Professor Dianna Kenny, The University of Sydney

Monday, 06 August 2018 11:00


Kenny, D.T. (2018). Children, Sexuality and Child Sexual Abuse. London, Routledge.


Children, Sexuality, and Child Sexual Abuse

The eminent 19th century German psychiatrist and sexologist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, said,

Few people are conscious of the deep influence exerted by sexual life upon the sentiment, thought and action of man in his social relations to others.

When we attempt to understand the lives of children as they relate to sexuality, social relations, human rights, and psychological development, we are diving into deep, murky waters. What is often found there is child sexual abuse (CSA). The recent Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has shone a bright light on the extent of this most distressing of human behaviours.

One of the surprising realisations that emerged from my research for this book is how the concept of childhood has changed over the course of history, but that regardless of these often highly significant changes, many for the better, children have experienced sexual abuse during every documented era and every civilization.

For example, Aristotle propagated the view that children are immature organisms with the capacity to develop into mature and moral adults. This was an influential perspective that persisted from antiquity to the 18th century.  However, it was eventually overlaid by prurient religious constructions such as that of the 17th century French cleric, Pierre de Bérulle, who characterised childhood as the “most vile and abject state of human nature, after that of death.” The Puritan belief, inherited from St Augustine (354-430 A.D.), that humans are born into a state of sin meant that childhood was the time to exorcize the inherent evil within through strict discipline, punishment, and instruction.

Ambivalence about the inherent nature of children persisted throughout Church teaching for several centuries until challenged by philosophers like John Locke who advocated for the cessation of physical punishment of children; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who rejected the doctrine of original sin, arguing that children are born innocent, but are later corrupted through contact with a corrupt world.

Notwithstanding, the abuse of children as a permissible right is recorded in Roman law. Graeco-Roman infanticide occurred with such frequency in the ancient world it was considered commonplace.

The extent of abuse occurring in 16th century England prompted law makers to pass a Bill in 1548 protecting boys from sodomy, and in 1576 protecting girls under 10 years from forcible rape, with both offences carrying the death penalty.

In his psycho-history on childhood in 17th century France, Hunt (1970) details the callous abuse of young boys as sexual objects for the amusement of courtiers in kings’ courts and presents eye-witness accounts of their terrified, uncontrollable shaking.

Historical records from the 18th century indicate that homosexual adult/child sex was also accepted practice in Asia and Africa.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we see that the physical and sexual abuse of children, particularly in institutions charged with their care and protection, is rampant.

Sexual abuse takes many forms – incest, exploitation of children in sex trafficking, the use of children in child abuse material, the forced marriage of child brides, a practice that was only outlawed in Australia in 2013, although it continues to be practised elsewhere, and the institutional abuse of children.

By the early twentieth century, increasing interest in the care and protection of children was evident in the passing of child labour laws, the advent of public education, the child guidance movement for emotionally disturbed children, and children’s aids societies.

Children were no longer viewed as the chattels of their parents, and they were increasingly understood to have interests and rights that were separate from their parents. These views were supported by the growing disciplines of developmental psychology and child psychiatry.

However, progress was slow, and it was not until 1974 that the reporting of child sexual abuse was mandated in the USA. Similar legislation had been introduced in South Australia in 1969, but other states were slow to follow.

The long overdue United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) came into force on 2 September 1990.

This book is both a historical record of the child sexual abuse pandemic throughout history but also a handbook for those working in the field of child sexual abuse, who are responsible for keeping children safe, and for those prosecuting offenders, and modifying laws, policies and procedures that can ensure that our youngest citizens can grow up free from the lifelong burden that sexual abuse imposes on many of its young victims.

I spend a great deal of time debunking myths about the unreliability of children’s memory and their incapacity to present reliable testimony, myths that in the past were the cause of so few cases of child sexual abuse reaching the courts, research has shown that childhood memory and childhood testimony are reliable and that the percentage of false allegations of child sexual abuse is very small.

This book makes accessible to police, child welfare workers, the judiciary, teachers, and the medical profession the now very large body of research available upon which they can modify their sometimes erroneous assumptions in child sexual abuse cases.

Saturday, 11 August 2018 11:00

The impact of family constellations on the development of gender nonconforming/dysphoric children

Gender dysphoria is implicitly viewed as an intensely private matter, as a duel between an individual’s psyche and soma. This has given rise to the transactivist notion of “being born into the wrong body”. This simple, solipsistic conception is very far from reality.

Many factors are associated with gender dysphoria and it behoves those working in the field to understand its multifactorial aetiology, which includes (i) genetic factors as evinced, for example, by higher concordance of transgenderism among monozygotic compared with dizygotic twins (van Beijsterveldt, Hudziak, & Boomsma, 2006); (ii) neuroanatomical factors related to the sexual differentiation of the genitals and the brain (Swaab, 2007); (iii) developmental disorders, in particular autism spectrum disorder (Glidden, Bouman, Jones, & Arcelus, 2016; van der Miesen, Hurley, Bal, & de Vries, 2018); (iv) neuropsychiatric morbidity (Bao & Swaab, 2011); (v) endocrine factors (Bejerot, Humble, & Gardner, 2011); (vi) psychological factors, in particular, child maltreatment (Bandini et al., 2011); (vii) and sociocultural factors (Aydt & Corsaro, 2003; Basu, Zuo, Lou, Acharya, & Lundgren, 2017; Saketopoulou, 2011).

Although biological factors are important, we need to investigate the context in which gender dysphoria arises and the reasons for the exponential increase in cases observed over the past decade, an increase tantamount to a psychic epidemic. These include family constellation, parental gendered behaviours and attitudes, child maltreatment, and cultural factors. Gender dysphoria might be better understood as a relational process rather than an inherent property of the individual (Celenza, 2014). Illuminating the interactional dynamics (Ehrenberg, 2010) in which young children assert that they are transgender rather than unthinkingly affirming their cross-gender assertions is confronting for all concerned, including parents, doctors, therapists, and transactivists.

Fortunately, there are studies in the developmental psychology literature about factors that influence gender development in traditional families (McHale, Updegraff, Helms-Erikson, & Crouter, 2001; Pierrehumbert et al., 2009; Sumontha, Farr, & Patterson, 2017; Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2002) that can inform and guide research in families with a transgender child. There is an emergent literature on gender dysphoria that is exploring family dynamics, the interpersonal quality of parent-child (Zucker, Wood, Singh, & Bradley, 2012) and sibling relationships (Rust, Golombok, Hines, Johnston, & Golding, 2000), and parental gender attitudes and behaviours (Dawson, Pike, & Bird, 2016) in families with a transgender child (Riley, Sitharthan, Clemson, & Diamond, 2011) although the literature is still sparse in this respect.  

One study of traditional families found that preadolescent children who are anxiously attached to their mothers or who had a preoccupied form of insecure attachment to their mothers experienced lower gender contentedness and fewer gender-typical feelings compared with securely attached children (Cooper et al., 2013). What effect would a parent who preferred a child of the opposite sex have on a child’s gender identity? Such a question could usefully be explored in families with a transgender child.

A study of sibling effects on gender development and identification found that boys and girls with same-sexed older siblings were more sex-typed than same-aged, same-sexed singleton children, who, in turn, were more sex-typed than children with opposite-sex siblings. Having an older brother was associated with more masculine behaviours in both younger male and female siblings (Rust et al., 2000).  In a three-year longitudinal study of first-born sibling influences on second-born children, McHale et al (2001) reported that elder siblings influenced the gender role attitudes and behaviours in their younger siblings, but that parents exerted more influence over gender role in first-borns compared with second-born siblings. These findings raise interesting questions, for example, whether an abusive elder brother may figure disproportionately in the family constellations of later-born sisters who eventually transition from FtM. 

Childhood maltreatment is frequently found in the medical histories of gender dysphoric individuals, with one study reporting that 25 percent of a sample of 109 adult MtF transgender persons disclosed child maltreatment (Bandini et al., 2011), with more serious maltreatment being associated with higher body dissatisfaction. How does an abusing parent affect the gender development of a child, and what other factors pertain to the development of cross gender identification, for example, abuse from a same-sex parent which we could hypothesize could direct the child to identify with the non-abusing, opposite-sex parent?

“Parents are critical mediators of the experiences of their gender variant children…”(Gray, Sweeney, Randazzo, & Levitt, 2016, p. 123), as indeed are siblings, peers, and the wider ecological context in which children grow and learn, including gender clinics, social media, and purported experts. The influence of all these factors on the gender dysphoric child are not well understood. Accordingly, great care needs to be exercised and thorough assessments conducted before making irreversible changes to their developing bodies.



Aydt, H., & Corsaro, W. A. (2003). Differences in children's construction of gender across culture: An interpretive approach. American Behavioral Scientist, 46(10), 1306-1325.

Bandini, E., Fisher, A. D., Ricca, V., Ristori, J., Meriggiola, M. C., Jannini, E. A., . . . Maggi, M. (2011). Childhood maltreatment in subjects with male-to-female gender identity disorder. Int J Impot Res, 23(6), 276-285. doi: 10.1038/ijir.2011.39

Bao, A.-M., & Swaab, D. F. (2011). Sexual differentiation of the human brain: Relation to gender identity, sexual orientation and neuropsychiatric disorders. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32(2), 214-226. doi:

Basu, S., Zuo, X., Lou, C., Acharya, R., & Lundgren, R. (2017). Learning to be gendered: Gender socialization in early adolescence among urban poor in Delhi, India, and Shanghai, China. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(4, Supplement), S24-S29. doi:

Bejerot, S., Humble, M. B., & Gardner, A. (2011). Endocrine disruptors, the increase of autism spectrum disorder and its comorbidity with gender identity disorder--a hypothetical association. Int J Androl, 34(5 Pt 2), e350. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2605.2011.01149.x

Celenza, A. (2014). Erotic revelations: Clinical applications and perverse scenarios. New York, : Routledge.

Cooper, P. J., Pauletti, R. E., Tobin, D. D., Menon, M., Menon, M., Spatta, B. C., . . . Perry, D. G. (2013). Mother-child attachment and gender identity in preadolescence. Sex Roles, 69(11-12), 618-631.

Dawson, A., Pike, A., & Bird, L. (2016). Associations between parental gendered attitudes and behaviours and children's gender development across middle childhood. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 13(4), 452-471.

Ehrenberg, D. B. (2010). Working at the “intimate edge". Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 46(1), 120-141.

Glidden, D., Bouman, W. P., Jones, B. A., & Arcelus, J. (2016). Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review of the literature. Sexual Medicine Reviews, 4(1), 3-14.

Gray, S. A. O., Sweeney, K. K., Randazzo, R., & Levitt, H. M. (2016). “Am I Doing the Right Thing?”: Pathways to Parenting a Gender Variant Child. Fam Process, 55(1), 123-138. doi: 10.1111/famp.12128

McHale, S. M., Updegraff, K. A., Helms-Erikson, H., & Crouter, A. C. (2001). Sibling influences on gender development in middle childhood and early adolescence: A longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 37(1), 115-125.

Pierrehumbert, B., Santelices, M. P., Ibanez, M., Alberdi, M., Ongari, B., Roskam, I., . . . Borghini, A. (2009). Gender and attachment representations in the preschool years: Comparisons between five countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 40(4), 543-566.

Riley, E. A., Sitharthan, G., Clemson, L., & Diamond, M. (2011). The needs of gender-variant children and their parents: A parent survey. International Journal of Sexual Health, 23, 181-195.

Rust, J., Golombok, S., Hines, M., Johnston, K., & Golding, J. (2000). The role of brothers and sisters in the gender development of preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 77(4), 292-303.

Saketopoulou, A. (2011). Minding the gap: Intersections between gender, race, and class in work with gender variant children. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21(2), 192-209.

Sumontha, J., Farr, R. H., & Patterson, C. J. (2017). Children's gender development: Associations with parental sexual orientation, division of labor, and gender ideology. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 4(4), 438-450.

Swaab, D. F. (2007). Sexual differentiation of the brain and behavior. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab, 21(3), 431-444. doi: 10.1016/j.beem.2007.04.003

Tenenbaum, H. R., & Leaper, C. (2002). Are parents' gender schemas related to their children's gender-related cognitions? A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 38(4), 615-630.

van Beijsterveldt, C., Hudziak, J. J., & Boomsma, D. I. (2006). Genetic and environmental influences on cross-gender behavior and relation to behavior problems: A study of Dutch twins at ages 7 and 10 years. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35(6), 647-658.

van der Miesen, A. I. R., Hurley, H., Bal, A. M., & de Vries, A. L. C. (2018). Prevalence of the wish to be of the opposite gender in adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi: 10.1007/s10508-018-1218-3

Zucker, K. J., Wood, H., Singh, D., & Bradley, S. J. (2012). A developmental, biopsychosocial model for the treatment of children with gender identity disorder. Journal of homosexuality, 59(3), 369-397.