Home > Professionals > The Politics of Abuse

The Politics of Abuse

By: Jim Struve, L.C.S.W.

(Adapted from "Dancing With The Patriarchy: The Politics of Sexual Abuse," in The Sexually Abused Male, Vol. I, Mic Hunter (Ed.), 1990.)


Although many agencies and services have sprung up during the past 25 years to help abused children, little attention has been given to developing a cohesive political analysis for why the problem of child abuse exists in modern-day civilized societies such as ours. Advocates within the Child Abuse Movement have displayed an alarming collective silence regarding the social or political factors that contribute to this problem. Consequently, little energy has been devoted to promoting a potent and activist movement to effect social and political change that is necessary to effectively confront the maltreatment of children.

Instead, leaders within the field have been absorbed with gaining "respectability", so they have generally not encouraged working alliances with more activist social change organizations. This apolitical perspective differs from the Battered Women and Rape Crisis Movements, where considerable attention has been focused on challenging those aspects of society that contribute to the continued existence of battering and rape. Leaders within the Battered Women's Movement provided a means to understand this issue from an alternative perspective other than victim pathology. Their successful effort to shift away from victim pathology is instructive.

For years, professionals grappled unsuccessfully with how to understand and prevent the physical battering of a woman by her husband or partner. The standard question asked by the professional focused on the (female) victim: "Why doesn't she leave?" That question was based on numerous theoretical models and treatment interventions designed to resolve the problems of battering by treating the "victim's pathology." However, advocates of battered women, many of whom had been physically assaulted themselves, eventually confronted the professional establishment and posed an important re-framing of the question. Quite simply, by shifting the focus from the victim to the (male) perpetrator, the primary question then became: "Why does he hit?" By so doing, a different reality was introduced through which to view the same problem. In this framework of reality, battering was no longer defined as "victim pathology," but rather the focus was shifted to the behavior and responsibilities of the batterer. With a focus more appropriately on factors of accountability involving the perpetrator, it quickly became necessary to address the societal context of male aggression. In short, advocates for battered women were finally able to shift our attention to the larger social context in which we have been required to acknowledge the many ways in which the use of violence by males is actually sanctioned.

Unfortunately, advocates working to end the physical and sexual abuse of children have failed similarly to address the underlying social and political dimensions of this issue. However, the abuse of children cannot be adequately addressed without acknowledging the fundamental political and social dimensions that govern our society. Existing social norms create a climate that fosters physical and sexual abuse of chilren.

The four basic norms that create a context for the sexual abuse of children are: chattel property, learned helplessness, sexual entitlement, and shroud of secrecy. Following is a brief discussion of these norms.

Norms of Sexual Abuse

Chattel Property:

The concept that men have ownership of their wives and parents have ownershsip of their children.

Perceiving a wife or child as property provides a justification for controlling him or her. Women and children in our society are encouraged to be passive, thereby conditioning them to accept a position of being controlled. In fact, strong negative social sanctions are focused on women and children who choose not to be passive: strong women are perceived and labelled as "aggressive" and "hostile" while strong children are perceived and labelled as "defiant" and "rebellious".

Our society over-values control. Therefore, having a compliant child is often offered as proof of parental efficacy. It is easy to justify actions that might hurt a child as being in the name of discipline or as being for the good of the child. We are all familiar with the parental adage, "it hurts me more than it hurts you," that frequently accompanies harsh physical punishment of a child by a "caring and loving" adult. Teaching a child to be absolutely obedient is actually "grooming" him or her for victimization.

Enforced compliance discourages a child from thinking for him/herself, from distinguishing "good touch" from "bad touch," from questioning any kind of authority, or from exercising independent judgement regarding the right to say "No" if one's personal boundaries are violated by another person who is perceived as having more power or authority.

Within our culture the concept of chattel property is most readily embodied as male privilege. Members of society are conditioned to believe that men, by birth, have the privilege to control. This is especially prevalent - and dangerous - in the commonly-held belief by most men that they are guaranteed the right of sex on demand. Male privilege, when applied to the arena of human sexuality, creates the framework for a pervasisve rape mentality. Unfortunately, many males who have been sexually abused also hold deep convictions of male privilege. Males who have been sexually victimized are more likely to be at greater risk for engaging in sexually offending behaviors if they also hold strong beliefs about male privilege.

2. Learned Helplessness:

The ability to accept one's position of passivity in relationship to those who are defined as being more dominant, to such a degree that a person experiences psychological paralysis.

Complicated psychosocial dynamics create a tapestry of factors which contribute to the emotional experience of learned helplessness. Lenore Walker, in her work with battered women, has pioneered in elaborating these dynamics. Many women and children in our society function in this state of learned helplessness. For example, children are economically, legally, and socially dependent upon their parents. When a child's safety is threatened, he/she may have no alternative options for a safe haven. Obviously, few children have the economic resources or the skills and maturity to live independently.

Much progress has been achieved during recent years in promoting a more open discussion of the realities of child abuse. The enactment of Child Abuse Reporting Laws and the emergence of service providers who are willing to address the difficult issues presented by this social problem represent enormous change. Nonetheless, such progress is still small compared to the magnitude of the problem. And there remain vast inconsistencies among those institutions - such as courts, mental health centers, social service agencies - that are entrusted to deal with this problem.

Underlying these inconsistencies is a basic dilemma that is created in the face of information that challenges male privilege. When confronted with the impasse of resolving discrepancies in information presented by an adult and a child, most adults are conditioned to believe the adult rather than the child. Police, the courts, and social service agencies frequently are unable to provide the necessary protections or resources needed to insure a child's safety. Religious institutions generally promote the sanctity of the family above all else and many mental health professionals support efforts to keep the family together at any cost - both of which minimize protecting an individual child when measured against protecting the family as a unit.

Therefore, most children are faced with feelings of powerlessness when confronted with personal harm from a trusted adult. Such feelings of powerlessness in the face of repeated trauma over an extended period of time creates more global feelings of numbing, passivity, and impotence, represented by a general sense that one is helpless to exercise free choice or to pursue alternative options in most life situations. Ultimately, people who feel helpless come to believe that they have no influence over the outcome of events in their life.

3. Sexual Entitlement:

The belief that sex is a privilege for the dominant person in any relationship and an obligation for the person who is "nondominant."

The dominant status of adult males in our society translates into the commonly-held belief that men deserve to have their sexual needs met. Perceiving sex to be a privilege for the person(s) who exercise power and control creates an atmosphere in which sex really becomes perceived as an inherent right for whomever is dominant. Adult males are socialized to believe that it is their prerogative to have sex on demand and, for many adults, the privilege of power and control blurs the boundaries between adult and child. The multi-million dollar industry of pornography and prostitution promotes the norm of "sex for sale" and depicts women (and frequently children) as objects to be used to satisfy sexual urges. In fact, the marketing of sex is so pervasive that it is now commonplace in many large American cities to see billboards and newspaper ads for sex clubs and sexual services.

4. Shroud of Secrecy:

The operational premise that sexual information is dangerous.

Powerful elements of our culture perceive sex as dangerous and corrupting. Therefore, considerable energy is spent to maintain a shroud of secrecy over all aspects of sexuality. Global secrecy contributes to a pervasive society-wide anxiety about sexuality. We have strong social norms that discourage most people - but especially women and children - from discussing sexuality or from seeking any kind of valid information related to sexuality. Such a restrictive atmosphere creates an environment of confusion. distortion, and fear.

Defining Patriarchy

These four dynamics, which are fundamental to the sexual abuse of children, emerge from the social construct called "patriarchy." I define "patriarchy" as the use of male power and domination to systematically control the values and institutions of society. Women and children have traditionally been victimized through this use of power, although all persons who do not conform are potential victims.

By dissecting the monolithic concept of patriarchy and identifying the distinct and essential underlying features, it becomes more apparent that our current social order is truly the product of human creation rather than the result of any predetermined destiny. Contemporary feminist writers have begun to uncover a vast body of historical information that documents the evolution of patriarchy and thereby challenges contemporary perceptions that patriarchy is the "natural" order of human civilization. To understand patriarchy and its significance in creating the so.