Commentary: Why child sexual abuse can often be a sustained, hushed up ordeal over many years
It is not enough to increase jail time for those who sexually abuse children. Comprehensive understanding and education is needed to deal with this very complex issue, says AWARE’s Shailey Hingorani.
SINGAPORE: Recently, a man was sentenced to 33 years’ jail for raping or sexually abusing all three of his daughters over 14 years.
Beyond the shock at the ghastliness of his crimes, observers have been aghast at the prolonged nature of the sexual abuse. How was it possible for a man to carry on the abuse for more than a decade without being found out?
It is horrifying to think that child sexual abuse can be so protracted, but many other cases have demonstrated that it can be drawn out over many years.
Earlier this year, a bus driver was sentenced to nine years for molesting his stepdaughter over more than 20 years. In another case in November 2020, a freelance cameraman was convicted for sexually abusing his girlfriend’s two underage daughters over six years.
Disclosing or detecting abuse is a critical first step that allows intervention and provides victims with supportive and therapeutic resources. Those resources can mitigate negative long-term consequences after the fact.
But a complex interplay of familial, cultural and societal factors make it difficult for children to even disclose abuse, and for parents and caregivers to uncover such wrongdoing.
WHY DO CHILDREN FIND IT DIFFICULT TO DISCLOSE ABUSE?
Disclosure - when a survivor tells another person that he or she has been sexually abused - can be a confusing, difficult process for adults, and even more so for children.
A 2009 retrospective survey of 804 Canadian adults abused as children found that while one in five reported the abuse within a month, three in five delayed disclosure for five years or longer, and the remaining one-fifth had never disclosed the abuse.
In the absence of comprehensive sexuality education, a child may not recognise the abuse for what it is. Experts say children become confused if they experienced physical pleasure, arousal or even emotional intimacy during the abuse. This may deter them from speaking up.
In fact, such confusion is often deliberately sown by paedophiles, through a concerted process known as sexual grooming.
This process may include the paedophile establishing trust with the child and paying special attention with sweet words and gifts, before escalating his actions to exposing the child to pornography, his own genitals, and other forms of sexual abuse.
Celestine Tan, a teenage girl who was groomed online at 13, told CNA in an interview that the paedophile who targeted her had made her feel understood.
Manipulation can also be part of a sexual predator’s toolkit. The abusive adult may convince the child that they won’t be believed, or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it. While not always rational, for children, these threats can feel very real.
Research with adult survivors has found that even with disclosure in childhood, listeners often respond by blaming the child or downplaying the abuse. Disbelief can let abuse persist despite disclosure.
Sometimes, a child cares for the person who sexually abuses them, and worries about losing that person if they report the abuse.
In November 2020, a court in Singapore heard that in a case of child sexual abuse, the male perpetrator impressed upon his daughter that she would lose a father if anyone learnt of their sexual activities. This fear made her resigned to her situation.
Children may also hold back from revealing abuse in order to protect their non-abusive family members from distress. At AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), it’s not uncommon for our adult clients to tell us that they did not disclose the abuse they experienced as children because they didn’t want to upset their mothers.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER ADULTS IN THE HOME?
Myths about how child sexual abusers look and behave often serve to protect perpetrators, who frequently tend to be family members or someone known to the child.
Family members and friends themselves may find it incomprehensible that someone they know, trust and even love would do such things.
So even when a child expresses fear of spending time with a particular relative, the myth of “stranger danger” — that children are more likely to be abused by strangers — makes it hard for parents to consider the possibility that the relative might be a perpetrator.
Parents might not know what signs to look out for in the first place. Angry outbursts or withdrawn behaviour – common reactions to sexual abuse - may be dismissed as a child being deliberately difficult, or typical teenage angst.
Not all children who experience sexual abuse show behavioural and emotional changes. Detection, therefore, cannot be the only strategy parents rely on. They must focus on prevention and communication too.
WHY COMPREHENSIVE SEX EDUCATION MATTERS
There are steps we can take to reduce the prevalence of child sexual abuse.
It is critically important that we educate children that their bodies belong to them, and that they should disclose abuse to safe and trusted adults.
An AWARE-BlackBox survey of 564 parents in 2020 found that only half of them were comfortable talking to their kids about sexuality education. However, as primary providers of sexuality education in Singapore, parents must learn to talk to their children comfortably and confidently about sexual health, intimate relationships and sex.
Educators – including teachers, school counsellors, administrators and school personnel – who may spend a lot of time around students too can play an important role in timely detection of child sexual abuse.
They should be trained to detect physical signs and behavioural indicators of abuse.
We need to remember that signs of abuse are not always obvious. Sometimes it can just be a “gut feeling” that something is wrong. We must considerately investigate that feeling and remain sensitive to the range of behaviours exhibited by children so that quick action can be taken.
Sexuality education programmes need to move away from being heavily focused on abstinence, and instead teach children about physical safety, consent and the right to make decisions about their bodies.
Based on scientific evidence, UNESCO recommends that parents start talking about sexuality to their children early and casually. This way, they can avoid “the talk”, i.e. the dreaded, awkward tell-all discussion when children reach adolescence.
By then, children may have already received (incorrect) information and, in the absence of ongoing conversations about sexuality, might not be receptive to what their parents have to say.
If parents allow for an open channel of communication, children won’t feel embarrassed talking to them about their bodies and perhaps disclosing abuse. Since 2019, AWARE has been running sex education workshops targeted at parents, during which we teach parents how to gently broach sensitive topics with their kids.
Such conversations can start small. For example, toddlers are naturally curious about their bodies. Parents could use this curiosity in everyday settings, such as bathtime, to tell them that their bodies are theirs and that they deserve privacy.
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Building on this knowledge, preschoolers should learn that they need a person’s consent before touching them, and that others can touch them in some, but not in other, ways.
One thing to note is that many parents use the phrases “good touch” and “bad touch”, but this might create confusion for children if they involuntarily feel good when someone is touching them. It’s more appropriate for parents to use terms like “safe”, “unsafe” or “confusing touch”.
UNESCO also recommends imparting both knowledge and skill. It’s not enough for preschoolers to be able to distinguish between safe and unsafe situations - they should also be taught what to do when they experience unsafe touch.
Recently, the government has enhanced penalties for child sexual abuse. For certain offences, including sexual exposure, where the victims are under 14, the usual maximum penalties can be doubled.
However, harsher penalties may have the unintended consequence of deterring a child victim from disclosing abuse.
While the law focuses on abusers, other agencies can focus on first educating our children from as early as possible and then increasing victim support. Disclosure and recovery might prevent any child from being sexually abused for years unabated.
Shailey Hingorani is head of research and advocacy at AWARE.