I have just completed a book on child sexual abuse, entitled Children, Sexuality, and Child Sexual Abuse published by Routledge in March, 2018. I canvas a wide range of issues that include:
- What are the historical and social contexts in which child sexual abuse has occurred?
- What is the extent of child sexual abuse in the English-speaking world and who are its chief perpetrators?
- What factors enable institutional child sexual abuse?
- How do children disclose child sexual abuse? How reliable are their disclosures?
- What are the effects of child sexual abuse on development across the lifespan?
Below is an introduction to Children, Sexuality, and Child Sexual Abuse, from the book's launch.
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.