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"Nobody wants to be here," says Michael Keane, a social worker at the Gatehouse Centre. In the quiet room in Melbourne's inner north, there are colour pencils, paper, and a small wooden doll's house with furniture and figurines. It could be a well-stocked waiting area or a creche. But the Gatehouse Clinic at the Royal Children's Hospital is actually where young people aged between three and 17 years old are brought because they have sexually abused another child.
"Silence is often what you encounter when they first come in," Keane says. "There's a real reluctance to talk. They're often restless... or embarrassed."
In 2015-16, about 300 young people—overwhelmingly boys—came here for intensive treatment designed to prevent them from sexually abusing a child again, and getting caught up in the justice system. "One of the hardest things is to get young people to acknowledge what they've done, and that it's wrong," Keane says. "They'll almost always start by denying it or minimising it."
So, what defines child-on-child sexual abuse? "Children are curious about bodies and how bodies work, so there may be games… [but] concerning behaviour is marked by aggression or persistence," says Keane. "Particularly if another child protested against them, or adults have said something [but] the child continues. Preoccupation that goes beyond curiosity."
Sexual abuse committed by children remains a social taboo—poorly understood, rarely spoken of, and barely acknowledged by wider society. It's happening though, and far more frequently than most realise. In fact, according to Dr Ian Nisbet of the Australian Psychology Society, up to 40 percent of all cases of child sexual abuse are committed by other children. Many cases go either unreported to the police. Even fewer make their way to the media, so numbers are hard to come by.
"It's not something people can talk about easily because there's a lot of shame associated with it and [there is] a lot of grooming involved of the victims," says Dr Gemma McKibbin from the University of Melbourne, who has a PhD on the topic of child sexual abuse. "What has stopped this being identified earlier is the notion that children are somehow asexual and innocent, so they're constructed in those terms… That makes it very difficult to talk about. It takes an average of 25 years for someone to disclose child sexual abuse."
Like adult perpetrators, the overwhelming majority of child sex offenders are male—up to 95 percent—although there are a small number of girls, according to Dr McKibbin. In terms of victims, two-thirds are young girls. "Victims tend to be selected on who is the most accessible. So sibling sexual abuse is significant—about 40 percent," Dr McKibbin adds. "And then you tend to find victims section going to neighbours, a kid at school, a family friend, so that's cousins and the like. It really happens in relation to opportunity."
McKibbin says the few female child offenders tend to be intellectually disabled, which contributes another layer of complexity.
"One girl in particular couldn't understand. She was abusing a young neighbour and was charged through the court process, [but] the charges were dropped because she didn't actually understand what had happened and what she had done." Female offenders are also more likely to have grown up with a "cocktail" of disadvantage such as abuse and poverty.
What triggers this behaviour has been the focus of experts such as Dr McKibbin since the 1970s. She says sexual attraction is very unlikely to be a cause of one child sexually abusing another. Instead, her research suggests the primary causes are access to hardcore pornography, sexual abuse committed against the offender, domestic abuse in the household, and a sense of power.
Numerous studies have confirmed the link between hardcore pornography and abuse. McKibbin says some perpetrators are recreating scenes they've watched, or are trying to educate themselves about sex. According to a 2011 AU Kids online study, 44 percent of children aged nine to 16 have seen sexual images in the past 12 months.
"The access that young people have to pornography, as well as our collective turning a blind eye, is akin to a kind of cultural grooming of children," McKibbin says. "For one of the young people [I interviewed], he did feel that what he had done was partly about power. He had a feeling of power in carrying out that behaviour against his sister. That sense of power had come through watching violent pornography."
One of the most complex aspects of child-on-child sexual abuse is that it doesn't fit cleanly into a "victim" and "perpetrator" narrative—because the perpetrators are likely victims too. The biggest research project in the UK on child sexual abusers revealed that 50 percent had been sexually abused themselves. Indeed, McKibbin's research revealed that young offenders are often raised in households in which physical and emotional abuse had either been committed against the child sexual offender themselves, or against another family member and witnessed by the child.
"One young man I spoke to had sexually abused his little brother, probably when he was about 13 and the little brother was about five," McKibbin says. "He made a conscious decision to abuse his brother, because he was abused himself by an older boy when he was in Year Two. He was so confused by what had happened. He said he dwelled on it for two or three years and eventually made this decision to act out the abuse to try to understand what his abuser was thinking at the time." McKibbin also discovered that, in some sibling cases, the parents of both offender and victim have favoured one child over the other, and that motivated the young offender to "punish" their sibling.
Experts such as McKibbin and Keane prefer to call the problem of child-on-child sexual abuse "harmful sexual behaviour," as it's less stigmatising.
Removing that stigma is a significant part of the current work going into understanding and responding to young offenders. There's also a strong emphasis on trying to avoid young offenders ending up in youth detention, and instead trying to rehabilitate them. In the UK, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry—led by children's charity Barnardo's and Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani—recommended an overhaul of the current approach to young sex offenders, stressing that they should be "treated as children first and offenders second."
In Australia, places like the Gatehouse Centre work with their young clients for about one year. The children undergo intense therapy and re-offending rates are very low—about two percent, Keane says. In therapy, "We talk about what sort of person they want to be when they grow older," he explains, "do they want to live a life that causes trouble for people?"
Victims are often left with feelings of shame and confusion. If their abuser was a sibling, a fractured sense of trust and family. Because almost half of all child sexual offenders abuse their own siblings, trying to recreate a sense of family normalcy is almost impossible. "The whole family will need counselling and it's really distressing. That's partially why the abuse is often kept secret," Dr McKibbin says. "Often in these cases, the relationships are irreparable."
She recalls one boy who abused his niece. "I think he was 11 and the niece was three or four, and that happened at home while there were adults around. The relationships with his sisters, one of whom is the girl's mother, have been irreparably damaged."
While there is still much to be discovered about why some children sexually abuse other children and the impact this has on victims, experts are united on what needs to be done to lift the veil on this problem: better sex education. McKibbin says that primary school students should be taught "age appropriate" sex education to make children more aware of potential dangers from other children.
Professor Simon Hackett, a professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University who specialises in child protection and child maltreatment, says that the current avoidance is highly damaging. "The lack of public knowledge around this [issue] promotes a distorted and stereotypical view of child sexual abuse," he says. "This can often lead to the overplay of some risks—such as 'stranger danger'—while underplaying others."
McKibbin says raising awareness of the fact children do sexually abuse other children, and that it is not a rare occurrence, is essential to helping both victims and offenders. "It's not always the stranger in the street you need to worry about," she cautions. "It could be your children's friends."