Academic journal article Social Work

Claimsmakers in the Child Sexual Abuse "Wars": Who Are They and What Do They Want?

Academic journal article Social Work

Claimsmakers in the Child Sexual Abuse "Wars": Who Are They and What Do They Want?

Article excerpt

The world of lived reality and situation-specific meanings that constitute the general object of investigation is thought to be constructed by social actors. That is, particular actors, in particular places, at particular times, fashion meaning out of events and phenomena through prolonged, complex processes of social interaction involving history, language, and action.

--(Schwandt, 1994, p. 118)

When I first became involved with child sexual abuse issues as a community organizer and educator in the 1970s, I could not have imagined that newly emerging concerns about the social problem of child sexual abuse would be overshadowed, in less than two decades, by widespread concerns about sexual abuse "hysteria." As a social worker I watched in horror as public concern about protecting children gave way to vituperative battles in the courts, in the professional literature, and in the media. As a sociologist I observed the same conditions and events with growing interest. It was astonishing to me that claims that had meant something one year could be seen as meaning something entirely different the next. I wanted to know what had happened and why it had happened.

As I explored these questions, I realized that this kind of social problem trajectory was not unique to the child sexual abuse issue. Historical events are the product of a complex set of interactions between structural conditions, cultural beliefs, and individual agency. Human behaviors come to be defined as social problems in particular places, at particular times, and in contexts that are not only historical and sociopolitical, but also human. Structural factors may create the conditions for the emergence of a particular concern, but concerns are expressed by human beings. People express concerns and define problems by constructing stories that offer the listener a way of "seeing" the behavior and understanding the concern. But, in the process of telling stories about human behavior, people also define and express themselves. This interaction among storyteller, story, and audience creates the human contexts that, like the larger sociopolitical contexts they inhabit, give shape to history.

This article explores some of the "stories" that were told to me by 40 people who, together and in opposition to one another, helped bring concerns about child sexual abuse and child sexual abuse claims to wide audiences in the Western world. Drawing primarily from the interview subjects' descriptions and explanations, the following questions were addressed: How do important actors in contemporary conflicts about child sexual abuse describe themselves and each other? What, in their views, are the central issues concerning child sexual abuse, and what do they see as the range of positions on those issues? How have the views of these important figures shaped public and professional perceptions about issues around child sexual abuse? And, finally, what are the implications of these different viewpoints for practitioners who work with individuals and families who have been harmed by sexual abuse or sexual abuse accusations?

Although it is tempting to view conflicts about child sexual abuse simplistically as a battle and a backlash (Hechler, 1988), an examination of the range and breadth of issues makes categorizing positions in the field difficult. For example, many writers who have no difficulty accepting that adults might repress memories of childhood sexual abuse may view with incredulity the suggestion that significant numbers of these adults were ritually abused by Satanic cults (Faller, 1993). Critics of prevention programs range from conservative writers who object to what they perceive as an effort to undermine parental authority to feminist writers who suggest that these programs ignore children's real powerlessness in the family (Kitzinger, 1990). Prominent clinicians sit on boards with people who consider therapists to be, as one of the respondents in this study put it, "highly credentialed witch doctors. …

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