Guest post: Is feminist analysis of child sexual abuse lacking?

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, rape culture.

Over at Tumblr, Toranse raised some important questions about whether child rape and sexual abuse have been adequately addressed in feminist discussions of rape culture. As she points out, much of feminist discussion of rape centers issues of consent that don’t apply to children. Similarly, feminist critique of the relationship between patriarchy and rape culture doesn’t often look at the role of patriarchy in abusive family or domestic contexts when children are the victims (as opposed to spouses or intimate partners).

I think Toranse is absolutely right that there’s a real need for feminist analysis of child rape and sexual abuse as product of patriarchy and rape culture distinct from rape and sexual assault of adults. I know of only one book, Christianity and Incest by Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker, that talks about the relationship between patriarchy (and Christian patriarchy specifically) and child sexual abuse. I’m sure there are other books and articles on the topic, but my impression is that there aren’t many. It’s certainly not a topic I’ve seen specifically addressed much on many mainstream feminist blogs.

Toranse has given me permission to share her thoughts here. Please read and share them.

In all of the feminist discussions surrounding rape and rape culture when is there an examination of child sexual abuse?

Heck, in feminist discussions, when is there an examination of child abuse in general?

I feel like this is still a subject that not even social justice circles pay attention to at the same critical level as other topics. And I can’t help but wonder why that is.

Think about it: in discussions of rape culture, feminism tries to center the discussion on the rapist and on society at large.

But in discussions of child abuse, there is still far too much emphasis on training children on how to avoid those situations. Hell, not even that – most of the literature I’ve seen aimed at children is about how to deal with it as and/or after it has happened.

How messed up is that? Children – with the least amount of power – somehow have to figure out how to handle child abuse all on their own.

And I wonder how much ageism – that dreaded -ism that is so well-mocked when it comes to children – is at play here. Because talking about the things that cause child abuse and the ways to prevent it – that don’t involve blaming the child – mean that we have to talk possibly about ourselves. How we contribute to it. We’re the adults, right? We’re the ones in power over children.

This will sound mean, but I’m including myself to – I wonder how much is is that children are not us. Discussions of rape and rape culture; these are things, that as a group of older teenagers/adults…we go through. These are personal and close to us. But some seven year old abused kid is probably not going to come on to an online forum or any place for discussion and talk about the abuse they’re going through.

I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to class. I’ve seen arguments on child abuse that are classiest while saying they’re not, because they argue that bringing up child abuse is inherently classiest; as though we can’t talk about child abuse for free of offending the poor people who obviously abuse their children.

I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to unemployment. Cold, clinical ones, as though it’s just something that “happens.” “Oh hey, lose your job, smack your kid, whatever.”

I’ve seen discussion on child abuse centered on how the child can prevent it. The only thing good in discussions like those is the possibility of equipping children with vocabulary to describe their experiences. But rarely is there anything out there of any worth. Most of the books I’ve seen (of course, this is only based on what I’ve shelved in the library) are walking a line between “how to tell children while still keeping them innocent” and failing miserably at telling anything of any worth.

I’ve seen discussions on adults complicit in child abuse – family members, teachers, etc. But where is the discussions on the abusers themselves? On how we structure our families, on the way that the patriarchy and ageism affect this? Where is the serious look at child abuse and the ways to combat it?

Do we not have the answers to these questions? Because I feel as though everything is structured for discussions on the aftermath of child physical and sexual abuse. Like everything out there is only places to help you patch up the wounds while we don’t even think about even just considering how we might discuss the causes and ways society needs to change to at least lessen abuse. Is all there is just fixing it up and turning a blind eye when it happens?

Are there no answers or have we just never started looking for them?

Because those are discussions I’d like there to be more of. The abuse of children – all of it, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, all of it – that’s something I think the feminist and social justice circles should focus a lot of attention on. Far, far more than there currently is.

(Child abuse and feminism)

Toranse follows up on these thoughts here:

I don’t fault feminism for focusing on rape. I just want my experiences to be included in these discussions as well.

Hell, there’s still way to much of lumping all childhood sexual abuse as “molestation.” Have you seen that? Cause I’ve seen that far too much and I think it’s an attempt to sanitize it. I wasn’t just ‘molested’ I was raped. And being raped was part of the whole experience of sexual abuse.

I feel like what’s expected of me is to just fit myself into current discussions of rape and rape culture. But sexual abuse is different, it doesn’t function in the same way and I feel like those things need to be addressed.

For instance: grooming. There is no way there is any room to discuss grooming in current feminist contexts. At all. And hell, I needed the “coercion is not consent” conversation LONG before we ever had it because seriously, “yes means yes and no means no” things just DON’T mean ANYTHING when you were a toddler when it started.


7 Comments on “Guest post: Is feminist analysis of child sexual abuse lacking?”

  1. prairienymph says:

    A woman (a grad student with a Social Work/Women’s Study background) I met at school wrote an entire musical play devoted to this topic. Specifically she wanted to put the spotlight on the other family members who suspect or outright know something is wrong but do nothing. Like bully awareness at schools now focus on the bystanders getting involved to stop it, I think we need to push for this in family situations too.

    So there are these discussions going on, but you are right- we often relate more easily to someone our own age.

    This is such a hard topic, maybe no one likes to to think about it? I’ve heard heartbreaking stories from too many people who went through that hell long before they even had the vocabulary to talk about it. Or had parents that ignored or blamed them. If anything could incite me to murder…

    I talk to my girls as I change their diapers, wipe their bums, and teach them to do it on their own. It felt awkward at first because I’ve never seen it done. Mommy chat rooms don’t have forums discussing how to teach personal grooming and boundaries. I’m writing a book for 5 year old kids trying to talk about it. The hard thing for me is that I don’t want to install fear. It is difficult to make safety fun, relevant and comprehensive.

    • Grace says:

      Yea, you’re right, there’s a lot of work being done on child abuse prevention…I think Toranse was saying that when it comes to feminists specifically, work on rape prevention and calling out rape culture often takes a one size fits all approach that doesn’t really apply to child sexual abuse.

      I definitely think a huge part of the silence around it is that it’s easier to not think about it. It’s stomach turning to contemplate. But it happens to 10% of children at least – probably a low estimate :(

      I think it’s amazing that you’re working on a resource for kids! I’m sure walking the line between fear and being informed is tough, but it’s great that you’re taking it on. It is tough because, as you say, none of this stuff has really been modeled for most people and a lot of parents have to sort of figure it out for the first time as they raise kids. If they try to think about it at all :/

    • Julian says:

      prairienymph, I could be mistaken, but I think that Toranse may have been referring to child grooming (, rather than boundaries around personal grooming. At least, that’s how I took it; it wasn’t clearly defined. Your suggestion makes sense in context too.

  2. Lysana says:

    “And hell, I needed the “coercion is not consent” conversation LONG before we ever had it because seriously, “yes means yes and no means no” things just DON’T mean ANYTHING when you were a toddler when it started.”

    This. Right here. I wasn’t raped, but oh, gods, the coercion thing. And everything else you said.

    • Grace says:

      That’s such a silence in feminist discussion of rape that I didn’t really see until Toranse mentioned it…the widespread assumption is that addressing consent = addressing rape, and really, that only addresses the cases where consent is possible.

      • prairienymph says:

        Julian, thanks for the link. I hadn’t heard that term before.

        I’m glad you pointed that out. In my circles I know people who are or are familiar with people with mental disabilities or children*, I hadn’t seen this hole. Many of the feminists I know are also Social Workers. I just assume my bubble is the norm.

        I did notice while trying to set up a White Ribbon Campaign that violence against children is mentioned, but not focused on. It is mostly about adult men and women, with some acknowledgment of boys and girls.

        *the comparison being that individuals from both groups may not always be able to give informed consent

  3. […] up on the first post, Toranse had some further thoughts on where critiques of rape culture fall short when it comes to […]

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