Sex abuse – grasping the complexities

What do our readers think?

Two separate contributions to The Psychologist (October 2014) about child sexual abuse highlight the complex challenge facing the discipline. On the one hand, the case is put
in a letter from a clinical psychologist, Alex Hossack, working with perpetrators, to have a balanced view of his patients. This would take into account the empirical reality of dispersed prevalence of sexual predation in the community and the importance of not demonising perpetrators because this impedes engagement with treatment and successful social reintegration. On the other hand, the longer news piece about child protection and the Rotherham abuse scandal focuses more on the politics and ethics of us failing victims. Those working in both child and adult mental health service pick up the pieces of those emotionally undone by sexual exploitation.

Given the emotive topic of child sexual abuse, it is certainly true that we need a clear and wholistic approach, which considers both the causal factors that might explain its emergence and the matter of power within intergenerational relationships. For this ‘both… and…’ approach to work, not only will different types of psychologist need to put their heads together (e.g. researchers and applied psychologists and those working with victims and those with perpetrators) but this is also and emphatically an interdisciplinary task. To understand what happened in Rotherham
we need to integrate the insights of political science, sociology, cultural history, criminology and moral philosophy. In the case of Rotherham, and other towns with a high prevalence of perpetrators from a Pakistani heritage, organised child sexual exploitation was inflected by power relations related to age, gender, race and class. Patriarchy, misogyny, vote-sensitive politicians, timid government employees and ambivalent carers all played their complicit role in what The Independent (27 August) on its front page described, with good cause, as ‘Britain’s worst child abuse scandal’.

Intersectionality is required in our reasoning about our post-colonial context in which secular authority and the rule of law is at times being undermined by a fearful and complicit silence about the exploitation of children. That silence will not be broken to protect our children by, and public policy answers will not be found within the expertise of, any single discipline alone. ‘The psychology’ of victims and perpetrators is part but not the whole picture. I hope that the BPS Child Protection Working Party can incorporate knowledge from an interdisciplinary research community, given that no one discipline can plausibly grasp the complexity of child sexual abuse in Britain today.

David Pilgrim
Professor of Health and Social Policy
University of Liverpool

Alex Hossack’s letter (‘Sex offenders – time to step outside the anger?’, October 2014) identifies an important issue in working with sexual offenders and that is the poor understanding and continuing punitive stance of many if not most media outlets.

There are a number of issues that stand in the way of Alex’s hope for change. Perhaps first is that the idea of ‘public interest’ almost requires that good news and success stories do not regularly make headlines, so we read about the reoffending rather than the desistance because that’s what sells. Sex, whether deviant or not, sells.

Second, are the media and the public likely to take advice about attitudes towards sexual offenders from the same people who are regularly portrayed in the media as either being sexual offenders or being complicit in allowing it to occur? This would likely rule out (rightly or wrongly) politicians, celebrities, the media, the police, teachers, the clergy, parents…

Finally, research suggests that even when our biases are challenged we continue to be biased, as demonstrated by the work concerned with mock jurors’ belief of rape victims (see Ellison & Munro, 2009). Working with individuals who have offended is carried out within the context of society and a society that does not have the chance to understand these people and the changes they are trying to bring about makes that work all the harder.
Simon Duff
University of Nottingham

Ellison, L. & Munro, V.E. (2009). Reacting to rape: Exploring mock jurors’ assessments of complainant credibility. British Journal of Criminology, 49, 202–219

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