Safeguarding is the practice (by authorities and institutions) of "protecting the interests" of children and others judged to be "vulnerable". It can therefore be seen as an ongoing "protective" influence on behalf of children, without their input or consent.
More recently, the term has been claimed by radical (conservative) feminists and applied to a variety of cultural topics, similarly to how grooming has been redeployed by such anti-sex feminists alongside socially regressive conspiracy theorists of the new and traditional right. For example, in reaction to sex-positive relationship education material in 2023, the UK Family Education Trust's Lucy Marsh remarked "It's a mission to sexualise children and people don't understand there's a huge safeguarding risk in that". She later went on to remark that her daughter asked whether she might be asexual, to which she replied that she should be, as an 11-year-old. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, the Ugandan government have described new laws that make homosexuality illegal and enforce the death penalty for "pedophiles" as "safeguarding" of the nation's children and morals.
The use of safeguarding protocol and language has become particularly common in the UK, where it has been used by local authorities, charities and government departments since the early 21st Century, to legitimize a range of interventions - many of which might be seen in less-favorable terms if not given cover. Safeguarding is regarded by libertarian and progressive MAPs, and anti-authoritarians to be one of an array of obfuscatory terms relating to the policing of sexuality, and used by governments to legitimize far-reaching powers. As revealed in the Wikipedia article, the concept of safeguarding has seen considerable mission-creep in the UK, confirming these suspicions. Safeguarding "risk" has been used as an excuse for actions marginally related to children, such as the expulsion of a self-describing Pedophile from a political party.
Linkage with conservative feminism, abuse for political ends
One prime example of partisan political adoption of safeguarding is the British Safe Schools Alliance, a front-group that adopts the optics of a charity to push a radical anti-trans agenda. Further examples can be seen throughout social media, usually when neopuritan, education-adjacent British feminists are mobilized by controversies centering on the normalization of attraction to minors, the Jacob Breslow controversy being one such example. Within this politicized context, the term has also spread somewhat to other dialects within the Anglosphere, e.g. the Canadian/American-focused TERF News and Features site, Reduxx uses the tagline "Pro-Woman. Pro-Child Safeguarding".
As described below, previous moral panics relating to the protection of girls relied upon purity discourses that were often explicitly racist, as well as deeply sexist. Homophobic discourses (for example, criminalization of non-anal homosexual acts in the same act of law that increased the UK's Age of Consent) were part of the reformist agendas of Victorian moral crusaders.
Linkage with racism
It has been suggested - particularly by left-wing, critical theory and feminist writers, that the idea of "safeguarding or rescuing children" both perpetuates and institutionalizes a racist belief system, allowing legacy racism to persist in the age of "equality and diversity". Indeed, it took until 2022, for mainstream safeguarding initiatives to recognize racism as a safeguarding issue.
The argument made is that Africans and non-white youth outside the western world are painted on the one hand as passive victims in need of saving by western NGOs. On the other, however, they may be presented as culpable, predatory "delinquents" within the borders of white-majority democracies where they are excluded from discourses of childhood innocence. This is cited as an example of selective application, whereby child safeguarding and childhood innocence discourse is used as a "double-edged sword", cutting both ways, "for" and against non-white youth the world over, but always resulting in their criminalization or disempowerment.
The popularization of the innocent girl-child archetype can be traced back to concerns about "white slavery" in the mid-late 1800s. Further, the later reformists and Social Hygiene/Purity advocates associated with the problematization of girlhood and the resulting legal changes, were also linked with the Racial Hygiene and Eugenics movements, for example, the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales. In the 1970s, white slavery was even redeployed by child protection advocates in order to frame black adult males as the captors and exploiters of America's girls.
Nowadays, it could be said, the sanitized cultural archetype of the sexually innocent child is a proxy for the fragile, coveted historical institution of white female purity - girls as the "property" or "treasure" of a "nation, race and people" that is at risk of being plundered by the dark-skinned incomers. Safeguarding doxa (desexualization and containment of minors) is thus perpetuated in order to protect this deeply ingrained nationalistic imagery and to excuse sometimes violent, criminal and unconstitutional actions by governments:
As we discussed above, discourses on childhood sexuality have often been used to blame its manifestation on an external and ‘deviant’ (i.e. homosexuals, prostitutes, the poor) stimulus. Historically these narratives were rarely about children themselves; rather, childhood sexuality and the desire to bring it under control was often an avenue for addressing other cultural anxieties (e.g. racial purity, affirming the institution of marriage and constructing more rigid gender boundaries).
Conservative rebuttals and counter-rebuttals
Serious conservative scholars who have studied this topic tend not to contest the idea that racism reveals itself in particular parts of the child safeguarding response. What is disputed, is the extent to which safeguarding and innocence discourse serves the ends of a racist or imperialist corporate-state zeitgeist:
- The popular idea of there being "no such thing as a black/non-white pedophile" is cited as one such counter-example. Leftist/progressive critics would respond that this myth in fact exists because pedophilia is seen as an "animal impulse" innate to all "unsocialized" non-white or immigrant men, and is therefore not deemed to be a defining feature of their polymorphous perversity. Thus, the idea that white men who engage in "sex crimes" such as child pornography are "transgressors" is in itself implicitly racist, as it assumes a status quo in which white men are free of, or able to control such impulses. Grooming-gang scandals (e.g. in the UK) are pointed to as further examples of xenophobic employment of safeguarding. Of particular concern is the ease with which the term "child rape" is used to describe voluntary prostitution by white working-class girls, whose clients are Pakistani men in Northern English ghetto street-scenes.
- Another counter-example is the sympathetic response of child trafficking charities towards (often African) migrant children who claim to have been abused, sometimes sexually, after trafficking into western democracies. Such charities and child protective services are often sympathetic to stories that law-enforcement agencies refuse to believe, as documented in our article on CSEC. Leftist proponents of the racialized theory of child safeguarding would then point out that this is simply evidence of how the system as a whole, first disempowers non-white youth and then paints them as a "problem in any event". Under this split model, "problem" immigrant youth can only be seen as either culpable immigration offenders (complicit in the falsification of documents for example) or as "coerced/trafficked abductees". No middle ground is permitted, as the state insists upon problematizing them.
Safeguarding has also been used as an excuse to target young people for ageist discrimination, including deprivation of income. In a 2021 BBC report, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the UK Government's chief moral crusader in a historical trawling operation, claimed that OnlyFans (a user generated porn site) was not doing enough "to put in place the safeguards that prevent children exploiting the opportunity to generate money".
- Absurd case in Scotland, that involved a teacher being struck off for allowing pupils to undress for a project.
- Twelve-year-olds are being taught about anal sex in school while nine-year-olds are told to 'masturbate' for homework: The shocking lesson plans used by teachers in UK classrooms - Daily Mail
- National File - 2023 Ugandan Laws/Safeguarding
- ITV.com - Tom O'Carroll suspended from Labour Party - "Safeguarding"
- Safe Schools Alliance FAQ
- 2022 - Racism is beginning to be seen as an issue within child safeguarding
- Jacob Breslow PhD Thesis
- Egan, R. D., & Hawkes, G. (2009). The problem with protection: Or, why we need to move towards recognition and the sexual agency of children. Continuum, 23(3), 389–400.
- Racialized Rescue Narratives in Public Discourses on Youth Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in the United States - Carrie N. Baker
- The children selling explicit videos on OnlyFans