, a suspended sentence of 18 months and some community service. The judge tells me he has a mortgage, a company and a life. The judge tells me that the stigma of being a convicted paedophile and the stress of awaiting trial is a punishment in itself. The judge tells me he is otherwise a man of “good character”. The judge tells me he had been drinking beer after all. I wonder if perhaps the beer bottles should carry a warning label – “May cause the sexual assault of a child”.
For years the touch of someone’s hand when it was slightly moist (from heat or having been washed) would trigger panic attacks and flash backs of the feeling of his sweating hands all over my body. I self-harmed through my teenage years to cope and have been left scarred. I always felt too ashamed and guilty to really talk about what had happened. The shame and guilt that I have lived with for years certainly felt like a punishment. The shame and guilt he has to feel now as a convicted paedophile is punishment enough – or so the judge tells me.
Of those found guilty of paedophilic offences inn 2012 under the Sexual Offences Act, around 40% avoided jail. Without a custodial sentence of 30 months to life they will be off the sex offender register within a maximum of 10 years.
In 2015, the life shattering and harmful long-term consequences of sexually abusing a child are well known. Research has established a strong relationship between child sexual abuse and adverse mental health issues for victims. These include post-traumatic stress disorder, self harm, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, helplessness, negative attributions, aggressive behaviours, conduct problems and anxiety. All victims of childhood sexual abuse are denied the basic right of consenting to their first sexual experience; this cannot be remedied for many victims and is as such a life sentence. How then can we justify a system that allows perpetrators to walk free with a mere fine or community service? It is an insult to the victims of this crime and excuses an act that is profoundly inexcusable.
We live in a culture that has come to accept rape and even child molestation as a backdrop to our existence; a culture that excuses the behaviour of abusers while shifting blame onto the victim. A judge may infer that a victim who had consumed a few drinks prior to their rape had in fact contributed to the assault that had been inflicted upon them. Perversely, as in my case, a judge may alleviate blame from a man who has molested a child because he’d decided to have a few pints down the pub beforehand. I would wager strongly that if my judge was overpowered by a man far larger than him on his way home tonight, and was physically forced to engage in even one of the sexual acts I was as a child, that his attacker would be facing a custodial sentence. The sexual abuse of a young girl however may not warrant the same reaction because it has become a readily accepted narrative.
Throughout our media sexual violence against women and girls is used for titillation and entertainment. I’ve felt firsthand the fear of an adult forcing themselves onto my body as a child. I was made to feel powerless when my sense of self was just developing. My suffering was insignificant to his pleasure. The eroding of a child’s soul should never be the price to pay for an adult’s enjoyment; a convicted paedophile should not be able to walk out of a court free. It is a crime no child walks readily free from – some are forever shackled to an inner pain far greater than the cost of a fine or some weekends given to community service.
I’ve started a petition calling for a mandatory minimum custodial sentence to be introduced for the sexual assault of a child aged 13 and under. This is with the current mitigating circumstances remaining in place such as consensual experimentation between minors. I started the petition because of my own experience of this crime. I hope you will join me in signing it, sharing it and fighting for the change that is so desperately needed to bring reform and justice. For as long as a judge’s personal bias is allowed to play a part in the sentencing of this crime our culture of acceptance will continue to hand out slap-on-the-wrist sentences.
The image used depicts a judge’s gavel and is used by permission of Joe Gratz under the Creative Commons license.