Disability and Exploitation: A Foray into Dark Places
There are very few Young Adult authors who have written about disability and exploitation, which is probably why so many people have asked me why I decided to do this in my debut novel, Rosie Loves Jack.
Discussion of any kind like this is rare, but I feel it is important to bring this subject out into the open, as its exposition can only be valuable for young people, especially within the safe pages of a book.
My character Rosie has Down's syndrome; this doesn't define her - she is a typical sixteen-year-old teenager. She lives in a world where these issues of sexual exploitation are there for us to see and her journey in the book is, sadly, a reflection of life and one that we can't escape with the media.
Any young person out in a city like London, by themselves, unsure of where to go is vulnerable but a person with a learning disability is much more innocent, naive and open to predators. A street-wise teenager might be able to navigate getting lost in a big city more easily, but they are equally fooled by people and situations, because at sixteen you think you know it all, when in fact you know so little of the wider world – and in that sense it makes you as vulnerable as someone naïve.
It seemed a probable progression in my story that this might happen to my character Rosie and that I could use it to highlight these issues. There will always be those who prey on the vulnerable and although a lot of the time it won't end like my Rosie's journey, into a grooming house where young girls are exploited for sexual favours, it can and does happen. (Though I must emphasise here that I would never have let anything actually happen to my teenager with Down's syndrome as I felt that the underlying threat was enough.)
My daughter worked with young girls who have been groomed and I was shocked to discover that sexual exploitation amongst children with disabilities - physical and learning disabilities is equally as extensive as those without. It is not just in certain areas of the country either, like Rochdale or Oxford, but all over the country and not just in urban settings.
Why don't we talk about this exploitation? For a start, people with People with disabilities are under-represented in the media and, until recently, have been excluded from mainstream education. They can also live in care homes - which keeps them on the edge of society.
Sexual exploitation hasn’t been thought of in the context of applying to a person with a disability until it was at the forefront of the news with the revelation of Jimmy Savile’s exploits and the abuses discovered at the Winterbourne View Care Home for those with learning disabilities. We might listen with horror to these terrible stories of abuse but it stays within the television 'box' and gets left in the care home for others to sort out, as it’s too awful to think about. We can’t imagine doing anything so dreadful to someone so vulnerable ourselves, so we would rather not dwell on it. That leaves us with nothing to discuss…
Sexual activity for people with learning disabilities is something that’s rarely ever discussed in a good, healthy, loving context either, as it’s too embarrassing and is seen as a topic that shouldn’t even happen. It becomes another taboo subject to be swept under the carpet. If there were more books with characters like Rosie in them and in films, on television and in advertising, then they would be seen as the human beings they are like everyone else, with the same emotions and desires to be loved, to love and to be accepted without limitations. Through this would come understanding and from that more open discussions.
Any sort of discussion about abuse or sexual exploitation has tended to be covered up and kept secret until recently; the shame mutes people, more often than not because it has been a family member doing the abusing or exploiting. For the victim themselves the feelings of guilt, shame and fear that they carry with them, for life, is often a silencer - and because many have been told if they speak out about it something terrible might happen, either to them or someone else in the family it can take years to feel safe enough to talk. And then when they do, as with the group of girls in the Rochdale cases, you might not be believed or ‘interrogated’ to the point that it becomes part of the problem. The knock on effect from this is that it perpetuates the rarity of discussion around it because discussion starts with the victim. Of course, if you are a victim without the means to express yourself verbally, then the silence is deafening.
So, my foray into dark places in my novel, Rosie Loves Jack, was not sensationalistic, but a genuine attempt to open up discussion of such an important topic. I truly hope that bringing this into the story can give young people who read the book an understanding that will lead to more open discussion in a non-threatening framework.