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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

Exploring discourses about child sexual abuse over time

How child sexual abuse is constructed and defined is critical to how the perpetrator, victim and survivor, and context of abuse are presented and responded to. Discourses about, understandings of, and responses to child sexual abuse have shifted in a variety of ways over time. For example, legal definitions of offences have determined whether or not certain manifestations of child sexual abuse have been recognised as a criminal offence. Similarly, how perpetrators of child sexual abuse are labelled has implications for both the perpetrator and the victim and survivor. For example, ‘sexual misconduct’ in the education sector has been described as blurring the boundaries between immorality and criminality and between harm to others and reputational damage (Bingham et al., 2016). This has meant that child protection implications have not always been recognised because the term ‘misconduct’ can disguise sexual abuse. The shift in language from ‘child prostitution’ to child sexual exploitation also represented a significant change in understanding – although there is an ongoing debate about whether or not the separation of child sexual exploitation from child sexual abuse is a valid and useful distinction.

Discourses about child sexual abuse have been shown to be in a continuous state of change and evolution. In some interpretations, they have been described as moving from societal denial of the existence of abuse to recognition and acceptance that child sexual abuse manifests in various forms (Kempe, 1978). Others have defined this as ‘cycles of discovery and suppression’ in which new findings about child sexual abuse are met with significant resistance (Olafson, Corwin and Summit, 1993). Child sexual abuse has also been described as ‘strikingly unusual for being repeatedly “discovered”, discredited, re-established and discredited over time’ (Nelson, 2016, p.91).

Some discourses about child sexual abuse are cyclical in nature; others are more linear, while others still are tied to particular moments in time. Yet there are key points of change, often catalysed by specific events. A notable example is the Cleveland Inquiry of 1987. This Inquiry into the sexual abuse of 121 children – and the means by which they were medically diagnosed as having experienced sexual abuse – is widely described as a ‘watershed’ moment. It had a significant impact on legislation and policy about child sexual abuse and both created and amplified a number of discourses about it. Further shifts could be seen in response to other high-profile cases such as the child murders of Sarah Payne and Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. These cases led to shifts that focused particularly on the characterisation and management of perpetrators.

The literature identified five key institutional arenas where debates have occured in relation to child sexual abuse. These debates have had implications for the institutional responses to child sexual abuse. The five arenas are shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Five key institutional arenas

Legal Arena Government Policy Arena Clinical Arena Social Work Arena Media Arena
This is one of the most prominent fields in which discourses about child sexual abuse have circulated. Substantial changes in the law on sexual offenses have seen the definition and redefinition of multiple offences relevant to child sexual abuse. Concepts of childhood and children's rights are key to this. There has been a raft of government policies relating to child sexual abuse from the 1940s to 2017. Inquiries and high-profile cases of abuse have often led to the development of government policy regarding child sexual abuse. The Cleveland case is a particularly pertinent example of this. In the health disciplines, approaches to perpetrators have been influenced by medicalised models of deviancy and pathology. The Cleveland case had a significant impact on the role of paediatricians and medical evidence in sexual abuse cases.  The area of child protection has undergone extensive shifts. Events which have received high-profile media attention have been linked to changing policy and practice. Tensions between keeping families together and listening to children are evident, as are those between empowerment and protection. The media has been a vehicle for conveying a number of key discourses about child sexual abuse, such as 'stranger-danger' and 'paedophile'.


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