I am never slow to blog when mainstream political bodies and media let us down with sloppy reports or journalism. It seems only fair to pay credit when things are done well.
Late last night, BBC2 broadcast The Truth About Child Sex Abuse, hosted by Professor Tanya Byron. The programme incorporated a lot of the findings of the new report from the office of the Children’s Commissioner, Protecting Children From Harm [pdf].
Child sexual abuse is an immensely complex and multifarious phenomenon, so a 45 minute documentary could never live up to such an ambitious title. Inevitably there were one or two points at which I rolled my eyes, and (as always, it seems) I feel obliged to point out that there is no evidence that any type of CSA – excepting online sharing of abuse imagery – is becoming more commonplace in the 21st century (whatever evidence there is points the other way.) Quibbles aside, however, it was a sober, intelligent and informative documentary that strived for elucidation, compassion and understanding over sensationalism and shocks.
From my perspective, I was particularly grateful that the programme did not shy away from gender inclusive truths. The cases and statistics featured included both male victims and female abusers. Interviewees included our ever-inspirational pal Duncan Craig from Survivors Manchester who eloquently explained that the official statistics almost certainly underestimate the proportion of CSA survivors who are male.
In that, the programme borrowed from the Children’s Commissioner’s report, which has an excellent and fascinating section on gender, that I urge you to read (Page 48 here). The statistics confirmed something which I had previously heard anecdotally from those who work with survivors, but never seen illustrated so graphically. Where boys have been sexually abused, it is likely to have occurred at a much younger age than with girls.
On the graph above, all child sex abuse is on the left and ‘child sex abuse in the family environment’ is on the right. The higher of each pair of bars is female, the lower male. Each pair of bars represents the proportion of male or female abuse survivors who were found to have been abused at that age.
Do take care in interpreting this graph. It does not show, for example, that six times as many one-year-old boys are abused as one-year-old girls. It shows that 6% of male abuse victims are babies but only 1% of female victims, which is not the same thing, as there are many more known female victims. The report explains that in raw numbers, roughly equal numbers of male and female children are abused until they reach puberty, after which girls are at increasingly greater risk (this too should be tempered by awareness that abuse of adolescent boys may be much less likely to ever be disclosed or reported, but even allowing for this I would cautiously accept the exceptionally high rates of abuse against teenage girls as being a fair reflection of reality.)
However I think there are two real takeaways from this discussion. The first harks back to our recent spat with the Crown Prosecution Service over their reporting of (sic) “Violence Against Women and Girls.” Alison Saunders DPP justified her stance by saying that the victims of the vast majority of so-called VAWG crimes are indeed women and girls. The statistics here show how misleading that can be.
Yes, around 3/4 of child sex abuse victims are girls, but this whitewashes over some critical trends within the data and they have incredibly important applications. For instance, how many people working with young children (primary school teachers in particular) are aware of the fact that boys who are behaving erratically or destructively in class are every bit as likely to be experiencing sexual abuse in the home as a girl behaving similarly? Not many, I would guess.
That leads directly to another essential point made in the Children’s Commissioners’ report. I quote directly:
Boys and young men are also less likely to be identified and perceived as victims. During site visits, professionals stated that non-specialist services were likely to address issues related to child sexual abuse in the family environment among boys and young men, but were less likely to explore underlying sexual abuse. In one particular example, it was clear that whereas boys and young men with concerning sexual behaviour would be referred to a specialist service for harmful sexual behaviours, girls and young women exhibiting the same type of behaviour would be referred to a service for child sexual exploitation.”
In plain English, this is telling us that victims of child sexual abuse are being treated not as victims but as sex offenders, for one reason and one reason alone – their gender. Make no mistake, this is a direct consequence of social policy and a prevailing ideology that begins with a default assumption that where girls might have problems, boys might be problems.
The second takeaway I would propose here is that calls for “gender neutrality” in social policy, particularly with regards to issues such as intimate and sexual violence, are inadequate. There are real and important gender effects at play here, and those gender effects must be recognised, understood and worked with/on if we are to improve both survivor support and abuse prevention.
There’s an idea I have been mulling over in other contexts that I will park here for now, but return to another day soon. My idea is that debates on these issues have become trapped in arguments between those advocating for a gendered approach (by which they mean a patriarchal paradigm where the only real issue is ‘male violence against women’) and those calling for ‘gender-neutrality’ who would seek to remove gender from the discussion altogether, so everything simply becomes ‘relationship violence’ or ‘sexual violence’ or whatever.
I believe there is an alternative, and the phrase I would use to capture it is “gender inclusive.” That means we do not deny or ignore gender effects, but we acknowledge that those dynamics can apply in multiple, intersecting patterns, that both victims and perpetrators can be of any gender, gender alignment or sexuality. As I say, I will expand on this another day, but for now, I leave you with a doffed cap of gratitude to the Children’s Commissioner and BBC2 for demonstrating gender inclusiveness in action.