Australia is having a Royal Commission to look at child abuse in institutional settings, and it's come up with a whole lot of nasty stuff that's gone on for decades in churches, schools, orphanages and other places where men can prey on kids. However, two thirds of child abuse won't be looked at by the Commission because it happens to kids at home.
It's difficult to find reliable statistics that show just how prevalent child sexual abuse is because it's often not reported. However, from what statistics are available, it's possible to see some trends.
The ABS estimates that in Australia 12 percent of women and 4.5 percent of men have been or will be abused before they reach 15. In other words, 72 percent of child sexual abuse happens to girls. Girls are most likely to be abused by a relative or their father, and are unlikely to be abused by a stranger. Boys are most likely to be abused by someone they know, like a teacher or priest, or a stranger, and are unlikely to be abused by their father or stepfather.
Of the 5,591 cases reported in 2008-9, 4025 of the victims were most probably girls. 83 percent of the abuse inflicted on girls happens at home, by their father, a relative or a family friend. This means that 3,341 of those cases most probably happened at home.
The available statistics suggest therefore that almost two thirds—59 percent—of child abuse each year happens to girls at home.
Boys are more likely to be abused in institutional settings than girls, and this is what the Royal Commission will look at. Of course, girls are also abused in institutions, and the Royal Commission will examine this. Boys are also abused at home, but it happens much less often.
These are just the available statistics based on actual reports—the real numbers are probably much higher, but the trend is clear.
Who does this to kids, and why? It's tempting to blame pedophile priests for the damage done, but statistics tell a different story. The majority of abuse is not perpetrated by pedophiles, but rather opportunistic men.
Research from 2001 in Australia shows that child sex offenders are far more likely to be simply sex offenders—men who take advantage of opportunities to exploit whoever they can. 60 percent of men locked up for child sex offences had previously abused an adult, while a quarter had previously abused a child. 94 percent of those locked up were there for abusing either their own child or someone they knew well. They generally don't fit the stereotypes we have about pedophiles: they are unlikely to look at child porn, they don't network with other offenders—it's not something that dominates their life. While 50-70 percent of pedophiles show signs of other disorders like sadism or exhibitionism, only 10 percent of those locked up for child sex offences had these disorders. Some of the offenders are pedophiles, but they're a minority. What's more, there's a significant number of people who are attracted to children, but don't do anything about it.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the book doctors use to diagnose illnesses, including mental disorders. In its most recent edition it made a few changes around pedophilia. Previously, it has been classified as a disorder where you're attracted to children under 13. In the newest edition, people are only classified as having a mental disorder if they actually act out on their desires. Perving on little kids and thinking about them is creepy, but it doesn't make you a pedophile anymore. By definition, pedophiles are sex offenders.
Why do they do it? In the case of pedophiles, they have a disorder. But for the regular men who are out there abusing kids, it's unclear.
It's sometimes said that abusers are only acting out what happened to them as children, that it's learned behaviour. If that were the case, why aren't 72 percent of sex offenders women? In fact women make up far less than one percent of all abusers, and in most reported cases a woman is only involved when she's in an abusive relationship with a man who is the primary abuser.
For women, the abuse doesn't stop once they become an adult. Overwhelmingly, sex offenders choose adult women. Most people who are sexually abused in Australia are women over 17. In the case of churches, 95 percent of those abused are adult women according to a US study.
There are a lot of other factors to consider when looking at child abuse—for starters, there are huge differences in the suffering people experience. Do kids suffer more if their abuser is a family member, or a teacher, or a priest?
Hopefully the Royal Commission can uncover just why men do this to kids so that it becomes harder for them to abuse women and children in all institutions, including the family.
Follow Carly on Twitter: @carlylearson
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