Is Abuse More Prevalent in Contemporary Societies?

Abuse is a global problem that is deeply rooted in cultural, social and economic practices (United Nations 2018). It would seem from media around us that all forms of abuse are increasing, meaning that safeguarding (or preventing abuse and working to make those who experience it safe), likewise has increased to deal with the problem. Certainly, safeguarding as a concept and set of ideas about ways of working against abuse and to protect children has increased exponentially as an occupational and professional field in Europe, the USA, Australasia and many other regions. However, we cannot assume this is because abusive activities have increased. As we will discover below, there many forms of abuse, which are gradually being developed into sets of types, typologies). We do know that new types of abuse are being identified and scoped out through academic and practitioner research and development projects; however, that does not necessarily mean that these forms of abuse have only just started being an issue for young people.

For instance, if we examine the issues of the sexual abuse of children and teenagers, it is clear that this is not a new phenomenon. Philip Aries (1965) in his seminal text ‘Centuries of Childhood,’ draws attention to depictions and accounts in medieval Europe of mothers and nursemaids fondling the genitals of young children, an act that would be seen as child sexual abuse today. Margaret Mead in her study of childhood and society in Papua New Guinea in the 1920’s, found that cultural groups living in close proximity to each other (within 100 kilometres) had very different ideas about how to behave towards and bring up children and young people. For instance, she found that the New Guinean Tchambuli small-scale society, who lived close to and on rivers, had a tradition of tying babies to their canoes when fishing. There was a strong notion that the baby should get used to tough conditions on water because
learning about this would be crucial to their survival in adult life. If we think about these two examples, from Aries and Mead today, most of us would probably say that these actions are abusive, sexual abuse (Aries’s case) and neglect or putting a child at risk (Mead’s example). If we examine the issue of the legal age of sexual consent for youth across the world, there are also great disparities. Across time (historical comparison) and different cultures (comparative cultural analysis), it can be seen that children have been treated in a variety of ways in relation to issues such as safety and risk, sexuality, the age of consent, marriage, legal rights, and working age.

Even today, cross cultural notions, laws and mores, vary around youth. For instance, the age of Consent in Medieval Europe varies across countries and in some cases, regions of countries.

Diagram: Global Age(s) of Consent / Source:

Online resources

Diagram: The Age(s) of Consent in Europe Today

Some forms activity and behaviour recognised as abuse today, would not have been seen as such in the past. In this sense, the recognition and identification of abusive practices has increased and there is a greater awareness socially and legally of these, along with increased negative sanction (for instance, through law making and criminal justice consequences).

In other cases, there has been an increase in certain forms of abuse because of technological developments that create new opportunities for abuse and mistreatment of others; the issue that will probably immediately come to mind is the development of the Internet and cyber abuse. With this technology, sexual abuse but also a host of forms of human trafficking has become globally organised, utilising the Internet as a site for the production, selling, archiving and promotion of abuse. Whilst abuse, such as human trafficking (as the indentured movement of people from one place to another) has a long history going back into antiquity, the modern capacities of the Internet can enable traffickers to organise themselves online swiftly, set up payment systems and financial transfer mechanisms, it even provides a means to recruit potential victims, through the distribution of fraudulent job adverts. In dealing with these forms of abuse, professionals have to be able to recognise and understand the way that abuse may be orchestrated through sophisticated methods of gaining trust, coercing and controlling young people into doing things they do not want to do. The process involved is often referred to as ‘grooming’ but this term fails to capture the host of methods that perpetrators of human trafficking deploy in their activities.

In working with abuse, those working in the European youth labour force, and indeed globally, need to attend to changing social, policy, historical and specific-geographical notions of abuse and the ways these have influenced the apparent rise in abuse cases and in the need for safeguarding activities.