Most Australians would be highly distressed by the recent outcomes of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The most trusted and revered of institutions like the Church and a few esteemed schools have been exposed as participants in the crime against children.
It’s not surprising then, that child sexual abuse is currently on the public’s radar. With the horrified look of dreaded uncertainty, a number of parents have recently warned me about their children’s vulnerability.
Of interest are the figures that they’re citing: “One in 3 girls in Australia have suffered or will suffer child sexual abuse; 1 in 7 of boys are destined for the same fate.”
The glass is mostly empty
“Well…” I reply. “Anyone looking into the glass that is child sexual abuse in Australia would find it mostly empty. But I have a few questions regarding the purported prevalence rates. While the importance of awareness about this issue can’t be overstated, it’s also essential to understand its complexities. For a start, there are problems with the definition.”
Child sexual abuse is difficult to define
There are as many interpretations of child sexual abuse as there are professionals in its field: Medical doctors, psychologists, social workers, lawyers and researchers. As professionals, we tend to interpret issues to the beat of our own career drums. So, a complicating factor is that the definition of child sexual abuse is influenced by culture – professional or otherwise.
The WHO definition
The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that child sexual abuse occurs when the victim is involved in any unlawful sexual activity. In most Australian states, that means any sexual activity that involves a person under the age of 16 years. Under the age of consent laws, sex is illegal for that age group.
To protect children who don’t have similar legal safeguards, the WHO definition includes sexual activity that is beyond the victim’s full understanding, or is non-consensual. The definition also covers sexual activity that incorporates a power imbalance that is used to satisfy the wishes of the perpetrator. Furthermore, the sexual act is abusive if it also violates the society’s laws and social values.
‘Sexual activity’ is a broad brush
According to the WHO, the abusive behavior includes sexual acts that vary from the severity of child rape by an adult to exhibitionism. Hence, a feasible definition would account for the level of the abuse, from contact to non-contact violations, and the context in which they’re experienced.
Severity and Context is an important consideration
Take teenage sex, for example; a context that substantially contributes to survey results and police and child protection notifications.
There is likely to be universal agreement that sex between unwilling 15 year old Jade and coercive 17 year old John would satisfy any criteria for sexual abuse. But what if both Jade and John were in mutual agreement? Expletives tumble from my teen clients’ dropped jaws when I tell them that, legally, the age of consent laws would supersede Jade and John’s enthusiasm to engage.
If Jade had to lay charges against John, he may have a few defenses up his sleeve, like the power balance in the relationship, the consent, and his lack of coercion. Nevertheless, he’d be in an unenviable situation.
And as for context, in my practice it appears that Snapchat is an exhibitionist hotbed for young Millennials. Most sextings seem to be consensual – as long as the photographs fade. But, sometimes they don’t because as most of my clients know, recipients can take timely screenshots. In this context, my experience suggests that it’s difficult for agencies to distinguish the victim from the perpetrator. So, the area of teen sex/sexual abuse is tricky, I like to remind my teenage clients.
And, it’s not just modern technology that’s expanded the potential for teen sexual abuse horizons. Equally sobering is the fact that Australian teenagers are most likely to engage in contact sexual activity when they’re least cognitively and emotionally prepared for it: Friday and Saturday party nights with, by definition, abundant amounts of alcohol.
Recently, I saw three 15 year old girls who claimed to have been raped at the beach (or somewhere along a four kilometre stretch of ocean) by three 15 year old boys. When I asked the girls why none of their descriptions of the rape seemed to overlap, they replied that they were all too drunk to remember any details, except for the fact that they had had sex with the boys. So, it’s not surprising that there’s a strong correlation between risky, regrettable sex and alcohol. And, both are on the increase.
But how much does teenage sex/ sexual abuse contribute to child sexual abuse rates in general?
Prevalence rates are obscure
Perhaps the most definitive answer is that we don’t know. While I understand their desire for decisive figures, I’ve mentioned to worried parents that currently in Australia there are no conclusive data for the prevalence of child sexual abuse.
The reason for our ignorance is that the studies that have been conducted have used different definitions to guide their research. To illustrate, surveys that include questions about encounters with exhibitionism could include “mooning” or Snapchat flashes, or brief exposure to Internet pornography; an area rife with teen viewers. The child sexual abuse rates on this sort of questionnaire are likely to be much higher than surveys that focus, for example, on child-adult penetrative sex.
In addition, the researchers have used different methods to collect the data. Whether surveys or police and child protection data are used, there is variability in the victims’ demographics, the types of abuse studied, the profile of the alleged abusers and so on. This variability profoundly affects the story told by statistics.
Estimates and guesstimates
Nevertheless, based on their widely respected review of the most appropriate studies, Rhys Price-Robertson (2010) and colleagues estimate that between 4 and 8% of male children and 7-12% of females have experienced penetrative abuse; effectively, rape. Non-penetrative abuse has been experienced by between 12 to 16% of young males and 23 to 36% of females. The wide ranges provided here underline the researchers’ belief that precise prevalence numbers for child sexual abuse are misleading.
And yet, despite their similar contention that “national estimates are not available”, the researchers associated with the Royal Commission (above) have ironically extrapolated their figures to give a “best estimate” of prevalence rates. It turns out to be the “1 in 3 girls” and “1 in 7 boys” statistic that I’ve been hearing about in my practice.
As Price-Robertson and his colleagues point out, this sort of unqualified information could be construed as exaggerated, and hence, it can inspire skepticism. Skepticism, in turn, can encourage complacency. On the other hand, the figures are somewhat alarmist. And, alarmed people are often anxious and broadly suspicious.
Any rate is regrettable
While we’d be reluctant for parents to be either complacent or chronically suspicious, most of us want to be properly informed.
Presently, the information that we have is that there is no clear definition for child sexual abuse, and we don’t have a clear sense of the number of victims involved.
There would be wide agreement, though, that any rate of child sexual abuse is unacceptably high. For that reason alone, in Australia the child sexual abuse glass is mostly empty.
Names, locales, people and incidents are have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or individuals is completely coincidental.