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Reconsidering the Recent History of Child Sexual Abuse, 1910–1960

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2000

Carol Smart*
Affiliation:
Centre for Research on Family, Kinship & Childhood, Department of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Leeds

Abstract

This paper explores how different discursive sites have sought to define and/or deny the actuality and harm of child sexual abuse in the first half of the twentieth century in England and Wales. Primary data from journal and archival sources suggest that there were a range of competing accounts of sexual abuse (usually referred to as sexual assaults or even just as ‘outrages’). It is argued that there was not a monolithic silencing of this abuse but a contest over the meaning of childhood, over the sexual innocence of girls, and even over the significance of discovering venereal diseases in babies and in children's homes. The paper suggests that there has been an overemphasis on the silencing potential of psychoanalytic discourses during this period, and insufficient attention paid to the role of the legal establishment and the practices of the criminal justice system in the persistent, but multifaceted, inability to define adult/child sexual contact as abusive or harmful.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2000

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Footnotes

I am grateful to The Leverhulme Trust under whose Fellowship Scheme research for this paper has been carried out. I also wish to acknowledge the considerable help I received from Diane Railton who found many of the original sources for me and who alerted me to the debates on outbreaks of venereal diseases in children's homes in the early part of this century.

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