The French social historian Jean-Claud Chesnais (1981) has charted the important changes in attitudes to children in western societies in the last hundred years, using demographic statistics, public health data, and crime reports. He shows that in a number of countries (particularly Southern Germany and France) high fertility combined with chronic poverty—the lot of many families—led to neglect, abandonment, and deliberate murder (infanticide) of large numbers of children. Those neglected frequently died.
Fathers had virtually absolute power in these poor families, and were the chief purveyors of abuse. In addition to physical abuse, fathers exercised sexual powers over all females in the family, including their own children. In such circumstances sexual abuse of children was so frequent as to be normative in some sectors of the population. As techniques of fertility control increased and poverty declined, the widespread physical abuse, neglect, and murder of children also declined. But the residual power of fathers remained and, Chesnais argues, so did the sexual power and control of these fathers. Sons (who eventually became fathers) were socialized in these norms of absolute power.
Social change in this area has been slow in coming. In Catholic cultures such as France and Southern Germany, sexual abuse of children is still not recognized as a problem. Only certain Protestant or secularized cultures (e.g., United States, England, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Northern Germany). have recently begun to recognize child sexual abuse as a moral, legal, and social problem. According to Chesnais’s data, the sexual abuse of children only entered the child abuse and criminal statistics of these countries in the 1970s. In some