Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pitcairn Island

On Fresh Air yesterday, British journalist Kathy Marks spoke with Terri Gross about her new book, Lost Paradise, a nonfiction account of the child abuse sex scandal on Pitcairn Island. Pitcairn Island is a British outpost in a remote part of the South Pacific. It is and has always been extremely isolated, with no airstrip and reachable only by a grueling 6 or 7 day sea journey from Australia. Only about 50 people live there, most of them descended from British sailor Fletcher Christian and the crew of the Bounty, which fled there in 1789.

In 2000, while British detectives were on the island investigating rape allegations made by a 15 year old girl, they discovered evidence that suggested most of the adult male population, 10 men, had been sexually abusing the island's girls for decades. And most of the victims, who had chosen to leave the island over the years, had been initially raped as young as 7 or 8.

How does something like this not just happen but become an embedded community norm practiced without impunity for years? Marks' explanation is a troubling one: she says that Pitcairners had lived an isolated existence in a male dominated society where men were doing exactly what they pleased." Raping children, eh? Was there just not a good game on?

Marks says the women on the island (who had overwhelmingly been victims themselves) felt unable to blow the whistle on the abuse or even to admit such things were occurring. She says, "If you are the mother of a girl who's being abused, what can you do? There's no one to complain to. The people in authority are doing it as well. Your own husband and brother are doing it." Even 10 years later, there is still a very strong sense of denial in the community, which Marks attributes to patriarchy: "It's ingrained in the mentality of the men in Pitcairn that this is an OK thing to do."

As unbelievable as it sounds, she has a point. A Google search of the island doesn't turn up much more than fluffy travel journals that call it a paradise and praise the islanders' virtuous, crime-free lives. If any mention of the sex scandal is made, it laments the loss of manpower that occurred when 9 of the 10 men were sentenced to prison terms in 2004 – not the physical and emotional injuries endured by the first- and second-grade girls who were sexually assaulted. One site even made a big deal about how the jail hadn't been used since 1922.

Throughout the trial most of the international community hemmed and hawed over the British investigations, fretting about ethnocentricity and British cultural imperialism. I, however, find it a bit suspect for men to cry "Culture!" when they're caught with their dicks in little kids' mouths. Or when he wants to confine his wife to the home. Or when he wants to excise her clitoris. Or when he wants to forbid her from earning money or casting a vote. No matter what the atrocity, so long as the victims are all women, a pretty effective case can be made for cultural relativism. Judging by the reactions in the media and international community to the Pitcairn scandal, there are plenty of people willing to look the other way and let Pitcairners do to "their women" as they like.

No comments: