Sexual abuse and the family

First published: May 1989

‘Despite the revulsion incest has provoked, it opens a frightening but vital line of questioning about ordinary family relations. It identifies tensions between family solidarity and individual autonomy and children’s’rights, between women’s status as victims and their responsibility as parents, tensions that one should not expect to resolve easily. It shows that many feminine virtues, not only those one might want to reject – obedience, quietness, obligingness – but also those one might want to preserve – discipline, responsibility, loyalty – can support victimisation’.

Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives, Virago 1989

An explosion in the number of reported incidents, of information gleaned from the work of dedicated doctors and social workers, the conclusions of academic and professional studies and the campaigning work of women and incest survivors has, in the last few years, established that the sexual abuse of children is a social reality of the most massive proportions. In April of this year the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reported a continuing increase in the number of cases of child sexual abuse reported to them: 2,876 in 1987–88, being 23.6 per cent up on the previous year. In June 1987 Childline was dealing with 600 calls a day. In June 1987 the Director of the National Children’s Bureau estimated that one in ten girls had been sexually abused before they were sixteen.

Despite a concerted campaign in this country supported by the government, the media, the church and Labour MPs like Stuart Bell to deny this reality and put the lid back on the suffering endured more or less silently by children, recognition is growing.

However, even among those who have begun from a position of believing the victims and set out to give support and action, sharply differing analyses have emerged. These reflect exactly the tensions referred to by Linda Gordon above: how we understand the inter-relationships of power within families, crucially how we understand the power of men, especially of fathers; how to balance the oppression of women within the family with their power and responsibilities as parents; what are the limits of ‘family’ privacy as against children’s rights and social concern about their abuse. These matters are far from being just interesting points for discussion. Their resolution is not proving easy. But they hold the key to what is particular about the sexual abuse of children, and therefore to determining a course of action, demands, education that is of most help to those at the heart of the debate: the children.

At the centre of these tensions is what analysis is held of the family itself, its character and function as an institution, the power relations within it, and the relevance of the structural changes taking place in it to the contemporary coming to the surface of child sexual abuse. Placing the family at the core of the social relations through which we understand child sexual abuse is crucial. Deciding not to leads to an analysis and to practices which are, at best, irrelevant and peripheral, or, at worst, give ground to those who at all costs wish to keep further criticism away from the family.

The backdrop to the growing awareness of the reality of ‘family life’, are the enormous changes in social relations, with the family at their centre, that have taken place since the Second World War, and in the last twenty years in particular. This article looks at Britain, but the same discussions on sexual abuse are taking place across Europe and in the United States, based on the political impact of similar changes in the social structure.

Most important has been the revolution in the social position of women since the Second World War. In Britain, following a century where women filled a consistent proportion of the labour force of around 30 per cent, since the Second World War this proportion has steadily increased, to a point where women are now almost half of the labour force. Such a massive change in women’s participation in employment could not take place without precipitating major upheavals in other aspects of women’s lives and in social relations.

Directly related effects include the consistent post-war increase in women’s participation in higher education. By 1986 women were 41 per cent of students in higher education.

A similar consequence is the sharp rise in the proportion of children under five in preschool education. Of all 3–4 year olds, 21 per cent were in preschool education in 1971, compared with 47 per cent in 1986. The total number of under-fives in education rose from 280,000 in 1966 to 671,000 in 1986.

The needs of employers to draw women into the available workforce in this period converged with the growth of social and political expectations and militancy of women, consequent on women’s increased economic independence, to intensify pressure for more liberal social legislation affecting the rights of women. Legislation such as the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1969 Divorce Reform Act had the most mass impact. Combined with the mass availability of an effective and convenient contraceptive in the form of ‘the pill’, leaving aside the serious health risks to women only later revealed, these have brought a virtual revolution in the shape and size of families, of rates of births and marriages.

Where women are marrying they are tending to do so at a later age. They are initiating a majority of divorces.

In 1961 there were 27,000 divorces. In 1971, the first year under the new legislation there were 80,000. And in 1986 there were 168,000 and the upward trend is continuing. In 1986, 72 per cent of divorces were granted to wives, the highest proportion ever.

The 1967 Act and more efficient contraception have affected the rate and patterns of birth. Women’s ability to control the number and spacing of their children has led to a sharply declining birth rate. In 1986 the birth rate (per thousand live births) was 29 per cent lower than the post-1950s peak in 1964. Amongst 20–24 year olds there has been a 39 per cent fall in the annual rate between 1964 and 1986.

At the same time there has been a sharp rise in ‘illegitimacy’ and notably of the proportion of children born outside marriage but registered by both parents. Whereas the number of illegitimate births stayed more or less constant between 1900 and the late 1950s, with exceptions in both world wars, at around 4 per cent of all live births, by 1986 they represented 21 per cent. In 1986 there were 158,000 registered ‘illegitimate’ births compared with 61,000 in 1976.

Alongside this there has been a steady increase in the number of single parent families – representing by 1985 13 per cent of all households with dependent children.

These changes add up to an upheaval in the institution of the family and in roles previously adopted within it, putting massive strains on its existing structure, while creating the opportunity for change. Particularly this has alleviated some of the most intolerable pressures on women – enforced motherhood and marriage, inability to get out of marriage, women’s individualised responsibility for childcare.

But not only women have been affected. Increased social responsibility for welfare has begun to open up the whole family to intense scrutiny, encouraging new standards of acceptable behaviour and treatment. Preschool education and the generally available health care for babies and young children, for instance, have encouraged certain minimum norms of care and ensure at the very least that the health and welfare of children in general is the concern and comes to the attention of public bodies outside of their individual families.

The changed social position of women has helped make concern for what happens in family or domestic relations a matter for social and political concern. It has made it impossible to relegate certain matters to strictly ‘private’ life and not of general political concern. It has made blaming women for their oppression – ‘nagging’ wives get beaten, ‘promiscuous’ women get raped – increasingly unacceptable. Public, or social, concern and responsibility for all familial relations are increasingly legitimate.

This is a phenomenon which has its historical precedents. In a recent study of the evolution of social welfare policies in the United States, taking the practice in Massachusetts specifically, Linda Gordon argues that ‘The feminist impulse legitimates inquiry into what actually happens in families. Generally, whenever the women’s movement is in decline, people are reluctant to recognise that anything bad could be going on in them’.

In the first period she considered, between 1880 and 1910, a growth in women’s militancy and social involvement was the backdrop to the growth of a more progressive attitude to child sexual abuse than had existed previously. There was a consensus that, in the working class families which were the concern of these welfare agencies, child sexual abuse was very common, amounting to roughly ten per cent of their case load. Moreover it was accepted sexual abuse was pre-eminently father-daughter rape. Despite the weaknesses arising from the immense class and cultural prejudices of these agencies, and the limitations of what they had to offer, the important point is that they considered the central location of child sexual abuse to be within families and they believed it to be very common.

In sharp contrast the period between 1930 and the 1950s, which saw a sharp decline in women’s militancy and stabs at independence, what Gordon calls a ‘quiescence of feminism’ and of ideological campaigns in support of the family, also experienced a virtual disappearance in social work attention to child sexual abuse: ‘by 1960 incest was conceived by experts, and described in textbooks on family problems, as a rare sexual perversion, a one-in-a-million occurrence’. Moreover where child sexual abuse was considered, it was believed to be something which took place outside families. This period saw the emergence of the ‘dirty old man’ stereotype. The fact that, as Linda Gordon says ‘then, as now, most sexual abusers of children know them well’ was simply ignored.

As with the rape of women, the stereotype and focus of concern, such as it was, was transferred outside the home, away from an assault between people who knew each other, to one between people who were strangers. And as with rape while such a phenomenon, of course, exists and widely, this transfer allowed the majority of assaults to go ignored. Most rapes take place between people who know each other; most sexual abuse of children takes place in the family. This transfer took attention away from the thorny problem of power relations within the family, between husbands and wives, parents and children. It transferred it to random street attacks.

With rape this focus allows blame to be more easily directed at women: women who go out at night, who walk home alone, who wear certain clothes, visit bars alone, somehow ‘provoke’ rape. A similar process took place with child sexual abuse. While the overall number of reported/believed incidents fell dramatically, the belief that, where it did occur, it was a phenomenon overwhelmingly based outside the home let the family, and fathers, off the hook. It had totally different implications for mothers, as Gordon comments. ‘Incest’ or ‘carnal abuse’ was reclassified as moral neglect, which was by definition a mother’s crime. If claims of children in the home were believed, mothers were blamed as ‘frigid’, daughters ‘sexually precocious’.

It is crucial that we learn the lessons of these historical examples and use the present opening-up to public view of relations within the family to establish definitively certain truths about relations within it. It is exactly this focus and opportunity that much political debate is tending to miss.

The problem is crystallised in a recent book on events in Cleveland by Bea Campbell. Campbell argues that the sexual abuse of children is ‘not just about power and parenting, it is about sex and desire’, and that what we are faced with in such abuse is ‘that adults in general and men in particular must take responsibility for which forms of pleasure are honourable and which are not’. This is to miss the point and place on the same level sexual desire, which indeed is part of what is learned and distorted in the material and ideological framework of the family, and relations of power and inequality within families which allow assaults to take place.

It is the privatised and unequal power relations within the family which have allowed child sexual abuse to take place and to go unnoticed. These relations have legitimised parents’, specifically fathers’, ‘rights’ over children, and these have been extended sexually.

The even more extreme interdependence of family support in previous periods only more sharply demonstrates this fact: ‘the largest single factor in creating the aura of “normality” in these families was the father’s attitude of entitlement. Not a single incest assailant expressed contrition for what he had done or guilt for having hurt his daughter – only denial, self-justification, and/or shame and humiliation at having been discovered,’ argues Linda Gordon. It is ‘normal’ to believe that children have less rights within families, that they are the property of parents.

The tenacity of this belief – and the related acceptance by women of men’s/husbands’ rights, that somehow a father’s needs are most legitimate – explains something of the actions of mothers who have tolerated sexual abuse, and indeed abuse more widely.

The lack of adequate alternatives to the family to provide material support conditions the reactions of mothers and children to abuse. We live in a society in which care has been organised primarily through ‘families’. As social provision of care has grown, alongside employment opportunities, so has the opportunity for women to place themselves outside of abusive and oppressive relations. Albeit slowly and imperfectly, conditions for seeing their husbands as more expendable than themselves or their children have improved.

For children the family, their parents, are the lens through which they see the world. Children easily believe that their alternatives may be worse, that their parents know best, leaving aside that children desperately want to love their parents, want stability, and easily believe that if something is wrong between themselves and their parent, then it must be their fault, that their actions can ‘make things better’. From this comes the leverage which parents hold over children to keep quiet. A child abuse worker quoted in the Guardian pointed out that while ‘ninety five per cent of sex abuse takes place in the family, you could call it a culture which develops, when you talk about discussing it with parents before taking any action with sex abuse you’re immediately into the position that the family will close the child down’.

Alternative approaches minimise the role of the family, and instead concentrate on the sexuality of men – not as learned and made possible through the power relations of the family, but abstractly. Bea Campbell’s views lead in this direction. It is a recipe, despite much outrage about abuse, for turning attention away from the institution and the society which conditions both the sexuality of men and the abuse of children. Following this, we would fail to make demands today which would lead to empowering the children and victims of abuse.

The recent debates in the National Union of Students are a case in point. Resolutions have been put and carried which have no mention of the family. Child sexual abuse is seen as coming from nowhere, inexplicable. Pornography and the inherent sexuality of men are posed as ‘causes’. There is no mention of improving social supports and resources because the social relations within which child sexual abuse takes place are not a focus. Consequently demands are reduced to supporting survivors’ groups, spreading literature and opposing pornography.

Important though these are, they do not even touch the social relations which both condition sexuality and render children powerless and make their abuse possible. Contrary to the claim that taking familial and social relations as the core somehow ‘lets men off the hook’, the assumption of some quintessential male sexuality, and implication that men will more or less automatically abuse children, does this. Such campaigns focus on keeping men’s sexuality in check, and punishing abusers, rather than empowering the victims. Similarly, pornography graphically reflects social relations; it strengthens and legitimises attitudes which children begin to learn from the real relations in their families and in society.

Placing the family central to our strategic framework leads to other courses of action today. The function of the family as an institution is precisely to ensure the unequal distribution of power between men and women, the reproduction and care of children, the containment and education of children in patterns of dominance, sexuality and control.

An immediate response to child abuse requires improving education of both professionals and carers and of children, creating more and better welfare services, expanding the social benefit system, extending the legal rights of children and of mothers, creating more, cheaper and available housing, and other concrete steps. This requires a huge financial investment. The longer-term impact will be to open up the family, challenge our ideas of power and personal relationships, and create the possibility for other means of living.

Not only the expansion of resources but the inevitable liberating impact and consequent political strengthening of the oppressed which this would involve is exactly what is opposed by those who wish to hush up the attention being given child abuse. The ‘crisis of the family’ has been met by a massive campaign to idealise ‘traditional’ family relations. Ten years of slashing social services, privatising medical care, removing rent controls, and unemployment, all limit options and intensify material pressures to stay in violent and abusive situations.

While these policies make individual suffering more protracted and desperate, they cannot reverse the qualitative changes in the social structure in the last forty years, themselves spawned by basic economic trends, which explain why child sexual abuse, and other realities of ‘family life’ are coming to public attention.

Cleveland was not, as Bea Campbell maintains, fundamentally a ‘confrontation between genders’. It was fundamentally a shattering of the facade of the family, something so unbearable that an almighty campaign has been launched attempting to stick it together again. If we mistake one of the products – the construction of gender and sexuality – for the whole edifice then we will help undermine demands for practical action today and take the focus away from the institution of the family which conditions and gives sense to the systematic sexual assault of children, and much else.