Love as Justice: Confronting the Patriarchal Dynamics of Child Abuse

Jasmine Holding Brown,

PhD student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

We have all been socialised to embrace patriarchal thinking, to embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have a right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them. In the hierarchies of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, male domination of females is condoned, but so too is adult domination of children.

(Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks, 2000:74)

Long before Me Too became a viral hashtag in 2017, Tarana Burke, a prolific antiracist activist and community organiser, was working at a youth camp when a 13-year-old sought her out and began disclosing her experiences of sexual violence. Feeling ill-equipped to deal with the information she passed it on to someone else. The girl never came back. Burke felt guilty for rejecting the teenager instead of saying ‘me too’. Burke herself had been turned away from a rape crisis centre without the requisite police referral, and so developed workshops in Alabama’s secondary schools where she asked female students to write ‘me too’ if they needed help. Expecting only a few responses she instead received twenty ‘me toos’ from among the thirty students. A decade later, Burke’s attentiveness to the transformative power of empathy instigated a global reckoning with the pervasive relationship between male dominance and sexual violence. It led, famously, to the dethroning of some high-profile predators.

Bringing abusers to justice is imperative. But justice for survivors requires resources other than outrage and additional reckonings, perhaps less likely to feed popular predilections for scandal, or the entirely counterproductive vilification of front-line workers that accompanies the most egregious child abuse cases. The feminist movement, bell hooks suggests, was the ‘first to call attention to the fact that ours is a culture that does not love children‘, and that child abuse is rooted in the patriarchal systems of dominance that structure society. As a result, children are seen as parental property and denied meaningful civil and political rights. Though caring is, traditionally, the preserve of the feminine, in reality, ‘women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers’ (hooks, 2000:73). Recognising adult-child relations as patriarchal implicates adults of all genders.

Confronting the patriarchal dynamics of child abuse also requires us to consider the sociological aspects of shame, and how shame conditions attitudes, relationships and practices targeting children. Shaming, hooks argues, provides the foundations for other abuses. It can, for example, be imprinted upon children who fail to perform expected gender roles. Historically, it was affixed to ‘illegitimate’ children. It contributes to the conditioning that makes men far less likely to disclose abuse. It is also felt by those who grow up outside of the idealised family unit. There is a reason, as Lemn Sissay notes in My Name is Why, that parents use the care system as a threat to discipline their children. It reflects the deeply ingrained prejudices regarding the looked after and unparented – ‘a child in care is living proof of the dysfunction at the heart of every functioning family […] It’s a very serious point. It’s almost as though a child in care is toxic, but it’s when we look at children like this that the abuse can happen’.

Far too many young people struggle to elicit care or protection from the adult guardians of state resources within, and outside of, the care system. The ‘adultification’ of children racialised as black denies them ‘the benefits of being viewed as innocent’, while children from communities historically mistreated by statutory services are rightly suspicious that the state will act in their best interests. This is the reason why Gitanmaax members blocked the removal of an Indigenous child in British Columbia in October 2021. In the UK, the struggle for young people to elicit help is compounded by a decade of austerity politics and short-sighted policy making. In 2012, the problem of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale was addressed, in large part, through the tireless work of Sara Rowbotham, a sexual health worker whose evidence was used to convict nine men. Several of their victims were in state care. Two years later Rowbotham was made redundant. In a 2017 radio interview and on the verge of tears she said, ‘it’s really frustrating […] I spent a lot of time thinking it didn’t really make much sense. I really thought that there was one point where I was really on top of my game, I knew what I was doing […] My staff did incredible work with really hard to help young people.’ According to research by the NSPCC it takes, on average, seven years for a young person to disclose sexual abuse. It is entirely unrealistic to expect front-line services, now tasked predominantly with crisis interventions, to meet these child protection needs.

Stuart Hall often referred to the current conjuncture, the conditions of cultural flux that open spaces for social change and, he cautioned, posed a danger to the already marginalised. It is worth remembering that in 2014, the coalition government attempted to privatise child protection services and do away with protections inscribed in the 1989 Children Act. Public and professional outrage defeated the proposals. As England’s local authorities, who are responsible for children’s social care, face a two-billion-pound shortfall in 2022, for-profit solutions to this ongoing crisis will likely resurface.

Until recently, I had not really considered the conjuncture my research emerged from in 2019, when I started a project on the mass migration of 130,000 children from Britain to Canada and Australia. Two years prior, in 2017, historic child migration had made headlines when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) launched its investigation into the programmes. Gordon Brown (whose government apologised for the schemes in 2010) suggested its findings amounted to the worst child abuse scandal in UK history: ‘bigger than what people have alleged about Savile. Bigger than what people have alleged about individual children’s homes.’ This acknowledgement is unlikely to have made its way into the public domain were it not for the snowball effects of the Jimmy Savile and ‘grooming gangs’ exposés of 2012. (The ‘Savile Effect’ saw an 80% increase in reporting of sexual offences to the NSPCC). This is the critical conjuncture in which the unprecedented scale and scope of the IICSA first launched in 2014, which has, to date, included 15 separate investigations, and has seen 5,440 people testify to its Truth Project. Within the cultural maelstrom of child abuse scandals that have followed, their findings now less scandalising and more anticipated, no sector and few institutions have been left unindicted in their failures to adequately protect children.

The unavoidable reality that child abuse is endemic to our societies cannot be addressed, solely, through repeated inquiry. Nor can the abusive cultures of institutions shoulder all responsibility. The emancipation of the child requires a fundamental reworking of adult-child power relations. Justice, bell hooks writes, ‘is an indispensable part of love’, abuse and neglect negate love, but affirmation and care are its foundations. What might ‘love as justice’ in our relationships with children, and not just our ‘own’ look like? The 13-year-old who never came back to the youth camp was known as trouble, ‘and she was trouble, because she was a survivor’. Tarana Burke did not, at the time, feel qualified to care for the girl who ‘clung’ to her for help. This is not a criticism. Care work can be incredibly difficult and is highly skilled, but it is vital, and must be properly resourced if we are unwilling to accept that justice for children can only be sought retrospectively. When there are no more Tarana Burkes or Sara Rowbothams left, towards whom do we imagine these children will turn?

Caption: Stuart Hall at the first Women’s Liberation Conference Creche, Oxford 1970.

Courtesy of Women Strike UK.