ON SEXUAL ABUSE

Temperature is relative. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ are entirely subjective qualities. If the difference between our body temperature and that of another substance is severe, we get burned.

On a psychological level, child sexual abuse is somewhat analogous. We live in a society where the overarching stigma attached to sex has significant impact on our psychological response to sexual crimes, along with serious, rarely acknowledged consequences for the victims.

Rape and other forms of sexual assault can be brutal and physically painful; it is important to realise that in some circumstances, they can be neutral or even pleasurable. Part of the grooming method of serial child sex offenders, for example, can be to make their victim complicit in their own abuse. This is not always the case: the ‘rape’ power initiative is a common motivation for many such acts; nevertheless, like most of us, many paedophiles prefer (perceived) mutual pleasure in sexual activity. This is why we have the concept of ‘age of consent’ (and corresponding existence of statutory rape in law): to prevent this kind of exploitation.

If, in some cases, victims can be willing or even active participants, the nature of the crime becomes more complex. This is where the ‘burning’ analogy becomes relevant: recipients of unforced sexual abuse are, by and large, purely psychological victims.

This is not to dismiss the damage involved; in fact, a case could be made that psychological sexual abuse carries far more long-term negative impacts than purely physical abuse ever could (taken in isolation of accompanying psychological impact). Trust, intimacy, self-esteem, and social as well as sexual functionality are often compromised by psychological abuse, and the degree to which this can occur can be devastating (with consequences ranging up to and including suicide).

This psychological damage is — as uncomfortable as it may be for us admit — entirely mediated by sociological circumstances. It is useful at this point for the reader to dispense with all preconceptions of natural and healthy behaviour, and temporarily take what might be described as a Cartesian approach to these matters: that is, that we know nothing unequivocally, and thus, must assume nothing without sufficient proof. As elementary as it may seem to most rational people, we must ask ourselves: why is it this particular action, sexual contact with minors, that produces harmful consequences?

There are several obvious answers. Firstly, child sex abuse subverts the adult/child dynamic. The association of intimacy with sexual contact has profound consequences for current and future intimate relationships. Non-sexual intimacy is a crucial experience in childhood as well as adulthood; and, just as deprivation of this (particularly in formative stages) can lead to various emotional dysfunctions, the premature introduction of sexual contact into the realm of intimacy can have similarly negative effects. Likewise, it displaces the normal development of sexuality that occurs during puberty — it can be argued that prepubescent children are simply insufficiently intellectually formed to be able to cope with sexual interaction.

Although these are serious and substantial problems that carry far-ranging consequences (including, potentially, a sexual abuse domino effect; future distant parenting; and so on), they fail to, on their own, adequately explain the shame and guilt often felt by victims of sexual abuse — that which is the primary factor in resulting depression, self-harm, or suicide.

This aspect is, essentially, a social construct. It is not hard-wired into us to have negative feelings about physically pleasurable or neutral experiences such as sexual activity (in cases where physical pain or discomfort are not involved); it is a learned response.

It could, perhaps, be argued that sexual guilt serves some positive purposes: to protect monogamy and the family unit, perhaps; and, even, in cases where normal suppression is absent, to prevent incestuous activity. Otherwise, it is a throwback to the sexual repression of religious societies, and, in 21st century Australia, this kind of guilt is still very much rife. In media, sex-related stories are particularly salacious, with news organisations catering to our voyeurism and fascination with sexual matters. In the less reputable organisations, even rape stories are presented with titillating headlines. Likewise, abnormal and perverse sexual behaviours are presented in a similar fashion.

It is not widely admitted, but much of media and wider social treatment of paedophilia focuses primarily on the abnormality of the offenders’ sexual urges as opposed to the harm caused to victims. Much of the vilification leveled at pederasts carries uncomfortable similarities to the homophobic rhetoric of a recent era. What this seems to suggest is that a significant proportion of responses to paedophilia are at least infused with — if not primarily generated by — a culture of sexual discomfort and displacement of sexual shame onto ‘perverts’. The fact that paedophilia causes such damage only serves to validate these responses in the minds of the majority.

The most obvious negative consequence of this tendency is that it stigmatises the victims, too. Sexual shame is a far, far bigger phenomenon than paedophile hysteria alone, but these responses (particularly when validated by the media) actively foster the guilt that, far too often, destroys victims’ lives.

This is not to remove the responsibility from child sex offenders. Shame or no shame, child sex abuse causes significant, far-reaching problems. Although a program of treatment and open discourse would be far more useful and progressive than the current paradigm, it is imperative that child sex abuse is prevented in any way possible. It is important to realise, however, that there will always be victims. We cannot catch or treat every sex offender, and neither can the phenomenon be comprehensively erased from existence. What we can do, however, is alter the way sex as a whole is perceived and discussed in society. That, too, is crucial.