Denying Dolores

Michael Mason

  • Children’s Sexual Encounters with Adults by C.K. Li, D.J. West and T.P. Woodhouse
    Duckworth, 343 pp, £39.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 7156 2290 0
  • Child Pornography: An Investigation by Tim Tate
    Methuen, 319 pp, £14.99, July 1990, ISBN 0 413 61540 5

As commonly happens when an emotionally charged issue is widely discussed, the controversy in Britain over child sex abuse (which I shall call CSA) is rife with embattled feeling. Everyone, whatever their point of view on the question, seems to imagine that those holding the opposite belief are in the majority, a necessarily dangerous majority. As far as I know, beliefs about CSA – on its prevalence, its gravity, and what society should do about it – have never been polled in Britain, but not everybody can be right to feel on the defensive (even though the arithmetic of opinions is complicated by people’s ability to hold inconsistent views: for example, as to whether local social services are insufficiently vigilant, or too quick to interfere, where parents and children are concerned). In particular, one or other of the books reviewed here must be wrong in its apprehensions about the state of public opinion – and to that extent attacking a straw man.

Tim Tate, who is a journalist and television current affairs producer, tells us that the evil of CSA has been seriously underestimated, and society’s response to it woefully mismanaged and underfunded. The trio of academics who have produced Children’s Sexual Encounters with Adults appears to believe that in the popular mind and in the academic mind there are exaggerated fears and alarms about CSA. One of the authors speaks of there being a Zeitgeist to the effect that CSA is ubiquitous and always an evil. If the book contains no injudiciously warm expressions of adherence to the opposite view – for it is very much a work of professional sociology – the tenor and arrangement of the text do seem to flow from a belief that CSA should be more tolerantly regarded in our society.

It falls into two quite separate sections: the first part, written by Professor West and Mr Woodhouse, reports research into adult males’ recollections of their juvenile sexual encounters with grown-ups, of both sexes, and the second part, by Dr Li, which is more ambitious and novel, centres on a series of interviews with 20 male paedophiles. I hasten to say that Professor West, with a different coworker, published in 1985 a parallel piece of research into women’s recollections of sexual molestation, and the bleaker picture of CSA that emerged in that work is several times mentioned in the new report – which does, however, quite firmly conclude that boys’ experiences of abuse are on the whole non-coercive, and emotionally no worse than annoying (with most of the women-boy encounters being positively enjoyable). West and Woodhouse also judge that male abusers ‘are generally looking for what amounts to a love relationship’.

It is harder to acquit Dr Li of a certain bias in his basic selection of data. His remarkable interviews with paedophiles are very much designed to capture ‘the personal perspective of the individuals involved’, but in stating this aim Dr Li stumbles across the obvious thought that, ‘ideally speaking, research effort should be directed towards letting both parties (i.e. the child and the adult) articulate their experience,’ and he later concedes that ‘it is possible to say that ... this work suffers from a serious defect’ as a result. He was obliged to omit the children’s perspective, he explains, because ‘child protection agencies made access to children impossible.’ But one may feel that the omission is a ‘serious defect’ of the most unarguable sort, such that Dr Li should have contemplated redesigning his research once the agencies created obstacles (if this is indeed what happened).

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