A study by Draper et al. (2007) found that of 21,000 people over the age of 60 from 5 Australian states, 6.7% reported having been physically abused, 6.5% sexually, 10% reported either and 3% both (Draper et al., 2007). Research on a sample of randomly selected Australian women revealed that 20% of participants had experienced childhood sexual abuse (Fleming, 1997). Of those women, 71% were aged less than 12 years at the time of their abuse and only 10% of cases were ever reported. Andrews, Gould and Corry (2002) reported on the overall findings of seven studies and found that 5.1% of males and 27.5% of females had experienced some level of child sexual abuse.
Statistics suggest that child abuse is on the rise, but reporting may have increased rather than there being an actual increase in incidence. Perhaps adults are simply more aware of the warning signs of abuse now than ever before.
2. The Common Story
Andrews et al. (2002), who reported on the overall findings of seven studies, found that the onset of sexual abuse occurred at a mean age of 10. In 75% of cases the offender was known to the child, and in 40% of cases a family member was the offender.
A study by Palmer, Brown, Rae-Grant, & Loughin (2001) with 384 survivors of childhood abuse identified that most survivors reported a combination of abuse types: physical, emotional and sexual (45%); physical and emotional (21%); sexual and emotional (17%); sexual only (11%) and emotional only (6%). Survivors who could recall the age of onset of the abuse had been very young (between 4 and 6). The reported perpetrator were biological fathers (34%), biological mothers (19%), stepfathers, adoptive fathers and foster fathers (8%); stepmothers, adoptive mothers and foster mothers (5%); both parents equally (7%); other relative (14%); and siblings (10%).
A study by van Loon & Kralik (2005a) with female survivors of child sexual abuse found that child sexual abuse survivors is often interwoven with emotional abuse and physical violence. Many participants in this study experienced assaults within their childhood families which were not isolated events, but sustained patterns of behaviour, endured over many years. Most women recalled their earliest memories of sexual abuse between the ages of 5 and 8 years. Participants’ backgrounds varied across rural, remote and metropolitan settings and all social strata were represented, including professional, paraprofessional and working class families.
There was an over-representation of perpetrators who were in positions of legally sanctioned authority. The participants in this study reported compounding social issues within the childhood family that included fragmentation of the family through divorce, family violence, alcohol and drug addictions, and mental illness. In most cases the family presented to the outside world as “normal”. Family relationships were characterised by intimidation, fear, shame, blame, secrecy and isolation, to avoid exposing the family to scrutiny. The victims were silenced by fear of the consequences of divulging the family secret. Perpetrators made excuses to avoid taking responsibility for their abusive actions and most commonly the child was blamed for somehow provoking, or enjoying the abuse.
Unfortunately when children do tell, and the offending perpetrator denies their actions, it is often the perpetrator who is believed rather than the child. If the adult to whom the child discloses does not take any action the child may conclude that he/she is not worthwhile, or must be to blame. It reinforces the child’s distrust of adults and causes more entrenched silence, isolation, internalised anger, which quickly leads to despair and possibly to mental illness. Survivors suggest that while children need to be educated about stranger danger, most abuse is perpetrated by a person the child knows. Consequently the child also needs to be taught to say ‘no’ to uninvited and unwanted behaviours. However children often find it almost impossible to have a voice to which their perpetrator/s will listen (van Loon & Kralik, 2005a).
3. Childhood trauma
Trauma is not limited to surviving life-threatening experiences. For a young person, trauma may be experienced in the form of separation from parents, looking into the eyes of a depressed mother, or being in a household with high level marital tension. For an adolescent, chronic stress and trauma may come from the incessant teasing of peers or taking care of the needs of an alcoholic parent (Cozolino, 2002). It seems that even an unborn child can experience stress as the result of the shared biological environment with its mother (Cozolino, 2002). Tests have found that foetuses express a biological response indicative of a stress response well before birth (Gunnar, 1998).