The awareness of the existence of child sex abuse, particularly its frequency, has only occurred in relatively recent times. Now, we read or view daily stories about it. Whether this widespread public awareness of the problem has done much to prevent it and to help the victims is questionable, but it is better than our previous state of ignorance.
Child sex abuse is not a new phenomenon. There is no good evidence that it is more common now than in the past. However, before it started to be studied and publicised in the 1970s, it was hardly ever recognised and rarely discussed. This was mostly due to two factors.
The first is that child sex abuse is done in secret. There are no corroborating witnesses. Only the victim and the offender know about it and the child’s secrecy is often bought with threats of dire consequences if the child ever reveals what has been happening to her. If a child ever found the courage to say she had been sexually interfered with, she usually wasn’t believed. Instead, she was likely to be punished for saying such a terrible thing. This is still a problem for many children today.
The second factor is denial. Child sexual abuse is an unpleasant topic. It is a fact too hard, too unpleasant for most people to entertain or comprehend. In the past we didn’t see it, we didn’t recognise it and we didn’t believe it when we were told about because that made life too uncomfortable, too threatening.
We are no longer ignorant but there is still a degree of denial. We now know it exists but we want it to be somewhere else, something that involves other people, other families, other institutions just as long as it’s nowhere near us.
The much needed Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse may reinforce that view in the community and give us some degree of comfort that child sex abuse is someone else’s problem, not ours.
However, a wide body of research, including research done in Australia, shows that most sexual abuse of children, boys as well as girls, occurs in or near their own homes, committed by people they are related to, who they know or who their families trust.
Seventy five per cent of child sex abusers are people the child knows and trusts. Contrary to some views, most offenders are not fathers. Approximately 15% are fathers or stepfathers, 30% are other male relatives of the child, 15% are family friends and 15% are acquaintances of the child and family. The remaining 25% of child sexual abuse offenders are strangers who have not met the children before.
It is the group of 15% of offenders who are acquaintances of the child and family which includes those adults who have access to children in religious and other institutions and who use that trust to abuse a child.
The current focus on the response of institutions to child sexual abuse is timely. It is essential. But let’s not forget where most child sexual abuse occurs. The uncomfortable fact is that for most children who are sexually abused, the abuse occurs in or near their own homes. And it is caused by people they know and who their families trust.
Professor Kim Oates