Survivor’s Guilt

In September, I picked up an issue of Togatus. I was flipping through the pages, looking for a distraction from my assignment. I was stopped in my tracks by an abrupt piece titled “Paedophilia”. The article’s presence seemed out of place amongst Bojack Horseman think pieces and heartfelt poetry.

My heart dropped as I realised that “Paedophilia” was not a thoughtful analysis of the nature of paedophilia or its impact, but instead, a condemnation of treating pedophiles as “monsters”. The author begs of us not to place paedophiles in a box, but to instead think of them in a broader context. This message is obfuscated with what seems to be a tepid defense of offenders. The idea barely iterated in this piece was that you will never hear a news story about a “normal guy who molested a child because he lost control of his life (and not because he was attracted to children)”, but instead, you will turn on the news and hear about a “monster”.

The reality is you will most likely never hear about this man at all. This is because very few people who molest children will ever face jail time or exposure to the public eye. 85% of sexual assaults never reach the criminal justice system (1). Despite the attitude you may see displayed on shows like CSI, society doesn’t treat the men and women who molest and assault children as monsters. Here in Australia, those who sexually harm children are protected by the institutions that claim to moderate them, from legal to political structures of power.

To demonstrate my point: In 2011, in Tasmania, a judge declined to charge multitudes of men for having sex with a twelve-year-old girl, who had been prostituted by her mother (2). One of the few men charged for raping the child was not given jail time because medicine treating an unrelated disease made him desire sexual activity. The judge decided this for ‘policy reasons’. For decades, the public system turned a blind eye to the molestation of boys and girls by officials of the Catholic Church. And Australia still doesn’t have a public sex offenders registry (3). Perpetrators, even if sentenced, are forced to deal with very few lasting consequences for their actions.

While perpetrators remain overwhelmingly unscathed, the effect upon of victims of assault is brutal. I’ll tell you about my experience. The man who assaulted me and two other children lives and works peacefully in North-West Tasmania, after serving a mere three months prison time, years ago. His name was not in the papers, but I suffered interrogation of my character, including questions asking what I was wearing on the day of the assault — both in court and out of it. People in church insinuated I was part of the reason for the breakdown of his marriage. It took me years to hug my dad and male family members comfortably again. I carry the anger, and the shame, and the fear with me. I’m still not sure how to talk about it or how it’s changed me, or if I’ll ever feel less sick, or less angry. I was eleven. And I didn’t get any peace.

We care more about the reputation of some men than the bodily integrity of those they attack. Time and time again, our legal and political institutions force child abuse survivors to pay for the lasting consequences for acts inflicted upon them. The price is a heavy burden of psychological damage, from risks of depression and anxiety to the survivor’s future capacity to form healthy relationships, not to mention the cost to their reputation, dignity, money and time.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is very difficult to assert a conviction of sexual assault — even if successful, the victim bears the brunt of formal justice. In a courtroom, victims as young as 10 years old testify in front of the person they see in the back of their mind before they go to sleep at night.

The survivor’s integrity is often torn apart by defenders, and the legitimacy of their right to defend themselves is criticised by onlookers who may have no point of reference for their suffering. Sexual assault is a debilitating experience that can leave survivors with indelible trauma and the desire to forget the violence that has been done to their person. Their credibility is often attacked, but even if they are believed, survivors are criticized for somehow ruining the reputation of perpetrators, as if it were the victim’s fault.

Citing examples doesn’t seem to persuade people otherwise. From Woody Allen to Brett Kavanaugh to Rolf Harris, people will scramble desperately to protect a man accused of sexual crimes, despite overwhelming testimony and the statistical likelihood of their guilt. This isn’t just about me. This problem has reached endemic proportions. Two in ten women are sexually assaulted before the age of sixteen, and around one in ten men (4). Yet it is still somehow controversial to suggest that their attackers are morally reprehensible.

Yes, there should be greater discourse surrounding the complex nature of paedophilia and sexual assault. It is important that we recognise that “good guys” are capable of committing sexual crimes. The conversation around paedophilia shouldn’t stop at its definition. However, the act of sexual assault should not be excused or covered up at the victim’s cost. The circumstances leading up to the assault of a child or adult do not excuse sexual assault. A perpetrator’s status in society does not absolve the act of sexual assault.

It is not edgy or subversive to advocate for pedophiles and rapists. Society is more than willing to defend them in their institutional methods. Paedophiles and rapists are considered human until proven without a doubt to be morally unsalvageable. The same can’t be said for their victims.


The opinions expressed in the Togatus website are not those of the editors, the publishers, the University of Tasmania, or Tasmania University Union. Reasonable care is taken to ensure that Togatus articles and other information are up-to-date and as accurate as possible at the time of publication.


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