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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Deflection, denial and disbelief: social and political discourses about child sexual abuse and their influence on institutional responses A rapid evidence assessment

Discourses of deflection

Deflection from perpetrators

1940s – 1960s

The view that child sexual abuse was not widespread (here labelled as a discourse called ‘rare and unusual’) led to a limited recognition by professionals that abuse was taking place (see, Nelson, 2016; Scott, 2001a; Dominelli, 1989; Eisenberg, Owens and Dewey, 1987). There was also a perception that child sexual abuse happened within certain groups, such as lower social classes, and a failure to recognise how widespread it was across all social groups (here labelled as the ‘blaming ‘culture’’ discourse). This was one of the discourses that positioned perpetrators of child sexual abuse as ‘other’. This persisted until the 1970s (Nelson, 2016; Dominelli, 1989; Kelly, 1988; Lukianowicz, 1972). The idea that ‘perpetrators are weak’ and not in control of their actions was another prominent discourse at the time (see, Smart, 1999).

1970s – 1990s

The idea that child sexual abuse could be attributed to problems within individual families caused in some way by the mother (labelled here as ‘mother blame’ discourses) was salient during the 1970s to 1990s. Specific discourses of ‘family dysfunction’, ‘collusive mother’, and ‘failure to protect’ influenced the way professionals dealt with child sexual abuse (see for example, Hooper and Humphreys, 1998; Kelly, 1988; MacLeod and Saraga, 1988). It was also suggested in the literature that such views influenced government policy, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Views about gender roles within the family have also determined how child sexual abuse was perceived. Expectations around the mother’s role in keeping her children safe have fed into the view that mothers of children who had been sexually abused were responsible for the abuse and somehow ‘colluded’ in it or ‘failed to protect’ their children (see for example, Nelson, 2016; Kelly, 1988). These expectations were also evident in the ways mothers were represented within the serious case review sample, implying they persist up to the present day.

As in earlier decades, the idea of perpetrators as ‘other’ and somehow different and separate from the rest of society, persisted. This was particularly evident with the use of the term ‘paedophile’. This term came from medical descriptions of people who displayed sexual attraction to prepubescent children, but was increasingly used in the media to describe all perpetrators of child sexual abuse, particularly those outside of the family. The term was used to emphasise the difference between perpetrators and ‘normal’ members of society (Salter, 2018; Cowburn and Dominelli, 2001; Wyre, 2000).

The ‘cycle of abuse’ theory – a discourse suggesting that experiencing sexual abuse in childhood led people to perpetrate abuse – was particularly popular amongst professionals and in policy in the 1980s and 1990s, despite a lack of clear evidence to support it. This was evident in professional and policy literature which cited past abuse as a risk factor for becoming a perpetrator and which used past abuse as an explanation for a perpetrator’s actions (see, Kelly et al., 2000; Brogi and Bagley, 1998).

2000s – 2010s

A range of discourses that deflected from perpetrators were prominent in the 2000s. ‘Blaming “culture”’, for example, attributed blame to specific communities through a focus on their race and cultural or ethnic group. This served as another way in which perpetrators were seen as not part of ‘normal’ society. This was evident, for example, in the recent focus on race in public debate on child sexual exploitation, and, specifically, the attention given to cases of child sexual exploitation involving South Asian male perpetrators and White victims, with no comparable coverage given to White perpetrators and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic victims and survivors (see, Gill and Harrison, 2015; Tufail, 2015; Cockbain, 2013).

More recently, perpetrators were constructed as vulnerable (here labelled as the ‘perpetrators as vulnerable’ discourse), particularly in relation to children and young people who sexually abused. However, it was applied inconsistently, with children who sexually offended described as vulnerable and in need of support but often treated in the same way as adult sex offenders (Smith et al., 2014).

Overlapping with representations of perpetrators as weak or vulnerable was the idea that perpetrators abused children because there was something ‘wrong’ with them which drove them to offend (for example Groth et al., 1982, cited in Taylor and Quayle, 2003). These types of ideas ranged from the popular clinical notion of ‘cognitive deficits’ (where perpetrators were seen to have distorted beliefs about children) to sexuality and problematic social behaviour. There were also publicly held attitudes that perpetrators had ‘perverted minds’ or moral deficits (Frameworks Institute, 2016).

The idea of ‘stranger danger’ – that perpetrators of child sexual abuse existed outside of the home and family environment – strongly influenced public attitudes and responses to child sexual abuse (Williams and Hudson, 2013; Jewkes, 2010; Kitzinger, 2004). An example of this was the public support for sex offender notification schemes and the emphasis on external controls and vetting of individuals who would have contact with children as a way of preventing child sexual abuse (for example McAlinden, 2006). This way of thinking again emphasised the idea of a difference between perpetrators and the rest of society and may have led to child sexual abuse within the family being overlooked. The current media focus on online ‘paedophiles’ could be seen as a variant of this (Jewkes and Wykes, 2012).

Some reviews and inquiries which looked at non-recent child sexual abuse have located abuse in a past social or historical context and made a clear distinction between this ‘different time’ and the present day (Furedi, 2013; Gray and Watt, 2013). The implication was that these attitudes and behaviours were confined to the past, and were not a problem in the present. Institutions have been criticised for using this narrative to justify actions taken in the past and to avoid accountability (Jay, 2014).

Deflection from institutions

2000s – 2010s

In addition to the discourses that deflected attention from perpetrators, there was also a range of discourses that deflected responsibility from institutions in the 2000s. These discourses are labelled here as ‘a few bad apples’, ‘institution as victim’, ‘gold diggers’, ‘making children and/or parents responsible’, and ‘family as a protected space.’

One approach to understanding child sexual abuse in relation to institutions was the idea that it was a problem of ‘a few bad apples’, or a small and distinct group of individuals who could be isolated and kept out of institutions through risk assessment and vetting processes (Hartill, 2013). This placed emphasis on the limitations and actions of individual perpetrators rather than the institutional context within which they offended (Stanley, 1999). It has been argued that this approach has been evident in the response of institutions like the Catholic Church to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse and has also driven policies that focus on the treatment of individual offenders and the selection and recruitment of staff (Death, 2015; Sullivan and Beech, 2002).

Another discourse labelled here as ‘institutions as victims’ looked at a narrative in which the institutions positioned themselves as the victims of perpetrators who had abused children within that context (Gilligan, 2012), or victims of unjust accusations of abuse resulting from over-zealous investigations. Another discourse (labelled here as ‘gold diggers’) suggested that some victims would make allegations of abuse for (in the view of this discourse) financial gain (see for example, Webster, 2005).

Another way in which responsibility for child sexual abuse had been deflected from institutions was through a focus on the role of parents and children in keeping themselves safe (labelled here as ‘making parents/children responsible’). Awareness raising programmes for parents and children could (usually inadvertently) reinforce this (Frameworks Institute, 2016). Views on the relationship between the family and the state more generally also influenced how child sexual abuse had been understood and responded to, with the belief that families were a protected space that should be free from state interventions (labelled here as the ‘family as a protected space’ discourse) (Ward and Patel, 2006; Fox Harding, 1991).

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