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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 belief

The discourses of belief created a climate of support and recognition for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and positioned them as wise experts whose lived experiences were a source of knowledge.

1970s – 1990s

One of the counter discourses evident in the 1970s to 1990s was ‘space to speak’, which looked at the dynamics that created or limited spaces for victims and survivors to speak about child sexual abuse and to be heard and recognised by institutions (Exton and Kamaljit, 2013; Whittier, 2009; Naples, 2003; Alcoff and Gray, 1993). These spaces could open up when a ‘time of telling’ converged with a ‘sphere of listening’ (Carlsson, 2009) and often revolved around themes, such as silence, trauma and transformation. For boys, barriers to speaking were linked to fear of homophobia (Hunter, 2010).

Another counter discourse in this period was around ‘harm, trauma, and damage’ and looked at how victims and survivors of child sexual abuse could focus on individual recovery and healing. It looked critically at ‘breaking the silence’ as a way to address harm, trauma and damage caused by child sexual abuse because, while speaking out could be liberatory, it could also reinforce dominant discourses. For example when victims and survivors were invited to speak on television for ‘shock value’ instead of being positioned as subjects of their own lives with their own authority (Naples, 2003; Alcoff and Gray, 1993). The recognition of the impacts of harm, trauma and damage was challenged by the idea of ‘victimhood’ that sought to reposition victims of child sexual abuse as helpless, powerless and dependent by suggesting that they embraced, or revelled in, a ‘victim identity’ (Whittier, 2009). This is an example of what Nelson (2016) has described as ‘backlash’.

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