CSA in Australia: A bit of a look into how the fuck we got here.


*TW*

This blog post discusses the historical, cultural and structural factors that I believe have played into the prevalence of child sexual abuse within Australia. No explicit details of sexual abuse or assaults are discussed.

Photo by Luis Dalvan from Pexels

A common sentiment that I hear time and time again, is that you can’t ‘put a price’ on a child’s life or overall wellbeing; yet as Australia settles itself into the twenty-first century – a century with high societal and economic costs due to child abuse – we have to really question what’s the true price being paid? (18). Child abuse in Australia has been estimated to cost us around $15 billion dollars annually, but due to the complex nature of abuse it’s almost impossible to capture its magnitude since the vast majority remains unreported and unsupported within our communities (14; 20). Our personal troubles are really public issues that require a collective solution; the responsibility cannot be solely placed on the victims. As a survivor myself, I’m seeking to understand – well – how the fuck we got here? And aim to explore the extremely personal but prevalent issue within Australia: child sexual abuse (CSA). Hopefully this analysis airs out some of the historical, cultural and structural factors that have assisted in sweeping CSA under the rug for generation after generation (7).


The sociological imagination is an approach used to analyse personal troubles against interrelated factors to further understand its connection to larger social issues (7). Wanting to understand CSA within an Australian context, I explored the; [1] historical factors, [2] cultural factors, [3] structural factors and [4] analysed the findings to further comprehend the social forces that have continued to perpetuate this abuse for so long (7). So, what is CSA? how is it defined here in Australia? According to an Australian government agency, CSA is considered a form of abuse where an adult or adolescent uses power or authority to engage a child into sexual activity. It’s widespread throughout our communities, with one issue from the Australian Bureau of Statistics finding that around 13% of Australian adults have experienced some form of childhood abuse and more than half of those (1.4 million) had experienced CSA (1). Although these statistics don’t capture the full reality or recognise the intersectionality of such an issue, it’s clear that many folks collectively share this traumatic experience and all the discomfort that comes with it. Stigma and taboo continues to devastate our communities; which is why exploring the underlying side of this proverbial ‘iceberg’ – to me – feels necessary in being able to fully understand the depth of this pervasive abuse (7).

Historically, “childhood sexuality” before the eighteenth century formerly thought that – due to ‘original sin’ – children were corrupt and a strict upbringing that aimed at protecting the child’s sexual innocence was encouraged (17). But by the end of the eighteenth century there was a fundamental shift in our understanding of the child. Philosophers and theologians recognised that the child is distinct from the adult, with their own unique way of thinking and feeling. Growing interest in paediatrics during the nineteenth century found that mothers increasingly trusted the experts on how to raise their children; resulting in the emerging conceptualisation that a child’s sexuality was pathological and the required medical treatment was mostly accepted. By the twentieth century that theory had become obsolete and a child’s sexuality across many disciplines was understood as a ‘normal’ part of development; though many of these interpretations from theorists sexualised children’s behaviour in terms of adult’s sexuality, leading to a fixation with understanding the sexualised child, particularly pre-pubescent girls (17). Sigmund Freud – a renowned psychoanalyst and old white misogynist of the time – developed his “seduction theory”, claiming that his patients neurosis or extreme distress was due to CSA but quickly decided two years later to ditch what people thought were “confronting” ideas (6). Freud’s new and “improved” revelation saw CSA as a fantasy, not based on reality and completely made up; suggesting the idea of fictional abuse, minimising the reality of emotional trauma and the validity of the child’s experience (6).

“It has been argued that Freud’s renunciation of his radical seduction theory, which directly implicated CSA in adult emotional ill-health, played an early role in shaping society’s approaches to prevention, and paved the way for the denial of CSA, and its harmfulness, that characterised a significant part of the 20th century. Possibly – in response to criticism Freud received from colleagues and mentors – Freud’s seduction theory, with its extrapsychic aetiology, morphed into the intrapsychic Oedipus complex. Some feminist thinkers trace society’s denial of victims’ experience of sexual abuse to the Oedipus complex, which they claim reformulated CSA into a figment of the victim’s imagination, resulting in its suppression as a focus of research or prevention efforts for most of the 20th century” (Rudolph, 2018).


Australian jurisdictions followed suit of British law which legislated against CSA, but the severity of psychological trauma it causes was only considered later in the twentieth century (6). Up until then, CSA in the Australian judicial system was interpreted as purely physical violence, an assault on the community and due to limited understanding of power dynamics – familial sexual abuse was viewed as less serious or a ‘no biggie’. It wasn’t until second wave feminism in the 1970’s exposed sexual violence against women as a socio-legal problem which by the mid 1970’s was extended to children (6;19). Profound changes in the late 1970’s saw CSA framed as psychologically and emotionally damaging to a child, with some experts noting that “no research understands the long term impacts due to there being no understanding of the issue”. The 1980’s uncovered a huge societal problem which brought with it a pressing need to extend basic human rights to children and the young. With that, the rise in public interest resulted in numerous major academic studies into the impacts of CSA and its lifelong implications; as during this time, much of the psychological literature lagged behind. This was partly due to the “father of psychology” and his Freudian frameworks that upheld the family system over an individual. The relentless push for change during this period was gaining progress; where earlier concepts in regards to familial abuse were dumped and the acknowledgement of the severe psychological effect family member offenders have on children became the academic understanding. As we know though, progress is slow. And although this brought about attempts to significantly change how we support sexual abuse victims – and the adversarial legal proceedings that usually followed – the issue was met with limited to no political will to fund the problem. Moving into the twenty-first century we can acknowledge and appreciate the tremendous amount of work that has been done to understand and protect children from CSA. But culturally, deep seeded beliefs and ideologies that have underpinned Australian society have not received the same amount of work (6).


Australian culture has been embedded in patriarchal ideologies since colonisation where; economic, legal, political, sexual and social power is dominated by men (19). Unfortunately – though unsurprisingly – research that has focused primarily on identifying common trends amongst CSA perpetrators found that males constitute the vast majority, with one ABS study finding perpetrators to be male over 90% of the time (21). The male prerogative of power dominates western culture and mainstream beliefs, with the sexualisation of women as a commodity (19). This dichotomy of power left children vulnerable with little to no rights up until the twentieth century and there after a pervasive view that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ became customary (4). The taboo and stigma that surrounds CSA led virtually to its invisibility among the public until the 70’s feminist movement, with theorists believing a silencing process was used to shift community perception from the home to public, father to stranger and victim to delinquent (19). Since colonisation, Christianity has been deeply rooted in Australia; where an intensifying institutional power produced and perpetuated a culture of shame, secrecy and fear. This manifesting and overarching religious belief system became the norm; along with the adoption of Christianity guided Australian ‘family values’ – that in ways – prioritised the structure of male control within the family and the preservation of their power in that institution (5; 16; 19). A milieu of religious, patriarchal and Freudian beliefs held by society really undermined any rights of the child which subsequently fostered a culture willing to overlook CSA and in many cases allowing the opportunity for it to go on (16; 9)

The omnipotent patriarchal and religious structural factors within Australian culture – at the time and somewhat still today – formed part of a larger framework of systems that interrelated in the perpetuation of CSA. Laws relating to the protection of children were not introduced until the end of the nineteenth century, laws literally protected the rights of animals before children (4). Post First World War also saw an international treaty formed that was centred on the rights of children, but there was never any expectation to uphold these rights as they were not made mandatory (4). These two examples show a common theme that played out into the second half of the twentieth century, a public attempt to foster the rights of the child but limited political will and societal engagement simply allowed these attitudes of the past to move silently into the twenty-first century. Many of the public issues Australia faces today can be linked to childhood trauma. When we think critically about the improvements in government services, institutional accountability and psychological understanding that has occurred; our society is currently paying the price due to ongoing government costs and social disorganisation caused by perpetrators and abusers. A government report estimated the economic cost of child abuse annually equates to $15 billion dollars while the long term indirect costs over a lifetime can be estimated to cost up to $14 billion dollars (20). The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention produced one of the largest investigations on child abuse and its impacts on health and well-being across a lifetime (2). The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study found that severity of early childhood abuse is associated with at least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death. Read that sh!t again. The ACE Study also found that the prevention of a childs ACE score could reduce the number of people living with; depression by 44% (which has an estimated annual cost of $12 billion dollars), risky health behaviours like smoking by 33% (estimated annual cost of $136 billion dollars), heavy drinking by 24% (an estimated annual cost of $14.3billion dollars) and reduce the likelihood of other health conditions like lung disease, asthma, kidney disease and stroke (2; 13). The ACE study has been pivotal in understanding the link between adversity and health outcomes; highlighting the overarching effects child abuse has, not only on an individual and their lives, but the broader socio-economic cost.

ACES infographic from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


Advances in psychological research have found that trauma is intergenerational, it can be passed onto children, change DNA patterns and impact the epigenome chemicals and proteins attached to DNA which can cause longterm health effects (11; 15). Genetic studies that focus on neurotransmitter systems and stress signalling has linked more than 25 genes to a psychological disorder common in CSA victims. Post-traumatic stress disorder is now considered to be between 30-70% heritable and impacts the lives of 1.4 million Australians (15; 10). With these points in mind, it can be seen that Australia’s culture of patriarchal dominance and ‘business as usual’ attitude towards child welfare has compounded into a deep social and economic issue that we continue to grapple with today. If our society can continue to change at a rapid pace due to technology and adapt to all our other advances; it is absolutely possible to shift the trajectory of this issue if action is taken. Some changes could involve; absolving barriers to open communication, promoting education around the prevention of child abuse or CSA, incorporating ACE scores into developmental check-ups and providing rational access to services within every community is paramount. Government action – meaningful action – needs to be taken to support victims thoroughly, hold perpetrators to account and ensure the cycle of generational trauma does not continue. Frankly, more funding is needed for mental health services, the 19/20 federal budget has assigned $105 million dollars annually over the next 7 years towards these services. Roughly 4 million people live with ill-mental health in Australia, which means the government is so kindly supporting each individual with an additional $26.25 each year to go towards additional mental health services. It’s nothing but a drop in the bucket when compared to the projected annual economic cost of around $15 billion dollars (3; 20).


Child abuse spanning over generations has been embedded in many cultures across the world and the consequences of this consistent abuse during our formative years may have resulted in changes to our genetic makeup. Australia has historically, culturally and structurally shown inconsistency between attitudes and behaviours; allowing those uncomfortable feelings that arise around child abuse to fall deeply into silence. Although patriarchy and male power is still predominant within our society, movements like the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse and March 4 Justice helps to give some power back to those who should have never had theirs taken.


Sista Noma

If you would like to find out more about the ACE study or do the questionnaire yourself to find out what your ACE score is and how it might be linked to your overall health, check out the aces too high website. I found that for me personally, knowing my ACE score (8) has been incredibly helpful in understanding the ways in which my trauma has manifested and the implications its had on my overall health. I’ve also found it helpful when advocating for myself.


If this post brings up anything for you or if you are in need of support please call these crisis lines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Emergency 000

If you or someone you are with is in immediate danger, please call 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

Beyond Blue

Talk to a trained mental health professional any time of the day or night. Calls are confidential. They will listen, provide information and advice and point you in the right direction to seek further support.

Beyond Blue

1300 22 4636
Open 24/7

Beyond Blue chat online
Open 1pm to midnight, 7 days a week

Beyond Blue – email

Lifeline

24-hour crisis support telephone service. Lifeline provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.

Lifeline
131 114

Lifeline chat

Kids Helpline

A telephone counselling support line for children and young people ages 5 to 25 and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Kids Helpline
1800 551 800

NSW Mental Health Line

A mental health professional will answer your call about mental health concerns for you or someone you are concerned about, including children, teens, adults and older people.

Mental Health Line
1800 011 511

Suicide Call Back Service

National services that provides free 24/7 phone, video and online professional counselling to people who are affected by suicide.

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467


References:

  1. Abs.gov.au. (2016). Main Features – Characteristics and Outcomes of Childhood Abuse (Feature Article). [online] Available at: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4906.0~2016~Mai n%20Features~Characteristics%20and%2

2. About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study 2019.

3. Budget overview | Budget 2019-20 2019, Budget.gov.au.

4. Children’s Rights in a Changing World | Australian Human Rights Commission 2014, Humanrights.gov.au.

5. Cusack, C (2005). Religion in Australia: A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place. Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 13. 28-45.

6. Featherstone, L. (2018). “Children in a Terrible State”: Understandings of Trauma and Child Sexual Assault in 1970s and 1980s Australia. Journal of Australian Studies, 42(2), pp.164–176.

7. Germov, J & Poole, M 2019, Public sociology : an introduction to Australian society, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest Nsw.

8. Identifying the social costs of tobacco use to Australia in 2015/16 n.d., nla.gov.au, viewed 8 May 2020, .

9. Jason.Setchell 2017, Religious institutions, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

10. Lee, Y-C, Chatterton, ML, Magnus, A, Mohebbi, M, Le, LK-D & Mihalopoulos, C 2017, ‘Cost of high prevalence mental disorders: Findings from the 2007 Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing’, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 51, no. 12, pp. 1198–1211.

11. Lünnemann, MKM, Horst, FCPV der, Prinzie, P, Luijk, MPCM & Steketee, M 2019, ‘The intergenerational impact of trauma and family violence on parents and their children’, Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 96, p. 104134.

12. Main Features – Summary of Findings 2020, Abs.gov.au, c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of Statistics.

13. Manning, M 2017, The societal costs of alcohol misuse in Australia, Australian Institute of Criminology.

14. Mathews, B, Walsh, K, Dunne, M, Katz, I, Arney, F, Higgins, D, Octoman, O, Parkinson, S & Bates, S n.d., Scoping study for research into the prevalence of child abuse in Australia.

15. Ryan, J, Chaudieu, I, Ancelin, M-L & Saffery, R 2016, ‘Biological underpinnings of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder: focusing on genetics and epigenetics’, Epigenomics, vol. 8, no. 11, pp. 1553–1569.

16. Salter, M 2018, ‘Abuse and Cruelty in Religious Bureaucracy: The Case of the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 243– 255.

17. Sauerteig, LDH 2012, ‘Loss of Innocence: Albert Moll, Sigmund Freud and the Invention of Childhood Sexuality Around 1900’, Medical History, vol. 56, no. 2, pp. 156–183.

18. Segal, L. and Dalziel, K. (2011). Investing to Protect Our Children: Using Economics to Derive an Evidence-based Strategy. Child Abuse Review, 20(4), pp.274–289.

19. Seymour, A. (1998). Aetiology of the sexual abuse of children. Women’s Studies International Forum, 21(4), pp.415–427.

19. Smaal, Y 2013, ‘Historical Perspectives on Child Sexual Abuse, Part 1’, History Compass, vol. 11, no. 9, pp. 702–714.

20. The economic costs of child abuse and neglect 2018, Child Family Community Australia.

21. Who abuses children 2014, Who abuses children?, Child Family Community Australia.

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