We need a Full Stop to this scaremongering

The NSPCC and others have leapt upon the Savile scandal to promote their claims that child abuse is rife in modern Britain. But it isn’t.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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The Jimmy Savile scandal has been held up as proof that child abuse is rife in modern Britain. In every institution in the land, even at ‘Auntie’, as Savile’s old stomping ground the BBC was once affectionately known, children are apparently being preyed upon by warped adults. ‘Sadistic child abuse is rife across Britain’, newspaper headlines tell us. According to the deputy children’s commissioner for England, ‘There isn’t a town, village or hamlet where children are not being sexually exploited.’ And the least safe place, even worse than the Beeb and NHS hospitals, where Savile also allegedly groomed and molested girls, is the family home – it is there where the ‘scourge of abuse’ is most common, apparently.

Is it true? Are loads of children being abused, treated sadistically by people they should be able to trust? No, they are not. The most remarkable thing about the hysterical claims about child abuse being rife is how flimsy they are, how quickly they fall apart when one asks the most basic of sceptical questions. Indeed, the depiction of Britain as a hotbed of sadistic sexual and physical abuse of children has required industrial levels of fact manipulation by a child-protection industry that has a clear interest in exaggerating levels of abuse. The truth seems to be that – brace yourselves for this – generally people are good, and generally the family home and most institutions are safe, even happy places.

Most of the stats that are dragged out to show that Britain is packed with child abusers emanate from the research of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). A recent BBC Newsnight report on Jimmy Savile’s sexual depravity was basically an advert for the NSPCC (I thought the Beeb wasn’t supposed to do ads?), where factlet after factlet from recent NSPCC reports was interspersed with images of dirty, leering Jimmy. ‘One in six children aged 11 to 17 have experienced sexual abuse’, we were informed. There were ‘17,727 sexual crimes against children under 16’, it was claimed. Others say 24.5 per cent of young adults experienced abuse as children. The figures end up swirling together to form a dense mass of alleged depravity, giving the impression that millions of people were brutalised during childhood, probably by their parents. And, of course, as the NSPCC never tires of telling us, this is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

But a look at the studies and bits of research that are used to back up these claims suggests that reality is very different from the horror stories promoted by child-protection charities. Consider the NSPCC’s claim that one in four 18- to 24-year-olds, just under 25 per cent, experienced maltreatment by a parent or guardian during childhood, with maltreatment including physical abuse and sexual abuse. This statistic, which comes from the NSPCC’s oft-cited 2011 report Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today, has motored the belief that huge swathes of modern Britain have experienced child abuse. Yet the most striking thing is how broad, even bizarre, is the definition of maltreatment used by the NSPCC. It defines maltreatment as, ‘All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.’

To see just how amorphous this definition is, behold the NSPCC’s breakdown of the different forms of abuse that make up ‘child maltreatment’. Not only does it include sexual abuse and physical abuse, but also emotional abuse, which can involve the following: ‘Not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or “making fun” of what they say or how they communicate… [Or] it may feature developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond the child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction.’ Here, not allowing a kid to ‘express himself’, as some old-fashioned households are wont to do, or even just being a Tiger Mum and having ‘developmentally inappropriate expectations’ of your child, is put on a par with beating and even rape and labelled ‘maltreatment’. What is taking place here, in the caliginous minds of the NSPCC, is the conflation of parental violence (beatings, molestation) with parental style (having high expectations, overprotecting your child, mocking what they say), so that it all becomes ‘abuse’.

Alongside physical, sexual and emotional abuse, the NSPCC’s definition of maltreatment also includes neglect. This, too, is a sweeping category. Consider some of the neglect-related questions the NSPCC asked respondents to a survey for Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today. ‘At any time in your life, did you have to go to school in clothes that were torn, dirty or did not fit because there were no other ones available?’, it asked, seemingly taking tatty clothes as an automatic sign of neglect. ‘When you were a young child (say, under 12), did you have any of the following experiences? Your parents/carers expected you to do your own laundry… You looked after younger brothers or sisters while your parents were out…’ This is surreal. Making your child do his own laundry can be a form of neglect, apparently, as can sending your kid to school in ill-fitting clothes. The parents who do these things – the disciplinarian but loving dad who makes his charges wash their clothes, the stressed-out working mum who hasn’t had time to buy her kids a new uniform – are effectively criminalised, lumped together with parents who severely beat their children under the title ‘abusers’. The NSPCC effectively views as ‘abuse’ any form of parenting it disapproves of, any kind of parenting which fails to live up to the chilled-out, child-centred, five-a-day standard of childrearing adhered to by the kind of people who work at and patronise the NSPCC.

Given how unwieldy the NSPCC’s definition of ‘child maltreatment’ is, it is amazing that only 25 per cent of young adults claim to have suffered it. Apparently 8.9 per cent of the under-11s, 21.9 per cent of the 11- to 17-year-olds and 24.5 per cent of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed for Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today said they had experienced maltreatment by a parent or guardian. What we can see in the NSPCC’s conflation of physical battery with emotional harshness and so-called neglect is a naked attempt to co-opt more and more forms of parental discipline and general human behaviour into the category of ‘abuse’, in order to boost the NSPCC’s claim that maltreatment is rife.

What about the ‘sexual abuse’ aspect of child maltreatment? Surely that’s a much clearer category, with no room for sweeping interpretations? You’d be surprised. The NSPCC’s definition of child sexual abuse includes both ‘contact abuse’ (fondling through to rape) and ‘non-contact abuse’ (showing a child pictures, speaking to them in a sexual manner, and so on). Even more strikingly, it includes interaction between children as well as between an adult and a child. As Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today says, ‘Sexual abuse includes contact and non contact by any adult or peer perpetrator’. Judging by the NSPCC’s survey questions, it can potentially even include consensual sex by over-16s. So one question asks, ‘At any time in your life, before you were 18, did you do sexual things with anyone 18 or older, even things you wanted?’ For a great many people, the answer to this will be yes – lots of 16- and 17-year-olds, who are above the age of consent, have sex with 19- or 20-year-olds or even older people. Yet in the NSPCC’s survey, this is put under the heading ‘sexual victimisation’. The survey also asks, ‘Since you were 16, have you done sexual things with anyone who was in a position of trust, such as a teacher or personal adviser, even things you both wanted?’ Now, a teacher having a fling with a 16-year-old student might not be wise, from a professional point of view, but it’s legal and it is not child abuse.

Again, we can see the conflation of all sorts of behaviour, where everything from contact abuse to non-contact abuse, from a man molesting a 12-year-old girl to a young adult having an affair with a 17-year-old girl, gets discussed as a part of an allegedly widespread process of ‘sexual victimisation’. Indeed, for all the claims that sex abuse is rife in family homes, deep within the dense NSPCC report we come across this sentence: ‘Sexual abuse by a parent or guardian was reported infrequently.’ It certainly was. Among the young people surveyed by the NSPCC, just 0.1 per cent of under-11s and 0.1 per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds claimed to have been sexually abused by a parent or guardian, with sexual abuse meaning everything from contact to non-contact. These are thankfully tiny numbers, surely reflecting the decency of the overwhelming majority of family homes in twenty-first-century Britain. So how can the NSPCC claim that child sexual abuse is rife? How come the NSPCC was able to run an ad campaign a few years ago that had the strapline ‘One in six children in the UK are sexually abused’? Because it lumps together peer abuse, peer pressure, touching, non-touching and just about every weird sexual experience that young people have under the title ‘sexual abuse’. How cynical, depraved even. That one-in-six ad was banned, by the way, after the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that ‘the statistics were misleading’ and the ad did not ‘clarify the definition of sexual abuse’.

In the NSPCC’s worldview, almost every adult and even child can potentially be defined as an abuser: the chaotic mum who puts her children in rubbish clothes; the religious dad who doesn’t let his kid socialise with other kids; the guardians who force their daughters to excel at violin; the dad who loses control every now and then and slaps his children ‘around the face and ears’; the 14-year-old boy who flashes his willy at a 13-year-old girl; the schoolteacher who has sex with a student who is above the age of consent. What most of us call life – messy, weird, unpredictable life – the NSPCC calls ‘abuse’. The question we should really ask is not, ‘Is child abuse as widespread as these people claim?’, but ‘What do they mean by child abuse?’. They seem to mean anything, everything, from mercifully rare incidents of severe neglect to the everyday ups and downs of parenting and intergenerational relations. Next time you hear someone discussing ‘child abuse’, switch your critical faculties up to 10.

But that is the most striking thing about the current child abuse debate: it is an issue on which almost everyone switches off their critical faculties. All those self-styled sceptics and political cynics who make up the modern opinion-forming set very rarely ask serious questions of the claims made by the likes of the NSPCC or of the idea that the Savile scandal shows that ‘child abuse’ is rife. Which is a shame, because we urgently need some critical thinking in this area of public debate. The child-abuse obsession, the promotion of scare story after scare story about perverted dads and abusive mums and predatory paedophiles, is tearing apart our social fabric, spreading suspicion and mistrust through institutions and between generations. The NSPCC says we need a ‘Full Stop’ to child abuse. Actually, we need a ‘Full Stop’ to its and others’ promotion of increasingly hysterical claims about the moral depravity of us, the people of Britain.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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