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The roots of child abuse

Feature by Sheila Macgregor , January 2013

Recent sexual abuse scandals have highlighted the vulnerability of children in care and the collusion of the state in covering it up. But, argues Sheila McGregor, child abuse is not the result of human nature or evil people. Its roots lie in the very nature of the family itself.

The recent revelations about Jimmy Savile's predatory sexual behaviour and the accompanying cover-ups by the BBC continue to send shock waves through society. All of a sudden we seem to be being overwhelmed with revelations of men in positions of influence as sexual predators.

No one could fail to be disgusted by the way in which Jimmy Savile was given free rein to follow his sexual agenda inside the BBC and in various children's homes. The cover up by the BBC was equally sickening.

Further, the successful prosecution of a sex ring in Bolton laid bare another unpleasant reality, that vulnerable girls and some boys can be deliberately targeted and groomed for sexual abuse. However, in this case the press deliberately focused on race to create the false impression that only Asian men are involved in such sex rings.

The recent Child Commissioner's interim report into gang and group sexual abuse reveals the shocking prejudices of some professionals working with vulnerable children about the behaviour of young people; a case of the victim being blamed for the crime.

It would probably not be too wide of the mark to say the impression is being deliberately fostered that child sexual abuse is about "bad" strange men - particularly Asian strange men.

Hopefully, the revelations about the extent of abuse by Savile will have had a certain cathartic affect for his victims and will help diminish any debilitating feelings of "why me?", "what did I do to deserve this?".

Unfortunately, the fallout from revelations of child sexual abuse strengthens the erroneous view that children are most at risk from strangers. This serves to create an atmosphere in society where the roots of such abuse are obscured.

Child sexual abuse is just one aspect of a wide range of abuse that ranges from the consequences of poverty, poor housing and neglect as well as emotional and physical abuse by both men and women. Nationally ten percent of children are thought to be abused in some form or other. Sexual abuse itself can range from being exposed to "flashers", inappropriate touching to sexual grooming and rape.

The overwhelming majority of child sexual victims are girls. So why is it that girls can become the objects of sexual abuse? Is it that men, or at least a certain proportion of men are simply "born" that way? Are such "evil -doers" simply to be locked up (at best) and the key thrown away? Or is there something about the way our society is organised which leads to child sexual abuse and the sexual and physical harassment of women?

Certainly the common sense view of the world we live in is that human nature is immutable and that some men are just born that way.

But serious studies of human societies over time reveal that far from unchanging patterns there is a vast range of behaviour historically. The roles of both men and women have varied at different times throughout human history. Gender roles have been diverse and there have been pre-class societies where men played an equally gentle and nurturing role with children, in which children were cared for by all the adults in the group, not just the biological parents; children were able to choose a gender role different from that of their biological sex.

Far from human beings having evolved on a simplistic model of man the "aggressive individual hunter" and woman the "passive homemaker", there is considerable evidence to indicate that we evolved as a social species, where cooperation, equality and respect for others were the norm.

The rise of class society around 5,000 years ago gradually put an end to such ways of living. The majority of men and women became subordinated to a minority ruling class. With the development of class society there arose new forms of the family that enabled the wealth and power of the new ruling class to be secured. Women lost their autonomy as both women and children were subordinated to men in the ruling class and to their husbands in the family.

Child sexual abuse today is rooted in the shaping of human relations through capitalist society and the family. There is a much greater variety of family form than existed during the Victorian period, when the working class family was created to ensure workers were kept fit for production and their children brought up to meet the needs of capitalism.

But today, whether children are brought up by a male-female couple, single parent mother (or more rarely by a single parent father) or a same sex couple they are all moulded by a wider society riven by inequalities of class, sex and race. Women generally carry the double burden of work inside and outside the home; and this is the root of their oppression. But the most vulnerable of all within the family are the youngest, the children.

They grow up in a world dominated by the market, where women's bodies are used to sell everything we need. The class children are born into shapes where they live, their education, their life chances. But the market also shapes what happens in the family, from what we eat and drink, to what we wear, to how we make our bodies look and smell. The "market" is everywhere, with the result that even our sexuality is alienated from us and becomes an external power held against and over us.

Human beings are sexual beings; it is an aspect of our humanity. The need for love, affection and playfulness find expression in sexual relationships. In capitalist society the ideological focus is on these relationships within the family; a closed world often subject to the almost unbearable pressures of daily life.

A model of sexual relationships based on mutual respect, consideration and openness is completely counter to a capitalist society based on the hierarchy of exploitation and oppression, gender divisions and the nuclear family. Sex may appear to be everywhere in images but in reality it's almost as if everyone is isolated in finding out what "it" is all about. Children are not usually openly encouraged to explore their own sexuality either on their own or with other children. There is an increasing sexualisation of girls, while children's sexuality is effectively denied, leaving girls particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Attitudes to sexuality are also shaped by the degree of gender division in society. The less contact young men and women have with one another, the more the roles of being a man or a woman are seen as diametric opposites, and so it becomes even harder for both men and women to sexually relate to one another. How do you learn to negotiate a sexual relationship if you never or rarely talk or mix with the opposite sex? How do you learn to relate to someone of the same sex when everyone is constantly bombarded with heterosexuality?

The more sex becomes a commodity, the more "raunch culture" generates the view that women's bodies are there for male satisfaction. The less family relationships answer the needs of men and women, the more likely it is that the most vulnerable, young girls, will be preyed on: most often by men they know but also by those they don't.

Such men may well have known abuse themselves or grown up in children's homes without real bonds of love and affection. They may be damaged individuals who feel completely alienated from their own sexuality not having learned how to develop a relationship with a fellow human being. Abusive relationships may be all they know, reinforced by a society in which the degradation of women is par for the course.

The complaints of every child should be investigated and children should be supported in talking about what has happened to them. But the key to ending child abuse for good lies in the transformation of all human relationships. This can only come through creating a world which serves all our needs, physical, emotional and sexual; one founded on equality and respect in which children are able to grow and develop, unafraid to express themselves in relationships with their peers and with adults.

That such societies existed in our prehistory should give us confidence, spur us to tearing down all that is rotten and oppressive. Our children have a right to a better world than this.


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