Moral panic Quotes


This vacillation between assertion and denial in discussions about organised abuse can be understood as functional, in that it serves to contain the traumatic kernel at the heart of allegations of organised abuse. In his influential ‘just world’ theory, Lerner (1980) argued that emotional wellbeing is predicated on the assumption that the world is an orderly, predictable and just place in which people get what they deserve. Whilst such assumptions are objectively false, Lerner argued that individuals have considerable investment in maintaining them since they are conducive to feelings of self—efficacy and trust in others. When they encounter evidence contradicting the view that the world is just, individuals are motivated to defend this belief either by helping the victim (and thus restoring a sense of justice) or by persuading themselves that no injustice has occurred. Lerner (1980) focused on the ways in which the ‘just world’ fallacy motivates victim-blaming, but there are other defences available to bystanders who seek to dispel troubling knowledge. Organised abuse highlights the severity of sexual violence in the lives of some children and the desire of some adults to inflict considerable, and sometimes irreversible, harm upon the powerless. Such knowledge is so toxic to common presumptions about the orderly nature of society, and the generally benevolent motivations of others, that it seems as though a defensive scaffold of disbelief, minimisation and scorn has been erected to inhibit a full understanding of organised abuse.
Despite these efforts, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in organised abuse and particularly ritualistic abuse (eg Sachs and Galton 2008, Epstein et al. 2011, Miller 2012).

Frosh (2002) has suggested that therapeutic spaces provide children and adults with the rare opportunity to articulate experiences that are otherwise excluded from the dominant symbolic order. However, since the 1990s, post-modern and post-structural theory has often been deployed in ways that attempt to ‘manage’ from; afar the perturbing disclosures of abuse and trauma that arise in therapeutic spaces (Frosh 2002). Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to organised abuse, where the testimony of girls and women has been deconstructed as symptoms of cultural hysteria (Showalter 1997) and the colonisation of women’s minds by therapeutic discourse (Hacking 1995). However, behind words and discourse, ‘a real world and real lives do exist, howsoever we interpret, construct and recycle accounts of these by a variety of symbolic means’ (Stanley 1993: 214).
Summit (1994: 5) once described organised abuse as a ‘subject of smoke and mirrors’, observing the ways in which it has persistently defied conceptualisation or explanation.
Explanations for serious or sadistic child sex offending have typically rested on psychiatric concepts of ‘paedophilia’ or particular psychological categories that have limited utility for the study of the cultures of sexual abuse that emerge in the families or institutions in which organised abuse takes pace. For those clinicians and researchers who take organised abuse seriously, their reliance upon individualistic rather than sociological explanations for child sexual abuse has left them unable to explain the emergence of coordinated, and often sadistic, multi—perpetrator sexual abuse in a range of contexts around the world.

Some readers may find it a curious or even unscientific endeavour to craft a criminological model of organised abuse based on the testimony of survivors. One of the standard objections to qualitative research is that participants may lie or fantasise in interview, it has been suggested that adults who report severe child sexual abuse are particularly prone to such confabulation. Whilst all forms of research, whether qualitative or quantitative, may be impacted upon by memory error or false reporting. there is no evidence that qualitative research is particularly vulnerable to this, nor is there any evidence that a fantasy— or lie—prone individual would be particularly likely to volunteer for research into child sexual abuse. Research has consistently found that child abuse histories, including severe and sadistic abuse, are accurate and can be corroborated (Ross 2009, Otnow et al. 1997, Chu et al. 1999). Survivors of child abuse may struggle with amnesia and other forms of memory disturbance but the notion that they are particularly prone to suggestion and confabulation has yet to find a scientific basis. It is interesting to note that questions about the veracity of eyewitness evidence appear to be asked far more frequently in relation to sexual abuse and rape than in relation to other crimes. The research on which this book is based has been conducted with an ethical commitment to taking the lives and voices of survivors of organised abuse seriously.

In her book claiming that allegations of ritualistic abuse are mostly confabulations, La Fontaine’s (1998) comparison of social workers to ‘nazis’ shows the depth of feeling evident amongst many sceptics. However, this raises an important question: Why did academics and journalists feel so strongly about allegations of ritualistic abuse, to the point of pervasively misrepresenting the available evidence and treating women disclosing ritualistic abuse, and those workers who support them, with barely concealed contempt? It is of course true that there are fringe practitioners in the field of organised abuse, just as there are fringe practitioners in many other health-related fields. However, the contrast between the measured tone of the majority of therapists and social workers writing on ritualistic abuse, and the over-blown sensationalism of their critics, could not be starker. Indeed, Scott (2001) notes with irony that the writings of those who claimed that ‘satanic ritual abuse’ is a ‘moral panic’ had many of the features of a moral panic: scapegoating therapists, social workers and sexual abuse victims whilst warning of an impending social catastrophe brought on by an epidemic of false allegations of sexual abuse. It is perhaps unsurprising that social movements for people accused of sexual abuse would engage in such hyperbole, but why did this rhetoric find so many champions in academia and the media?

Today, acknowledgement of the prevalence and harms of child sexual abuse is counterbalanced with cautionary tales about children and women who, under pressure from social workers and therapists, produce false allegations of ‘paedophile rings’, ‘cult abuse’ and ‘ritual abuse’. Child protection investigations or legal cases involving allegations of organised child sexual abuse are regularly invoked to illustrate the dangers of ‘false memories’, ‘moral panic’ and ‘community hysteria’. These cautionary tales effectively delimit the bounds of acceptable knowledge in relation to sexual abuse. They are circulated by those who locate themselves firmly within those bounds, characterising those beyond as ideologues and conspiracy theorists.
However firmly these boundaries have been drawn, they have been persistently transgressed by substantiated disclosures of organised abuse that have led to child protection interventions and prosecutions. Throughout the 1990s, in a sustained effort to redraw these boundaries, investigations and prosecutions for organised abuse were widely labelled ‘miscarriages of justice’ and workers and therapists confronted with incidents of organised abuse were accused of fabricating or exaggerating the available evidence. These accusations have faded over time as evidence of organised abuse has accumulated, while investigatory procedures have become more standardised and less vulnerable to discrediting attacks. However, as the opening quotes to this introduction illustrate, the contemporary situation in relation to organised abuse is one of considerable ambiguity in which journalists and academics claim that organised abuse is a discredited ‘moral panic’ even as cases are being investigated and prosecuted.

Blaming therapy, social work and other caring professions for the confabulation of testimony of 'satanic ritual abuse' legitimated a programme of political and social action designed to contest the gains made by the women's movement and the child protection movement. In efforts to characterise social workers and therapists as hysterical zealots, 'satanic ritual abuse' was, quite literally, 'made fun of': it became the subject of scorn and ridicule as interest groups sought to discredit testimony of sexual abuse as a whole. The groundswell of support that such efforts gained amongst journalists, academics and the public suggests that the pleasures of disbelief found resonance far beyond the confines of social movements for people accused of sexual abuse. These pleasures were legitimised by a pseudo-scientific vocabulary of 'false memories' and 'moral panic' but as Daly (1999:219-20) points out 'the ultimate goal of ideology is to present itself in neutral, value-free terms as the very horizon of objectivity and to dismiss challenges to its order as the "merely ideological"'.
The media spotlight has moved on and social movements for people accused of sexual abuse have lost considerable momentum. However, their rhetoric continues to reverberate throughout the echo chamber of online and 'old' media. Intimations of collusion between feminists and Christians in the concoction of 'satanic ritual abuse' continue to mobilise 'progressive' as well as 'conservative' sympathies for men accused of serious sexual offences and against the needs of victimised women and children.
This chapter argues that, underlying the invocation of often contradictory rationalising tropes (ranging from calls for more scientific 'objectivity' in sexual abuse investigations to emotional descriptions of 'happy families' rent asunder by false allegations) is a collective and largely unarticulated pleasure; the catharthic release of sentiments and views about children and women that had otherwise become shameful in the aftermath of second wave feminism. It seems that, behind the veneer of public concern about child sexual abuse, traditional views about the incredibility of women's and children's testimony persist. 'Satanic ritual abuse has served as a lens through which these views have been rearticulated and reasserted at the very time that evidence of widespread and serious child sexual abuse has been consolidating. p60

Allegations of multi-perpetrator and multi-victim sexual abuse emerged to public awareness in the early 1980s contemporaneously with the denials of the accused and their supporters. Multi-perpetrator sexual offences are typically more sadistic than solo offences and organised sexual abuse is no exception. Adults and children with histories of organised abuse have described lives marked by torturous and sometimes ritualistic sexual abuse arranged by family members and other care-givers and authority figures. It is widely acknowledged, at least in theory, that sexual abuse can take severe forms, but when disclosures of such abuse occur, they are routinely subject to contestation and challenge. People accused of organised, sadistic or ritualistic abuse have protested that their accusers are liars and fantasists, or else innocents led astray by overly zealous investigators. This was an argument that many journalists and academics have found more convincing than the testimony of alleged victims.

As mandatory reporting laws and community awareness drove an increase its child protection investigations throughout the 1980s, some children began to disclose premeditated, sadistic and organised abuse by their parents, relatives and other caregivers such as priests and teachers (Hechler 1988). Adults in psychotherapy described similar experiences. The dichotomies that had previously associated organised abuse with the dangerous, external ‘Other’ had been breached, and the incendiary debate that followed is an illustration of the depth of the collective desire to see them restored. Campbell (1988) noted the paradox that, whilst journalists and politicians often demand that the authorities respond more decisively in response to a ‘crisis’ of sexual abuse, the action that is taken is then subsequently construed as a ‘crisis’. There has been a particularly pronounced tendency of the public reception to allegations of organised abuse. The removal of children from their parents due to disclosures of organised abuse, the provision of mental health care to survivors of organised abuse, police investigations of allegations of organised abuse and the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of organised abuse have all generated their own controversies.
These were disagreements that were cloaked in the vocabulary of science and objectivity but nonetheless were played out in sensationalised fashion on primetime television, glossy news magazines and populist books, drawing textual analysis. The role of therapy and social work in the construction of testimony of abuse and trauma. in particular, has come under sustained postmodern attack. Frosh (2002) has suggested that therapeutic spaces provide children and adults with the rare opportunity to articulate experiences that are otherwise excluded from the dominant symbolic order. However, since the 1990s, post-modern and post-structural theory has often been deployed in ways that attempt to ‘manage’ from; afar the perturbing disclosures of abuse and trauma that arise in therapeutic spaces (Frosh 2002). Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to organised abuse, where the testimony of girls and women has been deconstructed as symptoms of cultural hysteria (Showalter 1997) and the colonisation of women’s minds by therapeutic discourse (Hacking 1995). However, behind words and discourse, ‘a real world and real lives do exist, howsoever we interpret, construct and recycle accounts of these by a variety of symbolic means’ (Stanley 1993: 214).
Summit (1994: 5) once described organised abuse as a ‘subject of smoke and mirrors’, observing the ways in which it has persistently defied conceptualisation or explanation.

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