The NSPCC's Underwear Rule: Not talking about child sex abuse only protects the adults

It might seem like child sex abuse is always being talked about, but when it comes to the discussion that might really help prevent abuse, parents still need help

There are things that no child should ever have to think about.

And then there are things that most adults would rather not think about. The Underwear Rule, a new campaign launched by the NSPCC yesterday, recognises that when it comes to protecting children, it is the latter, as much as the former, that really dictates how we behave.

Do parents and other carers really need reminding of this ever-looming spectre? It’s not as if this is a taboo topic in British public life. Most days, the news seems filled with little else: Jeremy Forrest, Mark Bridger, the Rochdale case, the Oxford case, parts of Operation Yewtree, the rise in live-streamed images of abuse… it’s overwhelming, and it only makes protecting children feel all the more urgent. To even hint at the existence of such horror in the presence of children would seem to defeat that object.

Child sex abuse has become the topic we are always talking about, but never actually talking about. We talk about the institutional failings of the BBC, or the “problem within Islam”, or the lurid details of high-profile cases – anything to avoid confronting what the NSPCC points out: that about one in five children fall victim to abuse; that the perpetrator is usually someone the child knows and trusts; that it happens to children of every gender, age, skin colour, class and religion.

Half of parents surveyed by the NSPCC said they had never spoken to their children about the issue. Of those who had, 43 per cent said it had been a difficult conversation. But this isn’t only about individual relationships between parents and children . On the same day the NSPCC launched their campaign, the Jillings report into abuse allegations at children’s homes in North Wales was finally published. Let the 17-year delay stand testament to how attempts to deny child abuse out of existence – instinctive and human though they may be – can easily mutate into devastating institutional failure.

The regularity with which adults in power minimise, dismiss or outright ignore abuse allegations suggests it isn’t only the innocence of children we seek to protect. Consciously or unconsciously, most adults are equally intent on ensuring their own rosy remembrance of childhood remains unmolested. Not only is this, patently, an ineffective method of prevention, but by ignoring children’s accounts of their experience, we also perpetuate a key feature of the abuse; the denial of the victim’s autonomy over their own body.

The Underwear Rule replaces all the panic and despair with a positive message for children that’s easy for adults to communicate: your body belongs to you and no one can touch it without your permission. But the real brilliance of the NSPCC’s campaign isn’t how age-appropriate it is for under-11s ; it’s how age-appropriate it is for grown-ups.

Twitter: @MsEllenEJones