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Laurie Penny: Why the Pope has a point on child abuse

The abuse of children within the home is something that society has yet to tackle adequately.

The abuse of children within the home is something that society has yet to tackle adequately.

It has to be a bad day for the ethical health of the species when we are taking lessons in child welfare from the Catholic Church. Speaking to an audience of US bishops in a week when the US just happened to be embroiled in a scandal involving the possible cover-up of child sex-abuse at Syracuse University and Penn State College, the Pope took pains to remind the faithful - and anyone else who might be listening - that the Catholic church was not the only institution whose members have turned a blind eye to the rape and abuse of prepubescents in its care.

"Just as the church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards," said Joseph Ratzinger, conveying a rather tasteless undertone of relief to the church's statement of official repulsion.

Ratzinger, nonetheless, is technically correct. Child abuse is a social disease that contemporary culture has barely begun to address. It extends far beyond the institutional reach of the Vatican, American college sports, or the organised gangs of predatory paedophiles on whom the British government is orchestrating a welcome crackdown.

Child abuse is far from an institutional phenomenon. Eighty per cent of child sexabuse takes place within the home, and most of it is perpetrated by parents, close relatives and family friends. In 2010/11, more than 17,000 sexual crimes against children under 16 were recorded in England and Wales - a third of all recorded sexual crime - and this statistic represents only those cases that were brought to the attention of the police. A large proportion of young victims choose not to speak about or report their abuse, sometimes for many years. This may be for the same reasons that lie behind our hesitancy as a culture to speak and write about such abuse: shame and fear that we will be disbelieved and, above all, a confusion about how to confront cruelty when it occurs within the family - the very structure that is supposed to be the bedrock of love, support and social cohesion. That is the one institution no politician has yet been brave enough to challenge.

Home truths

The abuse of children within the home is something that society has yet to tackle adequately. There are plenty of resources available for survivors, particularly those who can afford therapy. Search online for "child abuse" and you will find endless web pages in soothing pastels where victims share their stories of suffering; wander into any chain bookshop and you will encounter shelves devoted to books with soft sepia pictures of weeping children and titles like Please, Daddy, No.

Child abuse is still approached, largely, as something for victims to grow up and get over, rather than as a systemic social ill that requires a political response. For all the appropriate public consternation over paedophile priests, seedy sports coaches and shadowy child-porn rings, we are as far as we ever have been from accepting on a broader level that the abuse of vulnerable young people is not something that can be allowed to continue, even behind closed doors, even within families who love one another.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.