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Opinion: Are we continuing to avert our eyes from sexual abuse?

Despite our moral outage to reports of abuse, one in five women and one in six men still experience some level of sexual abuse during childhood.

Patrick Ryan

IN IRELAND, approximately one in five women and one in six men report having experienced some level of sexual abuse involving direct contact during childhood. According to the 2012 Women’s Aid annual report, reports of all types of child abuse are increasing.

While there has been much research on various aspects of sexual offending and the reasons why offenders abuse children, most of this research is focused on the characteristics of offenders themselves. There has been much less research on the wider context within which the offender abuses children and, in particular, on the question of how the general public understands or makes sense of the blight of sexual abuse in society.

In Ireland in particular, the overwhelming questions remains as to if sexual abuse is an endemic part of our cultural make-up. Whilst this may be seen as an unsavoury notion, we have to question how it is that after so many reports, investigations and scandals, it seems that we are not making in-roads into whatever it is that underlies the impulse to abuse.

Why is more not done to prevent sexual abuse? 

How do we live with the fact that abuse rates mean that, like alcohol and mental health difficulties, sexual abuse has touched all of our families to some degree or other? Could it be that as a nation we are comfortable with maintaining a sexual abuse culture in the same way as we maintain an alcohol abuse culture, a domestic violence culture, a homelessness culture?

Could it be that our indignation and sense of outrage at sexual abuse is simply a veil that covers an underlying acceptance of it as ‘part of who we are’? Or could it be that there are so many of us who have experienced sexual abuse personally or indirectly, that we simply don’t know what to do to prevent it – we are frozen into fear and inaction by our own story?

A tradition of silence 

It is especially important to explore these questions in an Irish context – Ireland has traditionally been a place where topics such as abuse were not spoken of until the mid-1990s when a number of high profile cases of institutional child abuse helped to break the silence within society. However, the increased public awareness of CSA does not appear to have impacted significantly enough on the rates of abuse in Ireland; in 2012 there was a 55% increase compared to 2011 of disclosures of emotional/physical or sexual abuse of children by callers to Women’s Aid National Helpline.

We need to explore the reasons why CSA persists, despite increased public awareness of possible dangers within society. That exploration needs to be across all groups in society so that as comprehensive a picture as possible can help to influence policy and strategy designed to improve prevention. That exploration needs to be honest, open and capable of hearing unpalatable possibilities. Without such an approach, we will continue to live with the hypocrisy of moral outrage and frightening statistics co-existing side by side. Child sexual abuse is a complex issue but at its heart is a simple lesson – when there is a will to confront the crisis, as we have seen by survivors of abuse, good wins out.

What it is that maintains sexual abuse?

A study being carried out by psychologists at the University of Limerick hopes to elicit opinions from across Irish society on what it is that maintains sexual abuse as part of who we are. The first phase of the study has commenced and is seeking out the opinions of 18 to 25 year olds through an online blog. The study is open to all young adults whether they have been affected by sexual abuse or not, as the researchers want to generate as much discussion as possible to understand the views of the general public with regard to why sexual abuse seems to be such an engrained part of the fabric of Irish society.

In this first phase, researchers are seeking to hear the views of young adults who, by virtue of their age, have grown up during a time of unprecedented public reporting and discussion of sexual abuse in Ireland. Their views are being actively sought now through this link.

Dr Patrick Ryan, Head of Psychology, University of Limerick. 

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About the author:

Patrick Ryan

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