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Policing sex: social work, sex and young people

July 19, 2013

As followers of the #moralpanics blog will be aware, I have long been interested in sex, social work and young people. As I relatively new social worker in the late 1970s, I ran a girls’ group with another female youth worker where together we thrashed out difficult issues around sex, gender, relationships and the place of women in society. And I came across the damaging impact of sexual abuse in childhood for the first time. The girls’ group members co-wrote and produced a magazine – we would call it a ‘zine’ today. We gave it the title, ‘The Heid Nipper’, in recognition of the reality that there was always somebody trying to ‘nip’ the young women’s ‘heads’, whether this was a parent, teacher, social worker or other ‘concerned adult’. These young women (then aged 12-16 years) were outrageous and out there. They were having sex, exploring drugs and alcohol, skipping school, shoplifting, bullying and being bullied. They were also, I would argue, largely agents of their own lives: they weighed up decisions and exerted what control they could in their (albeit restricted) young working-class lives.  They were willing to engage with me and other ‘do-gooders’ like me because there was enough in it for them to decide to put up with the intrusion that was inevitably part of social work intervention. So they chose to attend the group and take part in what we rather naively saw as a kind of ‘consciousness-raising’. At the same time, they built friendships with us and each other, and shared a lot of good – and tough – times with us.

The girls’ group was successful, I believe, because we cared for the young women and valued them for who they were, not for who we might have wanted them to be. This meant that when some of the young women went on to become young mothers, they followed me to my next job as a social worker with an Edinburgh charity that specialised in working with single parents.  Some years later, we together set up a neighbourhood-based centre for women and children; when I wrote about this experience in Community Care in 1985 (‘A place to be themselves’), it was my first publication. The important lesson from the girls’ group is the same message that Andressa Gadda (@agadda) uncovered in her study of home supervision in Scotland; that is, that clients in social work can and do make choices about letting us into their lives, even young clients. The girls’ group experience is also resonant with Gillian’s Ruch’s writing on the importance of relationships in social work.

So what does this have to do with social work, sex and young people today? There has been an explosion of interest in young people, sex and social work in the last few years. Concerns about child sexual abuse, young people and pornography, the internet, sex trafficking, sibling sexual abuse… so it goes on. Conferences and seminars, training courses, books, articles and newspaper stories all attest to the particularly dangerous nature of the time in which we are living.  And throughout all of this, we find particular representations of sex: with sexual predators and paedophiles on the one hand, and innocent children on the other. The focus is almost always on children (and sometimes women) as in need of protection, as vulnerable and dependent on us (the moral guardians of society) to take charge, in their ‘best interests’. Of course, children who sexually offend are to be doubly condemned – again, like women, they have failed to live up to society’s expectations of passivity and innocence.

One way to look at this afresh is to think about it historically. In the last half of the nineteenth century, there was a widespread panic about young people and sex, brought to the fore by campaigns against prostitution and the so-called ‘white slave trade’.  Social purity reformers and vigilance campaigners came together in the UK to bring the matter of ‘juvenile prostitution’ to the public’s attention; their aim was to raise the age of sexual consent from 13 to 16 years of age. A change in the law may have been the immediate goal, but the overall purpose of the early social workers who campaigned on behalf of the social purity movement was much broader. They desired nothing less than to change attitudes towards sexual morality; they wanted to confine sex to the marital bed and to confirm the sexual division of labour. Children, for their part, were to be protected from adult activities (including sex and work), hence the campaigns to outlaw both children’s employment and incest. What was at stake here was, of course, a very particular bourgeois view of men, women and children’s sexuality. The efforts of the campaigners were ultimately successful, demonstrated in the passing of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act and the legislation that followed. However, the 1885 Act was not experienced as helpful legislation for all people. On the contrary, it also outlawed consensual sex between men in private and public for the first time and forced many women believed to be working as prostitutes out of their homes, with highly negative consequences for men, women and children for years to come.  (For more on the vigilance story, see Cree 1995, 2008, 2012.)

And so to return to the twenty-first century. There is, I believe, a great deal of good work being done with young people and families in social work today; supportive, person-centred, valuing and respectful. There is also, however, a lot of panic about sex and young people that is being engendered, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally, by social workers and social work agencies. My plea, ultimately, is for a bit of calm and a lot of common sense. Please let us stop demonising others and start listening to young people – when we do, we will discover that they have things to say, as Laurie Penny has recently written about in the New Statesman. She argues that young women have interesting views about life and about feminism, and that they hold the key to the future. My own experience tells me she is right, and that what they want from us (adult parents and social workers) is support not judgment; acceptance not control. And less of the moralising…

Viviene Cree

19th July 2013


Cree, V. and MacDonald, M. (1985) ‘A Place to be Themselves’, Community Care, 577: 14-15.

Cree, V.E. (1995) From Public Streets to Private Lives. The Changing Task of Social Work, Aldershot, Avebury.


Cree, V.E. (2008) ‘Confronting Sex-Trafficking: lessons from history’, International Social Work, 51 (6): 763-776.

Cree, V.E., Clapton, G. and Smith, M. (2012) ‘The Presentation of Child Trafficking in the UK: An Old and New Moral Panic?’, British Journal of Social Work, 1–16, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcs120.

Gadda, A. (2012) ‘Looking after young people, an exploratory study of Home Supervision Requirements in Scotland’, Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Edinburgh, also seminar presentation 5 Feb 2013.

Penny, L. (2013) ‘Today’s teenagers are smarter, tougher and braver than my generation – and yours too’, New Statesman @pennyred

Ruch, G. (2010) Relationship-based Social Work: Getting to the Heart of Practice, London: Jessica Kingsley.

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