Dr Jessica Taylor
Its fast becoming my job to notice and write about some of the strange ways we respond to and seek to understand child sexual exploitation (CSE) (see: #nomoreCSEfilms for example). I have been working in sexual violence for nine years now but I have been involved in CSE work for the past three years. I work all over the UK with everyone from local authority leaders to frontline volunteers in charities – and I have noticed a discernible movement towards reductionist and neuroscientific explanations of child sexual trauma and child sexual exploitation. I want to talk about this because in my opinion, it is yet another turn in the wrong direction in CSE.
In this blog, I give some examples of neuromyths and reductionist arguments that are being used more frequently in the field of social care and child sexual exploitation. I will then explain why they are problematic and how they ignore complex social interactions.
Neuroscience: any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain
Reductionism: the theory that every complex human phenomenon, especially in biology or psychology, can be explained by analysing the simplest, most basic physical mechanisms that are in operation during the phenomenon. This includes but is not limited to brain cells, genes, neurotransmitters and neurochemicals.
Okay, so now we have got that out of the way, let normal service resume.
Example 1: Teenagers’ brains are addicted to risk taking and that’s why they keep putting themselves in situations where they get sexually exploited
One of the major problems with this type of statement is that it still blames children for being abused, but it is cloaked in neuroscience – so its sounds legit. This is a statement that I hear at least once a week from social workers, police and students. The most recent was when I was lecturing and a professional came to speak to me at the end of the lecture to ask me about this exact topic. I had finished a four-hour session with them about victim blaming and the way we erase the perpetrator from CSE practice by positioning the child as both the cause and the solution to abuse and exploitation.
She said to me ‘I totally get what you are saying about it not being the child’s fault that they are being abused but what about the fact that teenagers we work with are addicted to risk taking? We had someone come and give us a talk recently who said that adolescent brains are so addicted to the thrill of risk taking – that they do really dangerous things like get in cars with unknown adults and take drugs from them and have sex with them…’
This myth comes from misused and overgeneralised findings from neuroscience. Risk taking is individual. Some children take risks, some children don’t. Some adults take risks. Some adults don’t. Some risk taking is excellent and positive. Some risk taking is a learning experience. If indeed, the reason teenagers are sexually exploited is because their teenage brains are so addicted to risk taking – why exactly do adults still get sexually exploited all over the world? If we were to believe that adolescents were categorically different from adults (which is incorrect) then surely, abuse and exploitation statistics would drop dramatically at biological maturation? Surely once the child becomes a mature adult, their ‘risk taking’ would reduce or end?
In this example in CSE, ‘risk taking’ has been pathologized and then used to explain the actions of a sex offender. Not only that, but it positions the child as a ‘risk taker’ rather than a victim of a serious sexual offence perpetrated by a powerful adult. Ergo, this type of statement explaining sexual abuse and exploitation as some sort of neuropsychological issue with risk taking and endorphin release is just buzzword-intellectual-victim-blaming.
Moshman (2011) writes in ‘Adolescent Rationality and Development’ that risk taking is down to individual differences and that we have copious evidence that risk taking is not generalised to adolescents and is certainly not related to being sexually abused. So why are we making these leaps in CSE?
One answer could be that neuroscience can be rather seductive. Seduction by Reduction. Ooh, I quite like that. Seductive reductionism. Ooh, even better.
Rather than us having to explore and acknowledge the complex social interactions, environment, experiences, motivations, cultures and social norms that the child lives in – and rather than accepting that the child was not at all culpable for an adult targeting them and raping them – why not just blame their adolescent brain and do some work with them on ‘reducing their risk taking’? Beginning to see where this leads us?
Example 2: Boys don’t disclose their sexual abuse because they have differences in their ‘male brain’ that stop them from expressing emotions like girls
Can we just not? Really?
How we have managed to wilfully ignore gender role socialisation in statements like this is beyond me. I thought we had got past all of this ‘ladybrain’ ‘manbrain’ stuff. The issue with statements like this in our practice in CSE is that it gives us a massive cop out for why boys are being missed – and why they don’t feel able to disclose to us about experiencing childhood sexual abuse.
I urge professionals to reject any assertions of this nature. The key to why boys do not disclose or even acknowledge that they have been raped or abused lies in gender role socialisation and the way our society sexualises children. It has absolutely nothing to do with having a ‘manbrain’ – and to reduce a boy to some brain cells that cant express emotion is unbelievably oversimplified.
In a society where we see sex as a taboo, where kids don’t get sex education until they are 11-13 years old (and it’s shit when they do get it), where homophobia is rife, where we don’t talk to boys about being sexually abused, where we tell boys ‘don’t cry’ and ‘stop being a girl’ and ‘man up’, where all of our sexual abuse campaigns have pictures of girls on them, where we tell boys that they should love sex and desire, where we position men and boys as insatiable creatures of lust that cannot help themselves and should enjoy all sex…. How exactly have we got to a place where we think its progressive to teach professionals that the REAL reason boys don’t disclose their abuse to us is because their brain is missing something? Riiiight.
This reductionism to neuroscience has to stop. It is not improving practice, it is dumbing it down. We cannot understand the abuse and experiences of boys if we wilfully ignore gender role socialisation.
Example 3: Young peoples’ brains are irrational and worse at decision-making than adults’. That’s why they ignore our advice to stay safe from CSE.
Ahhh another one that comes up a lot these days. Who is it delivering this stuff to frontline workers? Why would you tell workers this rubbish?
The major issue for me here is that this explanation is way too comfy. Rather than getting professionals to think about why the child might not listen to them, or why the perpetrator can wield so much power over their victim that the child has no escape route at all – we are telling each other that the child’s immature brain is just too irrational and poor at decision making and that’s why they are still being sexually abused and exploited.
Nope. Wrong answer.
David Moshman (2011) argues that there is no evidence for a difference in irrational behaviours, emotional maturity or risk taking between adolescents and adults, with adults consistently being found to be as irrational as adolescents. Very young children are distinct from adults in terms of neuroscience and neuropsychological development, but adolescents are not. Maturity, decision making, risk taking and rationality tend to evolve in varied ways from the age of 10 or 11 onwards and Moshman strongly argues that many 14-year-old children function beyond the level of many 40-year-old adults. Whilst current practice in CSE is ascribing impulsivity, irrational behaviour, poor decision making and risk-taking behaviours to young people, Moshman (2011) argues there are no differences in these cognitive functions between adolescents and adults.
Not only this, but if we are to look at sexual violence as a global, cultural problem – why would we eventually settle at the explanation of brain immaturity and irrationality of children? I think that to tell victims of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking that the reason they couldn’t escape their abuser is because they were irrational and poor decision makers, is first class victim blaming. Where is the role of the perpetrator and society in these reductionist arguments?
Abuse doesn’t reside in the brain of the child – someone else is doing this to them!
Second, if the reason children cannot leave their abuser is down to brain irrationality, maturity and decision-making abilities that will improve with age – why exactly to millions of adults experience sexually violent, abusive and dangerous relationships from which they cannot escape? What brain explanation do they have for that?
Example 4: The brain controls how children and young people react to a rape or sexual assault. They freeze during a sexual assault and don’t try to fight back because their brain isn’t mature enough to process what is happening to them and fight back.
Improving professional knowledge of trauma responses and normal behaviours during a sexual assault is very important to me – and to the work I do around the world. I was very disappointed to hear this exact statement from a professional recently and became concerned about the impact they are having on the field, if they are delivering messages like this.
The first thing that came to mind was that, if this statement is true, why do we know that 70% of all adults who experience a sexual assault or rape, also freeze? (Muller et al. 2017).
If the freeze response is due to lack of mature processing of what is happening to the child – why do adults also respond with a freeze response to danger and violence? Surely at adulthood, according to reductionist arguments of adolescence like this – the adolescent would grow up, become wiser and their brain would become more mature and then they would fight off the rapist or abuser… but we know this to be untrue.
This statement and statements like this reveal a really interesting social bias we have as adults: that we are better than, and wiser than, adolescents. Our practice and theory positions adolescents as a subgroup of humans that are irrational, risky, poor decision makers, naïve and immature whilst we position adulthood as the ultimate goal in rectifying those issues. As the adult population, we are writing and speaking as if all humans get wiser, more rational, less risky and better decision makers with age – and this is simply not true.
I mean, come on. I bet you can think of a number of adults right now who don’t fit that description. Yep. Thought so.
There are plenty of children and adolescents I would trust more with decision making and rational responses to social issues than say… Donald Trump.
Example 5: Young people and adults who have experienced sexual traumas and now have mental health issues, probably have genes that run in their family or a predisposition to depression/anxiety/personality disorder.
The latest example I saw of reductionism was yesterday. I read an article from a professional stating that depression can be reduced to genes that predispose people to mental health issues. This is yet another example of harsh reductionism of the psychology and human experience of trauma and environmental stresses.
There are those of us in the ‘trauma-informed approach’ movement that have been working hard to ensure that the public and professionals understand the social model of mental health and the way that oppression, trauma, environment and experiences cause trauma. In our movement, we do our best to ensure that the person is not pathologized, labelled or blamed for experiencing and trying to cope with traumas – and that the professionals place appropriate importance on the environmental factors causing the trauma and distress of the person. We argue that giving people medication for depression when they are living in a highly oppressive and hopeless environment is useless. Medicating people in traumatic or oppressive situations ignores the cause of the distress.
Blaming the trauma responses and coping mechanisms of young people and adults who have experienced rape and sexual abuse on genes is a step even further. This not only places the problem within the person, but it places the problem with the genes held in the DNA of the person. You don’t get much more reductionist than that. This type of argument completely ignores the cumulative and life changing traumas the people have lived through; and pathologizes their reactions to those traumas as ‘abnormal’.
In this short blog, I have given real examples from CSE and CSA practice that show that professionals are being taught crude, reductionist neuroscientific explanations of trauma, abuse and human experience. It is not to say that neuroscience cannot give us incredible insights into the brain – but this is not the way to use it. Many of these statements are huge overgeneralisations or a wilfully misused in order to place blame on victims of sexual violence. Social care as a discipline and the large bodies of professionals working with children after abuse need to remain critical towards statements and assertions that claim that adolescents do certain things, respond in certain ways, don’t disclose or are more vulnerable to being sexually abused because of brain immaturity.
In the words of David Moshman:
‘All of these assumptions are false. Let me be clear: I am not just saying we do not have sufficient evidence to support some of these claims. I am saying we have plenty of evidence with regard to all of them, and the evidence shows them all to be false.’
Written by Dr Jessica Taylor