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How do we protect our children without demonising men?

By Gail Sanderson - posted Friday, 15 September 2000

We have been hurting children since the year dot.

But over the past hundred years or so, the child protection movement has gained momentum and child abuse is now regarded as a major social problem. I’m interested in examining some current issues in child protection, including some unintended consequences of men becoming more involved with their children. I’m also intrigued by the current hysteria about paedophilia and wonder if there is a saner, more commonsense way we can deal with child sexual abuse.

Many years ago, I was a counsellor and I worked with adults and children who had been harmed, usually by being sexually abused. At that time, we chanted the mantra ‘the only taboo about having sex with children is talking about it, not doing it’. I was perplexed to find that the Stranger Danger campaigns that I grew up with were still popular, since I knew that the danger to children was overwhelmingly from within the family, not outside it, and usually from trusted men in children’s lives. Interestingly, it is only in recent years that any research has been done to examine women as perpetrators of sexual abuse. Denial was, and is, the order of the day, since to think otherwise is to challenge the dominant paradigm of explaining family violence as a symptom of patriarchy. More on that later.


It is a known fact that severe physical and sexual abuse is relatively uncommon. More common, and according to some experts, far more damaging in the long term, is emotional abuse and neglect, but violence and sex are seductive, and tend to attract public attention. The irony of the media feeding the ‘voyeurism and vengeance’ frenzy is that the usual government knee-jerk reaction results in fewer child abuse prevention programs. The money for high-profile investigative programs has to come from somewhere, and it’s usually from the bucket reserved for long-term, preventative approaches. But then, the long-term approach has never been a particularly saleable product to the electorate.

I believe that most media coverage of child abuse tends to be superficial, inflammatory and misleading, which in turn perpetuates some convenient myths about the real source of risk. Could it be that scandal and gore sells papers and advertising space on TV and radio?

To give you a potted history of the modern occurrence of child abuse:

Dorothy Scott, an Australian researcher and writer, asserts that there have been two major waves of what she terms "the child rescue movement".

The first wave occurred in the late nineteenth century, which also saw the emergence of the Freudian school and the beginnings of a new framework for understanding and interpreting human behaviour. Around the same time, Durkheim was proposing that deviance served an important social function. That is, the denunciation of deviance allowed society to define the boundaries of normative behaviour. A bit like the proposition that we must have evil in order to recognise good.

Most literature focuses on the second wave, with the ‘rediscovery’ of child abuse in 1962 via Henry Kempe’s article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on ‘battered babies’. Most researchers concur that this ‘rediscovery’ paralleled a couple of major social changes, including the kernel of the women’s liberation movement.


David Finkelhor, an American researcher, suggests that this wave of social change led to a more public scrutiny of family life. The abuse was there, but had been obscured by a curtain of privacy. As more women entered the workforce and became newly independent, options opened up for women (and children) who had previously suffered in relative silence. Women started to speak up about their own experiences and a new class of health, welfare and education professional was there to hear them and to validate what they were saying.

This resulted in a fundamental change in the way we viewed children and paved the way for state intervention, and the current array of programs reflect that change in political will.

One of the more recent, and potentially more challenging child abuse prevention strategies, is about teaching children self-protective behaviours. Imported from the United States a few years ago, it is now an important tool in many Australian prevention programs. Essentially, it aims to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touching, and this process is undertaken with children and their parents. I say it is potentially challenging because it moves beyond the Stranger Danger paradigm to a concept that recognises that people who care for children can also hurt them. This approach teaches children that even people who are close to them, including parents, relatives and carers, are capable of harm. It also confirms that children have the right to say ‘no’ – in this case to inappropriate touches.

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About the Author

Gail Sanderson is National Liaison Officer for the Health and Community Services Ministerial Council Secretariat and is currently working in the area of training reform. She has worked as a counsellor specialising in therapy for sexually abused women and children, and victims of domestic violence.

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