Child sexual abuse

Believing the unbelievable: a statement by the Trouble & Strife collective 3

Feminists who campaign on the issue of sexual violence against women and children, and those who work with survivors, are well aware that we live in a culture of disbelief, where accounts of rape, assault and child sexual abuse are routinely met with scepticism if not dismissed outright as lies, fantasies, exaggerations or misunderstandings. Believing survivors is an important feminist principle; combatting the culture of disbelief is an important political task. But there are some accounts of violence and abuse that even feminists may struggle to come to terms with.

In the early 1990s, Trouble & Strife was one of the few feminist publications that addressed the issue of ritual abuse. The discussions we had in the editorial collective were instructive, with those not involved in support work finding the issues raised difficult to contemplate. Our conversations were informed by the feminist principle of believing survivors, but much of what was being said seemed unbelievable: even some rape crisis groups struggled with the accounts that were emerging, despite their extensive knowledge about sexual violence. This is still an area of work that stretches our humanity – why would one want to believe that adults can abuse and torture children in such vile ways?

In the last few years, other kinds of accounts have emerged that seem to many people scarcely credible. It is alleged that senior politicians and other members of the British establishment attended sex parties where children were not only abused but in some cases actually killed. Following the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as, in the words of the police, a ‘serial sexual predator’, and the conviction of several other media figures on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, there has been a steady stream of fresh reports of so-called ‘historical abuse’ (a term which is contested by survivors, for whom the effects are ongoing, and also because some perpetrators of ‘historical’ abuse may still be abusing in the present). Believing these accounts means accepting that a seemingly extraordinary number of prominent men have committed serious sexual offences. It is one thing to believe that one man, Savile, was able to do this unchallenged for many years, and another to suggest that he was not an isolated case.

We do believe the accounts given by survivors. But we also think it is important to talk about the particular difficulty posed by accounts which are ‘extreme’, either because they report very extreme practices (such as ritual abuse and murder) or because they point to a problem whose sheer scale makes it difficult to take in (as with the current reports of ‘historical’ abuse). That difficulty is easily exploited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the culture of disbelief. But if we look back to the way this was done in the past, there may be lessons we can learn for the present and the future.

The denial of ritual abuse

What is it that makes stories more or less believable? Partly it is the context in which we hear them. When the first accounts of organised abuse, and in particular ritual abuse, emerged, the context in which they were heard was one in which public perceptions were coloured by an earlier controversy about (non-ritual) child abuse in Cleveland, where the professionals who had taken children out of their family homes to protect them from abuse were demonized, portrayed in the media as zealots who saw signs of abuse everywhere. What emerged in this context was a ‘formula story’ about ritual abuse that has been repeated in the media ever since, and appears impervious to any challenge. (Just this year, the BBC gave the journalist David Aaronovitch a slot on Radio 4 to repeat it yet again.) The story is that gullible professionals believed the unbelievable, and created a moral panic about children being abused by groups of adults who believed in some version of Satanism.

Bea Campbell has published several pieces which challenge this account, including a two-part refutation of Aaronovitch’s most recent intervention. She points out that in one case in Nottingham, which is frequently cited as proving the formula story, the adults involved were imprisoned for a total of 150 years; the accounts children gave of ritualised elements were corroborated by three other adults who were not charged. In another case in Orkney, the father of the family involved had already been convicted for what the judge called ‘sadistic and horrific’ abuse.

Purveyors of the formula story are fond of pointing out that no one has ever been convicted of ritual abuse—which is factually accurate since in law there is no such offence—but the adults in the Nottingham and Orkney cases, and others since, have certainly been convicted of child sexual abuse offences in court proceedings where ritual elements were explicitly discussed. Survivors have continued to approach agencies for support, with pretty much every rape crisis centre supporting women whose experiences echo those that began to be discussed in the 1990s. Over two decades, centres have built up an understanding of how best to offer support by working with women who have experienced ritual abuse.

But public disbelief, shored up by the repetition of the formula story, had consequences. By the end of the 1990s it had resulted in the withdrawal of the definition of ritual abuse in child protection guidelines. More recently a different framing has been accepted, but this relates specifically to the abuse of children in minority and migrant communities, where the media have reported cases of ritual abuse and even murder without displaying the incredulity they showed in cases where the perpetrators belonged to the majority ethnic group. The issue was taken up by the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith and Belief, which reported in 2012. Many safeguarding policies now reference this work, without being accused of stirring up moral panic.

Disbelief has also been suspended in the case of reports on the brutal forms of violence practised against women by men in groups like IS and Boko Haram. It seems behaviours deemed ‘incredible’ in the civilized West become credible when those accused belong to a group defined as Other and ‘uncivilised’.

Sexual exploitation

This point is also relevant to another ‘extreme’ case in which initial disbelief and denial has now given way to a measure of acceptance: the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are recruited into a form of organized abuse using emotional manipulation (so-called ‘grooming’), and then controlled using violence, threats, alcohol and drugs. After a series of cases in towns including Rochdale and Oxford, the main story that has emerged about this phenomenon tends to emphasize the ethnicity of those involved, with much of the discussion focusing on the problem of Muslim men exploiting white, non-Muslim girls. Not only is this inaccurate (there have been many child sexual exploitation cases where the perpetrators were not Muslims), it obscures the links between this form of abuse and others which are talked about using a different set of terms.

The accounts which have been circulating for some years now, about prominent men abusing children at sex parties, are in fact stories about what we now call sexual exploitation. Clearly it is not a new phenomenon, nor one confined to certain minority communities. What recently went on in cheap hotels in Oxford was essentially the same thing that is alleged to have gone on decades ago in the upmarket surroundings of the Dolphin Square flat where establishment figures are said to have held their parties. The children who were brought to the parties appear to have been recruited from the same vulnerable population as the Oxford victims (e.g. children in local authority care), and the prominent men involved, like the ‘ordinary’ punters in the Oxford case, were paying other men for access to them.

But these similarities are obscured by the way the stories most often get told. In stories about contemporary sexual exploitation the focus is on the ‘grooming’ process and the ethnicity of the procurers; the media do not typically ask who their paying clients were, and who else facilitated their organized abuse (though in Oxford those arrested included the (white) owner of a bed and breakfast where some of this abuse had taken place). In stories about historical abuse by prominent men, by contrast, what is emphasized is primarily the men’s ‘establishment’ status, and secondarily the possibility that the establishment protected its own by covering up their activities. Questions about who procured their victims and what tactics they used to do it barely feature in the discussion. These appear to be stories about two different things, when really they are stories about the same thing, but located in different times and places and seen from different angles.

The angle from which cases were presented had a similar distorting effect on perceptions of ritual abuse in the 1990s. The stories that circulated were sometimes sensationalised (a tendency amplified in some cases by the involvement of fundamentalist Christians), and there was a preoccupation with questions about the adults’ beliefs and the nature of their rituals (were they really Satanists? Did their networks function as cults?) This made it easier than it might otherwise have been to deny that ritual abuse existed, since it stopped people from noticing the basic resemblance between the ritual abuse which survivors were reporting and other forms of organized abuse whose existence was not in doubt.

The principle of believing survivors means that feminists cannot just set aside those parts of their stories which seem bizarre and ‘incredible’, but our analysis also needs to make clear that these elements, which can easily become the main or only focus of attention, are not the whole story, or even necessarily the most important part of it. ‘Extreme’ cases have basic features in common with accounts of more ‘ordinary’ and familiar forms of abuse. To put it another way, they represent different points on the same continuum.

‘Historical’ abuse: the backlash

The concept of a continuum of sexual violence, first developed by Liz Kelly, was meant to give feminists a way of connecting the most everyday forms of abuse to the most extreme. In a book she wrote about ritual abuse in 2001, Sara Scott argued that feminists should have used this approach more systematically, connecting this new and seemingly alien set of practices to what was already known about other kinds of sexual abuse. The same applies to the current discussion of ‘historical’ abuse by prominent men.

In this case the question is not whether any prominent men have ever engaged in abuse, but whether their involvement is being overstated, or whether the issue has become entangled in dubious conspiracy theories. Clearly the abuse perpetrated by some prominent men cannot be denied. When investigation revealed the full extent of Jimmy Savile’s crimes, committed in numerous different locations over a period spanning decades, it became impossible to maintain that allegations against celebrities and public figures were simply not credible, and to dismiss anyone who made them automatically as a mischief-maker or a fantasist. At the time this seemed like a momentous and irrevocable shift in public attitudes. But a revisionist backlash has already begun.

This backlash trades on the idea that Savile’s case was unique—a case that is not difficult to make, since in some ways his career as an abuser really was exceptional. Not only was he a particularly dedicated and prolific offender who seems rarely to have passed up any opportunity to abuse, he also had—through the combination of his TV stardom and his charity work—an exceptional level of unmonitored access to powerless and vulnerable victims, from young girls participating in TV recordings to psychiatric patients. Savile has also been characterized in retrospect as ‘hiding in plain sight’—a reference to his overtly ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’ persona, which some commentators suggest should have prompted suspicion at a much earlier stage. (In fact there was no shortage of suspicion: the problem was that Savile was a National Treasure, and therefore regarded as untouchable.)

Emphasizing Savile’s uniqueness as the most extreme of the extreme opens up a space for sceptical responses when allegations are made against other celebrities and public figures. ‘Don’t compare X to Jimmy Savile, he’s [insert description of someone ‘normal’: a married man, a father of two, a dedicated public servant]’. ‘They can’t all have been at it: this is a witch-hunt/a conspiracy’. Or maybe ‘Yes, but those were different times: not everyone who had sex with a 15-year old was a serial predator like Savile’. And of course, ‘the Savile case has brought the crazies/the chancers out of the woodwork, making mad accusations so they can sell their stories to the papers’.

We also hear the argument that the police, embarrassed by their failure to act on Savile, have shifted overnight from a stance of blanket disbelief to one of utter credulity. The person who makes this argument often begins by acknowledging that in the past the police used to turn ‘genuine’ victims away, but then suggests it is equally deplorable that they will now believe whatever anyone chooses to tell them. Flimsy and implausible stories about things that allegedly happened 40 years ago are being used to persecute frail elderly men, or to tarnish the reputations of the dead.

Joining the dots

To counter this revisionism, it may be helpful to focus on what Savile did have in common with other men at the centre of historical abuse allegations, as well as what may have been different about him; and also on what links these cases involving the powerful and prominent with other cases which don’t attract the same attention, or the same incredulity.

One factor that is relevant here is the workings of impunity (a mixture of feeling entitled to engage in certain acts and feeling confident that you will never be held to account for them—they will be missed, ignored or condoned). We know that impunity is one of the things that allows sexual violence to flourish in contexts as apparently different as the private space of the family home, the conflict zones where military personnel engage in mass rape of civilians, and the parts of the world where women and girls are trafficked and sold or killed by criminal gangs (or groups like IS and Boko Haram). It is not unreasonable to extend that insight to the exclusive locations in western capital cities where powerful and wealthy men pay to engage in recreational child abuse.

Impunity may explain why some groups of men—those with the most power, whether it is exercised by force and terror or through money and influence in high places—seem to be over-represented among perpetrators of ‘extreme’ sexual violence and abuse. This is a point that gets overlooked in the ‘they can’t all have been at it’ argument, which implies that there is some sort of conspiracy to bring down the rich and famous. A group of men whose position gives them a strong sense of entitlement, and a belief that they need not fear the consequences of their actions, might be expected to have a higher rate of involvement in the most extreme and risky abusive practices.

In Jimmy Savile’s case the belief that he could act with impunity was well-founded: he was never held to account during his lifetime. If other men are to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrated in the past, it will be important to prevent the revisionist view, which portrays ‘historical’ abuse investigations as campaigns of persecution driven by moral panic or political conspiracy, from gaining the same influence as the formula story about ritual abuse. We can acknowledge that such extreme forms of abuse are uncommon, and that some of the details may be difficult to believe. But what we have to resist is the framing of extreme cases as both vanishingly rare and completely different from more ordinary forms of sexual violence. These are not unrelated phenomena, but points on a continuum. In both our analysis and our activism we must continue to join the dots.

Time for a rethink – why the current government definition of domestic violence is a problem. 6

Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland consider the consequences of changing definitions of domestic violence which have progressively disguised, diluted and distorted the reality of gender based violence.


On March 8th the government announced the national roll out of ‘Clare’s law’ – the right to ask (and for agencies to tell) if a partner has a history of being abusive – and with much less publicity but more potential of Domestic Violence Protection Orders which give police the power to remove an abuser from the home, which if confirmed by a magistrate can last for 14-28 days.  This government, like the previous one, has made domestic violence a legislative priority, whilst at the same time failing to secure specialist support services, but there is a critical problem with how domestic violence is defined.

The term ‘domestic violence’ emerged in the mid 1970s in the UK to describe violence and abuse within intimate relationships (‘battering’ in the US).   It was not always defined in a specific way, but most women’s groups providing support would note that it was a variable combination of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and it was widely understood to be ongoing: what in law is termed a ‘course of conduct’.

When domestic violence forums and specialist police units began to proliferate in the 1990s, a variety of definitions emerged.  In the early 2000s, central government began to develop policy but there was no cross government definition. This coincided with demand from women’s groups for an integrated strategy to deal with violence against women. An existing definition of domestic violence was expanded in 2005 to include FGM, honour based violence and forced marriage.  For some BME women’s organisations this was progress as it brought these forms of violence into the mainstream, others saw it as a sleight of hand: a way of avoiding developing an integrated approach to violence against women.   This cross-government definition, in Box 1 below, was also studiedly gender neutral.

Box 1: 2005 Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence

 Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. This includes issues of concern to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities such as so called ‘honour based violence’, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage.

(HM Government, 2005)

In March 2013, the government expanded this definition even further, including more information about the tactics that underpin partner violence, but not limiting the definition to this (see Box 2).

Box 2: Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence 2013

 Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional
  • Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
  • Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
    * This definition, which is not a legal definition, includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

(HM Government, 2013)


The three key changes introduced here are a) reducing the age from 18 to 16; b) including coercive and controlling behaviour within the definition; and c) adding the ‘pattern’ to the existing ‘any incident’ approach. It is not these specific changes that we have a problem with, more that a set of problems that were evident in 2005 have been made worse, because the changes have brought confusion and conflation rather than clarity.

 It obscures at best, and denies at worst, a gendered analysis of male violence against women. While we do not deny that violence also occurs against men (by women or by other men in same sex relationships), it is now well established that gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality (United Nations, 1993). To pretend this is not the case to avoid a more complex analysis is a backwards step. This definition is entirely disconnected from that in the government violence against women and girls strategy, which uses the UN definition of violence: violence that takes place ‘because she is a woman or happens disproportionately to women’.

In addition there is a conflation between family violence and intimate partner violence. Since all agencies and local coordination forums (many of which now take a violence against women approach) are encouraged to adopt this definition, this conflation means that data they use, including that from the police, will not allow us to identify the most basic component of a gender analysis: who is doing what to whom.

The new definition downgrades forms of violence disproportionately experienced by minority women.   The 2005 definition included FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence in the main text, but the new definition makes it a footnote.  The gender neutrality of the definition is especially bizarre with respect to FGM.  Everything else in the new definition about tactics of coercion and control is drawn from work on partner violence.  This plays into the ‘othering’ of forms of violence that mainly affect minority women, which many women’s organisations have struggled to challenge and overcome. It may also play a part in a development that some black women have noticed, that many cases of partner violence are now being recorded as honour crimes.

It assumes that the dynamics in intimate partner violence (IPV) are the same as those of violence by family members (e.g. between siblings, between parents and children).  We were amongst those who argued for the inclusion of coercive control, but in relation to violence by intimate partners, where this has been researched and documented.  This definition suggests that these tactics are equally relevant to violence between family members (which we doubt), FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence (which may or may not be the case, but we have not analysed or researched these forms of abuse in this way).    Coercive control is a concept developed to make sense of the many subtle and not so subtle ways in which men impose their will in heterosexual relationships, and it draws on cultural norms about both masculinity and femininity.  This cannot be simply read across into other relationships which are often generational, in which the issues of gender and sexuality play out differently.

The inclusion of ‘incident’ or ‘pattern’ continues to obscure the reality of intimate partner violence. We now have the option of  ‘any incident’ or ‘a pattern’ – made necessary by the inclusion of forms of violence which are usually single incidents (FGM and forced marriage), but which fails to address the critique that IPV is a pattern of coercive control.  It is precisely the repetition and the web of forms of power and control which make it so harmful – the whole is so much more than the sum of its individual parts.  This fudge means that prevalence data from the Crime Survey England and Wales – our only national level domestic violence self-report victimisation study – will remain confusing and misleading.  The ‘any incident’ definition  means that a single push, slap, or incident  of emotional or psychological abuse such as name calling will be given the same weight in the survey as  repeated, and arguably more dangerous acts, such as strangulation and threats to kill.  It is this ‘any incident’ definition, and the analysis that follows from it, which produces the finding that women are almost as violent in interpersonal relationships as men.  Jeff Hearn has argued persuasively that what he calls ‘incidentalism’ reproduces how men talk about their violence: it was a ‘one off’; not that ‘serious’; not ‘really violence’.  Defining and analysing IPV as a pattern would mean that the gendered distribution of victimisation and perpetration, which all services including the police see in their data, would reappear.

The definition continues to marginalise rape and sexual violence. Here it is limited to violence experienced by people over the age of 16, committed by a current/ex partner, or potentially a family member.  But the majority of sexual violence against girls in the family occurs before they are 16.   This is yet another example of how government definitions continue to fail to get to grips with the sexual violence and the many contexts in which it occurs.

The list of forms of violence and abuse is vague and arguably out-dated. It is not clear how emotional and psychological abuse differ or overlap, nor how these differ from the acts constituting coercion and control. It may have been worth making more visible the frequent use by abusive men of online and mobile technology for surveillance and threats.

The conflations and confusions in the current government definition of domestic violence mean it has become a hindrance rather than a help. It is a lazy effort at inclusion of a range of forms of VAW in response to prior criticisms – symbolic recognition of an ‘integrated approach’ at the cost of accuracy. We suggest a new discussion is needed.  Whilst we both support the integrated approach to violence against women as an equalities and human rights issue, within this we also need recognition and definition of each specific form of violence and the contexts in which they occur.

Child raped, marries rapist who impregnated her 7

How’s that for a headline? Instead, in the Daily Mail yesterday, we get Bulgarian girl, 11, gives birth to her daughter… on her wedding day.

You see, a miracle happened. Or at least abuse-disguising language happened:

Kordeza – who fell pregnant within two weeks of her 11th birthday – spent the night in hospital with Violeta and then headed back to church for her wedding with 19-year-old Jeliazko Dimitrov.

Falling pregnant. Is that like falling asleep? Falling sick? Or could there be an actual male adult involved in the process?

Add another abuse-disguising term: “couple”.

The couple met when Jeliazko rescued Kordeza from bullies in the playground.

Note to all media: Stop referring to abused children and the adults who abuse them as “couples”.

Round off the article by letting the abuser spout some responsibility-denying, self-justification:

He added: ‘I was walking past the school when I saw some boys mocking her and I told them to leave her alone.

‘Then she arranged to meet me and asked me out on our first date. I thought she was 15. She didn’t tell me she was 11.’

Apparently, he didn’t find out she wasn’t 15 in the entire week it took to get her pregnant.

Nice one, Daily Mail; you hit all the child-blaming, rape-denying targets!