British Report Stirs Up Debate About Sexual Abuse
LONDON, 22 DEC. 2000 (ZENIT.org).
A widely publicized recent study on sexual child abuse only helped to
feed media misconceptions about the dangers of family life for
youngsters, the Sunday Times reported.
Media reports of the findings by the National Society for the Prevention
of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) generally gave the impression that
families were the main culprits in the area of sexual abuse.
Picking up this portrayal was BBC2’s "Newsnight," which
devoted an entire program to a horrific case of alleged systematic
sexual abuse that went on for years. The program’s message, noted the
Sunday Times, was that sexual child abuse is widespread within families
and that parents are the chief villains.
Yet the facts are rather different, demonstrated not least by the NSPCC’s
own report based on information from just under 3,000 young adults,
according to the Sunday Times. Even the NSPCC was taken aback by the way
its statistics were distorted by the media.
The charity, in fact, found that child sexual abuse takes place within
4% of families, a lamentable statistic in itself, but hardly one that
proves an epidemic in traditional households. About 1% of children are
abused by a parent, the NSPCC said. The rest of these are abused by
other relatives, with brothers or stepbrothers by far the largest
Significantly, the researchers estimate that about 13-14% of sexual
abuse involves non-relatives—which is to say,
people outside the family.
So the NSPCC’s research destroyed some potent myths about child abuse,
the Sunday Times said. But the stereotype of sexual abuse of children
hidden within the family has become deeply embedded in the public
consciousness in Britain, the newspaper observed.
Some commentators, for instance, give the impression that the
traditional family is a dangerous place for a child to be. This view was
on display on "Newsnight." Forget stranger pedophiles, said
the program: Child sexual abuse was rampant within the family and was
perpetrated mainly by parents.
Yet the program did not acknowledge the NSPCC’s finding that sexual
child abuse within families was, in fact, relatively rare. Moreover, it
talked constantly of "parents" and "families" as the
abusers, failing to acknowledge that its own harrowing example featured
a fractured family and a stepfather.
There was no discussion of the role of family disintegration in child
sex abuse, the Sunday Times noted. In fact, sexual abuse occurs mainly
in families that have broken or reconstituted; marriage is actually the
best protector for children.
According to the now defunct British Family Court Reporter Survey,
children are no less than 20 to 33 times safer when they live with their
biological parents than when they live in any other type of household.
In 1989, the University of Iowa studied 2,300 cases of sexual abuse and
found that non-biological fathers were almost four times as likely as
natural fathers to sexually abuse children in their care. Another report
found that, although mothers’ boyfriends contributed less than 2% of
non-parental child care, they committed almost half of all the child
abuse by non-parents.
American sociobiologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson found that the
risk of children being killed by a stepparent was 50 to 100 times higher
than at the hands of a biological parent. They also found that preschool
age children not living with both parents were 40 times more likely to
be sexually abused than those who were. "The presence of a
stepparent is the best epidemiological predictor of child abuse yet
discovered," they observed.
The thrust of such findings was confirmed in Britain in 1994 by Robert
Whelan, of the Family Education Trust. Drawing on research by the NSPCC
and the Family Court Reporter, Whelan showed that the natural two-parent
family was in a significant minority in every category of child abuse.
This was even more remarkable since the majority of children lived in
such families. From the NSPCC figures, Whelan calculated that children
living with a lone mother were at more than three times the risk of
abuse than children living with their two natural parents; while those
living with their natural mother and a father substitute were at more
than eight times the risk.
The Family Court Reporter figures showed, in addition, that there was an
even more remarkable and sensitive conclusion to be drawn. There was a
specific risk of child abuse in cohabiting households. If both natural
parents were cohabiting, the risk to the child was as much as 20 times
greater than if the parents were married. In other words, although the
relationship between the adults and the child was the same in both
cases, what made all the difference to the risk of child abuse was
Such details about the marital status of families are no longer
available in official statistics. "It’s impossible now to find
out about the relative risks of biological and non-biological parents
because Whitehall no longer wants them to be collected," said
Whelan. "What’s needed is a proper research study which will give
us the marital status of families involved in child abuse."
The NSPCC says physical abuse is more common than sexual abuse in
families, and that it is mothers—not fathers—who
are most likely to be violent to their children.
The group defines such violence as being hit with a hard implement or a
fist, kicked hard, shaken, thrown or knocked down, beaten up, choked,
burnt or threatened with a knife or a gun. Some 11% of children studied
had been the victims of such violence, with 49% of them saying that
their attacker was their mother and 40% saying that the attacker was
This fits with other research that reveals mothers to be more violent
toward children than fathers are. Yet the NSPCC study omits the further
disturbing factor, brought out in American reports, that such physical
abuse is most likely to occur among lone mothers.
In one such survey, unwed mothers reported a rate of "very severe
violence" toward their children that was 71 times higher than the
rate among mothers who lived with fathers.
Richard Gelles, a leading American expert on family violence, says that
this is not surprising. Mothers tend to spend more time than fathers
with their children; and unwed mothers are under extra pressure because
they have to rear children without assistance, and also because they are
likely to be poor. And this seems to indicate once again the value of
stable marriages for children. ZE00122220