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Child abuse is not just about sexual abuse but that's an important part

By Daryl Higgins - posted Monday, 7 July 2003

The issues of child sexual abuse are rarely far from the news headlines. Recent accusations against Peter Hollingworth about his alleged failure to deal effectively with sexual abuse claims concerning a priest in his jurisdiction at the time has added yet more fuel to the fire on the issue of protecting our children from this form of harm.

In recent postings, the issues of accessing child pornography have been debated. Although Greg Barns was not promoting child pornography, he took a civil libertarian view, emphasising that the criminals were those producing the pornography. However Hetty Johnston and Ingrid Fjastad pointed out that by contributing to demand (and therefore encouraging supply of new pornographic material to meet this demand), purveyors of child pornography are also responsible for the abuse of children.

This debate raises a number of questions:

  • Is child sexual abuse really harmful?
  • If so, what is it about sexual abuse that is harmful?
  • Does our focus on sexual abuse of children distract our attention from other equally - or more damaging - forms of maltreatment?
  • Where should we target our efforts in order to best protect children from harm?

Is child sexual abuse really harmful?

It's risky to suggest that we ask the question - but as a social scientist, my training demands that I do: Is child sexual abuse really harmful? The data that we have from clinicians, from survivor groups, and retrospective reports of those who experienced sexual abuse as a child or adolescent would suggest a resounding "YES" (although there is still a large amount of variability).

In part, it depends on how you define sexual abuse (with definitions ranging from being asked to do something sexual, through to penetration of some kind; and the differences in the size of the age-differential required). However, when you also include those who have never consulted a clinician for treatment (i.e., when you look at national probability samples), a different, more diverse picture is painted.

Bruce Rind and his colleagues from the US have come under enormous criticism for publishing their meta-analytic review of research studies of child sexual abuse that used college samples and national probability samples. Overall, they found a prevalence rate of approximately 19 per cent for females and 11 per cent for males. A greater proportion of females reported negative reactions to their sexual experiences (two-thirds) than males (two-fifths). However, females were generally younger, their experiences more likely to involve coercion, and to occur at the hands of a family member. They drew a qualified conclusion that sexual abuse is not necessarily harmful. In many cases it is harmful, but the impact is not always severe, and is not always long-lasting. The effects of sexual abuse depend on factors such as the use of force, the relationship of the young person to the perpetrator, their gender, sexual orientation, whether the sexual interaction was 'wanted', and other familial factors.

Their work highlights for us an important distinction: just because we find something morally wrong, does not necessarily mean that it is always harmful. And we end up doing ourselves - and science - an injustice by presuming that sexual activity between an adult and a minor must always result in severe and lasting harm. It is better to ask, from a scientific question: Who is harmed? Under which circumstances is harm more likely? What form does that harm take? Is it severe or long lasting?

This does not in any way prevent us taking social action to prevent the risk of harm - as clearly, sexual abuse is often associated with harm. Therefore I strongly believe that children need to be protected from this risk of harm, even though evidence shows that not all would necessarily be harmed.


There is also the possibility that labelling someone as a victim of sexual abuse may be destructive per se. A famous researcher and protagonist in the debates over repressed memories, Elizabeth Loftus, has shown that sometimes our zeal to believe in the literal truth of all reports of sexual abuse can blind us to other circumstances. She chronicles the circumstances around a famous case study - Jane Doe - that has been used as evidence for the existence of massive repression of childhood sexual abuse. Her analysis of this case calls into question many of the facts, the bias that may have entered into the way it was reported, and the possibility that the young girl in question was harmed by being led to believe she was a victim of sexual abuse at the hand of her mother (the allegations were raised by her father and step-mother in the context of a court battle over Jane's custody).

What is it about sexual abuse that is harmful?

Although we can debunk the myth that sexual contact between an adult and a younger person must always cause harm, it leaves the question as to what it is about the nature of this sexual contact that can be harmful. Is it age-inappropriate (precocious) sexual involvement per se, or other elements that cause the harm?

Clinicians and researchers make it clear that the basis of the interaction that is abusive it the breach of trust that is involved. An older person - whether a family member, someone else in a position of authority, or simply someone who is more responsible due to their age - breaches the duty of care that society places as an obligation on adults, particularly those in a position of responsibility when they engage a minor in sexual activity.

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About the Author

Dr Daryl Higgins is a lecturer in Psychology at Victoria's Deakin University. He has been researching child altreatment, family functioning, family violence and its effects on children and adults for the past 10 years.

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