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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

Framework for understanding the key discourses about child sexual abuse

During the identification and analysis of discourses in the literature, serious case reviews and institutional texts, two broad types of discourses emerged: dominant discourses and counter discourses.

Dominant discourses appeared to take for granted as ‘truths’ certain ideas relating to child sexual abuse. They emerged in relation to the different institutional arenas described above and can be seen as having dominated thinking on the subject in these contexts. These could be split into three overarching categories:

  • Discourses of deflection: These discourses serve to either deflect responsibility for child sexual abuse from perpetrators or deflect responsibility from institutions. Discourses which deflect responsibility from perpetrators are characterised by: minimising perpetrators’ actions and distancing attitudes to abuse; blaming mothers; and ‘othering’ perpetrators in some way. Discourses that deflect responsibility from institutions are characterised by similar themes of minimising either an institution’s space to intervene or the sexual abuse itself.
  • Discourses of denial: These discourses serve to deny either the harm caused by child sexual abuse or the extent of the abuse. Denying that child sexual abuse is harmful positions it as consensual or minimises its harmful impacts. Denial of extent of harm shares a common thread that abuse has been exaggerated or fabricated.
  • Discourses of disbelief: These are discourses that outright refuse to accept that child sexual abuse has occurred. There were fewer of these discourses compared to the other two but tendencies to disbelieve allegations of child sexual abuse remained a constant thread throughout the period under review.

Counter discourses were expressed by those at the margins of social and political power and challenge dominant views. These could be split into two overarching categories, drawn together by how they prioritise the voices of victims and survivors:

  • Discourses of power: These discourses challenged dominant understandings and explanations of child sexual abuse by exploring the role of power and status in sexual abuse.
  • Discourses of belief: These discourses started from the position of belief in the existence of child sexual abuse and the harm it could cause to victims and survivors. They attempted to create a climate of support and recognition for those who had experienced child sexual abuse by allowing space to speak for those who had been marginalised or silenced.

Figure 2: A conceptual model of discourses about child sexual abuse in England and Wales

The identification of these five broad, overlapping categories of discourse led to the development of a conceptual model in which a range of more specific discourses could be organised. Thirty-one dominant and six counter discourses were identified and structured using this model. This is illustrated in Figure 2 opposite.

As this report shows, discourses are rarely static and unchanging. Many shape shifted over time as they were influenced by and intersected with other discourses, and as they were used by institutions in defence of current or previous decision-making. Some were influential at certain points but went dormant only to re-emerge in an altered form, while others persisted, albeit that their salience rose and fell.

Counter discourses can gain more traction in so far as sets of ideas which were at one point marginal and only held by specific groups in society could become more widely accepted, acknowledged and even adopted. Examples of aspects counter discourses which have gained traction and dominance (albeit not universal acceptance) over time in England and Wales included:

  • the view that child sexual abuse existed and was a crime, as a result of which victims and survivors of that crime existed (see for example, Alcoff and Gray, 1993); and (linked to this)
  • that child sexual abuse caused harm to victims and survivors (see for example, O’Dell, 2003).
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