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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Richard Dawkins just has it wrong

Speaking in an interview with Times magazine, author Richard Dawkins stated:

‘Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.’

At one level, it is perhaps easy to see the merits in Dawkins argument - times change and so do standards of what is and is not acceptable. Yet, he suggests that what took place 50 or 60 years ago represented such a different standard that sexual and physical abuse should be seen as indicative of the times.

Richard Dawkins

The Sovereign Independent goes on:

In a new autobiography Professor Dawkins told how a master at his Salisbury prep school had pulled him on to his knee and put his hand inside his shorts’, adding that other boys had been molested by the same teacher.
While he said that he had found the episode ‘extremely disagreeable’ he wrote: ‘I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.’

Those of us who work in and around child protection have worked with enough parents from that age to know that they live with the haunting memories of the abuse from those times. In my view, Dawkins minimizes the impact but also creates a patina of acceptance for what took place. Consider the following:

  • In Mount Cashel orphanage in St. John's, Newfoundland where state wards were routinely physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brother's of Ireland. This occurred through the 1950's;
  • How about the literally hundreds of victims of Jimmy Savile in the UK;
  • In Canada, there were several churches involved in the residential schools where Aboriginal children were stripped of their identity and dignity through neglect, physical and sexual abuse;
These are but three high profile cases amongst thousands that could be added to the list. But most importantly, Dawkins fails to see that what he is describing is the abuse of power by a teacher who is engaged in grooming a child towards greater sexual involvement. In his case, it may have stopped for any number of reasons. One can almost be certain that the teacher he speaks of has other victims, some of whom would have been less fortunate than Dawkins.

The clinical research tells us that those who use their position of authority to take sexual advantage of a minor, typically have several victims. In order to help reduce this type of sexual abuse, we need to educate children about both protecting themselves and being open about advances that may occur. As a society, we also must respond to those who do offend. Seeing it as Dawkins describes it is dangerous as it dismisses the importance of the offence.

Dawkins says that he got over it - maybe he had a good support network; had resiliency; had a way to compartmentalize the event - but for millions of others, these sorts of events have created life long damage that has impacted their lives in multiple ways.

In essence, he has become the apologist for the abusers. That is the most dangerous aspect of his thinking.

Coincidentally, some rather poignant research was published in Frontiers in Psychaitry:

Child sexual abuse (CSA) occurs frequently in society to children aged between 2 and 17. It is significantly more common in girls than boys, with the peak age for CSA occurring when girls are aged 13–17. Many children experience multiple episodes of CSA, as well as having high rates of other victimizations (such as physical assaults). One of the problems for current research in CSA is different definitions of what this means, and no recent review has clearly differentiated more severe forms of CSA, and how commonly this is disclosed. In general we suggest there are four types of behavior that should be included as CSA, namely (1) non-contact, (2) genital touching, (3) attempted vaginal and anal penetrative acts, and (4) vaginal and anal penetrative acts. Evidence suggests that CSA involving types (2), (3), and (4) is more likely to have significant long-term outcomes, and thus can be considered has having higher-impact. From the research to date approximately 15% of girls aged 2–17 experience higher-impact CSA (with most studies suggesting that between 12 and 18% of girls experience higher-impact CSA). Approximately 6% of boys experience higher-impact CSA (with most studies suggesting that between 5 and 8% experience higher-impact CSA). The data also suggests that in over 95% of cases the CSA is never disclosed to authorities. Thus, CSA is frequent but often not identified, and occurs “below the surface” in the vast majority of higher-impact cases. 

This research emphasizes the long term impact of sexual abuse in most cases.

Reference for research

Martin, E.K. & Silverstone, P.h. (2013). How much child sexual abuse is "below the surface" and can we help adults identify it early? Frontiers in Psychiatry. published online at


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