Often repeated themes in anti-pedophile literature

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Cover from Michelle Remembers. The often-recycled mechanism of the baby doll is thought to represent the inner child, a vulnerability supposedly inherent to all of us

Popular child abuse literature ("When Daddy Comes Home" type True Story Child Abuse Books) and television dramas (e.g. Law and Order: SVU) often adopt a stereotyped range of narrative structures and themes. Sometimes even present in professional literature, these themes are often said to be so trite and hackneyed, they undermine and obscure the true nature of abusive and dysfunctional relationships.

Narrative structure, imagery and cues

  • An undisturbed, unsuspecting, idealized "normality" is centered early on, allowing the reader to situate themselves. White, suburban, Christian America is thus often implied as the environment for demographic and historical reasons. In screen depictions, children are seen playing children's games in the sunshine behind a white haze; Ring a Ring o' Roses, cutting away to the juxtaposition of a symbolic doll or teddy bear discarded on the pavement.[1] In the background, we hear the delicate chimes of a music box or xylophone, representing the fragile and endangered institution of childhood as clean and pure, juxtaposed against the separate world of "consenting adults".
  • The abuser's world is grubby and corrupted - he is portrayed as heavy breathing, grasping and prone to excessive perspiration. He sneers almost orgasimically behind his dirty spectacles, anticipating getting the upper hand on some feeble child.
  • The abuser's perceived motive is constructed as "sinister". He is a sadist; the role of the body in giving pleasure is discarded in favor of rapturous "taking". In online copy, these motives are represented by a gnarled hand clasped across the face of a small child.
  • Any recall of events by the child is negative, or "stunted by lifelessness", as if they had "zoned out". This is by political/narrative necessity, as "compliant victims" are a major problematic for the established narrative.

Media & literary themes

A number of recurring, emotivist themes can be seen in literature, TV dramas and low-brow media reporting of real events:

  • "Think of the children" - Just for once. Can we just end this debate by thinking of them.
  • "What every parent should know" / "What you are about to hear is not for the fainthearted, but it might just save the life of a child".
  • "Trust your gut instinct!" in PSAs to children and parents. Learn to spot the signs, and never let them near your swimsuit area.
  • "Largest ever" porn ring (every other month).
  • "Worst kind" of images or "The most disturbing". We seemingly never get to see or hear from the investigators, since they might be "giggling and laughing" at images of children "giggling and laughing". Maybe it is the indifference or pleasure of the children depicted they may find disturbing.
  • "Loss of innocence", "cruelly robbed of her childhood", "scarred for life".
  • "I feel your pain" - said every female interviewer.
  • "They didn't have a voice", and would never have been believed if they chose to "speak out".
  • Your "inner child" must be "healed".
  • "Traumatological", "Attachment" psychology and "Co-dependency", importation of themes present in modern "moralistic psychiatry" identified by Bruce Rind. See also repressed memory and dissociation.
  • "The abuse of trust", is a common theme with incest.
  • "She froze", blanked out. Her body became stiff, lifeless, like a wooden doll.
  • Things happened to him, "which he was too young to understand!"
  • "Listen to the victims", for they "speak from their lived experience" (during a trial, before guilt has been established).
  • "Hidden suffering" is often used to evoke both suspicious and sympathetic natures. They just wished they could escape.
  • "Dead inside", "Soul destroyed", "Psychological murder" describes the inner turmoil. This is at its heart, a religious narrative - accusations of "soul murder" were common against heathens and political dissidents who could not be tarred with real murder.
  • "It was all about the power".
  • "The victim got a life sentence" is used to put into focus a perceived imbalance of justice, one not actually borne out by the evidence.
  • The process of "justice" gave a degree of "closure" to the matter. Effect on adult whitewashed.
  • The sentence must "fit the crime", for "justice to be seen to be done", and so we begin the circular process of ever increasing perceived wrongs and "fitting punishments".

In the literature

From Kitzinger, J. (1988). Defending Innocence: Ideologies of Childhood. Feminist Review, (28), 77 (our emphasis):[2]

Most of us are now familiar with the images of childhood associated with discussions of child sexual abuse on TV, in newspapers and in child protection leaflets. The abused child is represented by an anonymous figure sitting limp and despairing with her head in her hands, or by the brother and sister gazing out wistfully from behind a window, or, sometimes, simply by a broken doll. These images can be objectifying and voyeuristic in themselves but, however 'tasteful', they invariably emphasize the child's youth and passivity.

When particular cases are documented, the pen-portraits of the victim always focus on child-specific attributes such as pigtails, hair-ribbons, her sailor-suit dress, her 'favourite plastic purse with the rainbow handles' or her Paddington Bear clock (Sun, 10.12.86; Mirror, 9.12.86; Today, 2.6.87). Even 'serious investigative journalism' documenting children's sexual exploitation may employ, as background music, the tinkling sound of a musical box (e.g. Cook, 1987). All these props accentuate the fact that the victim is a child - childhood itself is an issue; in case we are in any doubt, the sexual abuse of a child is often referred to as 'the theft or violation of childhood' (Barr, 1986; Sun, 13.12.86; Bradbury, 1986).

Implicit, then, in all such documentation is an assertion of what childhood 'really is'. Childhood is presented as a time of play, an asexual and peaceful existence within the protective bosom of the family. This image is both ethnocentric and unrealistic.

See also

Sonenschein's book is by far the most detailed analysis of such cliches up until the turn of the century.

External links