The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse alerted Australia to endemic child sexual abuse in institutions. As a community we were horrified, as survivor after survivor came forward and courageously spoke of their betrayal and often systematic violation within more than 4,000 of our mainstream institutions. Although it was substantial inquiry its terms of reference were restricted to institutional child sexual abuse alone.he reality is that majority of survivors were sexually abused by family members, friends and neighbours – and have largely been ignored. This needs to change.
In the last financial year, a majority (55%) of the more than 10,000 people supported by the Blue Knot Helpline reported that that their trauma occurred at home; 46% were harmed by parents and 6% by siblings. Almost all (96%) of child sexual abuse survivors stated that they knew their perpetrator at the time of the abuse. Of these, 70% of the perpetrators were immediate family members, 11% extended family and only 4% strangers.
Child sexual abuse is a crime. And it is common.
It is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power. The perpetrator often tricks the child into believing that the abuse is an act of love. This can be particularly challenging when a caregiver – on whom the child depends for care and nurture – is abusing them.
But a child is never to blame for being sexually abused. Many perpetrators groom their victims, and often the child’s family and community as well, often choosing a child who is especially vulnerable and for whom they have easy access. Threats, fear and manipulation are often used to silence the child and maintain secrecy. The child, and often the adult they become is left terrified, confused, helpless and powerless.
And that’s one of the challenges. We often do not see the compounded effects of child abuse until many years later, once the survivor has become an adult. Child sexual abuse can cause long-lasting impacts – some victims take their lives, many struggle with safety and self-esteem issues, and most experience deep shame and self-blame. They can become isolated and withdrawn and find it difficult to trust. Many survivors struggle to manage often strong emotions and can be readily triggered, reactivating prior trauma.
Others struggle with their relationships – including intimacy and are unable to complete their education or consistently hold down a job. Survivors often have poorer mental and physical health than others, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders or other mental health issues. Survivors often use different coping strategies to try and manage their distress such as substance misuse, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, avoidance and overworking. Many of these survival strategies can become less constructive over time and hurt not only survivors but their families and communities as well.
The good news is that, with the right support, people who have been sexually abused can and often do ‘recover.’ As the brain can change throughout life, we can now be optimistic about possibilities for recovery, honouring courage and holding a sense of hope and optimism. Just as children are abused in relationships of harm, so people can heal in relationships of support. As a community, we must provide supportive platforms for survivors to share their stories.
The Royal Commission showed us the importance for survivors of being listened to, heard, validated and believed. The same applies to survivors sexually abused in the home, family and neighbourhood. With lockdowns, social distancing, quarantine this year, and an increase in violence in the home, the demand for our Helpline service has increased by more than 60%.
As a society it is time for us to honour the experiences of all survivors of child sexual abuse and their strengths for having survived as well as to support them on their journey of recovery. There is no one way to heal from child sexual abuse, but it is very hard to heal from it alone. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support survivors to heal.