Smith, Mark and Woodiwiss, Jo (2016) Sexuality, innocence and agency in narratives of childhood sexual abuse: implications for social work. British Journal of Social Work, 46 (8). pp. 2173-2189. ISSN 0045-3102

This article explores how girls’ and young women’s sexual behaviours have been and
currently are constructed and responded to within social work. Contemporary views
of childhood consider young people as sexually innocent and lacking (sexual) agency.
Moreover, the experience of sexual abuse is believed to be traumatic and to result in
long-term adverse life experiences. Such narratives can influence how social workers
perceive and respond to abuse and indeed whether sexual activities involving young
people are understood as abusive. Drawing on different but related Economic and
Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded projects, the article introduces narratives of
girls who were resident at the school where allegations against Jimmy Savile originate
from. It then considers research looking at adult women’s engagement with the childhood
sexual abuse (CSA) recovery literature and draws links from this to the ways in
which cases of sexual exploitation in UK towns such as Rotherham are responded to.
Both examples challenge dominant understandings of CSA, raising questions of girls’
agency, but also of how sexual experience might act to remove a responsibility to
protect girls from abuse. We argue that there is merit in separating out wrongfulness
from harm in how social workers respond to such issues.

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