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07 February 1999

New myths for old on child sex abuse

James Heartfield explains how the new Home Office report, 'Sex offending against children: understanding the risk', replaces 'stranger danger' with fear of the family

A new Home Office report on child sex abuse 'should help to rebut widely held myths and assumptions about offenders', according to Gloria Laycock of the policing and reducing crime unit (PRC unit). The report does attack some commonplace fears about predatory paedophile rings, but in their place it substitutes new prejudices against ordinary families.

According to the report the vast majority of child sex offenders know their victims, act alone and are less likely to reoffend than other criminals. This intelligence is a useful rebuttal to the anxieties last year about predatory paedophile rings. Last April those fears led to violent attacks on paedophile suspects, many of them innocent men, and even the storming of a Bristol police station thought to be harbouring sex offender Sidney Cooke, in which dozens of police officers were injured.

Strangely, the Home Office knew back then that the vast majority of child sex offences were not cases of 'stranger danger' but were committed in the home, but chose not to say so. I know that, because they advised me on the real figures, on the basis of which I wrote in LM magazine: 'The rule is that where child molestation does occur it occurs in the home. Of the 90 or so child sex offenders who are released each year, the vast bulk will have offended against family members.' (May 1998) Now the Home Office reports that only 18 per cent are strangers.

Even though home secretary Jack Straw knew that the danger posed by 'career paedophiles' was very small, he chose not to say so. Instead Straw cranked up the panic, saying that the fears of the crowds were justified.

The other revelation in the new report is that recidivism among child sex offenders is much lower than it is for other offences - though again this was reported in LM last May. The new figures supplied by the Home Office show that reconviction rates are about 20 per cent over 20 years, whereas non-sexual offenders are reconvicted at a rate of about 50 per cent over two years. That stands in stark contrast to the claims made by professionals working with paedophiles who have argued again and again that child sex offenders are never 'cured' of their compulsion. These are little more than the arguments of professionals working in the area to secure their jobs indefinitely.

The Home Office's concession that child sex offenders, like sex offenders in general, have a low rate of recidivism blows apart the rationale for the sex offenders' register. When it was proposed this measure was acknowledged to be an incursion on civil liberties, allowing employers far greater access to prison records than had previously been the case. The principle that your debt to society had been paid with the serving of your sentence was overthrown in favour of the idea that some special 'types' of people needed regular observation and supervision. The justification for that historic change in the criminal justice system was justified on the grounds that safety was more important. Now the low rates of recidivism have been acknowledged, the argument that the register provides for greater safety makes little sense.

But however belated, the Home Office's rebuttal of the myth of the ubiquitous and incurable predatory paedophile is welcome. The fear and hatred that such panics created were destructive, leading to violent assaults and corrosive distrust in working class communities. But sadly the Home Office is propagating much more vicious prejudices in the place of the paedophile panic.

After the event, Home Office minister Paul Boateng lectures, 'Sex abuse by a stranger is of great concern to the public, but the report shows that abuse within the family, or by an individual who has a relationship based on trust with the child, is more common'. Boateng is not trying to calm fears, but redirect them on to families.

As LM warned last May the relative rarity of stranger danger 'is often misunderstood to mean that the home is a place of great danger. For professionals it seems all too believable that every parent is a potential abuser'. The new report states that there are 76 000 cases a year, according to police statistics. But police statistics are famously subject to all kinds of manipulation, recording allegations, many of which prove to be unsubstantiated, as well as double-entry recording. The actual number of convictions in 1997 was just 894.

Fears of child sex abuse are deeply atavistic and rarely susceptible to reasoned argument. But for that very reason they hide the worst kind of unconsidered prejudice. Today the Home Office is very wise about the misconceptions on the part of working class communities about 'stranger danger'. But the professionals' own prejudices against working class families are stronger than ever. The belief that working class homes are rife with incest and abuse tells us more about the authorities' own attitudes than it ever could about family life. American scholar Cornel West has pointed to a similar development in the USA, in his new book The War Against Parents: 'Over the last 30 years, thousands of professionals associated with our burgeoning child welfare bureaucracy have developed what can only be described as a parent-bashing mentality.' He writes that many professionals 'are now firmly convinced that the American family is largely dysfunctional' and 'that a majority of parents have the potential to abuse children'.

Predictably the Home Office concludes that there is a need for more and closer regulation of ex-offenders. They also demand that all members of the community, including children, should be encouraged to disclose abuse. It appears that the authors are less interested in dispelling myths than stirring up a climate of fear and distrust, where everybody is encouraged to spy and inform on their neighbours.

'Sex offending against children: understanding the risk', by Don Grubin, is available from:
The Home Office Policing and Reducing Crime Unit, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT

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