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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


The aim of this REA was to explore what the existing literature could tell us about the social and political discourses concerning child sexual abuse in England and Wales from the 1940s to 2017. A total of 31 dominant discourses and six counter discourses between the 1940s and 2017 were identified from the literature reviewed. The dominant discourses could be categorised as discourses of deflection (from perpetrators and institutions), denial (of harm and extent) and disbelief. The counter discourses comprised discourses of power and belief. This made for a complex picture of how child sexual abuse was recognised, made sense of and responded to over time. It also showed that there has not been an agreed, uniform definition, explanation or theory of child sexual abuse over these decades.

These discourses have not existed in isolation from each other, and they have been influenced by emerging knowledge and developing policy and practice. New insights in one area have often been (not always, and not systematically) picked up in other areas, leading to contradictions in how child sexual abuse has been recognised, made sense of and responded to. The discourse around ‘children’s voices’, for example, highlighted the need for children to be heard and for children to be treated as subjects on their own lives, not an object of concern. This is now embedded in a range of national and international policies and guidance, as well as in the work of many charities. However, a tension has remained between children as objects of protection and children as social actors with voices and rights.

The second aim of this REA was to explore in which ways these discourses have influenced institutional responses to child sexual abuse. This was a much more challenging question and one which could not be fully answered through the literature reviewed.

There have been some watershed moments and events which have radically changed how child sexual abuse is talked about and understood and have led to lasting legal, policy and social developments, most notably the Cleveland Inquiry of 1987. At times, rapid progress has been achieved in a relatively short time, but this has typically been in reaction to high-profile events (Parton, 2016; Davidson, 2008). This is often the case when a ‘time of telling’ (dynamics in society which create spaces in which it is possible to speak about child sexual abuse) converges with a ‘sphere of listening’ (when it is more likely to be heard by institutions and people in a position of power) (Carlsson, 2009).

Key findings regarding the influence of discourses about child sexual abuse on institutional responses in this period included:

  • Institutions responding to claims of child sexual abuse within familial contexts have obscured the actions of perpetrators by focusing on the family as a whole, and using various versions of mother blame.
  • The ‘crime of dominion’ discourse was clearest in relation to sport and the Catholic Church and, to an extent also residential care settings, where the role of authority within the institution – such as coach or priest – provided additional power and resources to perpetrators.
  • The policy outcome of seeing perpetrators as ‘a few bad apples’, particularly in the late 1990s and 2000s, was focused on risk, recruitment and criminal records screening as the safeguarding response, rather than examining how internal cultures might have been implicated in making sexual abuse possible and in the failure to respond appropriately to complaints and concerns.
  • ‘Children lie’ has been an enduring discourse in legal responses.
  • A variety of discourses of belief have emerged since the 1980s which made it easier for victims and survivors to speak about their experiences, although some barriers remained.

The findings of this REA threw up a number of questions which could be further examined, including how different discourses have influenced the responses of specific institutions to child sexual abuse over time; how specific institutions or professions understood (or should have understood) child sexual abuse in particular moments in time, and how influential discourses were in this process.

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