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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 power

The discourses of power challenged dominant understandings and explanations of child sexual abuse by exploring the role of power and status in relation to who did what to whom.

1970s – 1990s

The discourse of ‘crime of dominion’ described abuse in which a person in a dominant, powerful or privileged position (for example, a father, a priest or a sports coach) took advantage of a victim who was less powerful and privileged in terms of their age, sex, race or class. There were a range of factors that could reinforce a sense of adult power over children. These factors included ideas about children’s natural vulnerability, which could facilitate the entrapment of children in abusive situations (Nelson, 2016; Campbell, 2015; Gallagher, 2000; Cream 1993).

The ‘constructions of masculinities’ discourse recognised the role of gender in structuring power relations. Feminists have critiqued dominant explanations of child sexual abuse that used stereotypical definitions of masculinity in which an innate ‘male sexual drive’ or an ‘uncontrollable sexuality’ was used to explain why men perpetrated sexual violence which rendered them less blameworthy (Barter, 2006; Green, 2005; Dominelli, 1989; MacLeod and Saraga, 1988). Related to this was the identification of a ‘macho’ leadership environment in many institutional regimes that created a culture in which sexualised bullying became normalised (Colton 2002; Waterhouse, 2000; Stanley, 1999).

2000s – 2010s

In the 2000s, the discourse of ‘conducive context’ challenged the view that children were sexually abused by ‘a few bad apples’. Instead it looked at the structures of and opportunities within institutions that created a conducive environment for sexual abuse to take place. This discourse rejected the idea that child sexual abuse could be stopped by excluding and warding against individual ‘sick’ or ‘wrong’ paedophiles. Instead it focused on the need for institutions including nurseries, schools, children’s homes and churches, to address that there were ‘closed worlds’ with ‘zones of impunity’ in which a ‘culture of silence and authoritarianism’ existed (Salter, 2018; Hartill, 2013; Dale and Alpert, 2007; Colton, 2002; Waterhouse, 2000; Herman and Hirschman, 1977).

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