Do you know what catfishing is? I must admit that I didn’t until I saw someone reading an article on the Tube the other day about someone being “…catfished aged 14” (NB: not one to open in front of a class). My shameful ignorance of the term extended to not knowing that there is an MTV show of the same name and that it is such common parlance that there were efforts to bring in an anti-catfish law in parliament.
But once I had worked out what it meant – namely, to use someone else’s photo to trick your way into a sexual relationship – it got me thinking about the dangers of careless language for safeguarding young people. In the article that triggered all this, catfishing was actually a reference to attempted child sexual abuse via grooming and CSE.
Give it a cuddly name though (I know, you wouldn’t cuddle a catfish), and all of a sudden it is normalised and is easy to shrug off as harmless fun. To be fair to the newspaper, it was a direct quote, and let me be clear that I intend no criticism at all of the victim, as the word has become a cultural reference (just one that I didn’t know).
Although I am probably inviting accusations of “political correctness gone mad”, isn’t this a good example of why language matters? Last week’s post on SafeBlog was about roasting, which is essentially bullying by another name; the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal was in part allowed to perpetuate because the girls involved were ‘engaging in risk-taking behaviours’ rather than described as vulnerable, at-risk children. And only this week there was news of a (admittedly disgraced and imprisoned) US congressman sexting a child, which, although it sounds bad in itself, is not so clear-cut as soliciting child sexual abuse imagery.
Sexism and racism campaigners have long campaigned against terms and expressions that only serve to consolidate prejudice. If you aren’t convinced, ask yourself when a politician would talk about a tax burden, and when would they say contribution instead? They would choose very carefully, and with good reason – words shape the way we think about a subject…a lot. The linguistic term for this is framing, and there are plenty of fascinating books and research on the subject should you want to get academic.
Either way, I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what we say and the words we use shape what we think, and can therefore play an important role in keeping children safe.
PS – For handy signposts to information about child sexual exploitation, see cse.lgfl.net
PPS – If you are a school DSL or online-safety lead, you might want to sign up to our newsletter here