Womens Support Project

An exploratory study of links between child sexual abuse and domestic violence in a sample of intrafamilial child sexual abuse cases 1996

To download this study click here [pdf 348kb]

Child sexual abuse is not a new problem but it has been given a particularly high profile in the past decade. Adult survivors have helped
raise public awareness about the extent and dynamics of sexual abuse by courageously talking about their personal childhood experiences.
However, the true extent of child sexual abuse is still not known.  Furthermore, we do not know the true `dynamics` of how children are silenced and distanced from sources of help.

Explanations about child sexual abuse are varied. The two main theoretical perspectives informing literature and practice are a family dysfunction/psychoanalytical model and a feminist perspective. The family dysfunction model tends to place causality as circular. It states that responsibility for the abuse is shared amongst family members and that the abuse has happened because of family dysfunction. A feminist perspective sees the family as dysfunctional because of the abuse and sees abuse as part of a spectrum of male violence and dominance.

Within both perspectives, there is discussion about the role of the mother in child sexual abuse. There has been much debate about this area amongst survivors, helpers, academics and the media. The literature is often critical of mothers and this influences professional practice and
responses. The mother blaming in this literature has been well documented in the feminist work of Macleod and Saraga, Nelson, Hooper, Lloyd and Hall (1).

Discovering that your child has been sexually abused by your partner raises many complex issues. Reactions from women are as varied as the
many agencies the family has contact with following discovery. However, contrary to the myths existing about mother`s reactions, the majority of
women support their child, in spite of their lives having been challenged and radically changed (2). It was my contact as a social work practitioner
with women whose children had been sexually abused that led to my interest in a study exploring the dynamics of child sexual abuse, with a central focus being the woman`s relationship with the abusive man.

This study was therefore undertaken to look further at the dynamics within the family where a child has suffered sexual abuse, to ascertain whether domestic violence was a feature, that is whether the child`s mother was being abused by the man who abused the child. As it emerged that domestic violence was a feature in the lives of all twenty women who were interviewed, I have tried to gain insight into the links and effects on women and children when domestic violence and child sexual abuse co-exist. Before moving on to discuss the findings of the present study, I would like to refer to some previous research studies on which I have drawn.

We have learned from this present study and from child sexual abuse prevalence studies (referred to later) that the abuse of women and children is far greater than recorded incidents (3). Yet, `prevalence` varies according to definitions within the studies and may minimise the extent of abuse. Another factor which affects statistics is that legal definitions of child sexual abuse and domestic violence do not always reflect the child and woman`s experience.

For example, with regard to child sexual abuse, non physical sexual abuse may affect a child`s life. An example of this was highlighted in the Women`s Support Project`s survey on violence against women (4). A woman described that as an adolescent her father told her he wanted to have sex with her. He never ever did, but the fear was always there that he might. This was a betrayal of trust and changed her relationship with him completely.

The most recent study in Britain into the prevalence of sexual abuse in a sample of 16 - 21 year olds found that 1 in 2 girls and 1 in 4 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before their eighteenth birthday. Only 5% of 1,051 incidents were ever reported to any agency and only
10 resulted in any form of prosecution. Additional information highlighted by the research was that 95% of abusers were male in the adult abusers
category and 85% in the peer group and that in the majority of cases the abuser was known to the child (5).

By the very definition of domestic violence it is men known to women who are the perpetrators. Another similarity to child sexual abuse is that men abuse women and children across all classes and cultures. Like child sexual abuse, legal definitions of violence often do not reflect women`s
experience. For example women are emotionally and, or, mentally abused by partners and this could involve constantly being belittled, humiliated,
insulted, and could involve threats. However, such behaviour is often not considered a crime.

Again, the true extent is not known. `Domestic` violence does not appear as a distinct category in criminal records or statistics. In the Dobashes study into `Violence Against Wives` they found that 26% of violent crime reported to the police in Scotland, involved violence against women from
their partners (6).

The fact is that most women do not report such violence and for the women who do report most do not report the first time that violence is used, nor do they report every time. In many cases, if a charge is made, it does not reflect the reality and terror of the situation. For example shouting, threats, breaking up furniture, incidents that place women in real fear of their lives, may be classified as `breach of the peace`. When Scottish Women`s Aid carried out a survey of women in refuge they found that only 2% of the assaults which the women had suffered had been recorded by the police (7).

A great deal of the literature on male violence discusses the areas of male violence separately such as domestic violence, rape and sexual assault,
child sexual abuse, pornography and sexual harassment. Yet women often experience all of these forms of violence. If they do not actually experience the abuse personally, fear exists as a result of other women`s experience. This has a controlling effect on women, curtailing their
freedom, adding undue stress to their lives and affecting their confidence.

Dr Liz Kelly makes links between the different forms of violence suffered by women and children in her book `Surviving Sexual Violence`. She
stresses that most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives; that there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as
abusive; and that sexual violence occurs in the context of men`s power and women`s resistance (8) - see also Appendix One).

The study on which this report is based, was funded by the Scottish Office and was carried out as part of the work of the Women`s Support
Project which is a voluntary organisation based in the East End of Glasgow. The Project aims to raise awareness about the nature and extent
of violence suffered by women and children such as domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, and child sexual abuse, and tries to ensure an
improved and consistent service. This is done through information, advice and support, groupwork, development, research and education
work, and this is directed at both women and workers (Appendix 2). The study examines the prevalence of domestic violence in cases of
intrafamilial child sexual abuse. Twenty women, from the Strathclyde area of Scotland, whose children had been sexually abused were interviewed. The alleged abuser was the woman`s partner. The interviews took place during 1991/92.

The aim was to look at whether the woman had suffered domestic violence from the child`s abuser and if this was the case, to explore links
between domestic violence and child sexual abuse. This was with a view to understanding more about the dynamics of child sexual abuse, to
examine how this affects responses to abused women and children and to look at suggestions for practice.

To download this study click here (Format: PDF, Size: 348kb)

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