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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

Overlaps of deflection and denial

1940s – 1960s

The discourse of ‘the seductive child’ – the idea that children had an innate sexuality and might therefore seek out sexual activities – was evident during this period. This idea deflected responsibility from the actions of the perpetrator to the behaviour of the child and, at the same time, denied the harm done to children by sexual abuse by depicting them as the initiators of it (Olafson, Corwin and Summit, 1993; Kelly, 1988).

1970s – 1990s

This period saw a continuation of similar ideas to the ‘seductive child’ with discourses of ‘children as sexual beings’ and ‘promiscuous girls’.

The idea of children as sexual beings affected the way people thought about child sexual abuse (Green and Masson, 2002; Ward and Keenan, 1999; Campbell, 1988). In this discourse, it was not suggested that children sought out sexual activity but instead that they had an innate sexuality and might therefore respond to sexual advances from adults. This perceived sexuality of children has been characterised as threatening and helped to generate professional anxiety about being exposed to expressions of sexuality by children, sometimes leading to a lack of intervention (Green 2005; Farmer and Pollock, 2003). Girls in particular were also seen as behaving ‘promiscuously’ and putting themselves at risk of abuse through their own behaviour, which detracted the focus from the perpetrators of abuse and denied the harm caused by it (Gohir, 2013; Ayre and Barrett, 2000). This was evident in the way sexual exploitation of girls was described as ‘child prostitution’ and girls described as ‘risk taking’ (for example, Berelowitz et al., 2012).

2000s – 2010s

In the 2000s, some explained the sexual exploitation of children by what was interpreted as children’s own ‘choices’. For example, the idea that children willingly engaged in sexual acts in exchange for payment or reward (Pearce, 2014, 2013). However, these children might have been making decisions in coercive contexts in which their agency and power to make decisions was limited (Pearce, 2014; Coy, 2009; Melrose, 2004). This affected professionals’ identification and response to child sexual exploitation (Gillespie and Ost, 2016; Reisel, 2016) and serious case reviews highlighted how children were seen as consenting to sexual activity rather than victims of abuse in need of support or intervention – this discourse is therefore labelled here as ‘condoning consent’.

1940s – 2010s

In contrast to this, throughout this period as a whole, children were also viewed as inherently innocent, and the ideal version of this required children to be asexual and unknowing and therefore unlikely to engage in sexual encounters (Green, 2005; Ennew, 1986). This way of thinking – here labelled as the ‘childhood innocence’ discourse – on the one hand, highlighted the fragility and vulnerability of children. On the other hand, some have argued that it compounded their powerlessness and dependency (Dominelli, 1989). The value attached to the innocence of children arguably also stigmatised those children whose innocence was perceived to be lost (Scott, 2001a), and prevented professionals from engaging with children as sexual beings and therefore addressing issues of sexual abuse and exploitation (Hackett et al., 2015; Green, 2005).

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