Most Australians would be highly distressed by the outcomes of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017). 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 non-institutional child sexual abuse (NCSA) 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 commonly 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 NCSA 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 the sexual act is abusive if it also violates the society’s laws and social values. That definition is tricky for many of our teenagers because most Australian states have age of consent laws that set the legal limit for sex at 16 years of age. According to the WHO then, in general, people who are 15 years and younger cannot, by defintion, have legal sexual experiences. So, according to the WHO, we have a vast number of children in our country that engage in abusive sex. And, according to Australian law, we can assume that there are a vast number of young teens that transgress.
The WHO, understandably, also includes as unlawful, sexual activity that is beyond the victim’s full understanding, or is non-consensual.
‘Sexual activity’ is a broad brush
According to the WHO, sexually abusive behavior includes sexual acts that vary from the severity of child rape perpetrated by an adult to exhibitionist acts. The definition for child sexual abuse is therefore very broad. It includes all person-to-person contact violations and all non-contact violations. It also includes the multiple contexts in which the violations might occur, from the victim’s physical home to the cyberworld; usually the social media platforms.
Severity and Context is an important consideration
When looking at the data for NCSA, the severity and context of the violations are important considerations. Take the data for teenage sex abuse, for example. The violations within this population contribute substantially to the statistics on child sexual abuse. Most of this data is accrued from 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. Their sexual encounter is effectively illegal.
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 legal situation. John’s passionate love for Jade could be recorded as sexual abuse and contribute to the data on rates for the crime.
And as for context, in my practice it appears that Snapchat is an exhibitionist hotbed for young Millennials and Gen Zedders. (Recall that exhibitionism is included in the WHO’s definition of sexual abuse.) 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 of the ‘exhibitionist’. In this context, my experience suggests that it’s difficult for agencies to distinguish the victim from the perpetrator. Nevertheless, an unhappy snapchatter could make a complaint to the police that could be included in data for sexual abuse rates.
And, it’s not just modern technology that’s expanded the potential for teen sexual abuse horizons and the increase in rates. In life beyond the cyber world, Australian teenagers are most likely to engage in contact sexual activity when they’re least cognitively and emotionally prepared for it: During Friday and Saturday night “benders”.
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. The girls had notified the police and their complaints were recorded. They would also claim sexual abuse if they were to be surveyed. Their complaints could be included in the data on rates of child sexual abuse.
When I asked the girls why none of their individual descriptions of the rape overlapped in any way, they replied that they were all “On a bender”, and therefore, couldn’t remember any details, except for the fact that they had had sex with the boys. Given that all six under-age teens were blind drunk, even wise Solomon would be hard pressed to discern sexual predator from victim. So, it’s not surprising that there’s a strong correlation between risky, regrettable sex and alcohol. Both are on the increase. It follows that the number of reported rates for child sexual abuse are also on the increase.
But, by how much do the above sorts of sexual encounters actually contribute to child sexual abuse rates in general?
Prevalence rates are obscure
Perhaps the most definitive answer is that although the experts believe that it is “a lot!”, we don’t really 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, as illustrated above, 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 valid and reliable 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 by these researchers underline the fact 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 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. Public complacency weakens the search for a solution. On the other hand, the figures are somewhat alarmist. And, alarmed people are often anxious and broadly suspicious. Such behaviours similarly detract from a solution.
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 have no clarity on the number of victims involved. We might have to wait some time before we receive scientifically valid, reliable rates.
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.