The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse

Emotion, Social Movements, and the State

by Nancy Whittier (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2009)

This book is a fair and honest history of how the very old and mystical theory of childhood sexual trauma was transformed into the woe-is-me strategy for feminist revolution. The book details how early feminists found some sympathy by focusing on sexual violence against women, but got even more attention (and funding) when they focused on child sexual abuse, then believed to be exclusively men against little girls.

The feminists’ conspiracy theory was that men molest little girls to “prepare” females for their future subordinate role, hence child sexual abuse isn’t an individual pathology but a political crime. It isn’t clear whether it is a conscious conspiracy, i.e. men educate little boys along the lines of: “When you get older you have to fondle little girls so they’ll know their place.” Or perhaps it is an instinctive behavior; at some age males just know what their gender duty is: “it’s a dirty job but somebody has to do it”???

That kind of nonsense-logic dovetailed with religious groups whose traditional ideology is that we should mentally castrate children so they’ll reject the pleasures of the body in favor of a life of spiritual contemplation and prepare ourselves for the afterlife. Conversely, sex education is the work of the devil. Finally, psychotherapists realized there is money to be made if as many people as possible think they’re crazy and need “therapy.”

The author is rightly proud of the lesbian feminist contribution to publicizing the very real problem of insensitivity to children (sexual or otherwise), and her analyses are valuable because she admits there was always a human element beneath the surface idealism, as not only feminists but conservatives and libertarians eventually exploited the issue for the benefit of their own agendas, and still grapple with the contradictions – e.g. that even sex play between different age groups is both a pathology and a crime, or one or the other, depending on your ulterior motives at the moment.

Special interests (not only psychotherapists, but publishers, social workers and politicians running for election or re-election) cashed in and still do. The real victims in this are, of course, the nation’s children, who are now so thoroughly terrorized against “stranger danger,” if not satanic ritual abuse and alien abductions for sexual purposes, that when asked anything about sex they will often remain silent, unsure of how adults want them to answer and fearful of what storm they might unleash by giving the interrogator the “wrong” answer.

The story isn’t over yet, but some people are beginning to notice that the vast majority of deaths and serious injuries that children suffer are due to physical abuse and neglect, i.e. the 10,000+ deaths every year covered up as “accidents” (See the new book “Child Safety: A Heroic Challenge”), and that the perpetrators of those “accidents” aren’t strangers.

The subject of child development is now viewed religiously: every belief must be either absolutely true or absolutely false. There are no grey areas, and intellectual humility is considered a sign of weakness. Politicians and psychologists (professional and amateur) have parents so confused that we are considered good parents if we keep a sharp lookout for inappropriate touchers, while ignoring the most serious and most frequent dangers children face: parents smoking while pregnant, feeding infant formula instead of breastfeeding, driving while sleep-deprived, allowing children to ride in vehicles without proper restraint, etc.

Hopefully, young activists will read this important book and learn its lessons: the government’s money can be used to achieve social change, but the direction of that change should be guided by what children really need to survive, stay healthy and become happy adults, not the financial interests of the mental health industry, the mass media’s eagerness to sell news, and the public’s pathetic penchant for scandals involving sex and violence. 

There is a scene in the old film “The Last Picture Show” in which a parent finally notices her child is missing. After some searching the other distracted adults in the area remark that the village idiot was recently playing with the child. When a now-concerned mob finds the culprit and marches him to justice, the little girl follows behind them dragging her doll, as alone and neglected as she was before. That realistic portrayal of adult priorities should not be the final epitaph of the movement against sexual abuse.

Update: Amazon said this book was unavailable for several months, but it's now available again!