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Julie Waterson

What the inquiry will not reveal

(22 August 1987)

From Socialist Worker, 22 August 1987.
Reprinted in In the Heat of the Struggle: 25 Years of Socialist Worker (London: Bookmarks, 1993), p. 238–239.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Cleveland child abuse controversy has forced into public debate the idea that something is rotten inside one of the most common institutions of our society – the family.

The family is deceptive. It looks voluntary, yet few escape it. It’s meant to provide love and security, yet it can be a living hell. It crushes our relationships and distorts our sexuality. When you’re young marriage seems to represent independence and offer respite from family quarrels and parental control. We are told it offers the chance of ‘living happily ever afterwards’.

Marriage is certainly popular. Some 92 percent of women and 86 percent of men marry. But the reality rarely matches the image. One in two marriages ends in divorce within three years, yet 80 percent of divorcees remarry in the constant search for love and happiness.

The modern nuclear family is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon. It has developed and been shaped by the class society we live in.

For us the attraction of the family is that it can seem to be a haven in a horrible world.

For the ruling class the modern family offers something else. It allows it to reproduce the labour force – the only source of its profits – at minimum cost to itself and the state.

Working class families face a constant struggle to survive. Getting a house, paying the bills and clothing the kids dominate. ‘Marital bliss’ comes a poor second. Poor working class families are often trapped with no access to childcare facilities, stuck in bad housing with nowhere for the kids to play.

Relatives and friends are relied upon to watch the kids as mothers work in part time employment. Working shifts in a factory means hardly seeing the kids. When you do, you’re tired and ratty – discipline becomes the norm.

The tension of poverty, the pressure of hard physical work, redundancy or unemployment is what leads the family to crack up. Social workers, doctors and bodies like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children accept that the tension and stress caused by poverty are to blame for violence and child abuse inside the family.

This doesn’t affect all classes equally. The middle class and working class family are two entirely different homes for children. Middle class families have fewer financial worries and can enjoy their children’s company. Their lifestyle allows time to discuss education. It’s less tense and there’s less pressure.

Violence and child abuse do occur inside the middle class family but not on the same scale as in working class families.

Capitalism distorts our discovery and view of our sexuality. This is true for both the middle and working class. But for the middle class, with its financial comfort and education, the worst excesses of distorted sexuality are avoided.

Incredibly, we are taught that our bodies aren’t our property. When children play with their genitals they’re often scolded for ‘being dirty’. Masturbation is discovered with a mixture of guilt and joy and first sexual encounters can be more frightening than sensual and pleasing.

We are presented with physical stereotypes to imitate. Slim, firm and beautiful for women, muscular, macho and attractive for men. In aspiring to reach the impossible many people can’t cope with the contradictions. It leads to emptiness where we’re taught to expect fulfilment, and misery when the aim is joy. In extreme cases it can lead to individuals being so alienated that they abuse children for sexual gratification.

How should socialists respond to those who execute state laws tearing families apart? We certainly don’t agree with Stuart Bell, the right wing Labour MP for Cleveland. He’s accused the social services of fabricating abuse stories to increase their funding.

But social workers and doctors are caught in a trap. On the one hand they aim to care for people in need. On the other, however, they are often obliged to impose cold, dispassionate legislation in trying to fulfil those aims.

The press focuses on this trap. Social workers are accused of neglect when kids are sexually abused, battered and murdered, and ‘interference’ when they try to prevent such tragedies.

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Last updated: 2 September 2014