Give me a hug; a sentence that generally invokes feelings of love and security. As a child, and teenager, these words haunted me. They were the words my abuser used as he held me down and forced me to masturbate him aged 10 and 11. “I just want a hug” he insisted as he repeatedly rubbed his penis against me and forcibly groped my genitals.
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 to the feeling of his sweating hands all over my body. I self-harmed through my teenage years to cope and have been left scarred. It took me until I was aged 24 to go to the police about what had happened. Like many victims of childhood sexual abuse I’d always felt too ashamed and guilty to really talk about it.
On the day of the trial the defendant put in a plea bargain for one of the attacks and I was advised by my solicitor to accept it. When sentencing my abuser the Judge decided that the mental harm inflicted upon me was - at most - moderate. Despite a youth spent with intimacy issues, panic attacks, vivid flash backs, self-harming, and crippled by feelings of worthlessness - this was not enough. It was hypothesised that the attack could only have lasted for “an hour” at most. I can’t remember how long it went on for. I remember feeling tired, I remember begging him to let me go, pleading to just let me sleep, I remember it feeling hopeless. In court it felt as though my suffering as a child was being measured and it was always coming up just a little too short.
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.
When personal bias can play a role in the sentencing of such a serious and potentially life-altering crime, justice will not always be served. Judges have shown sympathy towards paedophiles before. In one instance a judge handed down 160 hours of counselling to a defendant found guilty of possessing child pornography as opposed to the recommended 4 to 18 month custodial sentence. His quoted concern was that this paedophile had already faced “humiliation” in the press and had endured the death of his mother which occurred more than a year after the offences were committed.
I’ve felt first-hand the fear of an adult forcing themselves on to 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 – 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 first hand 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. Unless this is achieved our culture of acceptance will continue to hand out woefully inadequate sentences.