Sex Abuse: An Issue in Human Sexuality
Dr. Patrick Fitzsimons Research Director
Auckland Medical Aid Trust 1998 Mail address: P.O. Box 29095, Greenwoods Corner, Auckland
This article is a revised extract from a research paper recently
published in an international academic journal: 'Michel Foucault: Regimes of
Punishment and the Question of Liberty', International Journal of the Sociology of Law
(1999), 27, 379-399.
While not attempting to dismiss the reality of sexual
violence, the paper explains the intensification of the sexual abuse discourse as
contingent upon an incitement to talk about it in what the French philosopher, Michel
Foucault, calls a confessional society.
We live in a confessional society where every sexual act
and thought must be brought to light, catalogued, and examined. In the Christian
mode, confession is buttressed by the activity of the Priest, who, on Gods
authority, proclaims salvation in such findings. The individual
therefore implicates him or her self when they (re)construct and confess such events and
declare guilt. The idea of self as truth derived from the confessional
mode, is the antithesis of the notion of self held by the ancient Stoics who simply
examined their consciences and declared who they were for self accounting purposes rather
than for renouncing themselves; it was an ethics of self. Christianity adopted the
Stoic form but introduced self-renunciation. Since our era is one of rapid change,
the self is entrepreneurial and constantly reconstituting itself under the human
sciences. Even so, as Foucault notes, the knowledge of self as truth still firmly
embedded in sexuality. These practices are powerful tools for teaching the
connection between knowledge of sex and erotic pleasure.
Sex abuse has recently become an
important issue. The number of reported cases of sexual abuse in New Zealand for
instance, has increased dramatically. The Waikato Times (9 November 1994) reports a
spokesperson from Accident Rehabilitation and Compensation Insurance Corporation as saying
that over one four month period as many as 500 people a week are filing claims for sexual
abuse. A Government spokesperson believes that the claims reflected peoples
awareness and greater willingness to talk about sex abuse rather than a rise in
incidence. The basis of this belief was not examined. According to one
'expert' (Miriam Saphira in Metro Magazine, 1993), the percentage of the female population
who are victims of sexual abuse in New Zealand is about 25 percent.
The New Zealand experience reflects a worldwide
phenomenon. Scott (1996) sees the issue emerging in the USA in 1987 when some forms
of sexual harassment were made legally actionable. On the basis of a government
funded research project in the United States into the relationship between images of
children, crime and violence in Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines, Reisman
(undated) concluded that in sum, these magazines paired adult female nudity with
images of children, crime and violence, for millions of juvenile and adult readers over
decades. The McMartins Preschool case on California in the early
1980s involved 208 counts of child molestation and led to the longest and most
costly court trial in U.S. history and ended without a conviction (Meyer, 1997: 3).
The case of Judge Clarence Thomas from Oklahoma, accused by Anita Hill of sexual
harassment dominated American press through 1991 and 1992. Then came accusations by
twenty four women against Republican Senator Bob Packwood, the sexual abuse of a large
group of women by men of the US Navy at the infamous Tailhook convention, and more
recently in 1994 the accusations against President Clinton by Paula Jones that he sexually
harassed her at Little Rock in 1991. The latest and most famous of all, of course,
is the case of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton (again).
Contrary to popular imagination, general propositions in
law do not necessarily decide concrete cases. Cotterrell (1989: 211) for example,
refers to the general apparatus of legal doctrine as transcendental nonsense [and
as] mystification [and] because of the manipulability of concepts, legal texts are
infinitely interpretable. Ward (1998) says that critical legal studies are not
alone in accepting the realist idea that general concepts in legal doctrine do not
determine outcomes; the liberal law tradition relies on human and social sciences that
themselves are based on a justification of a particular kind of society. Therefore,
the influence of the human and social sciences upon legal doctrine is far from
neutral. Curzon (1992: 261 argues that on several grounds, liberal
jurisprudence stands condemned; at best it is muddled, at worst it is a cloak for class
Definitions of sex abuse have been changing. Scott
(1996 xvi-xvii) for instance, points out that in 1987 the most widely accepted definition
of sexual abuse was the involvement of dependent developmentally immature children
and young people in activities which they cannot fully comprehend, to which they cannot
give informed consent, and which violate the social taboos of the culture. By
1989 the law in the United Kingdom gave mandatory guidance to professionals within its
ambit; sexual abuse had been defined as actual or likely exploitation of a child or
adolescent. The child may be dependent and/or developmentally immature (Scott,
1996). There are many interpretations that could arise out of such a definition:
e.g., what counts as evidence for likely; what constitutes exploitation?
These issues are far from resolved. Quite rightly then, Scott (1996: xvii) asserts
that because of definitional problems the field of research into child abuse is fraught
with difficulty. She writes, as definitions became more restrictive, there is
some evidence that prevalence appears to fall. This partly explains the wide
variation in the data on the prevalence of sex abuse; logically the restriction in
definition means there is less of whatever counts as sex abuse. According to recent
research (Scott, 1996: xvii), the rates (of abuse) are highly discrepant and vary
from 3 to 90 percent. These discrepancies in definition became a matter for
governmental concern in England in 1995 when it was reported that research found that one
in six adults claimed to have suffered sexual abuse in childhood. As a possible
explanation for this claim, Scott (1996: xvii) offers, no distinction had been drawn
between reports of rape, molestation and indecent exposure. Against this claim
were others asserting that too narrow a definition of abuse works against childrens
rights. But the capacity to construe almost any situation as abusive could result in
the statistics being ignored and/or the issue not being taken seriously.
Psychiatry provides a further insight into the problematic
knowledge claims of the human sciences. The DSM III manual notes that trauma must be
an event which lies outside the normal pattern of human experience and which would clearly
cause suffering in virtually anyone. That meant trauma would require a social
interpretation such that there was agreement about what exactly constitutes
suffering in virtually everyone. By the time the DSM IV manual was
published in 1994, it was no longer the observers/(psy)experts [(psy)chologists,
(psy)chiatrists and (psy)chotherapists -- see e.g., Donzelot, 1979)] who determined what
should be regarded as traumatic, rather it was limited to the individuals own
interpretation. Even if that personal interpretation was free floating, in order to
count as sex abuse it must still align itself with the categories provided in
the manual. That provides the same outcome as the DSM III in the sense that the
categories in the manual govern what can be said.
In the case of either the DSM III or the DSM IV, we would
be dealing with a memory. The individuals speech is taken as the evidence
although, given the problems of memory as argued by Hacking (1994. 1995), there could very
well have been no event. The only requirement under this confessional mode is that
individuals constitute themselves subject to the categories provided. Even though in
this case, it is the victim who speaks, under the DSM IV, it is still the experts who set
the categories. The logic does not require verification or evaluation of the
statements except to ensure a proper fit under the classification
system. Given the massive increase in categories from the DSM III to the DSM IV (in
certain places it might be called progress), such knowledge is infinitely
malleable, highly productive, and therefore problematic.
The production of knowledge has always been a
problem. In the case of the Witches of Salem, under an ancient rationality of trial
by ordeal, a woman who confessed was deemed to be a witch as also were those who, by not
confessing, were said to be in denial and therefore, guilty. In a recent
re-interpretation of the case, Brenner, (1976) reports that by the time Governor Phipps
called a halt to the proceedings in 1692 and decided that there were no such things as
witches, 19 people had been hung, 100 were awaiting trial, more had been accused and not
yet charged, and a further 50 had confessed to witchcraft. Later analysis of the
phenomena of witches attributed it to economically based political factionalism and
struggles for control. Nietzsche (Genealogy p. 129) points out that
sinfulness is not a fact, merely an interpretation of a physiological
depression. He says the fact that someone feels guilty or sinful is no proof they
are right. As he says, recall the famous witch trials: the most acute and
humane judges were in no doubt as to the guilt of the accused; the witches
themselves did not doubt it -- and yet there was no guilt (p.129). In relation to
sex abuse, the individual interpretations under the categories of the DSM IV where victims
alone recall a memory (albeit with the help provided by psychiatric
categories), may or may not be based on an event in real life. In order to establish
a credible standard proof in other parts of the law, corroboration of others would also be
required. But, by definition, under the DSM IV manual, all that is required is the
confession of the victim. This may partly explain why the noted philosopher and
historian of statistics, Ian Hacking (1995), is able to say that the empirical evidence
around of sex abuse is problematic if not incoherent.
Under a liberal state, security depends in part on
knowledge developed by experts in the human and social sciences. This has made
expertise integral to defining, disclosing and prosecuting sex abuse. The problem
for liberalism is that sex abuse is contingent upon the human and social sciences, and as
they change, so too do the concepts they produce. This paper suggests that the
discourse of sex abuse is a well intentioned contemporary political project and
theoretical position that inadvertently redraws the very configuration and effects of
power that it seeks to vanquish. This provides one likely partial explanation for
the rise of the sex abuse discourse.
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