Economic and Social Research Council
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Media coverage of celebrity sex crimes has fuelled misunderstandings around abuse

Media coverage of sex crimes by celebrities and gangs has fuelled misunderstandings around abuse, new research shows. This sensationalist reporting draws attention away from the fact that sex offenders largely operate within the home.

Allegations of historic sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile and other public figures have received widespread press coverage. So too have stories around gangs sexually exploiting young girls, especially the conviction of nine men from Muslim backgrounds in Rochdale.

However, focussing on particular stereotypes of victims and perpetrators is dangerous, according to Dr Jo Woodiwiss from the University of Huddersfield.

These are just some of the issues around child sexual abuse and exploitation that she and other researchers highlighted at an event, ‘Savile to ‘Sex-gangs’: What we have learnt’, as part of the annual ESRC Festival of Social Science.

“This research identifies public fear around celebrities and Asian sex gangs - these are the stories people read in the papers,” says Dr Woodiwiss. “These images are unhelpful because they disguise where the abuse is most likely to occur. The focus has shifted away from the image of sex offender as the man in the dirty mac to the celebrity. It has also shifted away from the belief that abuse takes place in the home, when that is still likely to be the case.”

The study identifies a tendency to blame abused girls who make risky choices such as agreeing to get into a perpetrator's car. Victims become labelled as ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’, depending on whether or not they have suffered psychological harm. 

“It’s like saying you can’t rape a prostitute or a husband can’t rape a wife,” says Dr Woodiwiss. “Some people believe these young girls have ‘signed up’ for sexual exploitation, that they’re already sexually knowledgeable and that they’re getting something in return, so it doesn’t count as abuse.” 

The research highlights the importance of regarding all childhood sexual abuse as wrong, regardless of whether or not the victims suffered mental trauma or damage.

A separate study shows that even those supporting these victims can stereotype them. Sarah Lloyd has investigated social workers’ perceptions for an ESRC-funded project at the University of Huddersfield. The research highlights that some social workers believe child sexual exploitation happens to a certain ‘type’ of girl. Some define victims as those from deprived backgrounds who seek both material and emotional gain from perpetrators.

In contrast, too much weight can be given to claims by women that they have been 'damaged' by abuse despite no concrete memories to support their claims. In order to explore this concept of damage further, Dr Woodiwiss interviewed 20 women via organisations representing people who self-identified as abuse victims. Few of the women had any memory of abuse, but still believed they had been harmed sexually. Some reached this conclusion following counselling or through self-help literature. The study identified that women can resort to 'narratives' of sexual abuse to make sense of issues such as low self-esteem.

A third study has identified a trend where accusers are labelled 'victims' even before a complaint has gone to trial. The ESRC-funded research by Mark Smith, from the University of Edinburgh, has investigated allegations that Jimmy Savile sexually abused girls at Duncroft Residential School in Surrey. These allegations were never made in court, and the study highlights major issues relating to justice and the presumption of innocence.

All these research findings were discussed at a conference, entitled Savile to ‘Sex-gangs’: What We Have Learnt, in Huddersfield on 11 November. The event was aimed for those working with children as well as young people such as teachers, youth workers and social workers.

Further information

  • John Ramsdin, PR Manager, University of Huddersfield
    Telephone: 07931 172433 or 01484 472693

Notes for editors

  1. Event: Savile to ‘Sex-gangs’: What we have learnt'
    Organiser: Dr Jo Woodiwiss
    Date: 11 November 2015 16:30 - 19:30
    Venue: Brian Jackson House, 2 New North Parade, Huddersfield HD1 5JP
    Audience: practitioners/general public
  2. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place 7-14 November 2015. With events from some of the country’s leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. This year’s Festival of Social Science has over 200 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. A full programmeis available online. You can now follow updates from the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.


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