Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Incest, child abuse and a need for heroes

She lies in the darkness, waiting for a hero. Will this be a night of creaks in the hallway? She’s not allowed to scream, not allowed to tell anyone.
She doesn’t know about sex but she knows her body is something to be used by another. She’s 9. Only I can’t find her. She will grow up joining the growing group of unreported sexual child abuse. No one will come, no one will save her.

Here in North America we like to see ourselves as a land of heroes, people who believe in superheroes. But there is one crime that we, as a society, don’t like to talk about: sexual child abuse and incest. There are tens of thousands of cases of forced incest and all wilkepedia can say is two sentences. Incest is sex between family members that it is illegal to marry.

And though we don’t talk about it, or make movies about it, child sexual abuse goes on, flourishing in silence. In the last 30 years the number of rapes in the US has dropped to 1/10th of what it was due to campaigns of “No means No,” sex education and greater sensitivity to rape victims. In the same period sexual child abuse has, depending on the study, either remained the same or risen 88%-130% (in the decade 1980-1990 reported cases increased over 300%). Of course it is difficult to get statistics because the last comprehensive study in the US was done almost 10 years ago. Sexual child abuse and incest are THE highest unreported crime from reasons of threats, fear, fear of breaking up the family to simply living in a religious/authoritarian setting. Over 50% of those who initially tell an adult will not be believed.

I made a promise; a belief, that I would stop it. I’m failing. Late at night, I stand at the window, listening for them. Because a child is hoping to be found. In the US another child is being sexual abused every 2 minutes. 1 out of 7 of them are aged 6 or under. Childwelfare in their last study estimated 200,000 cases in the US annually, and a same number per capita in Canada. Only 31% of these sexual abuses will result from strangers. In Canada 61% of ALL reported sexual assaults will be youth or children.

We may not be sexual abusers ourselves, but we are culpable. We all are part of a society that would rather maintain the image of sexual purity than sexual abuse. And when sexual abuse is socially raised, it is in flash waves of hatred toward the 31% of strangers who sexually abuse - “Kill the pedophiles” the people cry, leaving their children home to a higher instance of forced incest; from siblings, cousins, uncles and step-parents (natural fathers are only 4% of reported incest cases).

I waited 20 years for anyone in the church I attended to say, to print, or to indicate in any way that those “Christian children precious in the eyes of God” shouldn’t be abused. Or that it happened. Or that it was bad. President Bush, riding on the shoulders of Christian is promoting abstinence and purity as the solution to all problems for teens. $3 billion this year from the US for abstinence and “Faith-based” AIDS programs. How much for, “Not getting raped at night by uncle”? We know that 66% of sexually abused prostitutes were abused by fathers, step-fathers or foster fathers. And we do human trials on prostitutes to see which ones die faster on different AIDS medications, or which trial groups infect faster. Disassociation isn’t just done by children being abused, it is also done by societies wanting to believe that prostitutes and abusers appear from nowhere at all.

“Talking about incest is a bigger taboo than incest itself” (Patricia D. McClendon) Isn’t that the truth? I talked to a doctor today about child abuse and incest and his comment on the US, “They don’t have any do they? Have they admitted it yet?” In his experience, people feel ashamed because they have reason to; if you say you were abused, people will pull away. There is something so scary about the idea that we will sacrifice children annually to live in a society that doesn’t have to face incest’s existence. There will be no “break the silence” school day for incest or child sexual abuse because no one wants to put on that t-shirt. I don’t. I do, but I'm too ashamed to.

Millions debate over whether a stripper has a right to say, “No means No” in a country that has Father-daughter purity balls where girls pledge their sexuality to their father to keep until handing over to her husband. The FCC and the Parents Television Council work to keep mention of teenage sex off the TV, Churches teach girls and boys that the worst thing they can be is not a virgin. Conservative groups work to keep gay-straight alliances out of schools on the premise that 14 year olds don’t need to know about sex. And already another two children have been sexually assaulted since you started this piece. There are no telethons, there are no national programs, no walk-a-thons, no “no-child-left behind” programs, no national fundraising or public sharing and awareness. RAINN (the Rape abuse and incest national network) operates a help-line and links and works largely alone: abused children aren’t like panda’s; they aren’t cute or cuddly, they aren’t going to be displayed in a white house photo shoot.

We don’t know what to say so we say nothing at all. That’s not good enough.

Show me a land of heroes. Find her.


kathz said...

I've occasionally come across survivors of this kind of abuse - people who were damaged as children who have become very brave survivors. I've no idea what the solution is. But I think it's probably necessary to realise, as a society, that there's a difference between experiencing sexual desire for children and abusing children to gratify that desire. I don't know what it's like in Canada but here in Britain the attitude of the press is such that I think it would be very hard for someone to acknowledge sexual desires for children. Yet we need to learn from people who have those desires and don't act on them - because they too may be heroes and because they might teach others how to behave. And we need to make it possible for potential abusers to seek help and be praised for seeking help. At the moment there's a danger of demonising victims here, because research suggests that a number of abusers were themselves victims - so people become afraid of the victims as well as the abusers.

I don't know the way out of it - and my only knowledge is based on the marginal experience of knowing people who have suffered. I'm sure you're right that silence is dangerous. It may also be necessary to listen to much that is disturbing and upsetting so that there's a chance of achieving both understanding and change.

You are possibly more knowledgable about this than I am so please forgive me if what I say seems wrong or superficial. As you say, it's the responsibility of society as a whole and I'm trying to think through the questions you raise.

The Watcher said...

I'm with ye, P.L.; tell me how we find her. I used t'be so angry that whenever I heard about sexual child abuse (incest), I would be so angry I could machine-gun any male within a 2 mile radius. Tell me how we find her.

elizabeth said...

I used to agree with the capt - but now I think LET THEM LIVE. Let us castrate them and stamp "predator" upon their forhead with a branding iron.

The punishment of these crimes - that can very possibly desroy a life - is a slap on the wrist. How do we change this. How do we stop this from going on?

kathz said...

I believe there's a scheme in Canada to stop child abusers by working with them intensively. It's called Circles of Accountability and involves volunteers. I don't think I could ever do anything like that because I'd be too angry with people who had abused children but early indications are that it's more successful that anything else that's been tried. The ideal would be for people to ask for this kind of help before abusing a child. It's easy to angry but the most important thing has to be to stop and prevent the pain.

web reference if anyone wants to know about circles of accountability in England - there's some links but it's pretty tough reading. In England it's been organised partly by Quakers but I don't know about the Canadian situation.

As I said, I'm not sure, but having known people affected by abuse I'm most concern to prevent it, so far as possible. And the complicated feelings kids can have towards their abusers may mean that the threat of really severe punishment of the abuser is a frightening prospect. Remember, these children are often made to believe that it's all their fault.

Mind you, my first impulse if anyone touched one of my kids wouldn't be as thoughtful as I would wish.

Sfrajett said...

I gotta blame the patriarchy on this one, especially since so many of these family incest cases are characterized by men who view the women in their family, including little girls, as their property to be used. I wish we would spend more money on social services and less money creating sex panics and offender lists that end up driving criminals underground and throwing gay teenagers in jail. Sigh.

Elizabeth McClung said...

While a significant number of males abused become abusers (and females too) a greater number don't, a greater number of abusers haven't been abused. I do think that acknowledging and dealing with the cycle is a start.

Japan just came out with it's results which are UP 23%. with Sibling incest in the North America 23% of male is same sex, 10% of female is same sex. The one type of incest no one talks about is mother/daughter.

I think a lot of the cure is simply a societal willingness to acknowledge it's existance and outcomes. For example daughters sexually abused by mothers are ignored even within the system because they attack the very ideas we have about what a mother is - often rationalizations occur where people have to make the mother the victim too in order to maintain a particular world view.

Lesbian communities, at least in my experience, do not like talking about it. If you google, "lesbian sexual abuse" you will find out why - most Christian Conservatives push the idea that lesbians exist due to child sexual abuse (though with lesbians being 10% of the population they ARE going to be at least 10% of lesbians abused) - so for a lesbian to talk about child abuse is seen as just giving ammo to the enemy.

To give you an idea of scope - in 1973 the number of rapes per 1000 people was 4.0 (4 per 1000 for that year). That decreased to .4-.3 today. Currently child sexual abuse is 11.0-21.0 per 1000. Far, far higher. Some communities, Asian-incest groups report a even higher percentage due to cultural protections.

Churches should be promoting abuse free families - see how awful that sounds - far nicer to promote fidelity and chastity. But it is noted that children in a conservative or authoritarian religious background are at a significantly higher risk of both recieving abuse without it being reported AND not getting the therapy needed after abuse has occured (the whole "God will heal you").

kathz said...

Thanks for really thoughtful comments. I think you're right that acknowledging what happens is the starting point and that idealised versions of the family and childhood are dangerous. I wonder if the idea of the perfect family and the perfect and innocent child makes child abuse (all kinds - not just sexual abuse) easier because other family members blame children for falling short of an impossible ideal (a bit like the way rapists sometimes blame their victims for having any sort of sexuality). Courts and the press can occasionally seem to criticise child victims and there's certainly a lot of criticism of children who don't conform. In Britain, in a different context, we sometimes have talk about "feral children" and there's a division of children (by the press and others) into good and bad, not unlike the virgin/whore division by which women were - and still are - sometimes judged. I'm not putting this very well - what I want to suggest is that society has a vision of childhood sweetness which doesn't acknowledge children's complex individuality. (It sounds as though Zed might be relevant in this regard but my copy isn't due from Amazon until the middle of July.) I'm struggling to think all this through but, as you suggest, this is the problem of society as a whole.

hazel said...

Hi Elizabeth, just crawled out of my rock for a bit of reading and found myself here, as usual.

This was a great entry. I too wait at the window at night listening for them... The kids who need to be protected.

Thank you for all the stats. They are aweful, but I'd rather know than not know.

Write on E. I love your blog and your writing voice.


Anonymous said...


Part of the problem, but the greater factor is part of the suite of behaviors required of agriculture.

The greatest problem?

The belief in durable proprietary monogamy is the ideal form for humans and the "nuclear family" that is the side effect of it.

See, the problem is that most people believe that humans are ideally paired for a lifetime based on "romantic love" and that they can and will be able to meet each other's emotional, sexual, and economic needs for the rest of their lives. This misshapen belief system--and religion--convinces people to forsake their families and try to make it on their own.

Problem is, realistically, men and women are very unlikely to completely meet each others' needs, especially when there is little social support for breaking off a dysfunctional relationship and trying to start a new one. Without the robust support of an extended support network of family and friends, people try to make do...

...but meet their missed needs in some fashion.

Another side affect of this belief system is the heteronormativity it endorces/forces on people who aren't quite built to be straight. Forced into the limited role available, they face either high levels of stress or trying to resolve the way they actually are in a non-supportive or unconventional manner.

If someone honestly wanted to fix this issue, they would junk the idea of the "nuclear family" and permanent monogamy. They would require women inclined to have children to be able to support them on their own or with their family without requiring or becoming dependent on the father. They would require or try to support the creation of "matrilines" or families based around female relatives and their decendents and siblings as a long term functional family. Men would not be required to either stay or support these though men welcomed by members of the matriline would be allowed to stay and offer support.

Additionally, support for non-reproducing family members (including homosexuals) is assumed.

Because of the lack of male responsibility in this changed society, men will be selected for behavioral traits desired by women and not because women need them to support them. Domestic violence in such a situation would likely become rare.

With a more robust and somewhat communal support situation, many of the reasons for allowing child abuse or incest to continue would be gone. Additionally, with more people seeing the kids day-to-day, abuse is much more likely to be noted, reported, and stopped.

In a way, it becomes more of a win-win situation for everyone...

...except those who dwell on patriarchy, monogamy zealots, and those religious nuts...