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

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

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

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


As recently as 1970, child sexual abuse was seen as extremely rare and usually harmless. Over thirty years later, the media regularly covers child sexual abuse cases, many survivors speak openly about their experiences, and a thriving network of public and private organizations seek to prevent child sexual abuse and remedy its effects. This is the story of these dramatic changes and the activists who helped bring them about.

The Politics of Child Sexual Abuseis the first study of activism against child sexual abuse, tracing its emergence in feminist anti-rape efforts, its development into mainstream self-help, and its entry into mass media and public policy. Nancy Whittier deftly charts the development of the movement's "therapeutic politics," demonstrating that activists viewed tactics for changing emotions and one's sense of self as necessary for widespread social change and combined them with efforts to change institutions and the state. Though activism originated with feminists, as the movement grew and spread to include the goals of non-feminist survivors, opponents, therapists, law enforcement, and elected officials, participants were pulled toward formulations of child sexual abuse as a medical or criminal problem and away from emphases on gender and power. In the process, the movement both succeeded beyond its wildest dreams and saw its agenda transformed in ways that were sometimes unrecognizable.

A lucid and moving account,The Politics of Child Sexual Abusedraws powerful lessons about the transformative potential of therapeutic politics, their connection to institutions, and the processes of incomplete social change that characterize American politics today.


1950s: Growing up in the 1940s, Barbara never talked about having been raped by a family member. As a young adult, she went to a psychiatrist who told her that people generally weren’t bothered by incest, and, despite her distress, she let the matter drop.

1982: Several women in their twenties met through a local feminist antiviolence group. Discovering their shared experiences of childhood sexual abuse, they began meeting to support each other, theorize about child sexual abuse, and work to make the issue more visible.

1995: A man in his thirties confronted his parents with accusations of child sexual abuse. Denying his account, they argued that his memories were false, implanted by a therapist’s suggestive techniques. They referred to literature from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and implored him to see a new therapist.

1998: The stickers read “Proud Survivor” and “The Abuse Stops Here.” Fluorescent green and orange, plastered to marchers’ bodies, they caught the eye of onlookers, who often cheered or mouthed, “Me, too,” as Run Riot, a survivors’ activist group, chanted and sang its way along the route of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade.

1999: In her thirties, Susan understood the silence around her sexual abuse by a family member as the result of racism, fueled by the idea that an African-American woman speaking up about incest supported the . . .

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