Is sexualization linked to the sexual abuse of young people?

Paedophilia and child sexual abuse are phenomena that are not well understood, despite the level of concern that they elicit. Sexual victimization is considered to take place when there is a sexual encounter between children under the age of 13 with a person at least five years their senior, and encounters of children aged between 13 and 16 with persons at least 10 years older[334].

The NSPCC describes abuse and neglect collectively as forms of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child either directly by inflicting harm, or indirectly, by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting; by those known to them; or, more rarely, by a stranger. They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children[335].

UK policy identifies 4 types of child abuse[336]: physical, emotional, sexual and neglect. Much of the emphasis in research, policy and guidance is on more vulnerable and marginalized groups of children and young people and in terms of sexual violence focuses on sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse, with more recent attention to intimate partner violence[337] and to gangs and groups[338].

Any estimates of abuse and exploitation are problematic. There are wide variations in reporting due to lack of standard definitions of abuse or what counts as an upper age limit, lack of agreement over the age difference between abuser and abused, different sample selections, and different forms of data collection. For example, in 1998 the number of incidents in England and Wales was placed at between 3,500 to 72,600[339]. A study in 1994 that examined 21 countries in 1994 suggested that between 7 and 36% of women and between 3 and 29% of men had suffered sexual abuse during childhood[340].

Until the 1970s professionals did not consider child sexual abuse a significant social problem. In 1984 the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) noted a 90% increase in reported cases of child sexual abuse. Concern has developed in the following ways during different historical periods:

  • 1985-1987: a focus on abuse within the family
  • 1987-1989: a focus on paedophile rings
  • 1986-1990: a focus on child murder cases
  • 1990-2000: a focus on doubting cases, especially from 1994 with discussion taking place around ‘false memory syndrome’.
  • 2000-2013: cases of ‘celebrity abuse’, for example, by Michael Jackson, Gary Glitter, Jimmy Saville, and abuse in the Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church[341].

The common media representation of a paedophile is of an anti-social drifter who lives on the fringe of society but abuse is much more likely from someone that the child knows[342]. The vast majority of sexual abuse cases involve family members or acquaintances rather than strangers[343]. Focusing on abuse by strangers may distract attention from the key problems young people face in relation to abuse. Concerns about sexual abuse and sexualization also often focus on the appearance of young girls as sexually available[344] but the relationship of appearance and sexual offending is difficult to determine[345]. The idea that sexualized media or goods have the capacity to ‘condition’ an individual to develop paedophilia is not supported by evidence. Research suggests that paedophiles’ attraction to young people is based upon their perception of the psychological and social qualities of children rather than their anatomical properties[346]. Treating ‘sexualized’ media may distract from a recognition of the factors that are known to be connected to child sexual abuse and focusing on children’s appearance may become a form of blaming them, rather than focusing on the perpetrators of the abuse.

Rates of child sexual abuse appear to be either remaining constant or declining. UK research has suggested a decline in serious forms of contact sexual abuse[347]. However, the most recent NATSAL survey suggests that non-volitional sex where people experience having had sex against their will is not uncommon and experienced particularly by young women aged 18 and young men aged 16[348]. This is an essential area of enquiry which warrants further research.

Young people, media and sexualization

334. Glaser, D. & S. Frosh, S. (1988). Child Sexual Abuse. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
335. NSPCC, (2010). The definitions and signs of child abuse. http://www.nspcc.org.uk/inform/trainingandconsultancy/consultancy/helpandadvice/definitions_and_signs_of_child_abuse_pdf_wdf65412.pdf336″ DCSF (2010). Working Together to Safeguard Children, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/https://http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/00305-2010DOM-EN.PDF
337. DfE (2013). Working Together to Safeguard Children, http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/statutory/g00213160/working-together-to-safeguard-children
338. Children’s Commissioner (2013). ‘If only someone had listened’: Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups Final Report, http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_743
339. Grubin, D. (1998). Sex offending against children: Understanding the risk (No. 99). Home Office, Policing and Reducing Crime Unit, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.
340. Finkelhor, D. (1994). The international epidemiology of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 18(5), 409-417
341. For discussions see See La Fontaine, J. (1990). Child Sexual Abuse. London: Polity Press; Nava, M. (1992). Changing Cultures: Feminism, Youth and Consumerism. London: Sage; Nava, M. (1988). Cleveland and the Press: Outrage and Anxiety in the Reporting of Child Sexual Abuse. Feminist Review, 28, 103-121; Jenkins, P. (2001). Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crises. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Levine, S. B, & Risen, C. B. (2004). The crisis in the church: dealing with the many faces of cultural hysteria. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 1(4), 364-370; Lee, J. (2005). Pervasive Perversions: Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse in Media/Cultures. London: Free Association Books; Lee, J. (2010). Celebrity, Pedophilia and Ideology. New York: Cambria; Berkowitz, E. (2012). Sex and Punishment – 4000 Years of Judging Desire. London: The Westbourne Press.
342. Jackson, S., & Scott, S. (1999). Risk anxiety and the social construction of childhood in Lupton, D. (Ed.) Risk and Sociocultural Theory: New Directions and Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 86-107; Kitzinger, J. (2004). Framing Abuse: Media Influence and Public Understanding of Sexual Violence Against Children. London: Pluto Press.
343. Radford, L., Corral, S., Bradley, C., Fisher, H., Bassett, C., Howat, N. & Collishaw, S. (2011). Child abuse and neglect in the UK today, http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/ research/findings/child_abuse_neglect_research_PDF_wdf84181.pdf
344. See for example the 2007 APA report http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx which states ‘Younger girls imbued with adult sexuality may seem sexually appealing, and this may suggest their sexual availability and status as appropriate sexual objects’ (APA, 2007, 3).
345. Howitt, D., & Sheldon, K. (2007). The role of cognitive distortions in paedophilic offending: Internet and contact offenders compared. Psychology, Crime & Law, 13(5), 469-486.
346. Goode, S.D. (2010). Understanding and Addressing Sexual Attraction to Children: A Study of Paedophiles in Contemporary Society. London: Routledge.
347. Radford, L., Corral, S., Bradley, C., Fisher, H., Bassett, C., Howat, N. & Collishaw, S. (2011). Child Abuse and Neglect in the UK Today. London: NSPCC.
348. Macdowall, Wendy, et al. (2013). Lifetime prevalence, associated factors, and circumstances of non-volitional sex in women and men in Britain: findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). The Lancet, 1845-1855.

Young people, media and sexualization