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Abuse—a family affair

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
A new report shows most child abuse takes place inside families. Sadie Robinson argues this reflects a class society that puts children at the bottom of the pile
Issue 2482
Research shows most child abuse happens within the family
Research shows most child abuse happens within the family (Pic: Emil Pakarklis on Flickr)

New research has pointed to the scale of child sexual abuse taking place within families in England.

A Children’s Commissioner’s report published last week (see right) said that most children who suffer sexual abuse are abused “within the family”.

It estimated that 11 percent of adults may have suffered this kind of abuse.

Why are children most at risk in the place we are told is a safe haven?

The reality of the family is different to the ideology our rulers push down our throats.

Politicians regularly espouse the virtues of the family, by which they mean a heterosexual married couple with children.

Some target those who fall outside it, such as single parents or LGBT people, as scapegoats for society’s ills.

They claim their version of the family is the route to individual happiness and the wellbeing of society.

Of course, many people do take a lot of happiness and comfort from their personal relationships.

They can feel like the things that keep people going in a harsh world.


But for many people the family can be a source of tension, stress and strain. Some families can seem like a living hell that people feel unable to escape from.

The family under capitalism is based on the inequality, oppression and hierarchy of the class system it grew up in.

Just as these things are part and parcel of society, so they are part of the family.

The family emerged from changes leading to the beginings of class societies around ten thousand years ago.

Material changes drove changes in how people related to each other.

Class societies emerged after production developed to such a degree that there was a surplus—above what people needed to consume in order to survive.

This meant that some could escape the work that most people did by controlling this surplus and living off others’ labour.

The family structure grew up partly as a way of controlling the inheritance of wealth through generations.

The development of agriculture also tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s and encourage women to have more children.

Women came to be seen as responsible for child rearing and men for production.

This shift came with a change in power—over time women were carved out of key

decision making. The family reflected the new hierarchies of society. The way people live in families has changed hugely over time.

But the family still plays a key role in capitalism—most importantly in producing and

nurturing the future workforce while sustaining the current one.

That’s why our rulers still put so much energy into promoting it.

And however people live in reality, a strict hierarchy remains in our rulers’ version of the family—with children at the bottom.

Children’s weak position in the family mirrors wider society.

Politicians may say that children are precious, but in reality capitalism doesn’t value them.

Over a quarter of children in Britain—28 percent—live in poverty. The facilities and services children need are slashed.

Children are regularly treated as a problem or even something to fear. They have the least power in capitalist societies—and make an easy target when frustrations with life boil over.

Working class people suffer particular stresses that the rich don’t, such as poverty, drudgery, poor housing and so on.

But abuse isn’t a working class problem.

Capitalism encourages all kinds of tensions and pressures on people that differ depending on their class.

On top of that, we all live in a society that distorts how people relate to each other and our sexuality.


Capitalism treats sex as a commodity to be bought and sold, and sometimes stolen. It turns sex into a battleground.

Women in particular are bombarded with messages about how they should look.

Men and women face a narrow definition of what sex should be like, what is “acceptable” and what isn’t.

This can turn sex into a source of guilt, shame and stress.

And because sexual relationships aren’t separate from the inequality and oppression in wider society, they can reflect this.

Dominant ideas that view women and children as having less value than men diminish any abuse they suffer.

And everyone, whatever their class, experiences what the revolutionary Karl Marx called alienation.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (Pic: via Wikimedia commons)

Although humans create the world we live in, it seems out of our control. It makes people feel powerless.

Targeting people who are even weaker can give people a sense of power and control that they don’t otherwise have.

Child abuse has material roots in society.

That’s why it occurs across society—not just in the “troubled families” the Tories talk of when they mean poor. It is found in all of society’s major institutions.

But dominant ideas about the family make it harder for people abused within families to speak out.

Many fear they won’t be believed. And the thought of being outside the family can be terrifying—even if life within it is appalling.

The figures on abuse are awful. But most children aren’t abused and most people aren’t abusers.

Abuse isn’t natural—it is rooted in the oppression, inequality and alienation of class society.

Capitalism encourages us to take out our frustrations on those deemed less important, rather than challenging the system.

We need to fight for a world without the hierarchies that keep children at the bottom of the pile.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report, Protecting Children from Harm, looked at child sexual abuse within family networks in England. It used evidence from April 2012 to March 2014.

This evidence indicated that abuse in family environments makes up two thirds of all child sexual abuse.

It noted that previous research showing that “many child sexual exploitation victims had previously been sexually abused in the family environment”.

The report used information from the police, social services and voluntary sector. Researchers also surveyed adult survivors.


It estimated that between 400,000 and 450,000 children suffered abuse over the time period and that 11 percent of adults were abused as children.

This indicates that up to 1.3 million children in England will suffer sexual abuse.

The report said, “Abuse by a family member or someone connected with the family is in itself a barrier to victims accessing help.

“Fear, coercion, loyalty and/or a desire to protect other family members may prevent a victim from telling anyone.”

It noted that police have been found to record reported abuse as “no crime” without the necessary conditions being met.

“Cases of child sexual abuse in the family environment are more likely to be no-crimed or recorded as a CRI [crime related incidents] than other forms of sexual abuse,” it added.

Nonetheless, where police forces recorded data appropriately, around

69 percent of all cases of child sexual abuse took place in the family environment.

Victims of sexual abuse within the family are likely to report the abuse to police “much later” than other victims.

Many victims “will not be protected during childhood, nor will they receive therapeutic help, and many will never see their abuser brought to justice”.

The report concluded that the current system “does not effectively uphold the right of children to protection from sexual abuse”.

Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action. Go to

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