Why We Need to Stop Talking about ‘Child Abuse’: How Pathologizing Discourse Enables Violence against Children

in Matters of Telling: The Impulse of the Story


In this chapter, I propose that contemporary discourses of child maltreatment serve to enable violence against children by constructing such violence as the result of individual pathology on the part of the perpetrator, thereby obscuring the role of social and cultural systems which implicitly condone and support violent acts against young people. The chapter discusses how the emphasis in social discourse on extreme and unusual examples of abuse perpetrated by individuals constructed as psychopathic and outside the range of normal human behaviour elevates social fears of specific and extremely uncommon dangers to children, while taking needed attention away from the social factors that contribute to more common ones. It also discusses how the vague and malleable social definition of terms like ‘abuse’ results in child maltreatment being constructed as something done by specific others and allows adults who commit violent acts against children to perceive these acts as not constituting ‘real’ violence. Finally, highlighting examples of common social discourses which obscure, ignore, condone, or even promote various forms of violence against children, I argue that the current social discourse of abuse is actively harmful and serves less to protect children from violence than to maintain the existing social order between children and adults. I close by advocating for a radical reframing of violence against children as a structural issue resulting from the marginalized status of children as a social category.

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