The crime of child sexual abuse has been denied, marginalised and “discovered and rediscovered” at various stages throughout Australia’s history, a new report says.
The report, commissioned by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, found broader social awareness of child sexual abuse emerged in the 1960s because of the efforts of feminist groups.
Prior to women’s rights advocates challenging government responses to sexual violence, psychoanalysts and other theorists downplayed the significance of sexual abuse on children and officials downplayed its prevalence and impact.
Between the late 1800s and 1960s “child sexual abuse was denied or minimised by academics, psychoanalysts and the broader community as the fantasies of disturbed individuals or the result of sexually promiscuous or aggressive children,” the report said.
The report, prepared by the Australian Institute of Criminology, found that the greatest period of reform in Australia’s child abuse laws occurred after the 1970s.
“Feminist groups contradicted historical understandings of child sexual abuse as infrequent acts perpetrated by sexual deviants,” the report said.
“These groups sought to raise awareness and understanding of sexual violence, and were openly critical of government and criminal justice system responses to victims of violence.”
Prior to the late 1800s, the report found, only a small number of offences criminalised sexual contact between children – then defined as under 10 or 13 years of age – and adults.
Attitudes to child sexual abuse have evolved considerably in the past century.
Child protection laws began not as government initiatives but as a result of social pressure and campaigns by activists.
One influential event, the report said, was the case of “Mary Ellen”, who was found badly beaten in her home in New York in 1873.
Police were unable to intervene and the social worker involved sought help from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which succeeded in court in getting Mary Ellen removed from her abusive mother and in having her mother charged with assault.
“As an issue of social and political importance, child sexual abuse has been, at various stages throughout Australia’s history, marginalised, denied, `discovered’ and `rediscovered’,” the report says.
Royal Commission chief executive officer Philip Reed said the report, and a second one looking at the development of relevant legislation, would assist the commission and other organisations working in the area of child sexual abuse.
“Both of these reports will contribute to the Royal Commission’s understanding of the historical context of child sexual abuse in Australia and the development of relevant legislation,” Mr Reed said.