The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State

Reviewed by
Lisa Z. Sigel

DePaul University
The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State. By Nancy Whittier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Viii plus pp.

Nancy Whittier provides a careful and systematic account of the ways that activists have changed policies and social perceptions on the topic of child sexual abuse between the 1960s and 2000s in America. By interviewing generations of activists and supplementing their accounts with published and unpublished materials, Whittier reconstructs the ways that they organized, conceptualized, and communicated about child sexual abuse, resulting in their ideas becoming institutionalized in the therapeutic state. Scholars in areas of the sociology of knowledge, social policy, the study of child abuse, and the history of the woman’s movement will find her account useful in conceptualizing shifts in policy over time.

Her book details the ways that activism affected policy and discourse, from early feminists who saw child sexual abuse as related to patriarchy and rape, through the rise of self-help advocates who used “coming out” as survivors as a technique of empowerment, to a therapeutic turn which institutionalized an emphasis on personal growth, to a politicized counter-movement that sought, ineffectively, to use ideas about false memory syndrome to tackle the professionalized [End Page 535] institutional framework that had developed. By following activists through each of these steps, her work demonstrates the ways that they affected state policy. As well, it aptly documents the long-term consequences of feminism, psychotherapy and grass roots organization. However, as this description demonstrates, this is not a book about the history of sexual abuse. While clearly concerned with child sexual abuse, Whittier’s primary goal is to detail the impact of feminism on the conception of child sexual abuse. As a result, instead of telling us about childhood, she provides a sophisticated way of conceptualizing social organization and cultural transformation.

Because of the impact of the feminist movement in developing theories of sexual abuse and in helping people articulate their own experiences as a base of knowledge during these years, feminism becomes pivotal to her account. In some sense, her book considers how feminism developed as a bottom-up movement and how it fared as a popular approach to problems in the late twentieth century. According to her account, the women’s movement seems to have transformed the meaning of child sexual abuse in lasting ways. As she explains on page 4, she wants to show “the transformations in feminist politics more broadly, the roles of emotions and the self in social change, and the sometimes unexpected ways that activists influence mainstream culture and institutions.” The turn towards emotion and the self allows her to consider the emergence of the self-help movement out of the feminist movement. She suggests that the women’s movement did not turn inward abandoning its radical roots by moving from politics to psychotherapy; instead the shift to psychotherapy reflected a broader shift in the emergence of a therapeutic state. Though ideas in circulation about child sexual abuse emerged from the women’s movement, the state and mainstream culture selected from feminist interpretations the ideas that best suited their own aims.

This book relies heavily on interviews from activists and therefore advances their views about the process and meaning of change. As a result, her account provides a very narrow model of causation. She suggests that survivor-activists turned to self-help and then developed programs for professionals interested in undoing the damage from child sexual abuse. In many ways, it appears as if she accepts that activists influenced change because that was what her informants believed. In part this emphasis is intentional because her project looks to examine the ways that activists transformed policy. However, this account also derives from a sociological model of change that isolates rather than contexualizes. This model of change can be very useful at demonstrating the long-term consequences of organization and activism. However, broader issues including the democratization of education, the wholesale movement of women into psychotherapy, and the slow rejection of Freudianism, all of which allowed new groups to formulate new ideas, are not addressed. Further, Whittier focuses on incest as the central type of child sexual abuse without a discussion of why or how incestuous abuse became the archetype of child sexual abuse in the late twentieth century. In many ways, the focus on incest seems like a long-term trend in child sexual abuse scandals. If the early twentieth century looked at working-class life and the dangers of social mixing as causing child sexual abuse and the late twentieth century looked at stranger danger and the dysfunctional family, the early twenty-first century promises to look at institutions like organized sports and churches as the central places for child sexual abuse. No doubt, [End Page 536] child sexual abuse happened in the home, the community, and in institutions during each of these time periods, but Whittier has little to say about these patterns of denunciation, referring to them only according to a “moral panic” model. Historians are interested in why certain types of dangers generate moral panics at certain times; Whittier prefers instead to treat the late twentieth century’s model of abuse as somehow the most emblematic.

For social historians and historians of sexuality, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into the ways that sociologists look at some of the same questions and concerns with very different sorts of sources and methodologies. Further, Whittier answers the question of what difference can a few dozen committed activists make? Whittier suggests that on certain issues like child sexual abuse, just a few dozen people can transform social policies in lasting ways. That point alone deserves consideration.

Copyright © 2013 Oxford University Press



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