The Children’s Commissioner & the BBC take on child sexual abuse


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.

age at first abused versus gender

Age (when abuse discovered) versus gender (click to enlarge)

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.

Comments

  1. StillGjenganger says

    Might it make sense to think in terms of two different phenomena:
    – Paedophilia, which is abuse of pre-pubescent children, and which seems to be mostly gender-neutral?
    – Underage sexual abuse, where the victims are mostly girls.

    The point being that paedophilia might be a specific sexual drive towards babies, whereas abuse of adult-bodied girls might be more a case of rapists targeting whoever seemed vulnerable (adult or not)?

  2. Ally Fogg says

    Yes, I think that is pretty much on the money Gjen, and indeed the programme last night made a similar point.

    There was a guy from NSPCC who was making that precise point, that paedophilia is a sexual attraction towards specifically pre-pubescent children and is a distinct phenomenon to those being attracted to post-pubescent or adolescent young adults, which could be considered much more close to the normal (ie non-abusive) spectrum of human sexuality.

    FWIW I think the distinction is important in some contexts but I’m not a big fan of categorising CSA as paedophile or non-paedophile, because it risks drifting into logic that says non-paedophile child abuse is therefore less serious or important a concern.

    One issue which they didn’t go into, but which is quite relevant there, is the phenomenon of adult women (usually childminders and teachers) sexually exploiting adolescent boys.

    There’s some forensic profiling been done on those women and they tend to be not aggressive, sadistic or violent personalities (which paedophiles often though not always can be) and tend to be more sad, depressed, emotionally immature.

    I don’t know if anyone has done it, but I suspect you would find similar results if you looked at traits of men who have been convicted of unlawful sexual contact with adolescent girls.

  3. Rob says

    StillGjenganger –

    …whereas abuse of adult-bodied girls might be more a case of rapists targeting whoever seemed vulnerable (adult or not)?

     
    I don’t agree with this. There is a significant difference between a recently post-pubescent girl and an adult bodied girl/women. While sex with a minor meets the definition of rape for very good reasons, it is undeniable that some men, while they may well happily have sex with adult women, have a specific preference for girls within narrow age/developmental stages. While many girls do develop pronounced primary and secondary sexual characteristics as minors, they do not actually have fully adult bodies until later in their teens (generally). More importantly, they don’t have adult minds.
     
    We need to tread very carefully around this idea of adult/not adult as it plays strongly into the hands of sexually predatory types who openly express (usually not very pleasant) variants on the theme of ‘fair game’.
     
    Ally, re

    There’s some forensic profiling been done on those women and they tend to be not aggressive, sadistic or violent personalities (which paedophiles often though not always can be) and tend to be more sad, depressed, emotionally immature.

     
    There have been several well reported examples of exactly this situation (female teacher/caregiver/social worker having sex with young males) reported here over the last couple of years. Anecdotally, that description seems a very good fit indeed. My gut feel is that might apply to some, but not all, males who prefer post-pubescent girls.

  4. Marduk says

    That graph is very striking.

    I think you are right about gender specificity, gender neutrality and the dominant paradigm but my concern is primarily tactical.
    I don’t like this but we have to be realists. Such a proposal would be seen as an aggressive and misogynistic move. The truth is the stage here is not filled by people who really want to pragmatically “improve both survivor support and abuse prevention”, we know this from the discourse around DV. Its possible the truth is boys do better by being considered as “children” and basically getting what they can from being implicitly mislabelled as girls. This depresses me but there is difference between reporting statistics and how policy debates play out.

    As to the questions raised in #2, yes, extensively demonstrated. But the thing to remember about this is that low self-esteem, immaturity, tendency towards poor self-concept, cognitive distortion etc. are generally believed to be separable from the paraphilia itself, what they are about is lack of self-control and impulsivity. You’d see the same thing in people who relapse into drug addiction. It has been shown that addressing those things reduces acting out (i.e., actual offending) but it doesn’t actually reduce fantasising, orientation or beliefs (which I think are a major issue in female offending not least because society basically endorses them to some extent as you discussed in a recentish Guardian piece IIRC) etc. At best then the variables are somewhat confounded.

  5. mostlymarvelous says

    I must say I found this surprising …

    … 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.

    I distinctly remember sex ed specialists here, and the mandatory reporting training for teachers generally, pointing out that children – boys and girls alike – who display age-inappropriate sexual knowledge or play activities to be candidates for referral. They’ve all, one way or another, been exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour or knowledge. This applies to primary age boys even if, maybe especially if, their sexual “play” is coercive.

    I realise this may have changed a bit since the advent of kids viewing online porn, but I thought the underlying notion is pretty sound.

  6. StilGjengagenger says

    @Rob 3
    All we can really do is to agree with the NSPCC that paedophilia is a distinct phenomenon to attraction to post-pubescent (but underage) children, and that the latter (in Ally’s carefully chosen words) “could be considered much more close to the normal (i.e. non-abusive) spectrum of human sexuality”. So yes, I pushed it a bit too far in my wording.

    These distinctions do sometimes have to be made, though. With any reasonable age limit there will be people below the limit who are (fairly) resilient, eager, and capable of handling their own sex life – just like there will be people above the age limit who are none of these things. Insisting on always using the same term has the effect of preventing people from raising relevant distinction – just like insisting on using two terms has the effect of making some horrible and damaging actions seem less serious than they are. Unless we have specific cases in mind there is nothing to be gained from discussing these categorizations, so I am happy to leave it as Ally put it in @2.

  7. Ally Fogg says

    MostlyMarvelous

    First, we don’t have mandatory reporting in this country. There is a lot of debate about it right now, but still no law. One consequence of that is that teachers are not obliged to categorise problematic sexualised behaviour as a possible symptom of abuse.

    But anyway, same applies I guess. I’d be pretty sure that if you asked teachers, pretty much all would tell you that yes, of course boys are sexually abused and that if any child is displaying inappropriate behaviour it might be as a consequence of abuse.

    However what people know as an intellectual fact is not the same as the conclusions they might jump to when they are under stress and when they have already decided that wee Jimmy is just an obnoxious, badly behaved little shit.

    I did phrase that point as a (semi-) rhetorical question in the OP. I genuinely don’t know how informed teachers are about the relative frequency of abused boys and girls. However I do stand by the claim you quoted, there is a lazy, problematic habit in schools and wider society that boys are more likely to be problems than to have problems.

  8. Ally Fogg says

    Marduk

    I don’t like this but we have to be realists. Such a proposal would be seen as an aggressive and misogynistic move. The truth is the stage here is not filled by people who really want to pragmatically “improve both survivor support and abuse prevention”, we know this from the discourse around DV.

    To be totally honest, at this stage I’m not really worried about the tactical side of it, this is a bit more theoretical than that. But for what it is worth, the way I would see it panning out is that gender-inclusive ideas are a stronger argument against gender-exclusive policies than gender-neutral ideas are.

    Its possible the truth is boys do better by being considered as “children” and basically getting what they can from being implicitly mislabelled as girls. This depresses me but there is difference between reporting statistics and how policy debates play out.

    I honestly don’t see any grounds for believing that. It is basically asking boys and men to accept and play along with a system that fails them dreadfully.

  9. redpesto says

    StillGjenganger says

    Might it make sense to think in terms of two different phenomena:
    – Paedophilia, which is abuse of pre-pubescent children, and which seems to be mostly gender-neutral?
    – Underage sexual abuse, where the victims are mostly girls

    I’d also add a third, which is where one or both of the participants are underage, so cannot legally consent even if they wanted to.

  10. redpesto says

    Fogg:

    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 like ‘gender inclusive’ (it also makes sense in an area such as sex education). It might also mean a more effective challenge to reporting which relies on ‘gender = women’ (even if there is data relating to men). However, I reckon you’ll probably meet resistance for precisely the reasons summarised in the above quote.

  11. StilGjengagenger says

    @redpesto 9
    You mean that you can have cases of underage sex that are not abuse (the only category that seems to be missing)?
    In principle: yes, you can (and I sort of say as much when I point out that there will be some people below the age of consent who are resilient, eager and capable of managing their own sex life). But I really do not think we should go there unless we are discussing a specific type of case for a specific reason. Abstract musings on such a contentious subject are unlikely to get us much of anywhere, and almost guaranteed to end with everybody arguing furiously against the nasty hidden motives that they are sure the other participants must have.

  12. redpesto says

    @StilGjengagenger – you’re right, and I don’t really want to go there either, unless we had specifics.

  13. 123454321 says

    “One issue which they didn’t go into, but which is quite relevant there, is the phenomenon of adult women (usually childminders and teachers) sexually exploiting adolescent boys.”

    Absolutely the point which has struck me and i have been suspicious of for decades and yet no one seems to focus on ascertaining the truth because the details surrounding the truth would be far too challenging, uncomfortable and taboo in today’s male-bashing/female-protective culture.

    Ally – I haven’t seen the programme yet (will watch it tonight) but I unreservedly commend you for using your platform to bring this out into the open. If I wasn’t so miserable I’d buy you a christmas present just for this post alone.

  14. Marduk says

    #7

    The issue isn’t really teachers. People believe that they are in a privileged position with access to levers and gears that can immediately make things happen and generate cases that must be addressed. It would of course be common sense to believe that if someone is charged with a responsibility they should be given the resources to actually fulfil it. But typically they have a phone book and whatever tenacity they can bring to bear. You may be in a stronger position as a next door neighbour or a passer-by, the authorities aren’t sure who they are dealing with and aren’t used to messing you about.

    Otherwise I don’t believe teachers are sexist, consciously or unconsciously. I do however believe that the profession has been so abused that the veterans in the ranks who would normally be the people that would actually sort things or guide others pragmatically have long since made for the exits. Shiny academies run like businesses have no place for institutional knowledge like this. They’ll have a policy document of course but its no substitute.

  15. Vicki says

    Marduk:

    I don’t believe that teachers are more sexist, consciously or unconsciously, than non-teachers. At the same time, I’ve seen no evidence that, unlike other groups of people, they aren’t sexist, even unconsciously. Unfortunately, even people who would say they aren’t sexist often behave in sexist ways. (For example, many teachers who agree that they should call on girls as often as boys actually call on the boys more often.) It’s possible that the same teachers who unconsciously discriminate in favor of boys in math grades don’t discriminate against them when the stereotype is “boys are perpetrators, not victims” rather than “boys are better at math,” but I’d want evidence.

  16. 123454321 says

    Well now, that programme was interesting and, in particular, I’m intrigued by the science behind the hardwiring of a paedophile’s brain. If this is the case it would be ‘theoretically’ possible to detect the exact proportion of people out there who are inclined to sway toward this type of unhealthy and unpleasant sexual orientation. The 1 in 100 figure shocks me, but when they spoke about this ratio they, as usual, always infer and imply ‘men’, which is a tad unfair. If the brain is indeed hardwired the programme (unless I missed it) didn’t specify whether the hardwiring theory would apply to men AND women. Analysing the brain scans of 1000 men and 1000 women would provide an answer not far away from the truth, or at least it would provide some interesting results in terms of the number of potential paedophiles out there and the ratio of men:women. There must be thousands of brain scans out there….

  17. Lucy says

    1234567

    “Absolutely the point which has struck me and i have been suspicious of for decades and yet no one seems to focus on ascertaining the truth because the details surrounding the truth would be far too challenging, uncomfortable and taboo in today’s male-bashing/female-protective culture.”

    And yet you’ve managed to overcome this comprehensive cultural conditioning not only today but for literal decades.

  18. Lucy says

    ‘Its possible the truth is boys do better by being considered as “children”’

    Teen abuse scandals only get into their media stride when the perpetrators and victims are male. When they are teenage and female the coverage is salacious and there’s a strong suspicion that the girls were complicit and it doesn’t really count.

    Teen girls have been oggled and abused in plain sight for decades, on our TV screens, in the pages of the tabloids, by guitar heroes and national treasures.

    The grooming cases of the last few years have been a watershed moment when the public started thinking of underage girls as children. After 15 years of media silence the Times dragged the media and public beyond the default position of victim-blaming girls towards the new position of quasi victim-blaming their parents and carers for letting them outside.

    When Peter Oborne on Question Time moved seamlessly, from summarising the prevalent cultural malaise as being one where girls have older boyfriends, to ticking off the representative of God in the audience for victim blaming when he suggested the girls were “walking around dressed to invite it”, I felt we’d made a significant if intellectually-garbled step forward.

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