The invention of yet another form of abuse

A new report claiming that thousands of British children are being sexually exploited is built on alarmist moralising rather than hard facts.

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

A new report from the UK Office of the Children’s Commissioner, titled Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, shows that policy-led research is still flourishing in Westminster.

The key thing about such research is that it is commissioned to provide evidence for what policymakers already believe to be true. In other words, such research is really just policymakers’ prejudices masquerading as a piece of academic work. The authors of this new report explain that what ‘prompted’ their inquiry was ‘mounting concern about child sexual exploitation and the inadequate responses to it’. That is, the people behind the inquiry already knew there was a ‘mounting’ danger out there; the only problem was finding some evidence to prove the existence of this danger.

The challenge facing the researchers was how to transform the vague feeling of ‘mounting concern’ into hard evidence. But evidence of what, precisely? The researchers answer this question, not so much by discovering crimes, but by inventing a new crime. They call it CSE, or Child Sexual Exploitation. As they acknowledge, ‘There is no recognised category of abuse for sexual exploitation as part of standard child protection procedure’. They add: ‘Furthermore, while perpetrators have been convicted for their involvement in the sexual exploitation of children, using offences such as “grooming” or “sexual activity with a child”, there is no specific crime of child sexual exploitation and therefore it is not possible to obtain figures through a trawl of police crime data on sexual offences.’

In other words, CSE has no juridical or legal standing; it is simply a highly emotive term, or metaphor, used by these child protection professionals to draw attention to what they think should be a crime.

Arguably, the main objective of this report is to construct a new category of abuse, and to gain political support for it. A key part in any act of invention is to offer up a story about the problem or issue you are keen to propel into the public sphere. Sociologists who have examined the construction of social problems point out that the act of naming or defining an apparently alarming problem is best done by drawing on pre-existing fears and anxieties. As the sociologist John Pratt has argued, ‘Problem construction is a cumulative or incremental process, in which each issue is to some extent built upon its predecessors, in the context of a steadily developing fund of “socially available knowledge”’ (1). That is, new, invented threats will often be built on the foundation of already existing, widely recognised concerns. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall put forward the idea of signification spiral: a process through which the latest threat is depicted as being even more threatening than the one that before it.

The definition of CSE put forward in the children’s commissioner report is a great example of how ‘signification spiral’ works. The definition purposefully casts the net as widely as possible in order to encompass a bewildering range of otherwise unconnected experiences. It is worth quoting the definition at length:

‘The sexual exploitation of children and young people (CSE) under 18 is defined as that which… involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive “something” (eg, food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing, and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities. Child sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition; for example, being persuaded to post sexual images on the internet/mobile phones without immediate payment or gain. In all cases, those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and/or economic or other resources. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person’s limited availability of choice resulting from their social/economic and/or emotional vulnerability.’

This is a bizarre kind of methodological fusion, the lumping together of qualitatively different experiences. The end result is to create an entirely subjective and arbitrary category of crime. CSE, as defined in this report, is informed by the joining-up of otherwise unconnected acts. The aim of this cynical strategy is to intensify the gravity of the alleged problem, by making it seem widespread, by endowing it with a universal character. By linking violence, coercion and intimidation with the offering of affection and gifts, this report turns virtually every gesture into a potential act of abuse.

It would seem that child sexual exploitation literally has a transcendental quality, independent of any specific experience of pain. Relationships are rendered exploitative by the mere fact that one of the parties has a ‘limited availability of choice’ because of their ‘social, economic or emotional vulnerability’. In this worldview, virtually every poor and deprived young person who is in a relationship with someone physically stronger or more intelligent is potentially being sexually exploited.

This definition, or rather invention, of CSE is an example of what some sociologists call ‘domain expansion’. Domain expansion is a tactic whereby a specific cause, in this instance the cause of drumming up concern about CSE, is tied to an already existing problem. For example, as one sociologist has explained, ‘[Once] child abuse received general recognition as a social problem, various advocates began claiming that the category ought to include parental smoking, circumcision, not buckling small children into car seats, and so on’ (2). Likewise, this new report expands the problem of abuse by bringing youth gangs and groups of predatory adults into the frame, and creating a new crime that goes by the name of child sexual exploitation by gangs.

For anyone interested in serious, rigorous social science, the problem with having such broad definitions of a problem in society is that the distinction between simply troublesome experiences and brutal physical and sexual violence becomes increasingly blurred. Lumping together the rape and enslavement of young girls by adult criminals with teenage boys pressuring their girlfriends to send them sexually suggestive pictures is highly irresponsible, warping the reality of young people’s lives. Whereas most of the news commentary on the report has focused on the stories about gangs of older men exploiting young girls, notably the report also directs our attention to what can be best described as peer-to-peer encounters. ‘If professionals are looking only for children with much older boyfriends, they will miss victims who are being exploited within street gangs and peer groups’, it says. The promiscuous fusing of qualitatively difference experiences reveals how much this research is driven by policy needs, by the prejudices of its authors, rather than by the disinterested investigation of a problem. The main aim of this kind of joined-up scaremongering is to expand the number of victims, and convince the public that children are imperilled.

Back in June, the deputy children’s commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, set the scence for this report by stating: ‘There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.’ The methodology used in this report is designed to endow Berelowitz’s claim with the authority of large numbers. But the large numbers of victims identified by the report are far more a product of creative accounting than of scientifically informed research. Media reports drew attention to the report’s claim that ‘at least 16,500 children were identified as being at risk of child sexual exploitation during one year’. But this figure is based on the number of children that the researchers identified as displaying ‘three or more signs of behaviour indicating they were at risk of child sexual behaviour’.

And these ‘signs’ for potential sexual exploitation include all sorts of things that could be found in any problematic childhood. For example, being ‘missing from home’, ‘involved in offending’ or a ‘self-harmer’ are all taken as ‘indicators’ of a young person’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation. But aren’t these things simply what we would once have described as ‘problems’? What this report does is rebrand childhood problems as precursors to sexual exploitation, warning signs of terrible abuse to come.

The ease with which this report leaps between discussing children who have actually been abused and discussing those whom it defines, according to a dubious list of indicators, as being ‘at risk’ of abuse, shows that it is far more a product of a moralising imperative than of rigorous research. The danger is that with the passing of time, the distinction between actual and potential victims of abuse and exploitation will be lost, and the fantasy of an omnipresent regime of ‘child sexual exploitation’ will come to dominate the public imagination. That, of course, would not help children who face a genuine threat of sexual violence – because if every unpleasant experience is lumped together, then real and rare acts of sexual violence will get submerged by the kind of problems that are sadly just an integral part of life in many British communities.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

(1) John Pratt, ‘From Abusive Families to Internet Predators?: The Rise, Retraction and Reconfiguration of Sexual Abuse as a Social Problem in Canada’, Current Sociology, Vol.57, p12

(2) See Joel Best, Random Violence: How we Talk About New Crimes and New Victims, University of California Press: Berkely, 1999

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Topics Politics


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