Speaking about the unspeakable: Women who sexually abuse children

Prof Doc Thesis

Harris, Lucy 2010. Speaking about the unspeakable: Women who sexually abuse children. Prof Doc Thesis University of East London School of Psychology
AuthorsHarris, Lucy
TypeProf Doc Thesis

'Women who sexually abuse children' is a topic that has historically been silenced
within society, including within the discipline of clinical psychology (Denov, 2003). The
current study aimed to explore this silence, through the question 'how do we talk about
women who sexually abuse children?'
Through the analysis of newspaper articles (documenting the case of Vanessa
George) and focus group data, this study paid particular attention to the culturally
shared sense-making practices available regarding the study topic. Drawing on
principles of membership categorisation (Sacks, 1995) and discursive psychology
(Edwards & Potter, 1992), the moral and accountable nature of 'description' was
The analysis showed that there are aspects of the study topic we are able to talk about,
such as the construction of victims, and category memberships that define protective
adults and those who are a risk to children. The notion that women might pose a
(sexual) risk to children, however, was much more challenging to describe. The moral
dilemma posed by the study topic was defined in the analysis as a 'category puzzle'.
Participants attempted to construct explanations for this phenomenon, but it is argued
that no satisfactory 'solution' was reached.
The difficulty in resolving the 'puzzle' presented by this study was understood through
a redefinition of the challenge, posed as a 'puzzling category puzzle'. This enabled us
to see just how challenging a female who sexually abuses children is, not only to 'what
we know' about women, or even to dominant and trusted institutions, but to society as
a whole. In the end, we are left with a woman who is constructed as outside of our
usual, ordinary and moral reality and therefore one that we do not have a moral
obligation to engage with.
Implications of the 'difficulty with talking' demonstrated throughout the study and the
resulting de-humanisation of women who sexually abuse children are discussed in
some detail. I have made suggestions as to how, at various levels, we can try to 'keep
talking' about the study topic. I argue that this is essential if we are to construct women
who sexually abuse as 'real' and if we are to offer as a discipline (and society) support
to those affected by such occurrences.

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Deposited10 Jun 2014
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