By Nancy Whittier
Child sexual abuse is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem. Highly publicized cases of child rapes at Penn State and in the Catholic Church have brought attention to the issue of child sexual abuse. Beyond the publicized cases, sexual violence against children and adolescents is widespread. At least half of forcible rapes reported to police are against minors and 17% of girls and 4% of boys age 14-17 report ever having been sexually assaulted. Although feminist sociologists have been largely silent on the issue, we have a lot to contribute to understanding social responses to child sexual abuse. In turn, the way we think about child sexual abuse shapes the solutions we can imagine to the problem.
Child sexual abuse and social responses to it are structured by intersecting dimensions of inequality: gender, race, class, and – centrally – age. Children and adolescents have limited legal rights or social, economic, and political power and little influence over the child protective and criminal justice institutions charged with protecting them. As a result, they are vulnerable to assault and exploitation by adults. Sexual assault against children also is shaped by gender, including patriarchal power in the family and girls’ and boys’ different positions in schools and the public sphere. Child sexual abuse is also shaped by race and class. Institutions, including schools, child welfare, and law enforcement, commit and permit violence against children differentially, according to race and class, and communities of color have a well-founded mistrust of police that can make them reluctant to report assailants, as Beth Richie shows. Low-income and racial minority families are more subject to surveillance by state agencies, while sexual abuse can go undetected in racially and class privileged families. While white girls are viewed as vulnerable innocents, boys of color are framed as sexually dangerous, and their own sexual victimization is virtually invisible. Thinking about child sexual abuse intersectionally points to the need to better respond to sexual victimization among children of color, decrease structural vulnerabilities of age, and incorporate challenges to gendered power (as it operates against both girls and boys) into responses to child sexual abuse.
To complicate matters, consensual sexual activity among adolescents may be legally defined as child sexual abuse. Research on adolescent sexual activity is rarely framed in terms of child sexual abuse. But children and adolescents of all ages are often conflated under the law. In some jurisdictions, all sexual relationships between teenagers are illegal; in some, they are considered child sexual assault if one partner turns 18 before the other. Teenagers also can be prosecuted under child pornography law for consensual “sexting.” Prosecution is more likely in same-sex relationships and for youth of color. While the law assumes that it is impossible for adolescents to consent to sex, a central question for feminists studying adolescent sexuality is the tension between sexual desire and societal shaping and silencing of desire. We need to simultaneously analyze girls’ sexual agency alongside their structural inequalities, power imbalance with adults, and the very real prevalence of sexual violence.
Societal responses to child sexual abuse are clearly inadequate and, often, counterproductive. The prevailing response emphasizes prosecution and punishment, consistent with the rise of the prison state. Sex offenders come in for particularly harsh rhetoric and post-incarceration punishment. Yet carceral responses – rightly criticized by feminists as racist and for strengthening state control– have little actual effect on child sexual abuse. Given children’s structural powerlessness, scholars and activists should consider seriously what societal responses could effectively intervene in child sexual abuse without strengthening a racist and sexist criminal justice system.
Child sexual abuse is an urgent problem with little effective response. It was feminist activists and theorists who brought child sexual abuse into public view in the 1970s and 1980s, but as the issue gained mainstream attention, feminist analyses became peripheral. As the issue returns to public attention, feminist scholarship is crucial to academic understanding and effective social response.
Nancy Whittier is Professor of Sociology at Smith College. She is the author of The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse (Oxford, 2009), Feminist Generations (Temple, 1995), numerous articles and chapters on gender and social movements, and a forthcoming book on how feminists and conservatives influence policy on sexual violence. Her article can be found in the February 2016 30 (1) issue of Gender & Society.