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Social and political discourses about child sexual abuse


We wanted to learn more about the ways people have thought and talked about child sexual abuse in England and Wales over the last eight decades.

  • We commissioned researchers from the London Metropolitan University to write a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA). They summarised the existing research evidence base about social and political discourses concerning child sexual abuse in England and Wales from the 1940s to 2017.
  • We also brought together professionals and victims and survivors to explore how people have thought and talked about child sexual abuse. The discussion touched on how current ways of thinking and talking about child sexual abuse help or hinder effective and sensitive responses and on how best to challenge unhelpful narratives.


Key Themes

  • Discourses
  • Peer-on-peer abuse
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Child sexual exploitation





Child sexual abuse is understood and talked about in different ways. Different groups in society - including politicians, journalists and professionals working with children and young people - have different ways of thinking about child sexual abuse that are informed by their particular experiences and perspectives. These ways of thinking influence how people prevent and respond to child sexual abuse.  


February 2018: REA and article were published

February 2018: Seminar was held

August 2018: Seminar report was published

What we have learned from the REA

  • The authors of the report reviewed research and policy documents looking as far back as the 1940s and identified 37 different ways in which professionals may have understood and responded to child sexual abuse. Broadly speaking, these discourses fall into two groups: dominant discourses and counter discourses.

  • Dominant discourses appeared to take for granted as ‘truths’ certain ideas relating to child sexual abuse. Some of the language used deflected responsibility for child sexual abuse by labelling it as something that happened ‘in a different time’ when different standards applied, or as a problem caused by ‘a few bad apples’, or by ‘blaming mothers’ for failing to keep children safe. Some of these narratives still persist today.

  • Counter discourses challenged the dominant discourses. Here the emphasis is on believing, recognising and supporting victims and survivors and looking at power relations.

What we learned from the seminar

  • The seminar was attended by academics, professionals, practitioners, and victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. It focused on narratives about child sexual exploitation, peer-on-peer abuse and online-facilitated abuse.

  • Seminar participants discussed unhelpful narratives they have come across, including narratives that individualise the issue of child sexual abuse, and narratives that create and perpetuate notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims.

Implications for the work of the Inquiry

Understanding how child sexual abuse is understood and made sense of by the public and different professional groups has helped to inform and provide context to the wider work of the Inquiry.

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