These child-abuse stats are PANTS

The NSPCC’s new campaign is built on the dubious claim that five per cent of people were sexually assaulted as children.

When I first saw details of a new campaign from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which explains the ‘Underwear Rule’, I had the horrible thought for a brief moment (excuse the pun) that it was now calling on parents to check their kids’ underwear for signs of sexual activity. Thankfully, we are not at that stage of hysteria yet. Nevertheless, this initiative is not only patronising and likely to further fuel anxiety over the safety of children, it may also divert much-needed money from services that really need it.

The campaign is the NSPCC’s latest attempt to help protect our children from sexual abuse. It will be aired on local radio and will be backed up by a short video to be shown on social-media sites such as Facebook and YouTube. The campaign will also feature prominently on the main NSPCC website, where you can also find information booklets for both parents and children.

The ‘underwear rule’ is so called because it urges parents to talk PANTS to their children; to inform them that:

‘Privates are private’;
‘Always remember your body belongs to you’;
‘No means no’;
‘Talk about secrets that upset you’; and
‘Speak up, someone can help’.

This advice is necessary, according to the NSPCC, because parents are frightened and/or embarrassed to talk to their children about sex and sexual abuse. The NSPCC says this is something that needs to be rectified as almost five per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds experience contact sexual abuse, as defined by the criminal law, at some point during childhood.

There is no doubt that many parents feel awkward talking to their children about sex, and I’m sure the children also find it embarrassing. It is also the case that some children are subject to serious sexual abuse and others to unwanted sexual attention. Nevertheless, it is worth questioning whether much of the NSPCC’s work and tactics are part of the problem rather than the solution.

I have no doubt that many within the NSPCC are dedicated and caring people who wish to alleviate childhood distress. However, as an organisation, the NSPCC exhibits some deeply problematic traits. It can be categorised as a ‘moral entrepreneur’, to borrow a term from moral-panic theory. Moral entrepreneurs are invariably convinced of the unquestionable truth and goodness of their endeavour. They are on the side of good against evil and they will not tolerate any dissent. This was clear in the media furore that followed Barbara Hewson’s recent spiked article criticising Operation Yewtree and the role of the NSPCC.

A good media image is vital for campaign groups such as the NSPCC. In order to fulfill its mission, the NSPCC requires funding by way of individual and group donations, research grants and government monies. This is something the NSPCC excels at, raising £135million (90 per cent of which comes from public donations) according to its 2011/2012 annual report. However, this represents a reduction of 8.7 per cent on the previous year’s income, so while still considerably better off than many campaign groups and charities, the NSPCC will be understandably worried about the downward trend in its income. One way the NSPCC has tried to rectify this, according to reports, is to hire the director of fundraising from the charity for older people, Age UK. The care and protection industry is a hard and competitive world.

In an age of austerity, with competition for scarce funds becoming ever fiercer, a good media and advertising team can make the difference between survival and oblivion for NGOs. The NSPCC needs to keep itself in the public mind, to persuade us that they, rather than another charity, should be the recipients of our donation. However, as Neil Gilbert argues in his critique of advocacy research, there is a need ‘to be cautious and modest in making empirical claims and passionate and personal in expressing policy views’.

Often, Gilbert’s warning is ignored and, in order to promote a particular agenda, advocacy research can exaggerate the scale of a problem, often by the conflation of categories and blurring of boundaries. The NSPCC is often guilty of this. For instance, while its more detailed research acknowledges that in some respects ‘today’s children are safer from abuse and neglect than those of previous generations’, such a headline is not so welcome for the purposes of media coverage.

This is where category conflation comes in. For example, when the NSPCC claims that five per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds reported experiencing sexual abuse as defined by the criminal law, the NSPCC is technically correct. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is a criminal offence (sexual assault) for a person intentionally to touch sexually another person without reasonable belief that the other person consented. ‘Touching’ covers all physical contact, whether with a part of the body or anything else, or through clothing. This definition of sexual assault therefore does not differentiate between adult-child interactions and children’s experiences with their peers.

The other factor in producing such alarming figures is the kind of question asked by the NSPCC. For example, one question asks 18- to 24-year-olds whether, before they were 18, anyone had ever tried ‘to force you to have sex, that is sexual intercourse of any kind, even if it didn’t happen’, or whether ‘before you were 16, were you hugged or kissed in a sexual way, whether you agreed to it or not’. This conflates instances of undoubted criminality with clumsy adolescent relationships. Context and nuance is lost in the drive to generate media coverage.

This exaggeration of the problem of child abuse is not the only problem here. It is also worth asking whether groups such as the NSPCC have played a part in cultivating a climate in which people are encouraged, often retrospectively, to articulate their experiences through the prism of abuse.

In his classic book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the late Stanley Cohen warned us that one of the dangers moral panics pose is that they can manipulate us into taking some things too seriously and other things not seriously enough. That is why advocacy research can adversely affect social policy. As we are manipulated into viewing abuse as everywhere and encouraged to give our money to the NSPCC, many much-needed services for children who have suffered horrendous experiences will miss out. It would be far better for the worst-affected children, and society in general, if the NSPCC and others offered a more realistic assessment of the risk of abuse.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His most recent book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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