Sunday, 29 May 2011

Children who abuse

Quite a few reports and articles surrounding the sexual abuse of children have cropped up recently and it has made me think about how ignorant so many people are about abuse, its range and complexity. I mention the perpetrators of abuse because I was struck by an NSPCC report earlier in the week which revealed not only the scale of the abuse, but also discussed the taboo and little known fact that many perpetrators of abuse are themselves under the age of eighteen.

The media, the tabloid press in particular, still tend to depict abusers in terms of "stranger danger" (even though this accounts for a tiny fraction of abuse cases.) We are much more comfortable with the idea of an abuser as a sleazy unkempt man in a park who preys on children. Some Christian groups still perpetuate the myth that abusers are largely homosexual men, rather strange considering that girls account for 86% of known victims! Whatever our choice of profile to demonise as a typical abuser, few of us want to believe that abusers may be respectable professional people, women, or other children - but they can be and they often are. A third of abused males report being abused by a woman, for example, a statistic which scotches the myth that women do not abuse.

The abuse of children by other children is a particularly painful and thorny issue, and it is horrifying to read that a quarter of abusers are under the age of eighteen. Sexual abuse by another child also poses great difficulties for the abused child. It is no easier to speak out about abuse carried out by other children, the shame, sense of taboo and fear of not being believed is just as great. Children who "come out" about it as adults often face problems because the abuse is dismissed as "less serious" or not "real abuse"; it can be put down to "playing doctors and nurses" when often it was no such thing. I can't imagine what it is like to be abused by another child, but one of the hardest cases I heard was of someone who was abused when she was nine, initially by three teenage boys and then by some more of their friends. By the time she was in her own teens she was promiscuious, reckless, getting into trouble at school and home. As an adult she still found it hard to accept she was not responsible and this is common in those abused by children ; it is clear that a fifty five year old man should not be acting in that way, harder when the abuser is fifteen.

We need to move away from tabloid myths about abuse and abusers and be clear sighted in recognising the often complex situations involved and the pain and damage inflicted. We need to educate and empower children and we need to learn how to deal more effectively with survivors and with perpetrators.


  1. I have only just started having councelling for unearthed memories, I was 10 when my 14 year old foster brother got in my bed. I have accepted I wasn't to blame, but I also can't blame him because his life was already mucked up.

    I would re-iterate the main point I have learned from my personal process of keeping everything in, you must tell someone what has happened, if I had been able to have understanding help back then, it may not have led on to further abuses (typically an abused person has more than one experience of abuse and abuser) and difficulties in marriage, which, thanks be to God for our amazing Church and pastoral care I am dealing with now.

  2. Thank you for commenting, TC. I am so sorry to hear of your experiences and glad you are getting help and support. It is also true that abuse often leads to further abuses, and this can reinforce the notion that the abused has somehow invited what happened. I am glad your chuch is dealing with it well - that doesn't always happen.

  3. Thanks for this.

    I did think about you the other morning, listening to John Humphries interview a young woman who had been sexually abused by her older half brother.

    The sexual abuse of children is one of the great taboos of our society. It is common and in the main it takes place within the confines of the family. It is interesting to note that much of thinking about child abuse focuses on ‘the paedophile’, this almost mythical creature that lurks around the school gates and children’s playgrounds and spends his evenings in front of his computer watching child porn and communicating with likeminded souls. Altho’ it is certain such characters exist, it is doubtful they are identifiable – the long, dirty raincoat and the social awkwardness are also, mainly, inventions. They tend to be articulate, sociable and generally likable individuals.

    But such individuals are responsible for only a small proportion of sexual abuse. The bulk will be committed by a family member. Some will be committed by an older child. The (awkward) question I have concerning this report, is what constitutes sexual abuse? I can remember playing ‘doctors and nurses’ as a child and it was certain sexual behaviour – albeit muted – took place; as an older, pre-pubescent boy, my older cousin used to delight in showing me how he masturbated and ejaculated – but there was no sexual contact, yet I think this was a species of abuse. Stephen Fry – and many others – have written on the sexual exploitation of younger boys at boarding schools; is this sexual abuse? It certainly sounds like it to me. What defines this abuse?

    It is a new social trend? I suspect not. Until recently it has been so difficult to allow such acts to be spoken of. Historians researching ‘apprenticeship’ have found evidence that some young children in service or hired out as apprentices in the 18th and 19th centuries hint at sexual abuse by their masters and peers, but it is difficult to gauge what they experienced, because of the coded language, which is ambiguous and so distanced from our own times that the meaning is obscured. My own parents, who began work at the age of 14 at the beginning of WW2, have told me that factory life was not all Gracie Fields and ‘Sing as We Go...’ there was bullying that resulted in physical and sexual abuse of young people. But these things were hidden and as my father says: ‘In those days, no one would have believed you if you’d told anyone. And no one was interested anyway!’

    I don’t know where we go with this report. I am without issue and therefore don’t have to worry about such things, but I suspect the only way of prevention is to talk frankly with children about sex, ensuring that they are aware that sex brings with it responsibilities and moreover that no one can be forced into a sexual relationship. Yet it is difficult, as noted above, to tease out ‘natural’ sexual experimentation, which is a part of normal development (doctors and nurses etc.) and sexual abuse. Children are sexual creatures – something we don’t like to admit. However they are not sexually aware or competent in the same manner as adults. Should they, if they are the perpetrators of abuse, be held as villains in the same way we hold adults as culpable? It is interesting to note we don’t allow anyone on a jury until they are 18 because we don’t believe they are able to make sound judgements about guilt and innocence until that age. Yet we are happy to condemn children as culpable when we don’t like the nature of the crime – inferring that they can make rational judgements, as adults do, when the manner in which we select juries says we don’t believe children can make rational judgements!

    Hence the way forward is a difficult one, because it could be argued a 15 yr old is not fully aware of the implications or responsibilities of his/her behaviour. I offer the above as fodder for debate... I can’t really think of any concrete answers to the problem.


  4. I think that most groups dealing with survivors say that abuse is abuse when the person involved feels it was abusive. We take the same approach with the "what is bullying" question in schools - if someone is upset by it then it can't be dismissed as "I was just joking" by the bully and it has to be dealt with in a reasonable way, looking at what was said and done.

    Of course this approach does raise problems, especially when individuals have been too afraid to object (to either bullying or abuse) and the other person "thought it was alright" - and the younger and more inexperienced the more likely people are to make unsound judgements.

    I do agree that children cannot be held to be as culpable as adults, and we have the added problem that children who abuse often (not always) do so as a result of being abused themselves. There are also cases of children pressurised to abuse others, especially if they are under the impression that the other child is willing, and they are encouraged to engage in the activity through peer pressure.

    Overall a harrowing and tragic situation. I absolutely agree that openness is vital and empowering children to speak up whenever they feel unhappy about something that is happening to them.

  5. For those who haven't experienced it first-hand, our understanding of sexual abuse, especially in children, can be dependent upon media coverage. As you've highlighted, these reports are often misleading and simplistic.

    That said, the nature of such abuse is so horrifying that it is easy to accept the shallow explanation and not look deeper. Thanks for writing this - it's hard reading, but I suspect that having our assumptions challenged always is.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Emma. I have had a read through your blog as well, which was very interesting. Sue