The uncomfortable truth about child sexual abuse

Institutional child sexual abuse and high-profile cases like George Pell attract the headlines, but abusers are most likely to be close to a child’s family

Dr Gemma McKibbin, University of Melbourne, and Jessica Laird, Deakin University

Dr Gemma McKibbinJessica Laird

Published 19 March 2019

The charging of Cardinal George Pell for child sexual abuse is a watershed moment for victim-survivors, but tackling child sexual abuse in institutionalised settings like the Catholic Church, is only part of the problem.

Beyond the headlines around Pell’s charges, the uncomfortable truth is that just five percent of child sexual abuse can be considered institutional. Only about 10-15 per cent of sexual abuse is perpetrated by strangers. The majority of child sexual abuse happens in or close to the family.

A perpetrator of child sexual abuse is most likely to be someone known to the family, and male. Picture: Shutterstock

And child sexual abuse is more common than we are led to believe by the few high-profile cases that attract media attention. It is far from being rare.

In Australia 18 per cent of women and 4.7 per cent of men report having suffered sexual abuse before they had turned 15. An international analysis suggests the rates are even higher at 19.7 per cent for girls and 7.9 per cent for boys.

Look for perpetrators closer to home

It means that watching out just for strangers or paedophile priests may not be the most effective way of protecting children from potential sexual abusers. Parents need to be looking at people who are known to their children, mostly men and boys. We know that around 90 per cent of perpetrators are male.

We also know that most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child. The 2016 Personal Safety Survey carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that for men and women who have been sexually abused before the age of 15, the most common perpetrator was a non-familial, known person like a neighbour or “family friend”.

And child sexual abuse isn’t only perpetrated by adults. Researchers predict that between one third to a half of all child sexual abuse is carried out by other children and young people under the age of 18 years. However, it is important to refer to children who abuse not as perpetrators but as exhibiting “harmful sexual behaviour” because in the case of children their behaviour can reflect the immaturity of their development.

It’s quite different to the predatory nature of abuse perpetrated by adults. Also, many children who sexually abuse do so because they suffered abuse during their own childhoods.

Child sexual abuse also overlaps with child sexual exploitation, a largely misunderstood, over-looked and unaddressed form of child sexual abuse. Child sexual exploitation is carried out by adults and young people, involving the abuse of a child or young person’s vulnerability, power or trust by offering things like gifts, shelter, substances, money, protection and/or affection in exchange for sexual activity.

Child sexual exploitation involves the abuse of a child’s vulnerability and trust. Picture: Getty Images

Historically this has been labelled “juvenile sex work” or “child prostitution”, which sadly misrepresents the victimisation of young people and children, who by the Rights of the Child must be protected against every form of exploitation.

By refusing to label children like these as “perpetrators”, or worse, “prostitutes”, we provide space for a child or young person to be seen as someone needing therapeutic support, rather than being labelled a psychiatric case or criminal.

Again, the narrative of child sexual exploitation is shaped predominantly by media reporting of paedophile rings, online child abuse material and child sex trafficking. However, this focus overshadows the evidence that child sexual exploitation is more widespread than these stories suggest.

Child sexual exploitation has been reported as affecting up to 2.8% of Swedish high school students, while a massive 47% of a UK university student sample said they’d been approached by an adult in a sexual manner when they were under 16.

Furthermore, the internet provides convenient and fast distribution of exploitative material, with device-mediated communication accessible via computer, phone and gaming consoles, making the targeting and procuring of young people and children easier for perpetrators.

Gone are the days where perpetrators need to lurk outside of schools, as grooming cannot only occur online, but also anonymously without easy tracking by the authorities via the use of the ‘Dark Web’ or internationally hosted sites.

Focus on early intervention

Although it is a relief for victim-survivors of institutional child sexual abuse to see Pell convicted, we cannot rely on legal and treatment responses after abuse occurs – it is too late.

We need to be focusing more of our efforts on early intervention for young people and adults who are worried about their thoughts and behaviours in relation to children, but who haven’t yet abused.

Technology has made it easier for sexual predators to target children and young people. Picture: Shutterstock

An early intervention Stop it Now! telephone and online service could be easily implemented in Australia to support the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Evaluations in the UK and Netherlands have already shown that the service works and a recent scoping study (unavailable online) undertaken by Jesuit Social Services has recommended that, in line with the Royal Commission on Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, a Stop It Now! program should be established in Australia.

In addition to early intervention, recovery programs for young people affected by child sexual abuse are equally important to prevent re-victimisation and prevent the devastating domino effect of abused young people going on to abusing their siblings or peers.

Few interventions are available despite a 2018 systematic review of 21 studies that reported hopeful evidence that sexually abused or exploited children and young people can experience recovery through a range of interventions. These include psycho-educational therapy groups, case management, and focused health and/or social services.

The message then that the public needs to hear and which will be most helpful for protecting our children, is that child sexual abuse is most often carried out in the family context by someone known to the child.

Children and young people sexually abuse as well as adults, and child sexual abuse is more prevalent than commonly thought. Further, and very sadly for the vast majority of the wonderful men and boys out there, most sexual abuse is carried out by males.

So, pay attention to anyone forming a relationship with your child, look for signs that your child or family is being groomed, and know it’s never too early or too late to reach out for help.

If you are in need of more information, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732.

Banner Image: Shutterstock

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