Child Sexual Abuse in Contemporary Culture

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This interdisciplinary project led by Dr Ailise Bulfin explores how child sexual abuse is represented in contemporary culture in works like novels, films and TV series, and seeks to understand how these representations affect both survivors and general audiences. This work is important because cultural representations potentially inform social understandings of CSA, which in turn affect survivors’ health outcomes.

Strand one of the project consisted of a seminar series and symposium which brought together CSA survivors; cultural, social science and medical scholars; and healthcare practitioners and support professionals to share their wide-ranging perspectives – from lived experience to support work to academic research – in an interdisciplinary conversation. From this a research agenda and international research network to support the investigation of this topic have been developed. Strand two of the project entailed a pilot empirical study of reader responses to different types of literary representation of
child sexual abuse, the results of which will inform the next phase of the project. 

 The next phase of the project will scale this work up to combine large-scale analysis of the aesthetics of contemporary literary and cultural representations of CSA with research on real-world audiences’ responses to these representations using advanced methodologies drawn from medical humanities and cognitive and empirical literary and cultural studies. This will reveal the various literary and visual devices that are used to depict CSA in cultural works and illuminate the ways in which fictional works may shape public understandings of CSA.

Research Aims

The project’s intersecting research aims are:

  1. To analyse representations of CSA in key genres (including crime, horror, young adult, and popular general) in the culturally prevalent forms of literature, film and television in order to provide a foundational mapping of their themes and form.
  2. To explore how CSA representations may inform social attitudes by performing a series of empirical investigations of audience responses to them, including the responses of CSA survivors and members of the general public.
  3. To explore links between the ways in which CSA is represented and the audiences’ responses, ultimately yielding a theoretical model suggesting the relationship between CSA fictions and their effects.


Phase one of the project ran in 2020-21 and entailed the pilot study and development of the research network and agenda. Phase two will begin in Autumn 2022.


Phase one of the project was funded by a Wellcome Trust Small Grant in Humanities and Social Science. Funding for phase two will be announced soon.

Theme Lead

Dr. Ailise Bulfin
Dr. Ailise Bulfin School of English, Drama & Film, University College Dublin
Dr Ailise Bulfin is a literary and cultural scholar whose research ranges from nineteenth-century to contemporary culture, with particular interests in cultural representations of major social issues and their reception. She has publications on child abuse, sexual violence, xenophobia, war, catastrophe and climate change, including the monograph, Gothic Invasions: Imperialism, War and Fin-de-Siècle Popular Fiction (2018). Her recent publications include articles exploring how CSA is represented in contemporary children’s gothic fiction; and also in nineteenth-century medico-legal discourse, journalism and fiction. She lectures in Victorian and contemporary literature in the School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin.