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Julie Waterson

Moral Panics

The Abuse of Power

(September 2000)

From Socialist Review 244, September 2000.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The last five years have been punctuated by outbursts of moral panic and mob rule over paedophilia. Tabloid headlines scream about child sex abuse, demanding justice against offenders. [1] The scares touch a nerve among millions of people who feel that they have to go to any lengths to protect children from danger. Yet the effect of the media scares is to target some of the most high profile and unpleasant – but at the same time rare – cases, while ignoring the much greater arenas of child sexual abuse. These are the family, where the vast majority of such abuse takes place, and the various institutions of capitalist society which try to substitute for the family – the children’s homes run by church and state which have repeatedly been involved in child abuse scandals.

Far from protecting children, the result is the opposite. There is the illusion that something is being done, with politicians and newspaper pundits vying to call for longer sentences. Newspapers like the News of the World publish pictures of alleged paedophiles to sell newspapers and then express fake horror when these people are attacked, forced to leave their homes or driven to suicide. Effective mob rule is created on estates like Paulsgrove in Portsmouth where parents organise demonstrations, draw up lists of people they want driven off the estate for alleged sexual offences and create a climate of accusation and suspicion in which no serious debate can take place.

When, predictably, innocent people are wrongly accused, and young children are seen carrying placards saying ‘Hang them’ or ‘Off with their balls’, then the same papers and politicians rush to condemn this frightening ‘underclass’ which has only taken the rhetoric to its logical conclusion. Any socialist response has to start from a very different approach.

Eight year old Sarah Payne’s horrific murder will not be avenged by automatic life sentences for sex offenders, hinted at by New Labour’s home secretary, Jack Straw, and demanded by the Tory leader, William Hague. Nor will further tragedies be avoided by the implementation of ‘Sarah’s Law’, based on the American model of Megan’s Law where communities can be notified of local sex offenders. Evidence from the US points to the opposite being the case: paedophiles are driven underground, thus making it impossible to monitor their movements. There are also the innocent victims of mob terror – of the 20 names on the Paulsgrove residents’ hit list of sex offenders three were people who have never committed any crime, and, a 17 year old who had sex with a 15 year old.

But the real victims are the many children who will continue to suffer abuse, sexual and physical, as a result of a system that encourages mob rule and cracks on about life sentences, but which does little or nothing to deal with the real centres of abuse, and which often ignores or covers up what is going on there.

Abuse and the family

The alternative to the reactionary response would mean addressing the fact that most child sex abuse occurs in the family, carried out by relatives or those who are close to the victims. This fact is blurred by the focus on the ‘stranger danger’ of predatory paedophiles, ignoring the fact that, as one eminent researcher has said, ‘bad men don’t get near to children – nice guys do.’ In Britain an average of eight children die at the hands of a stranger every year, whilst a child dies every three days at the hands of a family member. The family is the most dangerous place for children – between the ages of one and five it is the most common place for a child to be killed. In 1995 the chances of being murdered if you were under one year old was almost double the national average and children of that age were most at risk of being killed by a parent. In such circumstances the vast amount of warning about child abuse, propaganda about the dangers to children and so on should be directed to the family. We have yet to see a Daily Mail or News of the World feature which highlights the danger of distorted personalities and twisted sexuality inside the family. That would be to challenge the whole notion of the family, where the children are seen as the property of their parents (after all, physical abuse of children is condoned by many of these same people) and there is an accepted hierarchy in the family where the man is at the top.

The problem with the debate on child sexual abuse is that it is circumscribed by right wing hysteria, which has created an atmosphere of hatred and scapegoating. The current climate limits any real understanding concerning the nature of sex abuse against children, where it happens and who the real offenders are. Moreover, it has effectively curtailed any meaningful discussion about the solution to the problem that blights the lives of many children.

Many sexual crimes will never be reported, and only a tiny minority will result in prosecution and conviction. Nonetheless, the monster danger posed by serial, predatory paedophiles painted by the press is put into some perspective on examination of the 1996 Home Office statistics on sexual abuse. At just over 4,000 cases, this represented a 40 percent increase from 1979–89, although it still amounted to less than 1 percent of all recorded crime.

The vast majority of sexually abused children will personally know their abuser. Home Office figures show that 80 percent of abuse happens in the home, with male relatives being the largest category of abusers. One of the earliest surveys into sex abuse and neglect, of 1,100 cases in New York in 1969, showed that three quarters of victims knew their abuser. Of the 1.2 million calls taken by Childline in 1996–97, strangers accounted for 5 percent of sexual abuse and 1 percent of physical abuse. Fathers accounted for 27 percent of sexual abuse and 38 percent of physical abuse. The rest were relatives or friends.

The majority of sexual offences are committed not by ‘dirty old men’ but by young people, the majority of whom do not reoffend. A 1986 study of US law court statistics found that the same age group carried out 56 percent of all sexual abuse on under 18 year olds. When asked about themselves, the majority of all abusers said they had started committing sexual abuse when they were under 18 years old. A consistent finding from all the data available shows that there are an ‘unusually high’ number of sex offenders who have been abused themselves. An American study in 1987 estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of sex offences against children in the early 1980s were committed by adolescents.

There were 10,000 names on police records before the mid-1990s (and the start of the moral panics). In 1997 it soared to 25,000 ‘suspected or convicted paedophiles’ on confidential police records. Among ‘schedule one offenders’, who remain on a register for life, is a young woman who is banned for life from contact with children because she ripped a chain off a 13 year old’s neck when she was 16 years old. The 1989 sex offenders register contains a six year old boy who put his hands down a girl’s pants in the playground. If convicted, sex offenders and paedophiles are trapped in a system that creates monsters and then institutionalises them.

More funding is needed

Treatment programmes are woefully inadequate, and suffer from cuts and underfunding. According to the Prison Service annual report for 1999–2000, only 585 convicted sex offenders completed a treatment programme compared with the target of 700. The shortfall was blamed on a shortage of qualified staff. If Jack Straw wanted to seriously reduce reoffending he would immediately fund a programme that sought to do exactly this. Instead money is denied and, in some cases, withdrawn from such programmes.

The latest Home Office study on sex offenders notes that ‘men who sexually offend against children report a lack of intimacy and high levels of emotional loneliness.’

Another survey in 1988 pointed out that among ‘untreated’ offenders those with a low intellect are most likely to reoffend. In the same year another study found that the people most likely not to reoffend are men over 40 years old outside of the family – the very men we are told are the real problem.

The National Association for the Development of Work with Sex Offenders has argued for extended supervision orders, something which has been available to judges from 1992 yet rarely used. There is no shortage of recommendations. Mike Taylor, director of children’s services at the NSPCC, says, ‘The trouble is those recommendations have never been consistently implemented across all authorities.’

In reality it is impossible for the institutions of capitalism to face up to and deal with questions of child abuse. To do so would challenge the very basis of capitalist society. For to understand sexual abuse we need to understand two aspects of that society. Firstly, it is based on commodity production where everything can be bought and sold on the market. This includes sexuality, and a market based on commodities even uses sexuality to appeal to children – look at Barbie dolls and children’s beauty contests. Sex can be bought through prostitution and pornography. Rich westerners holiday in countries like Thailand expressly to buy sexual services. Secondly, the family plays a central role under capitalism. It reproduces the existing generation of workers at very little cost to the capitalist class and brings up, cares for and socialises the next generation.

The capitalist class always ensures, therefore, that it shores up the family both materially and ideologically. Our sexuality is rigidly defined under capitalism, and obedience to our ‘superiors’ is taught in the family. We are told that the family is the ‘norm’, even though it hides within its walls a multitude of inadequacies and abuses. Because any alternative to the family is unthinkable to the capitalists, everything is done to propagate the myth that most families are happy and only the ‘dysfunctional’ ones suffer. Those who don’t measure up to the ideal are made to feel that this is due to personal failings and inadequacies, not those of society.

Most families and individuals within them try to cope more or less successfully. But for a minority the tensions and misery of the family, the distorted sexuality of capitalism and the belief that sexuality is something which can be bought and sold – and also sometimes stolen – means that sexual abuse is a real but unpleasant fact. Solutions to it mean tackling the huge and deep-rooted reasons why it exists – not ignoring it and then blaming the poorest and most oppressed when they react in ways of which the government and media do not approve. Instead the Blair government has played into the hands of the most conservative and reactionary. At the same time it allows open season to the Murdoch press which creates the witch-hunt but then sneers at the witch-hunters, all the while conceding their demands.


1. Defining abuse?

The National Commission of Enquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, an NSPCC body, defines abuse as follows:

‘Child abuse consists of anything which individuals, institutions or processes do, or fail to do, which directly or indirectly harms children, or damages their prospects of safe and healthy development into adulthood.

‘Abuse need not, under this formula, be deliberate, direct or even committed by a person. It can be carried out by vague abstractions, by “institutions and processes”. It need not even cause actual harm to the children concerned, only to their “prospects”, which they may overcome. And the harm itself remains left to subjective assessment.’

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