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What causes child abuse?

This article is over 11 years, 7 months old
Horrific cases of child abuse have come to light recently from Jimmy Savile’s victims to the Rochdale and Rotherham scandals.
Issue 2325

Horrific cases of child abuse have come to light recently from Jimmy Savile’s victims to the Rochdale and Rotherham scandals.

Child abuse has material roots in out society. That’s why it occurs in across society’s major institutions—from the family to the justice system to the church.

Class societies such as capitalism are built around oppression, inequality and hierarchy. Child abuse reflects children’s lack of power and position in that hierarchy. For all the rhetoric, our rulers treat children as a low priority.

This hierarchy is entrenched in the family. Regardless of how people actually live, our rulers promote their ideal vision of the family. In this the man is the most important and powerful person, women are secondary and children have the least say.

The family plays a crucial role in class societies. It helps sustain the labour force while producing future workers. That’s why our rulers encourage people to look to the family as a refuge from the pressures of everyday life.

But when it doesn’t live up to their rosy picture, frustration can boil over. Those with the least power are the easiest target.

That’s why most children who suffer abuse are abused by someone in their family. And many women who are raped or suffer domestic violence are attacked by a current or ex-partner.

State-run young offenders’ institutions and care homes replicate the hierarchies of the family. Report after report finds institutionalised abuse within them. In Ireland homes run by the Catholic Church saw systematic abuse of children—with the collusion of the state.

These things can’t be understood simply in terms of disturbed individuals. They reflect the values of our society and its institutions. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, “Life strikes the weak—and who is weaker than a child?”


Some people might see how the system can push people to lash out at those with less power than them. But why should the violence be sexual?

The way that people relate to each other has changed throughout history. Sexual violence isn’t natural. There have been societies where it hasn’t existed at all.

But capitalism distorts our relationships and sexuality. It turns everything into a commodity to be bought, sold and sometimes stolen—including sex and other people.

This kind of alienated sexuality throws up twisted ideas about sexual relationships and behaviour that affects everyone—rich or poor.

Abuse of children can in some cases be an outlet for some people who find sexual relationships stressful. Some of those who suffer abuse then find it hard to overcome a distorted view of sex and go on to abuse other people.

In the recent case of abuse within the BBC, many people have said that everyone knew what was happening. But they say that one reason it continued was that it was widely seen as acceptable.

The idea that men can treat women and girls as they please came from society, not simply from a few people’s heads.

Abuse is about power. Exerting power over people is at the heart of our society and infects all aspects of life. Despite the fact that the system relies on workers’ labour, they often feel powerless.

They usually have little control over their work and become alienated. The system they create seems independent from them. People who feel powerless can hurt those with even less to try and feel they have a little bit of control.

Most men don’t rape or abuse and are appalled at the fact that abuse occurs. But the fact that abuse occurs shows how capitalism systematically fails the most vulnerable people in horrific ways. We need to get rid of it.

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