The “self-esteem” industry

This link is to a story describing a typical modern Youth Work project.

The background to this story concerns how a group of men took advantage of teenage girls, many of whom were in care. That case, known by the police name of “Operation Bullfinch”, has led to a number of men being convicted.

This youth project seems like the classic modern youth project. It is aimed at “vulnerable” young people and it aims to “raise their self-confidence” and their “self-esteem”. These are the kinds of projects which get funded.

The first thing to notice about this project is that it blames the girls for being exploited. There is a considerable irony here. Â In this enlightened age we are supposed to have moved on from the view which was apparently prevalent in the seventies, that if a young person got sexually exploited it was their fault. In fact, clearly we have not moved on at all. This project clearly lays the blame on the girls. It is no longer because they are immoral and brought it on themselves. It is because they are “vulnerable”, “have low self-esteem”, and belong, statistically, to a group who are in poverty. Nonetheless it is still something to do with them. This is implicit in the idea at the heart of this project that it is the girls who need to be changed.

In fact the way to stop teenage girls being sexually exploited is to prevent the abusers from doing so. Sexually exploiting young women is a crime. The focus should be on the people who are committing this crime. Arguably, in this case, it may also have been a case that the local authority involved did not sufficiently look after the young people in their care, in which case the local authority needs to consider its responsibilities.

But there is an industry here which thrives on “raising self-esteem” of people deemed to be in lack of it. The claim inherent in this story is that a young person living on an estate which meets statistical criteria for being “deprived” (one in three live below the official poverty line) is necessarily “vulnerable”. Being “vulnerable” they are eligible for extra support, workshops etc.. This is just the state (in this case one of its satellite charities) finding an excuse to interfere in the lives of ordinary people. It is part of the project which developed under New Labour. The poor do not need to be lifted out of poverty by an economic and political programme. They are “vulnerable” and need to have their “self-esteem” raised. In fact the best way to raise the self-esteem of the poor is evidentially to tackle income disparity. [1]

“Self-esteem” is a concept from pop psychology. It is now taken as an objective and unquestionable fact. Â But it is the purveyors of “raising self-esteem” who spread “low self-esteem”. Who says that young women on the Barton estate “suffer” from “low self-esteem”? The people who make their living out of running projects which “raise self-esteem” of course.

Again; if crimes of sexual exploitation are being carried out against young women the focus of the tax-payer funded authorities should be solely to catch the criminals. That is their job. That is what they are paid for.

Blaming the girls for it is in fact to (in an unspoken way) Â legitimise the actions of the abusers. It used to be because the young women dressed and acted provocatively. They needed moral lectures. Now it is because they are “vulnerable” and “lack self-esteem”. They need workshops on self-esteem raising. Either way it is their fault.

Despite all the “we have moved on” rhetoric from social services once you begin to dig a little it is the case that behind all the language of “supporting” or even “Safeguarding” “vulnerable young people”, the same old attitudes of contempt and moral judgement towards young people (original sin) prevail.

Incidentally the project referred to here is perhaps not especially to blame. This is just the order of the day. There are countless “youth projects” just like this one. In fact you would be hard-pushed to find a youth project these days which didn’t aim to “raise the self-esteem” of young people.


1. The Therapy Industry. Paul Maloney. Pluto Press 2013. Chp. 5






Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer