Officialdom’s pervy fantasy world
Recent reports of rampant child abuse in the UK owe more to the sordid mindset of officialdom than fact.
‘Sadistic child abuse is rife across Britain, MPs warned’; ‘Girls of 11 doing sex acts on rows of boys’; ‘Child abuse taking place in every “town, village and hamlet” in England’…
The origin of these depressing, not to mention salacious, headlines was England’s deputy children’s commissioner, Sue Berelowitz. Speaking before the House of Commons home affairs select committee as part of its inquiry into child sexual exploitation and so-called street-grooming, Berelowitz seemingly couldn’t stop herself from giving vent to her pervy imagination. ‘We should start from the assumption that children are being sexually exploited right the way across the country’, she said, seemingly oblivious to the rather sordid nature of such an assumption. Perhaps spotting a few raised eyebrows, she cited a source: ‘As one police officer who was the lead in a very big investigation in a very lovely, leafy, rural part of the country said to me: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”‘
On and on she went, coupling shrill assertion with allusions to proof. ‘In urban, rural and metropolitan areas’, she continued, ‘I have hard evidence of children being sexually exploited. That is part of what is going on in some parts of our country. It is very sadistic. It is very violent. It is very ugly.’ This is not a small problem, she insisted: ‘We’re talking about thousands [of children]. We are talking about a big problem. People need to lay aside their denial and face up to the fact that some truly terrible things are being done.’
Berelowitz’s portrait of the mass depravity in our midst is certainly shocking. Yet, when you peer a little closer, something becomes clear. It is not that we as a society have become increasingly tolerant of proliferating child abuse; it is the massive expansion of the meaning of child abuse that makes it appear to be proliferating. Child abuse is no longer a term which applies to the abuse of children by adults – something that we as a society, despite Berelowitz’s aspersions, still deem morally abhorrent. Instead, the term has become looser, more slippery, encompassing behaviour and actions of far more ambiguous significance.
And it is because the term is far flabbier that the likes of Berelowitz can make it sound as if child abuse is on the rise. In this regard, the way in which she paints her portrait of national depravity is illustrative. For a start, child abuse ceases to be the abuse of children by adults; it now refers to the abuse of children ‘often by teenagers not much older than themselves’. In other words, child abuse is now carried out by children. Hence Berelowitz’s signal anecdotes seemingly all involved the ‘gang-rape’ of young girls by young boys. Yet there’s a big problem with viewing children’s behaviour in terms of adult behaviour. Adult motives and intentions – not to mention notions of responsibility, moral or otherwise – are being ascribed to the behaviour of people who aren’t actually adults; they’re kids.
The ramifications of such a slippage in the meaning of child abuse ought to be clear. Anything from games such as doctors and nurses to that later phase of awkward teenage experimentation lose their innocence. Instead, they are judged in terms of adult experience, not youth’s want of experience. The effect is to taint the behaviour of the young with an adult’s perspective: doctors and nurses becomes sinister; teenage fumbling becomes sordid and manipulative. Under the squalid gaze of an institution like the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, is it any wonder that child abuse appears rife?
But it is not just the physical interaction of children and young teenagers that has been deemed suspect according to the ever-expanding category of child abuse. Other aspects of young lives have been soiled by the adult gaze, too. Hence Berelowitz was keen to implicate social networking in the epidemic of child abuse currently afflicting city, town and hamlet: ‘Social-networking sites can be a source of real problems in this area’, she said. ‘They [the perpetrators] are sometimes filming their victims [and] girls are making themselves vulnerable by filming themselves.’ In other words, young people filming each other or filming themselves is, in the view of adults, exploitative.
That the Office of the Children’s Commissioner is prepared to stoke unjustified fears of rampant child abuse should not be a surprise, however. Established as part of the Children’s Act 2004 – itself a response to the killing of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000 – the Office of the Children’s Commissioner exists on the basis that children are in need of further, state-led protection. According to the act itself, the children’s commissioner is concerned with the ‘views and interests of children so far as relating to… aspects of their wellbeing’ including ‘physical… mental health and emotional wellbeing’ and ‘protection from harm and neglect’. Or to put it another way, the children’s commissioner assumes that parents and the wider community pose a threat to children. And, given that abuse is deemed to be an omnipresent possibility, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner exists to intervene on a child’s behalf against these perceived threats.
And that’s the thing. The existence of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner simultaneously demands the existence of threats to children’s ‘wellbeing’. This is why ever since it was established it has never ceased to seize upon and exacerbate whatever happens to be the moral panic of the moment. So, in the then-commissioner Al Aynsley-Green’s first major interview in November 2005, he declared that every child he met had been affected by bullying. And modern communal life was to blame: ‘I have no doubt that children are being brought up in a society where violence is the norm in many ways. I include in this the violence on television, in the workplace and in the home.’ A couple of years later, when calls for a smacking ban fell flat, the office fastened upon a UN study of the wellbeing of children in ’21 economically advanced countries’. Thankfully for the children’s commissioner it was bad news: ‘These children represent the future of our country and from the findings of this report they are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves at risk.’
Recently, times have been tougher for the children’s commissioner. Having seen New Labour’s largesse replaced by the coalition’s quango-cutting desperation, the office knows it needs to justify itself. And what better way to do so than take advantage of the recent Rochdale street-grooming convictions and suggest that we are currently in the grip of a plague of child abuse. Its cynicism knows no bounds.
So not only should we treat the fear of rampant child abuse with the scepticism it deserves, but also how about abolishing the official fearmongers, too?
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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