child abuse

child abuse
In its most general sense, child abuse refers to the maltreatment or injury of a child by an adult or adults. Such abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, or a combination of all three. It might be perpetrated by one person or by several, within a family or outside it, and in public or in private. Child abuse is widely acknowledged as causing (often) severe emotional and psychological damage to victims, damage which, because of widespread imposition of secrecy by abusers, sometimes does not become manifest for many years. In this broad sense it points to an abuse of power between different age-groups. Historical evidence shows clearly that child abuse of all kinds has existed for centuries, although how it has been defined varies enormously. What was regarded as firm discipline fifty years ago is today considered abusive.
It is useful to differentiate physical abuse of children-child abuse or ‘baby battering’-from child sexual abuse. Baby battering became an issue of widespread concern and the basis for a moral panic in the 1960s, as discussed in particular by R. and C. Kempe in the USA (see their Child Abuse, 1983), who saw it as indicative of ‘dysfunctional’ families. Later investigations found that baby battering, as well as physical violence within families generally, correlated strongly with families living in poverty, although some contend that middle-class family violence is simply kept more hidden and secretive. The deaths in Britain of infants Maria Colwell in 1973 and Jasmine Beckford in 1984 created public outcry and raised controversial issues about what constituted appropriate interventions in families by social workers (see social work ).
In contrast with baby battering, which is apparently class-related, the evidence pertaining to child sexual abuse suggests that it occurs within all social classes. Most victims are girls, though boys are also abused. The majority of abusers are men, although there is evidence that a very small proportion of women also abuse children sexually. Collecting reliable data for child sexual abuse is notoriously difficult, particularly as most experts agree that the mojority of cases are never reported. Estimates range from 10 per cent to 90 per cent of all children having experienced some form of sexual abuse. One problem for researchers is that there is no single legal category of ‘sexual abuse’; it includes rape, buggery, unlawful intercourse with a minor, and incest (defined narrowly as the father having full sexual intercourse with a child). Much debate has focused on what exactly does constitute sexual abuse, and whether or not children can be trusted to tell the truth, particularly in court situations.
These issues came to the fore in a crisis in Cleveland (UK) in 1987, when over 200 children were reported by a paediatrician to have been sexually abused, but the local police, unwilling to accept such a possibility, refused to act on the doctors' evidence. Although it was later decided that some children had been wrongly diagnosed, evidence upheld the view that the majority of children had indeed been abused. At the time, however, it was the paediatrician and social workers, rather than the abusers, who were criticized. The episode resulted in widespread public debate about the role of the family in child-rearing, the nature of privacy and power relations in families, and balance between children's rights as against those of parents. Less discussed, but no less relevant, were issues relating to children as parents' property, male violence, and the erotic nature of some power relations (see, Unofficial Secrets-Child Sexual Abuse: The Cleveland Case, 1988).
There are three main models of child sexual abuse. The psychological model, which is concerned primarily with male offenders, sees the perpetrators as suffering from personality disorder. This model disregards the victims and the social context in which abuse occurs. The family systems model, by contrast, treats the family as a single entity, rather than focusing on the individuals within it, or the histories of particular family members. Families where abuse occurs are seen as ‘dysfunctional’. This view presupposes such a thing as a ‘normal’ family and implicitly labels families that do not appear to be normal as pathological or deviant. The feminist model regards sexual abuse as an aspect of a wider power system of male dominance over women and children, an integral part of which is male violence. Such a model recognizes inequality in general, particularly the abuse of power between age-groups, and presupposes different forms of intervention, but it does not offer any obvious solution for the minority of women who abuse children.
Good accounts of child abuse, which situate the phenomenon in its wider socio-political context, will be found in, The Politics of Child Abuse (1985) and, The Family in Question (2nd edn., 1993) and The Child in Question (1997).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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