Child sexual abuse: making sense of the abuse of power and control

Eisenberg, Nadine Cecilia (1992) Child sexual abuse: making sense of the abuse of power and control. Doctoral thesis, London Guildhall University.


Child sexual abuse (CSA) poses many difficulties, ranging from definition to explanation. Despite, or because of, this complexity few studies have investigated the relationship between a professional's knowledge base, the conceptualisation of problems and the delivery of therapeutic skills. The central is sues in CSA of power and control exemplify this absence of clarity. A review of the literature on these issues revealed that few empirical studies have examined how power and control are manipulated or whether these factors are intrinsic to CSA. A two stage research project was therefore proposed.

Study One investigated the dynamics of (1) families in which CSA takes place (CSA families), (2) families referred for psychological difficulties (Psychology families) and (3) volunteer families in the general population (normal families). Family members completed questionnaires which addressed aspects of power and control: Family Environment Scale, Final Say Index, Semantic Differential and a Locus of Control in Families Scale specifically designed for this study. Professionals working with the CSA and Psychology families also provided information.

The results of Study One indicated that CSA families were characterised by poor communication, little cohesion and high use of control. The professionals perceived the perpetrator to have a powerful influence: the families did not. Using discriminant functional analysis it wad possible to discriminate between the CSA fathers and fathers in other families, to a lesser extent the mothers. With regard to the daughters, a "normal"/"not normal" discrimination occurred rather than an obvious distinction between the CSA and Psychology group. Possible explanations for Study One findings were offered and implications discussed.

Study Two involved interviewing social workers and psychologists with regard to their knowledge and attitudes about CSA, with particular reference to power and control, and how they applied theory into practice. Professionals also gave ratings regarding their confidence in these responses. The professionals in Study Two also attributed powerful influence to perpetrators. A lack of clarity in thinking and inconsistency characterised responses. Furthermore no clear differentiation emerged between (1) the two professional groups and (2) professionals who described working as practitioners within different models. Possible explanations for, and implications of, this lack of differentiation were suggested.

A review of the project as a research process highlighted three main issues:

(1) the effect of the research on the families, in particular the issue of informed consent and the finding that the CSA family members responded to the research task in similar ways to their functioning within the family,
(2) the responses of professionals to the research, in particular high levels of resistance, and
(3) the research and the researcher.

Implications and recommendations were proposed and discussed.

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