Putting Child Sexual Abuse Back on the Feminist Agenda

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. Continue reading “Putting Child Sexual Abuse Back on the Feminist Agenda”