Abuse, Fear and Moral Panic: Children, Teachers and Carers at Risk

Heather Piper’s Professorial Lecture 2012 – ‘Abuse, Fear and Moral Panic: Children, Teachers and Carers at Risk’

Addressing an audience of academics, practitioners, students and researchers, Prof. Heather Piper gave a thought provoking insight into some of her work in the Assembly Hall at Didsbury on Tuesday 6th November.

Child abuse, and the subsequent fear that the subject engenders, has become particularly resonant in recent years. With this as a motivating factor, Heather’s investigations have revealed the extent to which preventative measures have been motivated by a cumulative climate of concern and mistrust, combining to elicit reactionary panic amongst the public and at the same time undermine and overshadow any genuine problems. Discursive narratives have stoked the fires of this now widespread anxiety, as adults that work with children are categorised as potential abusers whose predatory motives are realised by their position of conceptual power. In reality however, notions like this serve to marginalise such workers, as they are regulated, checked and vetted at every opportunity, guilty until proven innocent. Heather offered (genuine!) empirical examples from both educational and sports coaching contexts that highlight some of the measures that have been implemented in the name of this very topical ‘safeguarding’:

  • The ‘sideways hug’ has been encouraged, if a hug is itself unavoidable, eschewing its frontal and therefore sexualised equivalent.
  • Teachers and coaches should avoid being alone with a child and a door must be left open if such an interaction does take place, allowing colleagues to monitor one another, thereby collaboratively perpetuating this environment of mistrust.
  • Minor first aid is often left up to the children themselves, as children as young as four have been asked to apply their own plasters.
  • Assistance with sun cream is also discouraged as the rubbing in of lotion becomes deeply problematic in a system that advocates default suspicion.
  • British gymnastics have devised can touch/no touch charts in which the body of a child is, somewhat grotesquely, divided up into areas where touch and support is or is not appropriate.

It is the last example in particular which points to a deeply troubling preoccupation with the desexualisation of contact between adult and child. The mere fact that such guidance has emerged is itself evidence of a relentless cycle of self-doubt, in which the adult subversively becomes dependant on individual protection from the damaging spectre of accusation, irreversibly distorting the ‘protection’ of the child. This distortion has been further exemplified as vetting procedures target sports coaches of increasingly younger age. It seems as though this culture of suspicion has taken a rather bizarre turn as adolescents themselves, once characterised as a ‘vulnerable’ group here, are being exposed to an all-encompassing system of disproportionately levelled interrogation.

Heather went on to present the harrowing tale of a male schoolteacher who was accused of sexual abuse. The situation arose during a PTA meeting in which some parents expressed concern about the way in which this teacher made contact with his pupils. This general disquiet then seemed to escalate as what appeared to be conjecture rapidly turned into concrete accusation. Although the charges were based on largely dubious evidence, the teacher was found guilty of 16 counts of sexual abuse. He spent time in prison and on his release a lengthy case ensued as he attempted to clear his name. He of course lost his job, his dignity and his confidence and was forced to rely on benefits. At his lowest ebb he contemplated suicide as there seemed little hope of restitution. Eventually the charges were dropped however the damage was effectively done. It was clear that this man was neither a paedophile nor a sexual predator but he would be forever associated with child abuse because of a discursive system that thrives on lascivious attachment.

There is an inherent bravery in taking on a subject of such contemporary sensitivity. The possibility of backlash is readily apparent and Heather mentioned this in her concluding remarks. It is important to look beyond the fact that this approach is one of dissidence, as we attempt to realign thinking that has led to the unnecessary defamation of the innocent and ultimately endangers children further. This is an issue that needs significant investigation and Heather’s work has enabled the initiation of a dialogue that attempts to address a discourse that has been transcendentally damaging.

Simon Fletcher


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