South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Controversies

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There are inherent risks involved in discussing child sexual abuse by female perpetrators. Acknowledging abuse by women may be used as all excuse to deny the gender bias in sexual abuse (Forbes 1992-93). Critics of the organisers of the National Conference on Female Sexual Abuse held in London in March 1992 were concerned that the debates would serve to turn the clock back to the time when professional literature on child sexual abuse looked only at individualistic and unthreatening theories of the causes of abuse. This psychiatric, psychological and family dysfunction literature either ignored the preponderance of male abusers, or sought to argue that the evidence was coincidental, inaccurate or incomplete. We are reminded that it was not until feminists forced the issue of male power into the analysis of child sexual abuse that the central significance of gender was gradually acknowledged (Kelly 1988-89).

Thus, there is concern that any attempt to remove the spotlight from male abuse serves the political ends of providing fodder for what 'many policy makers, professionals, researchers and journalists urgently want to hear and believe' (Nelson 1992), Critics view any emphasis on female abusers as part of the effort to revert to a gender-neutral theory and practice of child sexual abuse (Forbes 1992-93) and a clumsy effort to reemphasise mother blame and collusion. Media coverage of the London conference which referred to the so-called 'discovery' of sexual abuse by women as the 'tip of the iceberg' was extensive (Heath 1992., Laurance 1992; Marchant 1992:D Nelson 1992; Nelson and Oxford 1992: Sharpe 1992).

In this respect, fears that a broad discussion of sexual abuse by women will be used to deflect attention from the abuse of power by men are well-grounded.

In response, those who argue that attention must be focused on patriarchy are accused of not being willing to hear the truth, and of distorting evidence to support ideology (Forbes 1992-93). As a counter offensive, the political credentials of those who urge that sexual abuse by women be placed on the political agenda are challenged. Further, there is the question of why any attention should be paid to the small minority of female abusers, when resources must urgently be focused on the victims of childhood sexual abuse 95 per cent of which is perpetrated by men.

I acknowledge these controversies and conflicts and have seen the debilitating effects of such polarisation on children's services, women's groups and adult survivors of sexual abuse. The National Conference on Female Sexual Abuse resulted in an almost complete breakdown in communication between research, training and service organisations which call themselves feminist and other service providers who are speaking out on female sexual abusers.

To date in Australia we have managed to explore this issue without the same degree of divisiveness. The challenge to focus our energies on effective analysis, intervention in and prevention of child sexual abuse remains.

 


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