We can assume that most estimates of the incidence of child sexual abuse are under-estimates. Even large population surveys cannot provide accurate estimates of the extent of child sexual abuse in Australia. This is partly because many victims feel unable to speak out about it. The pressures of negative community attitudes towards victims, feelings of shame, and fear of retribution from the perpetrator contribute to low levels of disclosure. Because the violence often occurs in the privacy of the home, there are few outside witnesses. It is clearly shown in this story that offenders are seen as ‘normal’ by their friends, families or workmates. What we’re faced with is not a problem of a small number of disturbed men, but rather a society in which normal men consider it their right to force sexual contact with children in their families.1
This year 2002 is the year that child sexual abuse has hit the headlines more often than ever. First the scandals of the church here in Australia, then the alleged cover up by the Governor General, and a promised royal inquiry into abuse by the Howard government. The latest allegations about Catholic priests have even brought interest from the pope. This month’s Time magazine has an article about paedophilia, outlining what a paedophile is. “Someone who has “recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviours involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child”. The article goes on to state that it is misleading to believe that most of child sexual abuse is committed by members of the church, teachers, boy scout leaders, or other adults who work with kids. Half of child sexual abusers are the parents of the victims and other relatives commit 18% of the offences. A retrospective study of 427 university students in Queensland, Australia, revealed that the majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse were known to their victim. It was also much more likely that the respondent reported being abused by a male than a female, with stepfathers being one of the most frequently reported offenders. In contrast, strangers were found to perpetrate a minority of abuse. Consequently, recommendations are made for education programs in an effort to prevent children being abused by people whom they know and trust.2
Whilst the public are being given accounts of what makes a paedophile, and the media gives full coverage of the church scandals, there is still very little about the effect of what the act of child sexual abuse has on the child, and how it impacts through life. Time magazine sums up the article by saying “Yet understanding child sex abuse means not only exploring its prevalence, causes and treatments, issues that focus on the abuser, but finding the best ways to help victims cope as well.” As a result I felt it is only appropriate to give a brief outline of my own situation, and the effects this has had on me. I grew up in a household where my parents had just returned from overseas, from their work as missionaries.
From the outside we looked a model family. My parents were popular and obviously religious. Weekly prayer meetings, church twice on a Sunday, summer church camps and so on. When I was quite young, a toddler, my father would use my mouth to ejaculate into. By the time I was four or five I was being shown pictures of adults touching children in a sexual way, and was told this is a normal way for a parent to express his affection for their child. I have several different memories of sexual acts by my father. In my early teens, when I started to have boyfriends, my father saw me arm in arm with another 14 year-old. All very innocent. My father told me that I was never to be seen with a boy again, that it was wrong, and no daughter of his would behave like that. At the same time he was lying with me in bed, preparing me for himself yet again. I have no idea when the abuse stopped, or how frequent the acts were. He continued to act flirtatiously with me, and I with him, even as an adult.
What I do know are the effects that it has on my psychological health. As a 25 year-old I was raped. Not a particularly violent rape, I was only left with facial bruising and teeth marks on my breast. For me the most disturbing aspect was the knowledge that as it was happening this had happened before. Over the next couple of years a hoard of memories surfaced, and a very deep dread that I must surely be mad, or at least a horrible person to be having these thoughts and images about my own father. Fortunately for me I have always remembered certain things, but as is often the case, most of the abuse was buried deep in my subconscious. It has to be like this, as the most effective survival mechanism for the child is to be so cut off from the experience, he/she has to block it out.
I was constantly blackmailed with threats of the devil taking my soul should I speak out. I was also primed from a very young age that these acts were normal, and were a usual way for a parent to show affection. There is now research into the chemical response of the brain when trauma occurs, and the massive doses of Adrenalin that are released are said to set off a chemical reaction that is not only toxic to the body, but will give a long lasting effect in the psychological development, particularly in response to stressful situations. I understand that the fear that I felt frequently as a child was a fear for my life.
It is just not possible for a child to process these happenings within an environment of silence, where all appearances are kept up to a perfection of normality, and when the person who was hurting me so shamefully was my father who, with the innocence of a child, I loved. So the result was that I turned all the anger and hatred onto myself. As a teenager I would frequently self-mutilate myself. Not in any overtly dramatic ways, but it still amazes me that teachers at my school didn’t wonder if something was amiss. For several years in my mid to late 20s, the abuse issue was very much part of my life. I fell into depressions, drug use and an intense inner turmoil that manifested as swarms of violent thoughts stinging with accusations, and would have me pounding my head against the wall in order to just feel, to break the grip.
Memories would come in the form of physical sensations and images sometimes vivid, sometimes cloudy. Always the energetic effect was devastating. My self-esteem was low, and I would find myself in encounters with men that were continuing the belief that I was worthless. My sexuality was of course deeply scarred. It wasn’t until in my early 30s that I began to realise what a joy making love can be. And it is only really in the last year that I begin to experience the full sense of pleasure with trusting enough to allow the full orgasmic process to occur.
When I started having my periods at 13, for the first 3 years I bled every fortnight. At 16 I went to see a doctor who prescribed the pill. It regulated my period, but always I had severe cramps, developing over the years to PMS of varying intensity. When I was in my early 20s I started having problems with my lower back … for a couple of years I would try to ignore it, but it got so bad I eventually had surgery for a disk that had crumbled for no apparent reason. Some years later when again my back and hips were so painful I could hardly walk I opted for therapies that would provide the link to the emotional component that resulted in this chronic body pain.
My healing process has been, and is profound. I no longer have anxiety attacks if I am in a room with more than a few men. I can be alone at night and not have images of being attacked, constantly having to check if the doors and windows are secured. I no longer harm myself although I am still aware of my addictions and I no longer feel responsible for all and anything that is painful.
A fear that wells up, even as I write this, but I am better able to take care of myself through this emotion. Trusting is still an issue, particularly of course to trust men. I would say that the degree to which I do not trust leaves a residue of constant anxiety, a continual checking over my shoulder for a perceived threat. At times of vulnerability I have a deep suspicion of the motivation of people, even those who I know love me, and this makes me feel sad.
I understand, through reading the works of therapists who specialise in trauma healing, that this underlying fear, anxiety and sense of helplessness to deal with these emotions, is a common experience of people who experienced incest. The freezing that occurred as a child, as I couldn’t escape the terror and shame of what was happening, left an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. This impacts as an adult as finding it challenging to not act habitually out of a sense of defeat, to trust that I can move forward with what life presents. Intimacy continues to be confronting, as the tendency to cut off energetically is almost immediate as soon as I feel unsafe. And as a result of the physiological effect, the tendency to feel unsafe is greatly exaggerated, as can the emotional responses be. The tendency to dissociate as soon as there is any discomfort is still in place, yet it is now unacceptable to me so there is more of a willingness to feel the pain and discharge the energy in a more holistic way.
Some years ago I broached the subject with my family. My father responded with an admission that there was one incident, but it was only a result of my “aberrant behaviour”. He was hostile and angry, and claimed he would stand up in any court and swear on the bible that I was lying. When mentioned again he became hysterical and threatened suicide. Circumstances have it that I see them rarely, but I maintain a connection, which is important to me, especially with my mother. They are, after all, my family.
So if the statistics are correct, which estimate that one in five Australian children are molested in some way, then that must mean that there are a lot of children in our vicinity who are experiencing this in their lives. Child sexual abuse is an issue for society. If we are to understand and unravel why it is so common, then several things need to change. Certainly there needs to be more understanding of what motivates an adult to molest a child. In many countries it is widely known that children are available for sex. Often as a result of social or economic circumstances, children are sold into the sex industry. In some Asian societies it is quite usual for daughters to serve the men in a variety of ways that also include sexual acts within the family. But we are living in a society that is saying this a crime yet so much of it goes unnoticed. The current legal system does not support a young child to give evidence. It also appears that within systems of law and order there are often gross cover-ups.
In Australia it is an illegal act to masturbate in front of a child, yet so many more invasive acts occur and remain in secrecy. It is so damaging for a child to keep secrets, even more so when the secret they are keeping is brutal in the wound it leaves in the heart.
There is also the question of what to do with offenders … another Pandora’s box, as in Australia a life sentence will occur for drug offences, yet someone who has molested up to 11 children will serve only three years. Is locking someone up the answer? Again they are removed from society and the mainstream population will hear nothing of them. It seems like the first step is to start breaking the silence, to break down the taboo that this issue is and discharge the shame that survivors carry. It is also likely that some of the perpetrators carry a fair amount of shame too. Sexual abuse is also an issue for partners of people who were abused as children. It undoubtedly affects my ability to be vulnerable and bond with my partner on the deepest level which I believe we all deserve. I hope very much that there will be the time sooner than later, that a child can feel empowered enough by outside support to tell someone, anyone, if an adult is touching them, or approaching them in any way that they do not like. For this to happen then the community as a whole, and society in general, needs to wake up to the facts. Peter Levine says in his book, Waking the Tiger, “When we are overwhelmed by trauma and then rebound, we become awed by the natural laws in force. In losing our innocence, we can gain wisdom, and in the process of gaining wisdom, we gain a new innocence. The instinctual organism does not sit in judgement; it only does what it does.” It is clear that to heal from trauma, what is required is transformation on a cellular level. The key to transformation is trust, trust that ultimately all manifestations of life are unfolding, occurring in perfection. Within this trust is a life that is spontaneous, and unencumbered by the shakles of victimisation.
As Joan Borysenko says in her book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, “…despite our differences, we’re all alike. Beyond identities and desires, there is a common core of self, an essential humanity whose nature is peace and whose expression is thought and whose action is unconditional love. When we identify with that inner core, respecting and honouring it in others as well as ourselves, we experience healing in every area of life.”
1. Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, www.dvirc.org.au
2. Goldman, J D G; Padayachi, U K. The perpetrators of child sexual abuse in Queensland.
Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 2, June 02