How children meet abusers

Most people think child abuse is wrong. We are horrified by it, instinctively revolted. Because of this we find it easier to think that the people abusing children are different from us in some way; a different class, race or ethnicity, followers of another religion or belief. As Lewis Coser argued back in 1969 we tend to see the world as ‘us’ (our community’ and ‘them’ (everyone else). The problem is that we find it much easier to blame ‘them’ than ‘us.’

However, when you ask people who have been abused they overwhelming report that the person or people who abused them was very close to their family, often in their family. Research suggests that the majority are often acquaintances, although familial abuse is also a very large percentage. However, most studies agree than strangers are the perpetrators only in a small minority of cases.

In my research 89 (49%) of respondents experienced familial abuse, 75 (42%) acquaintance and 16 (9%) abuse by strangers. For people who described their abusers as acquaintances the majority met them through their family, followed by neighbours, education and religion.

Thus, from the responses, which agrees with other research, it appears that perpetrators are not different; they are people integral to our community life. They are very likely to be known and, potentially, respected by the family. The relationship of perpetrator to victim is important, because abuse by trusted perpetrators has been demonstrated to be associated with more severe mental health symptoms. It can also affect how families respond to finding out about the abuse.

The media focusses on stories that are unusual, not the every day horror that occurs in family homes around the world. I am glad that people are, in the main, against abuse but I would suggest that focussing on the unusual, or the clearly not true, means that we ignore or are blinded to the abuse occurring in our street. It’s easier to believe that ‘other people’ abuse children rather than our friends or relatives but the evidence suggests the opposite.

Check out my research results page for more.

References and Credits:

Coser, L. A. (1969) ‘The Visibility of Evil’, Journal of Social Issues, 25(1), pp. 101–109.

Image: Frank B. Mason and Family on the Beach, Edward Joseph Head (1863–1937). Photo credit: Tenby Museum & Art Gallery.

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