See? Mothers can be sex abusers, too

On the flimsiest of evidence, ChildLine and the NSPCC are now even spreading suspicion about the mother-child bond.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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For ChildLine, which offers telephone advice to distressed or worried children, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), the case of Plymouth nursery worker Vanessa George, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of child abuse last month (1), provides the near perfect backdrop to their latest announcement: ‘More children telling ChildLine about female sex abusers.’ (2) It reads like a perverse form of gender equality. It’s not just men who ought to be uniformly suspected of sexually abusing children, goes the campaigners’ demand: women should be too.

Since George’s arrest in June this year, articles and interviews have been doing the rounds with titles like ‘Are there women paedophiles?’ or ‘Sexual abuse crosses the gender divide’. Stuffed with professional guesstimation and stat-lite assertions as to the extent of child sex abuse committed by females, all such pieces lacked was actual evidence of a problem. George, and her cohorts Angela Allen and Colin Blanchard, remained stubbornly exceptional, isolated perpetrators of a series of vile acts.

With the release of the ChildLine findings, however, the idea that child sex abuse by women is more prevalent than previously thought gains in credence. According to ChildLine, 42 per cent more children called its hotline in 2008-9 than in 2004-5, and the number of children calling to report abuse by women rose by 132 per cent – that is, a rise five times greater than the rise in children phoning to report abuse by men. In total, during 2008-9 the number of children phoning to report female child sex abuse stood at 2,142, of which 1,311 claimed that the mother was the abuser (3).

The NSPCC and ChildLine have been predictably bullish. The head of ChildLine, Sue Minto, seemed almost proud to be exploding myths of the good mother: ‘Many would find it shocking that any woman – let alone a mother – can sexually assault a child. But they do.’ NSPCC senior researcher Lisa Bunting saw it as the proof of a problem too long ignored: ‘If you don’t think females are capable of committing sex offences, then you are never going to be looking for that.’ (4)

Couple the ChildLine findings with the Vanessa George case and the campaigners seemingly have enough to ramp up their don’t-trust-women-especially-the-mums campaign. No matter that what Vanessa George, and Allen and Blanchard, allegedly did was exceptional, not indicative. No matter that a phone call to ChildLine is not the same as proof of actual abuse. For the NSPCC it is enough. And so the headlines roll, and with it the suspicion grows that cases of child sex abuse by women and mothers are more common than anyone, even in their worst NSPCC-branded nightmares, previously thought.

But are they? Is there really a mass of under-reporting when it comes to female-committed child sex abuse? Is it a problem that society has wilfully ignored because of a wishy-washy belief that mothers do not sexually abuse their own children?

Firstly, the existing statistics do not suggest there’s a massive problem with child sex abuse carried out by women. Of the 32,000 people on that testament to institutionalised suspicion of adults, the UK Sex Offenders’ Register, two per cent are women (5). That’s about 650 people. Given that you can be put on the register for anything from obscene gestures to inappropriate touching, and that some of the women on the register are schoolteachers who had foolish affairs with teenagers, it is unclear as to how many have been found guilty of child sex abuse. The latest Home Office figures do not help the NSPCC’s cause either: there are 56 female child sex abusers in custody, and 84 under supervision within the community. Whichever way you spin it, the number of women proven to have sexually abused children is thankfully minuscule.

Not that actual statistics really matter to the NSPCC. They are far more interested in hinting at a problem whose breadth and depth is unknown. It’s a canny move not untypical in the abuse industry. Usually using the cliché-cum-theory of an iceberg, it can then be argued that what can be seen is not all there is. In fact it’s just a tiny proportion of a far more pervasive problem, ‘the secret crime’ as ChildLine founder Esther Rantzen describes it. And because it is a secret crime, a hidden crime, claims that it exists can never be disproven. The idea that what is unknown is more important than what is known was made clear by Bunting: ‘It is important that regardless of what is currently known about the numbers of female offenders, more is done to understand the nature of sexual offending by women [and to] raise awareness among the public so that they can report it.’

The assumption that a problem exists irrespective of proof doesn’t just give their awareness-raising campaigns an interminable quality. It also touches upon the objective of such campaigns: to change people’s perceptions not just of child sex abuse, but also of each other. This is the tragic effect of the NSPCC and ChildLine’s awareness-raising, perception-changing mission – the conversion of trust into suspicion. Such ‘raising of awareness’ helps to cultivate a socially corrosive fear.

None of this is new, of course. The obsession with child abuse has long been a depressing feature of contemporary culture. While the protection of children might at first sight seem a benign policy and campaigning objective, it not only draws upon and entrenches a mutual distrust of adults, but also invites the state to intervene into the most informal and intimate of adult-child relationships. And this is what is most worrying about this latest addition to the child-abuse files. While we’ve long been encouraged to see fathers as potential paedophiles, now mothers, too, are to be routinely viewed in the same degraded light. By encouraging the public, not to mention child protection professionals, to view the bond between mother and child as potentially dodgy, that most intimate of relationships is being rendered up for official scrutiny and state censure.

It seems that each horrific case of child molestation and child killing, whether it was Ian Huntley’s murders, the killing of Baby P, and now Vanessa George, is inserted into a larger narrative of social failure, a failure for which all adults are to be held responsible. Behind these campaigns we can glimpse the authorities’ profound distrust of their citizens and the way we live.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black discussed the return of the paedophile panic and sex offenders’ freedom of movement. Rob Lyons said it’s time to tear up the Sex Offenders Register. Barbara Hewson show how looking at child porn was being equated with rape. Mick Hume railed against the need for a ‘Sarah’s Law’. Or read more at spiked issue Crime and the law.

(1) Nursery worker admits sex abuse, BBC News, 1 October 2009

(2) See NSPCC press release, 9 November 2009

(3) See NSPCC press release, 9 November 2009

(4) Claims of sex abuse by women grow, BBC News, 9 November 2009

(5) See Up to 64,000 women in UK ‘are child-sex offenders’, Guardian, 4 October 2009

(6) See Up to 64,000 women in UK ‘are child-sex offenders’, Guardian, 4 October 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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