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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 denial

Denial of harm

1940s – 1960s

Discourses that child sexual abuse was ‘not that harmful’ (the idea that sex between adults and children did not lead to long-lasting harm) and that ‘intervention is worse’ (the idea that involving professionals and possibly removing a child from their family network was more negative than living with ongoing sexual abuse) appeared to be particularly dominant at this time. The harm done to children was also seen as lessened when abuse took place within ‘a loving family environment’ (Nava, 1988). Ideas about levels of harm were gendered. For example, the abuse of boys by male perpetrators was viewed as more harmful than the abuse of girls by males due to the former being perceived as homosexual activity and therefore categorised as less ‘normal’ (Green, 2005). This also linked to the idea that the harm caused in cases of child sexual abuse was a result of the response to the abuse rather than the abuse itself (see for example, Kinsey et al., 1953 cited in Kelly, 1988 and West, 1981).

1970s – 1990s

The idea of ‘paedophile as a sexual orientation’ gained traction at this time, particularly in the earlier decades. This was the idea that paedophilia, or more specifically, the attraction of some men to boys and adolescents, should be recognised as a legitimate sexual orientation. This was espoused by a number of individuals and groups, including the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the UK (Li, 1991; Thorstad, 1991). This idea had been linked to the sexual liberation movement, despite a distancing between the two in the 1980s. Clinical literature saw homosexuality and paedophilia as associated forms of sexual deviance (Malón, 2012) and media and political discourses also associated, and even conflated, homosexuality and paedophilia at times (Robinson, 2011).

2000s – 2010s

The idea that child sexual abuse was ‘not that harmful’ resurfaced more recently in relation to Images Depicting Child Sexual Abuse (IDCSA) (Horsman, 2016). The use of the term ‘child pornography’ was recognised as problematic because of associations with consensual sexual activity (Edwards, 2000). The way cases of IDCSA were dealt with in law and the limited application of legal sanctions was also characterised as indicative of ambivalent views about the harm caused by them (McManus and Almond, 2014; Edwards, 2000).

Denial of extent

1970s – 1990s

Within the broader discourse of denial of the extent of child sexual abuse, discourses of ‘over-zealous professionals’, ‘moral panic’, and ‘witch hunt’ appeared to be salient during the 1970s to the 1990s. The extent of child sexual abuse was contested through the idea that ‘over-zealous’ professionals pressured or encouraged children to disclose sexual abuse, believed exaggerated claims of abuse, or intervened too readily (Taylor-Browne 1997a; Cream, 1993). Terms such as ‘moral panic’ and ‘witch hunt’ used in relation to child sexual abuse drew on a similar narrative. The former term described perceived disproportionate or irrational responses to social threats such as child sexual abuse, and thereby minimised the scale of the problem (Clapton, Cree and Smith, 2013; Critcher, 2002). The term ‘witch hunt’ also denied the scale of child sexual abuse by suggesting that allegations of child sexual abuse were false and driven by a desire to damage an individual or institution (see for example, Webster, 2005).

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