Where are the geographers? The need for inter-disciplinary approaches to CSE

In this post Jenny Lloyd argues that the field of CSE research could benefit from the perspective geographers bring, including how the dynamics of place create or mitigate sexual risk.

When we think about where child sexual exploitation (CSE) happens we might find ourselves thinking about specific towns and cities – particularly when there has been lots of media attention on these locations. But abuse happens everywhere, and there is far more to ‘place’ than these associations would suggest.  For geographers, place isn’t only about where things happen, but the dynamics happening within and between places – whether it’s a school corridor between lessons or a sea-side town in summer.

It is surprising then that, as Willis, Canavan, and Prior (2015) suggest, geographers have remained relatively absent from research on CSE. This is not to say that elsewhere discussions of CSE have ignored the role of geography Rather that, for many, the focus has been on the prevalence of CSE in different places, rather than the places where CSE is happening. An inter-disciplinary approach to child protection – that includes geographical approaches – would provide valuable opportunities for understanding how the spaces and places in which abuse occurs are essential to planning intervention and prevention.

In the eighties and nineties feminist geographers led the way in ground-breaking research on women’s experiences of different spaces. Gill Valentine’s (1989) and Rachel Pain’s (1997) work on women’s fear of crime prompted geographers to explore women’s experiences of public space and how this is shaped by their perceptions of danger and fear of violence. For example, how women construct mental maps of where they fear assault, based on personal and second-hand experiences of different public spaces such as subways, streets and parks, and in-turn develop coping strategies around these places. This work has also led geographers to ask questions about children’s use of space. Anoop Nayak’s (2003) work highlighted the need for children’s voices to be brought to issues of community safety, with others recognising the active role of public spaces in children’s experiences of growing up (Aitken, 2001). However, no papers presented at the most recent conference of the Royal Geographical Society explored issues of CSE or the overlap between geography and safeguarding work.

For geographers, space and place are the bread and butter of what we do. As the late geographer Doreen Massey (1984:4) stated ‘”The spatial” it is not just an outcome; it is part of the explanation’. This has clear relevance to CSE. As researchers and practitioners we need to understand where abuse is happening, but also why is it happening there and how those places are part of the explanation. Young people spend significant time outside the home; and when abuse is happening in parks, on streets, in shopping centres and hotels geographers would be well placed to engage research methods and theoretical approaches to question the spatial dimensions of exploitation.

The successful launch of the Contextual Safeguarding Network last month highlights the appetite practitioners have for thinking geographically. This is echoed in my observations of multi-agency meetings where discussions of CSE, violence against women and girls and serious youth violence often mention particular venues or hotspots of concern and begin asking about young people’s experiences of these places. I’m reminded at these times of the applicability of geographically informed methods – walking interviews, participatory mapping and photo-voice – that are already used far and beyond the discipline with researchers and practitioners.

It is also clear in these meetings that there is a need to critically understand the relationships young people have with each other in different places. There is scope here to develop work on ‘contact zones’, a concept which brings together intersectional thinking, the history of places and how this impacts social relationships in cities. A contact perspective would encourage discussion of how young people construct their identities in different places and in relation to different peers. This approach could be used to understand the dynamics of group offending and harmful sexual behaviour and how different people are influential to young people in different contexts and at different times. By thinking beyond individuals and to the places abuse occurs there is scope to develop creative and geographically informed approaches that create safer spaces and prevent abuse occurring.

I don’t know why there is a dearth of work by geographers in this area, but I do know that there is ample room for their contribution. Preventing abuse requires more inter-disciplinary approaches. This would strengthen the work of researchers and practitioners working with children and young people, as well as the field of geography as a whole.