A quarter of girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse before they are 18 years old, according to CDC estimates.
People who have experienced child sexual abuse (CSA) are more likely to experience disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
CSA can also have long-term impacts on physical health, with people being more likely to report pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and obesity.
In addition, CSA is linked to negative social effects, such as sexual or relationship problems, and socioeconomic outcomes, such as lower income.
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that has serious long-term consequences for those who have been victimized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexualabuse before they are 18. Not only are there psychological consequences to CSA, but longitudinal research has also found that CSA results in negative health, psychosocial, and socioeconomic outcomes for those who have been abused.
The Psychological Consequences of CSA
Many studies have examined the long-term psychological impact of CSA. A recent research review of over four million people found that those who experienced CSA are between two and three times more likely to experience the following disorders compared to adults who were not abused:
It should be noted that many of the psychological consequences of CSA can take years to develop as the abuse is thought to alter brain structure and chemistry during its developmental period. For example, one study found that the average time between the abuse and the onset of depression was 11.5 years, while another studyfound an average of 9.2 years from the time of abuse to the onset of depression and 8 years until the onset of PTSD.
The Physical Consequences of CSA
Numerous studies have also shown that there are long-term impacts to the physical health of those who experienced CSA. Across studies, adults who experienced CSA were 1.35 to 2.12 times more likely to report health problems such as:
As a result of these health problems, adults with a history of CSA use health care more frequently than those without a history of CSA, spending on average 16% more per year. Notably, however, a history of CSA is also associated with lower odds of having health insurance and receiving a general check-up (preventative care) in the past year.
The Psychosocial Impacts of CSA
Researchers have also documented many negative social consequences of CSA including:
Sadly, there is considerable evidence to suggest that those who have experienced CSA are also likely to be revictimized. A recent study involving 12,252 survivors found that 47.5% were sexually victimized again later in life. Similarly, there is also evidence to suggest that the children of women who have been abused are also more likely to be abused themselves, suggesting that the cycle of abuse may continue into the next generation.
The Socioeconomic Consequences of CSA
From an economic perspective, it is estimated the average lifetime cost of child maltreatment (including CSA) per survivor is $830,928. Compared to adults who had not been abused, survivors of CSA were found to:
Earn on average $8,000 less per year
Be less likely to have a bank account, or own stock, a vehicle, or home
Be three times more likely to be out of work due to sickness and disability
Be 14% more likely to be unemployed in general
Be less likely to go to, or graduate from college
Be less likely to have a skilled job
As is clear from the research, CSA significantly negatively impacts all facets of life — not only for those who experience childhood sexual abuse themselves, but also for their loved ones and society at large. Thus, we must all do what we can to prevent sexual abuse before it happens, and provide support and services to those who have already experienced CSA.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? — she’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast transcript — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
Simply put, I can’t tell if I’m being gaslit and this is having a very negative effect on my well-being, or if I’m just an overly sensitive person.
Anytime I put up a boundary, my partner freaks out and makes a huge deal, telling me I’m being insensitive to him. He has a big personality, is very quick-thinking and articulate, while I often find it hard to communicate. The arguments are very dramatic and intense and he never lets things go no matter how much I ask him to give me a break. He reminds me during these arguments that I’m ruining the relationship. We broke up over these arguments a few months ago, only to get back together after he assured me they wouldn’t continue.
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: So, you wrote the question, but if you could ask it to me again as we speak today?
A newsletter about modern family life by Kathryn Jezer-Morton.
Caller: I am wondering if I’m being gaslit by my partner or if it’s a case that I’m just being overly sensitive. I feel that I get certain treatment, when we’re alone, that feels very hidden, but in speaking to him, he says I’m overly sensitive, that I’m overly boundaried and that, actually, it’s more that I’m treating him badly, and he gets angry at me for me being bad. And he admits that sometimes his behavior isn’t great and he’s working on it. And he’s worked a lot on it. I just have no idea if I’m basically a bad person and if I’m treating him like crap and not being sensitive to him, because that’s what it sounds like.
Esther: So, tell me something — let’s just go a bit back. How did you come to formulate the question the way you do? What is the history of your relationship that led you to this question, “Am I being gaslit or am I overly sensitive?”
Caller: So, he has a tendency — for example, over New Year’s, we went away together, we were in the car and I wasn’t feeling well, and he just kept on shouting at me that I wasn’t being nice to him. And he was shouting at me. And originally, I thought he was joking. And I was like, “Yeah, I know I am.” But I was quite premenstrual at the time, or I was menstruating and I felt awful, so I was just a bit of a curmudgeon.
And I was like, “Yeah, I know. I feel bad. Just let me feel bad.” And he just kept on shouting, “You’re not being nice to me! You’re not being nice to me! Ooh!” And we were literally going to our friend’s doorstep, and he just left me there and just acted like everything was perfectly normal. And it seems to often be, as well with social settings, that we’ll be going out and he’ll do something to pull the rug out from underneath me and be like, “What’s your problem?”
Another example is, I was at therapy, and I came back and I wasn’t feeling particularly great. We had been talking about boundaries, because I do have concerns that my boundaries aren’t very good and it’s something that I work on.
Esther: What do you mean by that? That’s a big statement.
Caller: Yeah. So, I know that I don’t necessarily know how to put up boundaries. I was in a job before where, basically, I worked myself to a state of very poor health, and a lot of that had to do with working with someone who wouldn’t let me say no. So, no matter how much I was like, “I’m not available,” they just kept on pushing me.
Also, that particular industry, in that particular job, there was a real need for me. There was nobody else to do the job. I had to travel and move, and I was exhausted, but because there was such a need for me, I felt I didn’t have a choice. I let myself just get torn into that and away from my life and away from the people that I care about. And eventually, I got to a point where I completely burnt out.
Esther: And you are telling me this also because in some way something parallel is happening between you and your boyfriend? Caller: Yeah, exactly.
Esther: Right? You are on the verge of burnout. If I ask you — because you say, am I being gaslit or am I overly sensitive, which of course is what people who are gaslit often end up feeling is that they are being overly sensitive, that they are not clear, that they’re doubting themselves, that they’re confused, that they no longer trust their own sanity — you went to look for the definition of what being gaslit means?
Caller: I definitely looked it up at some point, but I don’t quite remember it at this moment.
Esther: Right. So, without even defining the term, if you are telling me, “I’m in a relationship where I don’t trust that what I think has validity. I find myself often saying I feel something and then I’m being blamed for the very thing that I just uttered. The blame is constantly shifting. I am accused of being the gaslighter, and then I end up completely confused, and it makes me question the situation.” It’s like what we call in my field, projective identification, “You are telling me that I’m doing to you what you’re exactly doing to me,” and I distrust myself. I begin to question my mental health because you keep telling me that my mental health is not steady, or something happens and you tell me that’s not what happened, or that “It is your fault” if it happened, or that “I’m doing these things and I’m saying these mean things because I actually am trying to help you,” or that “It’s not such a big deal. So what if you’re menstruating? That shouldn’t explain why you’re treating me the way you are,” or that “You are overthinking it,” or that “When I’m mean, I was just joking,” or that “You’re too emotional.”
These are seven common gaslighting phrases. If any of these are continuously occurring to you or if you simply, even without that, say, “I am constantly questioning myself, I’m constantly doubting myself, I’m constantly in a state of confusion,” et cetera, et cetera, then the answer to your question doesn’t really matter. What you know is that this is not a good situation.
Caller: But that’s the thing is … I don’t know.
Esther: Now you’re going to give me the other side, “But we also have nice times. But when I’m about to pull away, he apologizes profusely and he promises that he will change, that he’s working on it and that this will never be happening again,” until two hours later.
Esther: Now, you’re going to seesaw back and forth in the ambivalence, “Here are all these things, but maybe what if he what says has validity and is true?”
Esther: “And maybe I am indeed so insecure, and maybe I do indeed have a problem with boundaries, which, of course, I’m having with him too. So, in the end, maybe he knows me better than I know myself.”
Esther: And when I say, “I’m hungry,” he says, “No, you’re not really hungry. You shouldn’t be hungry right now.” And I’m beginning to wonder, “Well, maybe then I’m not hungry.”
Caller: Yeah, that’s literally what happens. I’ll be like, “Oh, let’s get some food,” and he’ll be like, “No, no.” I’m like, “Well, I’m, I need something.” And I’ll end up getting a protein bar, something to tide me over until we’re eating, and then he’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, by the way, while you went into the shop to get a protein bar, I got a chicken sandwich.” Then, I’m just like, “What?” Yeah, it comes from everywhere. It feels very controlling.
Esther: It’s either reality manipulation, scapegoating, coercion, or straight-up lying. Those are probably four of the main gaslighting tactics. Shifting blames would be another. And the interesting thing, as I listen to you, is, you have the answer to your question every time you give me another example to reinforce that you actually know what’s happening.
Caller: But the thing is that he has shown me, in so many ways, that he does love me and … We have, honestly, the best time. He’s my best friend in the world. I don’t know how to lose him. And that’s the thing is, I see him as a really good person, as a really kind and warm and friendly… And if you see him with his friends, he is incredible, incredible. It’s so confusing. Exactly, again. But then he turns around and does that to me.
Esther: Now, a question I would ask him is, “Who did this to you and nobody stopped them? Who did you see do this in your family and nobody stopped them?”
Caller: I feel that would be really hard for him. And I would be worried about, not challenging, I think, for him, something like that would be —
Esther: But do you know?
Caller: I’d imagine I have an idea.
Esther: That’s my question. He may be a wonderful friend, but that does not dictate how he’s going to be with his girlfriends. Those two things don’t necessarily always go in sync. I would ask him, where did he learn this, and who did he see do this, and who never stopped it? And I would then ask you this parallel question — this of course is not a question you’re going to ask him, but I’m asking that to you because you probably know him … how long are you together?
Caller: Two years.
Esther: Okay. Then, I’m going to ask you, who did you see in such a dynamic? Where did you learn not to be able to say no? Because this is not about “Am I being gaslit or am I being overly sensitive?” Without defining, without focusing just on these two terms, you’ve described the reality. Then, you say, “But he loves me,” and that may very much be the case as well. But he also needs to control you, but he’s also intensely insecure and therefore he needs you to be one down, but he also has a hard time hearing you say “I’m hungry” without instantly denying it or defying you or qualifying it or deciding if you have a right to be hungry at this moment or not because he knows better than you what your stomach needs.
So, regardless of how much he loves you, he still would need to learn to differentiate and to be able to let you have an experience, and respond caringly and compassionately to it without having to decide if your experience is valid or not before he decides how he wants to respond because he’s the master and the judge.
Caller: Oh my God, yeah. That is qualifying my experience. That’s it. It’s like every single experience I have, all of my friendships, all of my work, it’s being qualified. That’s exactly it, and being like, “You’re doing this right and you’re doing that wrong.” It’s like being stuck in a box. And the thing is that I know that I am brilliant and I have beautiful friendships and I was excellent at that job and I’m excellent at most things that you put in front of me, and I feel that really deeply.
I know what I’m doing, and I care about myself, and I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself, and I’m continuing to learn, and I’m conscious of where I go up and where I go down, but …
Esther: And if you had a friend, since you have very good friends, if one of your friends was in a situation that is similar to yours, what would you say?
Caller: Just step away. It’s just not that easy. We’re completely entwined in each other’s lives as well.
Esther: And then, what would you say to your friend who says, “It’s not that easy. We’ve got our lives completely intertwined with each other. I have invested two years of my life here. I know he loves me, but I’m being obliterated, I’m losing my mind, I’m continuously put in a situation where I have to doubt myself”?
Caller: Yeah, I’d be like, “I’ll take care of you.” I don’t know.
Esther: Have you spoken with your friends?
Caller: Yeah, a bit. I don’t like to speak badly about him because they all know him. So I want to honor the relationship, in a way. I’ve spoken to my sister a bit.
Esther: And has anybody said, “Keep going”?
Caller: Yeah. Then, I had one friend who had flagged it early, and when she flagged it, that was also the time, literally the same day when I had the breakdown for work, or the day that I literally just heard from my doctor being like, “You can’t do that job anymore.” And I was not sleeping through the night.
And I was literally talking to him about it, and he was like, “Well, I’m thinking about maybe we should break up.” So, he, nearly always, when I’m at a level of peak stress, he’ll put something else on top. Then I never went back to work after that.
Esther: So, if you are struggling with something, he will trump you? If you bring up a feeling, he’ll bring up another one that he thinks, in that moment, is more important than the one you just brought up?
Caller: Yeah, every single time. So when I was talking about that boundaries thing, he flipped. When I was back from the therapist and I was just literally standing in the kitchen being, “I just need to eat some dinner.” So I was like, “Right, I’m just going to make myself some food. I’m gonna take care of myself, I’m gonna nourish my body.”
And I was like, “Okay, I just need … I’m a bit weird right now, I just need a little bit of space because I,” blah, blah, blah. Then, he started at me, and I was like, “No, I can’t handle this right now. I’ve explained the fact that I’m feeling very vulnerable. I’m just like letting you know that.” And he was in a great mood when I came in, and then, suddenly, he turned, and then he started shouting at me and shouting at me, and I was like, “Stop shouting at me.”
Then he freaked out about me not understanding what a boundary was, me turning my boundaries against him. Then we had this long discussion about what qualifies shouting or not, and then we literally got into the depths of what the semiotics of the word shouting is to both of us. Then he made me say that he hadn’t been shouting at me in terms of the way that he understands the word “shouting.”
Esther: So, you covered all four, right?
Esther: You covered the coercive strategies, you covered the shifting of the blame, you covered the questioning of your reality, you covered the manipulation, the disqualifying. So, you’ve answered your question.
Esther: What has made it so difficult for you to know that you have to go or to act on it? Where does your challenge come from in terms of saying no, in terms of saying, “This is what I know I need to do, and I’ll deal with the consequences. In fact, I’ll be liberated. I’ll suddenly realize how much I’ve been hijacked and what kind of a hostage situation this has been. And I will be able to, once again, liberate myself with my friends, and then my friends are going to start telling me how they had noticed it, that and the other, and I’m going to say, ‘How come you never told me?’ And they’ll tell me, ‘We kept trying to tell you but you couldn’t hear it because you were completely enveloped in this saga.’”
Caller: Yeah, it’s bizarre. I know that you’re right, I know that.
Esther: You are brilliant. You’ve answered your questions. You have your answer. This is not a question of discernment, this is a question of, you’ve tried it before, you may try it again, he’s going to beg you, he’s going to plead with you, he’s going to be his best self for half an hour, and he may be a perfectly good, kind person, but he’s got some things to deal with if he’s going to be in a relationship.
Esther: And so do you.
Caller: Yeah. Well, yeah, I think that’s the thing — if I’ve tried so hard, and I’m 35, I’ve been in enough relationships, and he genuinely has worked a lot on himself, and I can see how he’s come along in a big way.
Esther: Do you know what?
Esther: I don’t know what you mean, because every example you’ve given shows me somebody who has very little ability to see what he does. And, of course, for any gaslighter there must be a person that is letting themselves be gaslit. These two go together.
Esther: But there hasn’t been a situation where you describe him saying, “I realize, I notice, I take responsibility, I’m sorry, I was projecting, I was dumping.”
Caller: Well, he has done that.
Esther: When? When you leave?
Caller: No. We do talk after these things happen. I’ve been listening to you forever. I never knew that he knew about you, and he sent me something, one of your YouTube videos about when couples get to an impasse, and he was like, “Let’s look at this and let’s talk about this based on the tools that are there.” And I really appreciate that.
I can see him trying. But the thing is, we’re actually at a point right now where we’re not really speaking, and I asked for the keys back for my flat after everything that happened that I’ve been talking about recently. It was too much.
Esther: That piece of your excusing him and analyzing and justifying and excusing his behavior is part of the gaslit cycle.
Esther: “He’s doing this but he doesn’t really mean to do this, he feels bad about it afterwards, and so, now, I need to make him feel better about him making me feel bad.”
Caller: Yeah, yes. Yes.
Esther: This is twisted.
Caller: Completely twisted. Because I was on the phone to him yesterday. I wanted to let him know that I was going to be speaking to you because I thought that that was respectful. I also was like, “Look, in the long run, I feel we’ve been running on what I want. I just want to know what you want.” Then, of course, it came back around to how much all of his friends told him that he’s great, and then I, of course, was like, “Well, you’re a great person, and I want you to know that you’re a good person.” And I do think that, but it still comes around to having this treatment, and I still seem to be the person going to him telling him that he’s good, and then I’m the bad guy again.
Esther: And does that come from him as well, “You’re a wonderful person”?
Caller: No. I get, “You’re a lovely person.”
Esther: “You’re a lovely person,” okay. If you are indeed such close friends, and if he’s indeed such a wonderful person, then you may want to find this relational structure that will actually highlight that. Being his friend may give you much more of the wonderful qualities that he has than being his girlfriend.
Caller: Yeah, that’s true.
Esther: At least for right now. So, he can stay in your life. It’s not clear that he will. Generally, when that dynamic occurs, it’s more common that the person will be more vindictive and not want anything to do with you. They’ll try, they’ll come back, they’ll come back until they finally realize that maybe they’re not going to get what they want, and then they’ll say, “Fuck you.”
But if he does stay, have him in your life, but have him in the structure of a relationship that gives you access to the best qualities that he has. If he’s such a wonderful friend, be a friend.
Caller: But I love him.
Esther: That is a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t mean you need to make a life in that dynamic.
Esther: It doesn’t change if people don’t actively take ownership over what they do to create this kind of dynamic, and that means you and him.
Caller: Yeah. One of the reasons that I contacted you is, I know that I’m autonomous in this relationship, but it’s really hard to admit that I’ve let somebody walk all over me and that I haven’t been strong enough to tell them to piss off. It makes me question myself so much more.
Esther: Which is one of the reasons why these dynamics sometimes go on for a long time, because he has his denial. His denial is to shift the blame on you. But you have your denial, which is, “This isn’t really happening. I could walk away at any time. I am a strong woman, I am autonomous. Nobody tells me what to do.” But in fact, that’s not what’s happening. So, it’s one denial meeting another denial, so to speak.
Caller: Yeah. I hear you.
Esther: And what you just said, “But I love him,” so what? I hear you, it’s a deep feeling, but the question remains, and what do you want to do? That your feelings of love are mired into a relationship that is ultimately going to make you lose your entire sense of yourself.
Esther: So, you will continue to say, “I love him,” but the “I” will have dissolved in the process.
It’s not easy. You’re going to surround yourself with friends, and you’re going to have to be honest with your friends and let them know what’s going on, not by blaming him, but by telling them that you found yourself in a relationship where instead of increasingly becoming bolder and stronger and more recognized, it’s all the reverse that is happening.
And that’s not because of what he does only. If, on the other end, you say, “I want to do some couples work and I want us to both go and deal with this dynamic,” go ahead. It won’t change alone. Somebody has to see this in action to be able to intervene. Each of you will make perfect sense when you talk alone to your own respective therapists.
Caller: Yeah. Couples counseling is on the cards right now. We’ve seen a couples counselor before and it didn’t … she wasn’t great. And my concern is that he’s going to charm them, and he is not going to show the truth of the dynamic when there’s another person present.
Esther: Then, you’ll put that on the table too.
Esther: A good clinician sees the invisible and sometimes hears the inaudible.
Caller: Thank goodness for you, and thank goodness for this phone call, It’s just like clearing the clouds from my brain.
Esther: Look, I’m going to ask the question again, and then we are going to say good-bye. But it is the question that you didn’t answer, which is, where does your challenge come from? Because you couldn’t say, “Saying no is difficult for me, so I found a person with whom I can practice that muscle.” These things are a mindfuck.
Esther: But you may want to say, “I wanna practice my no, and I found the best place to do so because here is a person who doesn’t hear any of them. So, I practice boundaries with somebody who doesn’t respect any of them or sees them all as an attack on him or sees them as a weakness of mine, but they’re all qualified.”
Or you may say, “That doesn’t have to be the way I’m looking for a relationship.” I know you’re 35 and I know that you love him and I know that you think you’ve had your share, but maybe that should bring you also a level of awareness that says, “Is this how I want to live?”
Caller: But I think that’s the thing, it’s, I don’t know how I’ll have a healthy and wholesome relationship. I just keep on seeming to get battered or something.
Esther: “Why do I, a smart, accomplished, professional, insightful, autonomous woman, find myself in relationships with men where I end up in this kind of battered position?” That is a very powerful question.
Esther: “And how do I learn to see it sooner rather than later?”
Esther: “And how do I say, ‘I’m breaking the cycle,’ and then act on it?” Is this a good place to stop?
Caller: In my head, I’m only just beginning.
Esther: Because I’m leaving you with some big questions rather than slap answers, because you have the answer. To the question that you came with, you know the answer before you came. To what is the cycle that you are repeating, we didn’t get to, but we suspect there is one because this is not your first time. Different melodies for the same dance.
If we were seeing each other regularly, this would be the moment where I say, “To be continued.” But it will be continued, but without me. But I’m inviting you to take this and do something with it.
Scapegoating is a common form of parental verbal abuse.
Research shows that scapegoating allows a parent to think of the family as healthier than it is.
Scapegoating lets a parent minimize responsibility for and explain negative outcomes, enhancing a sense of control.
The scapegoat role can be rotating, or it can target one child specifically.
In interviews for my forthcoming book on verbal abuse, the subject of scapegoating comes up with great regularity; among the forms of verbal abuse used by parents, scapegoating appears to have go-to status. In a family with a controlling, combative, or narcissistic parent at the helm, scapegoating is an effective tool to maintain control not just over the interactions and behaviors of family members but also over the family narrative.
As researcher Gary Gemmill has pointed out, scapegoating permits a parent to think of the family as healthier and more functioning than it actually is; if it weren’t for that one individual—yes, the scapegoat—the family would be perfect, and life would be blissful. This is an important point because it helps the parent curate the family narrative in a very specific way.
Another study by Zachary R. Rothschild and others posited and then showed that scapegoating allows a person to minimize guilt or responsibility for a negative outcome and gives him or her a sense of enhanced control because there’s always a reason to point to for a bad outcome. The example I often use is the family car that is vandalized at night while parked in the driveway. If this happened to you, you might be concerned or even call the police, but you’re likely to consider it a random incident.
But the parent who habitually scapegoats won’t approach it that way; instead, he or she will focus on the fact that Jack drove the car last, and he didn’t lock it, which made it so much easier to vandalize. Moreover, Jack didn’t turn on the lights that illuminate the driveway and entrance, which gave the vandals the cover of darkness.
Voila! In the family’s curated narrative, Jack is actually to blame for the car’s being vandalized. That is how scapegoating works.
Who gets to be the scapegoat?
In some families like Tim’s, the scapegoat role was rotating, one that permitted his father to drive his message across with force:
“Failure was unacceptable. Talking back was treason. You did what he said, you took the abuse he meted out, or you were ignored and scapegoated. The son who didn’t listen up then became the scapegoat until he reformed and ‘got the message,’ and then the next slacker would become the target. This went on from childhood to the first decade or so of adulthood until I finally set sail.”
In many families, the scapegoat is a permanent role, as it was in Alisha’s:
“My middle brother, Tom, was the scapegoat because he talked back and resisted my mother’s manipulations. It was ironic because of the four of us, he was the highest achiever—he was athletic and got good grades—but my mother couldn’t deal with the fact that she couldn’t contain him the way she could me and my two younger siblings. She blamed everything that went wrong on Tom and that, in turn, set my father off who believed every single lie she told about Tom. The rest of us made ourselves scarce and said as little as possible, trying to stay as neutral as we could so she wouldn’t turn on us. Tom left home at 18, put himself through college and then law school, and stopped speaking to our parents 10 years ago. He’s got to be the most successful black sheep in history. I still see him, but my sister and brother are too scared, even as adults, of pissing my mother off. Even though I wasn’t scapegoated, I have tons of issues that I am dealing with in therapy. I spent my whole childhood curled up in a defensive ball.”
Counterintuitively, you don’t need a herd to become a scapegoat; only children can be scapegoated too. This is what Dora recounted:
“In my mother’s telling of the story, everything that has gone wrong in her life can be traced back to me. It was my birth that alienated my father from her and ended up in his seeking a divorce. That isn’t the story my dad tells, of course, and I was 7 when he left. She never remarried because no one wanted a woman with baggage, the baggage being me. This could be funny since Dad married a woman with two kids but she didn’t mean it as a joke. Ditto her job and why she never rose up the ranks; yes, the Dora factor. At 30, I walked into a therapist’s office and ended up confronting my mom who denied ever doing it. As my therapist pointed out, she shifted from scapegoating to gaslighting. I maintain low contact these days but I am moving toward estrangement because her inability to own her actions or words makes me nuts.”
Not taking responsibility is the home-court advantage of scapegoating.
How the scapegoat gets chosen
While science illuminates what motivates the abuser to scapegoat, there’s no research on how the target gets chosen, so I’ve culled from the hundreds of stories shared with me for this project and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life to come up with some thoroughly unscientific patterns which may, nonetheless, be of interest. Some of them are more obvious than others.
1. The resister or rebel
Since all verbal abuse is about control and an imbalance of power, it’s not surprising that the kid who won’t go with the program—whatever that program may be—will be singled out and marginalized for it. This pattern echoes the story Alisha told about her brother, Tom, and may also be the impetus for the rotating scapegoat role in other families.
2. The sensitive one
Scapegoating and bullying have similar intentions, and each gives the abuser a rush of power; that’s going to be much more satisfying if the kid you pick on really responds and reacts. Additionally, this permits the parent to rationalize the scapegoating as being necessary to “toughen the kid up” or “to stop being too sensitive.”
This happens to both sons and daughters and shows up as a strong pattern in many families, unfortunately. The other children do what they can to repress all their emotional reactions, which gives them cover but causes a different kind of damage.
3. The outlier
I’ve come to see that especially with mothers who scapegoat, thinking a child is an outlier is usually a function of the mother’s own goodness of fit; the child is sufficiently different from both herself and her other children that whatever parenting skills she does have are completely overwhelmed, and she reacts by shifting the blame onto the child. In the family narrative, this child usually bears the burden of responsibility for the household being hard to run or any other problem the mother might be experiencing.
4. The reminder
This comes up most frequently with children of divorce who either look like or supposedly “take after” or act like a parent’s ex-spouse, but it also comes up with those from intact households in which the child supposedly resembles a family relative who is disliked, hated, or is a black sheep or some combination of all. It can be overtly expressed—“You are just like your dad, irresponsible and lazy”—or covert, as was the case for Dina, who happens to be a psychologist:
“As a kid, I couldn’t understand why I was always to blame and my sister was always fabulous. I was a straight-A student, high achiever, and my sister was none of those things. But there was history. My father committed the sin of leaving my mother and remarrying happily. I committed the sin of looking like him—tall, thin, brunette, and intellectual. My sister is my mother’s physical—blonde and petite—and not-too-serious clone. It took the therapy which was part of my training to see the elephant in the living room.”
Scapegoating is verbal abuse, no matter how it is normalized or rationalized. And it really doesn’t matter how parents choose their victims; it only matters that they do.
Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups, Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418
Rothschild, Zachary R., Mark J. Landau, et al. “A Dual Motive Model of Scapegoating: Displacing Blame to Reduce Guilt or Increase Control,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012), vol. 102(6), 1148-1161.references
MORELIA, Michoacán — June 9, 2022, marked a milestone in the history of the Church of La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World), the most prolific Mexican cult that for almost 100 years has ruled the life and customs of at least 5 million people around the world (1.5 million in Mexico), all of whom witnessed the arrest and imprisonment of their leader Naasón Joaquín García.
The self-proclaimed “Apostle of Jesus Christ,” Joaquín García, finally fell. The hegemony of three messianic generations of alleged abuse, unlimited power and every manner of sexual aberration within this cult, founded by Joaquín García´s grandfather in the 1920s in Central México, reached its most vulnerable moment after its current leader’s detention in 2019.
To the faithful believers of La Luz del Mundo, Joaquín García is more than the cult’s leader. He is seen as the Messiah, the envoy of God and the last apostle of Jesus Christ on Earth. However, to the long list of former cult members and now-victims who are crying out for justice, Joaquín García is a twisted mind capable of perpetrating the most terrible abuses against innocent adolescents and children.
The circumstances in which these alleged sexual crimes against minors took place were within a power relationship exercised by Joaquín García over those young victims who saw in him a supreme being before whom they owed, not only their spiritual fidelity but their bodies as well, so that he could dispose of them at his discretion regardless of their childishness.
Sadly, according to the victims, most of these abuses occurred before the eyes of the community and the families of the victims themselves, who agreed to having their children accompany and serve Joaquín García at all times, encouraging them to do whatever was needed to please him, as he was basically seen as God’s representation on Earth.
According to allegations made by some of the victims and former members of Light of the World Church, the administrative structure of the church even had a group dedicated exclusively to the recruitment and grooming of young parishioners, who would later be prepared to serve, entertain and intimately pleasure Joaquín García.
The Unconditionals, as the women in that circle close to Joaquín Garcia were known, in addition to serving as escorts, recruiters and personal assistants to the so-called Apostle of Jesus Christ, enjoyed a privileged status within the church and carried out important activities, such as managing the cult’s internal media content and organizing mass events, having to travel from the United States to Mexico on a regular basis.
However, these women were also considered exclusive to Joaquín García, and he was the one who had to give his approval so that they could marry another member of the community.
It was not until 2019 that one of Joaquín García’s closest Unconditionals, Sochil Martín, gave him the kiss of Judas and exposed the recurring sexual children exploitation system within the cult to U.S. authorities, resulting in the arrest of the Apostle of Jesus Christ and two of his closest Unconditional servants, Alondra Ocampo and Susana Medina Oaxaca, both of whom were accused of complicity.
Despite the fact that it was not the first scandal of alleged sexual abuse within the Church of the Light of the World that has become known since its foundation, this time it had a great impact and serious consequences due to the first-hand evidence that the plaintiffs presented, as well as the enormous evidence that U.S. authorities found against Joaquín García in his personal electronic devices.
Although Joaquín García’s defense has been led by Alan Jackson, one of the most sought-after lawyers in the United States, the biggest turning point came when Ocampo pleaded guilty to charges of sexual crimes against three teenagers.
According to the lawsuit filed by the victims, Ocampo took three young womento Joaquín García, inducing them, through biblical texts, to dance naked and then participate in sexual acts with Joaquín García.
Ocampo was sentenced to four years in prison for these crimes and was released in early December 2022 for having shown repentance for her actions and for having collaborated with the California prosecutors in the investigation to prosecute the cult’s leader, Joaquín García.
On the other hand, Medina Oaxaca was saved from going to jail after reaching a plea bargain with the California prosecutor, being sentenced to one year of probation after paying a $150,000 bail.
Finally, Joaquín García was accused of 19 crimes, among which were: sexual abuse of minors, rape, possession of child pornography and human trafficking. However, the defendant, on the advice of his lawyer, admitted guilty to three of those crimes, for lewd acts committed with a 15-year-old girl, and for doing the same with another 18-year-old girl.
This strategy allowed the expected sentence for Joaquín García to be reduced to 16 years and eight months, which generated great discontent among the victims, who had expected a maximum sentence for the defendant given the seriousness of the crimes of which he was accused and the impact they have had on their lives.
However, the three accused, as well as the wife and children of Joaquín Garcia still face a civil lawsuit filed by the victims before the Superior Court of Los Angeles.
According to this lawsuit, Joaquín García and other members of the church systematically abused their victims, who were mostly young women, and used religion as a weapon against them. This lawsuit, filed last September, seeks payment for damages caused to the victims.
Nonetheless, in the meantime, the millions of members of this cult are demanding the immediate release of their still-leader Joaquín Garcia. They insist that he is an innocent victim who has been framed and unfairly accused by the California Attorney General’s Office with false evidence.
Sexual violence is, unfortunately, more common and prevalent than society would like to believe. An estimated 31,118 Australians reported being sexually assaulted in 2021, and shockingly, 61% of those victim-survivors who reported were under the age of 18 when the assault occurred. These statistics are horrific and are only a snapshot of the sexual assault and violence that occurs as so many incidents go unreported and people suffer in silence. It is important to remember that these statistics are real women, men, and children in our community who deserve and need support.
This month is Sexual Violence Awareness Month, and I thought I would share some of my thoughts. The reason why I am so passionate about preventing sexual violence and child sexual abuse, is because I have personally witnessed the devastating impact of these crimes. My family’s experience is not unique or special, and I naively thought that something as horrific as sexual abuse would never happen in our family. Although it’s been 5 years since a family member disclosed the abuse they had suffered, we still deal with the trauma every single day.
For the brave victim-survivor, not only do they have to deal with the abuse they suffered and disclosing it, but they also face the daunting process of reporting to police if they wish, and the possible criminal process beyond that. The systems in place that are supposed to protect, serve, and deliver justice, failed us immensely. And I doubt we are the only ones who have experienced this. The pursuit of justice and trying to hold the perpetrator accountable was so painful that it makes sense why victim-survivors don’t want to go through the process at all.
My family’s experience is why I am so motivated for change and passionate about raising awareness of sexual violence and abuse. Imagine a world where perpetrators are held accountable, the criminal justice process is trauma-informed and minimally re-traumatising as possible. Imagine a world where victim-survivors are believed from the outset and supported through the whole process. I hope that by sharing my story it helps others not to feel so alone. I hope that it can spark some real and definite change so no other victim-survivors and their families have to experience what my family did.
To all the victim-survivors: you are believed, you are worthy of support and healing, and what happened to you was not your fault. To all the families and supporters: you are important, you are valued and your story matters too.
Hannah is a fourth-year psychology student who’s passionate about child safety and protection. She has a keen interest in the Queensland justice system and how it can be reformed so victims of abuse are listened to, taken seriously and justice is given. She loves her casual job at a doggy day-care and enjoys reading in her spare time.
Something that becomes easier for some victims/survivors/oppressed/bad-eggs/outcasts to see is the hidden-truth, the dry wit, the ‘adult humour’, “things only grownups understand” that they innately become both aware of & exposed to during their youth. I wanted to post this immediately after recognising patterns in ‘She Said’. Many of the power+control methods exposed by this great work also reflect/mirror dynamics they continue throughout Institutions-Corporations-Society’s-Families & personalities.
While Harvey Weinstein’s ‘imprisonment’ has triggered off other moments, reminders give hope to other truth’s being exposed.
Many other ‘parallels’ appeared to me, which I gravitate to. It’s not about whether it’s popular to others, it’s whether it’s meaningful to me, another was Spotlight which brought up reminders I was exposed to on a church youth camp! How blessed were we?!
If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues described in this paper please call Kids Helpline(link is external) on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline(link is external) on 13 11 14.
If you believe a child is in immediate danger call Police on 000.
Overview The purpose of this resource sheet is to provide practitioners, policy makers and researchers with a working definition of child abuse and neglect. It provides a general definition of child abuse and neglect and definitions of the five commonly regarded subtypes.
The resource sheet provides information about: whether the abuse types constitute grounds for protection of a child under child protection law; and whether the abuse types are a crime under criminal law, with the possibility of punishment of the offender.
Introduction For individuals working with children, it is important to be able to recognise child abuse and neglect when they come across it. For example, if a practitioner knows that, or has reason to believe that, a child is being hit or disciplined in a concerning way, the first question the practitioner must ask themselves – is this, or might this be, child abuse? If a practitioner believes or suspects child abuse or neglect, then a report must be made to child protection or the police (for more detail, see Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect).
Throughout this resource sheet, the term ‘children and young people’ is used. Although young people under the age of 18 are legally children (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2018)1, calling a young person a child can fail to acknowledge some important differences between children and young people, such as the difference in their desire and capacity for self-determination.
It is important to note that within much of the professional literature the terms ‘child abuse and neglect’ and ‘child maltreatment’ are used interchangeably. In this resource sheet, the term ‘child abuse and neglect’ is adopted because this is the term that is most commonly used in Australia.
Definition The World Health Organization ([WHO], 2006, p. 9) defines child abuse and neglect as:
All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.
All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.
Definitions of child abuse and neglect can include adults, young people and older children as the perpetrators of the abuse. It is commonly stated in legislation that the term ‘child abuse and neglect’ refers to behaviours and treatment that result in the actual and/or likelihood of harm to the child or young person. Furthermore, such behaviours may be intentional or unintentional and can include acts of omission (i.e. neglect) and commission (i.e. abuse) (Bromfield, 2005; Child Family Community Australia [CFCA], 2016).
Legal definitions of child abuse and neglect Definitions of child abuse and neglect can be both legal and medical/psychological. Legal definitions tend to be broad, while medical definitions (such as what is provided by WHO, 2006) usually provide a more detailed explanation.
The way legislation defines child abuse and neglect matters. These laws have a direct influence on the outcomes of cases that are brought before a court. Legal definitions affect the attitudes and decisions of lawyers and judges. They affect the policies and practices of child protection agencies, and the training and attitudes of practitioners generally (Tomison & Tucci, 1997). They also set out acceptable standards of behaviour for the community (Australian Law Reform Commission [ALRC], 2010; Mathews & Bross, 2014).
There are two legal systems set up to respond to and prevent child abuse and neglect (ALRC, 2010; Plum, 2014):
the civil legal system
the criminal legal system.
The differences between the two legal systems are outlined in Table 1.
Child protection proceedings focus on whether the child is in need of protection (ALRC, 2010; Plum, 2014). They do not make a judgment about the guilt of an accused. For example, a child may have alleged sexual abuse by a parent. Although the truth of these allegations is clearly relevant to the child’s future safety, the focus of the child protection court is solely on the child’s future safety. The criminal court may have judged an individual innocent of the crime of child sexual abuse but this does not mean that the civil child protection courts cannot make a ruling about the future safety of the child.
A child protection response is not, nor should it be, contingent on securing a conviction. (ALRC, 2010, p. 939).
Criminal proceedings focus on judging the guilt of the accused, with the outcome providing for the punishment of the offender. Criminal proceedings generally focus on the past. An exception to this is the placement of a convicted child sex offender on a sex offender register, which is future focused and based on crimes the offender may commit in the future (Plum, 2014).
Subtypes of child abuse and neglect Different types of child abuse and neglect have different features. It is important to distinguish between what are commonly regarded as the five main subtypes of child abuse and neglect:
exposure to family violence.
The features of these subtypes are detailed below. Box 1 unpacks some of the difficulties and controversies around defining these five subtypes.
Box 1: Difficulties and controversies around defining the subtypes
Although there is a broad consensus on the five subtypes of child abuse and neglect (see below), disagreement exists about exactly how to define and therefore recognise these subtypes. For example:
Parenting practices that are acceptable in one culture may be considered abusive in another culture. Some parenting practices are abusive regardless of culture. It can be difficult to know the difference. There is debate in the literature (Broadley, 2014) – and variation across Australian jurisdictions (CFCA, 2016) – on whether definitions of child abuse should refer to the parental behaviours or to the harm to the child, or whether evidence of both should be required for its recognition (e.g. do we need to know that a parent has hit a child and for there to be a resulting injury to constitute physical abuse?).
Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether the parental behaviours are harmful enough to constitute child abuse. For example, in neglect cases practitioners can have different perceptions about what constitutes ‘good enough’ parenting (Turney, Platt, Selwyn, & Farmer, 2012).
The child protection legislation used in many Australian jurisdictions defines child abuse as a behaviour or action that causes a child significant harm. It can be difficult to know the point at which a child is suffering significant harm.
The child protection legislation used in many Australian jurisdictions also defines child abuse as a behaviour that is likely to cause significant harm. However, it can be difficult, even impossible, to predict whether a child who is apparently suffering no harm or suffering minor harm is likely to suffer significant harm in the future.
There is also the tricky issue of intent. Although there is no consensus among experts about whether the intent to cause harm is a necessary component of child abuse and neglect, some suggest that notions of culpability, motive and intent are important to many practitioners when making decisions about whether to describe an incident as child abuse and neglect (Platt & Turney, 2013).
Many parents who neglect their children do not intend to do so. Many of these parents struggle with issues such as poverty or a disability. When these issues are present, there is a responsibility on the state to provide support and assistance to the family. Are there limits on what support and assistance the state is to be expected to give?
Is child abuse and neglect an objective or subjective reality? For example, if legislators, policy makers and practitioners say that a sexual ‘relationship’ between a 19 year old and a 15 year old is sexual abuse but the 15 year old says that it is not, whose opinion holds the most weight? How might these judgements change as the age gap becomes greater?
It is not possible to provide definite answers to any of these questions. By drawing from research, their experience, using empathy and listening well, practitioners must exercise good professional judgement as they work with each unique child in each unique context. It is also important for human services, health, criminal justice and other professionals to make decisions collaboratively. For example, in the case of Indigenous children and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, it is important to involve specialist cultural advisers in planning and decision making.
The WHO (2006, p. 10) defines child physical abuse as:
The intentional use of physical force against a child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity. This includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning and suffocating. Much physical violence against children in the home is inflicted with the object of punishing.
In all Australian jurisdictions, civil child protection legislation exists to protect children and young people from physical abuse. As previously stated, this civil legislation does not focus on the innocence or guilt of the alleged perpetrator, instead it focuses on the safety – particularly the future safety – of the child.
Jurisdictional criminal laws in Australia deal with severe cases of child physical abuse (such as those resulting in permanent or fatal injury) as offences of violence. The specific wording of these laws varies across jurisdictions (ALRC, 2010).
There is controversy about whether offences against children such as child physical abuse should be contained in civil child protection or criminal legislation. For example, some submissions to the ALRC (2010) argued that child abuse offences should be located in the criminal law and that violence against a child should not be considered less serious than such acts against an adult. Alternatively, it was suggested that such offences should be located in civil child protection legislation, then decisions about whether to recommend criminal action could be managed by child welfare experts.
The Commission’s view was that the best way forward was through cooperative relationships between professionals (i.e. child protection workers, police, health professionals and other human services workers), who can make joint decisions about which legislation to use depending on factors such as the nature and severity of the child abuse offence (ALRC, 2010). On the basis of the submissions received, the Commission made no specific recommendation for change.
Emotional abuse is also sometimes called ‘emotional maltreatment’, ‘psychological maltreatment’ and ‘psychological abuse’.
Emotional abuse refers to a parent or caregiver’s inappropriate verbal or symbolic acts towards a child and/or a pattern of failure over time to provide a child with adequate non-physical nurturing and emotional availability. Such acts of commission or omission are likely to damage a child’s self-esteem or social competence (Bromfield, 2005; Garbarino, Guttman, & Seeley, 1986; WHO, 2006). According to a popular conception by Garbarino and colleagues (1986, p. 8), emotional abuse takes five main behavioural forms:
rejecting: the adult refuses to acknowledge the child’s worth and the legitimacy of the child’s needs
isolating: the adult cuts the child off from normal social experiences, prevents the child from forming friendships and makes the child believe that he or she is alone in the world
terrorising: the adult verbally assaults the child, creates a climate of fear, bullies and frightens the child, and makes the child believe that the world is capricious and hostile
ignoring: the adult deprives the child of essential stimulation and responsiveness, stifling emotional growth and intellectual development
corrupting: the adult ‘mis-socialises’ the child, stimulates the child to engage in destructive antisocial behaviour, reinforces that deviance, and makes the child unfit for normal social experience. In all Australian jurisdictions, emotional abuse is grounds for ‘when a child is in need of protection’ (CFCA, 2016). These civil child protection laws enable child protection practitioners to intervene in cases of emotional abuse and make an application to the children’s court for a child’s protection. However, the difficulties in doing this are well documented (Broadley, 2014; Goddard, 1996; Sheehan, 2006).
In most jurisdictions child protection practitioners are required to provide the children’s court with evidence of a link between the actions of a parent and the outcomes for a child (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004). In cases of emotional abuse it can be ‘difficult, even impossible, to prove a direct link between the abuse and/or neglectful parental behaviours and the poor child outcomes’ (Broadley, 2014, p. 272).
Given these challenges, it is particularly important for child protection and child welfare professionals to work collaboratively to support families to build protective factors and protect children from emotional abuse.
According to WHO (2006, p. 10):
Neglect includes both isolated incidents, as well as a pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent or other family member to provide for the development and wellbeing of the child – where the parent is in a position to do so – in one or more of the following areas:
shelter and safe living conditions. In all Australian jurisdictions, neglect is grounds for ‘when a child is in need of protection’ (CFCA, 2016). These cases can be difficult for child protection practitioners to take before the child protection court, particularly if the concerning parental behaviours are low impact and high frequency (as opposed to high impact and low frequency). The difficulty may be in proving a link between the parental behaviours and/or omissions and the child outcomes.
Courts may also be reluctant to determine a child needs protection when the parents are poor or when for some other reason they struggle to provide for their child’s basic needs. In these situations, there is a responsibility on the state to provide support and assistance to the parents; and the parents have a responsibility to engage with and utilise these supports (CFCA, 2016). NSW child protection legislation explicitly states that the children’s court ‘cannot conclude that the basic needs of a child or young person are likely not to be met only because of a parent’s or primary care-giver’s disability or poverty’ (CFCA, 2016).
In many Australian jurisdictions it is a criminal offence for those with parental responsibility to fail to provide a child with basic needs such as accommodation, food, education and health care. Across the jurisdictions, these laws are all drafted differently. For example, in the Northern Territory the offence relates to a child under two years. In NSW and Queensland, the offence relates to a child under seven years (ALRC, 2010).
For a more detailed overview of the issues surrounding child neglect, see the CFCA paper Understanding Child Neglect.
The WHO (2006, p. 10) defines child sexual abuse as:
The involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Children can be sexually abused by both adults and other children who are – by virtue of their age or stage of development – in a position of responsibility, trust or power over the victim.
In all Australian jurisdictions, sexual abuse is grounds for ‘when a child is in need of protection’ (CFCA, 2016). Commonly the child will not have a parent who has or who is likely to protect them.
Various jurisdictions have civil child protection legislation that provides for specific types of sexual abuse. For example, in the Northern Territory it is ‘involving the child as a participant or spectator … (in) an act of a sexual nature’ (CFCA, 2016); and in New South Wales where a child under the age of 14 has exhibited sexually abusive behaviours and requires intervention and treatment (CFCA, 2016).
There is a diversity of perpetrator characteristics, relationships and contexts within which child sexual abuse occurs (Quadara, Nagy, Higgins, & Siegel, 2015). In this resource sheet these different types of child sexual abuse are presented as:
adult abusers with no familial relationship to the child
adult abusers who are family members of the child
adult abusers who are in a position of power or authority over the child
sexual abuse that is perpetrated by children and young people
sibling sexual abuse
online child sexual abuse
commercial child sexual exploitation.
Australian jurisdictional criminal laws are referred to in each of these types.
Adult abusers with no familial relationship to the child
Extra-familial child sexual abuse is sexual abuse that is perpetrated by acquaintances of the child victim or the child victim’s family (Quadara et al., 2015).
Criminal laws across Australia consider sexual abuse to be sexual activity between any adult and a child under the age of consent. The age of consent is 16 years in most Australian jurisdictions (see CFCA resource sheet Age of Consent Laws for a more detailed discussion). Therefore, in Australia, consensual sexual activity between a 20 year old and a 15 year old is a crime, while in most jurisdictions2 the same activity between a 20 year old and a 17 year old is not a crime.
Under civil child protection legislation, a child or young person is in need of protection from an extra-familial abuser if the parents or carers are unwilling or unable (or are likely to be unwilling or unable) to protect the child or young person from the sexual abuse.
Adult abusers who are family members of the child
Intra-familial child sexual abuse is considered to be the most prevalent type of child sexual abuse (Quadara et al., 2015). Perpetrators within this context include fathers, mothers, step-fathers, step-mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. (The following sections ‘Sexual abuse that is perpetrated by children and young people’ and ‘Sibling sexual abuse’ can involve intra-familial child sexual abuse.)
In most Australian jurisdictions, sexual activity in the context of biological, step-family and adoptive relationships are covered by incest provisions (ALRC, 2010). In some jurisdictions, the incest offence applies regardless of age. In other jurisdictions, general child sexual abuse offences are applicable to children and the incest offence relates to situations where the victim is over the age of 16 years (ALRC, 2010).
Under child protection legislation, a child or young person needs protection from an intra-familial abuser if there is no parent or carer who is (or who is likely to be) willing and able to protect the child or young person from the sexual abuse.
Adult abusers who are in a position of power or authority over the child
Child sexual abuse occurs when there is any sexual behaviour between a child and an adult in a position of power or authority over them (e.g. a teacher).
Under child protection legislation a child or young person needs protection if the parents or carers are not able, or are unlikely to be willing, to protect the child or young person from the sexual abuse.
The general age of consent laws are inapplicable in these cases due to the strong imbalance of power that exists between children and young people and authority figures, as well as the breach of personal and public trust that occurs when professional boundaries are violated. For example, in NSW there is a provision for the criminal offence of ‘sexual intercourse with a child between 16 and 18 under special care’ (e.g. when the adult is a teacher, health professional or religious leader) (ALRC, 2010; Australian Legal Information Institute, 2018).
Sexual abuse that is perpetrated by children and young people
The terminology used to describe child sexual abuse that is perpetrated by children and young people is changeable (El-Murr, 2017). It is important not to demonise the children and young people engaging in the abusive behaviour by calling them perpetrators or sex offenders (El-Murr, 2017; Fernandez, 2016). These children and young people are still developing and growing. Labelling them may shame them and may deter them and their families from engaging with treatment and support (Fernandez, 2016).
However, it is important not to deny or minimise the harm that these children and young people cause to their victims and to themselves (El-Murr, 2017; Fernandez, 2016). El-Murr (2017) uses the term ‘problem sexual behaviours’ to describe ‘sexual behaviours that lie outside the range of age-appropriate behaviours and are demonstrated by children below the age of criminal responsibility’, and ‘sexually abusive behaviours’ as ‘behaviours displayed by those 10 up to 18 years and which have legal consequences’ but acknowledges that these terms also have their risks (see CFCA paper Problem Sexual Behaviours and Sexually Abusive Behaviours in Australian Children and Young People for a more detailed discussion).
Research suggests that this type of sexual abuse is common, and that children and young people are most likely to experience sexual harm from other children and young people (El-Murr, 2017). Such abuse often involves an older child or young person coercing or forcing a child who is younger, smaller or where there are marked developmental differences (e.g. if the victim child has a disability) into sexual activity (El-Murr, 2017). Even when there is no information to suggest coercion, manipulation or force, this does not mean an absence of manipulation or pressure. If a child’s sexual activity is out of the ordinary for his or her age, then regardless of whether or not there is an apparent power imbalance, professional help should be sought.
Some Australian jurisdictions have child protection legislation (e.g. New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria) that allows for a diversionary pathway in place of a criminal justice response (El-Murr, 2017). In most other jurisdictions these offences are dealt with by the criminal division of the children’s court (El-Murr, 2017).
In some jurisdictions young people who have been found guilty of a child sexual abuse offence may be included on the sex offender register (Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC), 2014).
Sibling sexual abuse
Research suggests that sibling sexual abuse occurs at similar or higher rates to other types of intra-familial sexual abuse (Quadara et al., 2015; Stathopoulos, 2012). This type of sexual abuse is when there is sexual activity between a child or young person and a sibling that is non-consensual or coercive, or where there is an inequality of power or development between them.
As stated above, there is civil child protection legislation in some Australian jurisdictions to enable therapeutic treatment for these children and young people in place of a criminal justice response. In other jurisdictions the question of whether there will be criminal justice intervention will depend on the age of the children and the nature of the offence (El-Murr, 2017).
Although consensual and (apparently) non-coercive sexual behaviour between similarly aged siblings may not be considered child sexual abuse, it is considered problematic and harmful, and professional intervention should be sought.
Online child sexual abuse
Online child sexual abuse can cause additional harm to children and young people beyond the abusive experience itself (Quayle, 2013). Due to digital technology, offenders are able to take photos and videos of children and young people being sexually abused with little cost or effort, and often in the privacy of their own homes (Broughton, 2009). They are then able to communicate with other offenders via the internet and distribute their material online. These photos and videos are a permanent product of the abuse. They may resurface at any time and this leaves victims with a lifelong fear of exposure, exacerbating the damage (Broughton, 2009; Quayle, 2013). Offenders often use these images to manipulate victims into silence by threatening exposure should the child or young person ever talk about the abuse (Broughton, 2009).
Online child sexual abuse may also involve sexting (sending messages with sexual photos or videos via a mobile phone or posting online) (Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council, 2017). A decision about whether or not sexting constitutes child sexual abuse will depend on the particulars of the situation, including the ages of the children and young people involved. Sexting laws differ across Australian jurisdictions. For example, in Victoria it is a criminal offence for someone over the age of 18 years to send an image of someone who is under the age of 18 years posing in an indecent sexual manner to a third party, even if the child or young person has given consent (Victoria Legal Aid, 2014). (See CFCA resource sheet Images of Children and Young People Online for further details).
Civil child protection legislation provides protection for children and young people who are or who are likely to be victims of online child sexual abuse. This may, for example, involve statutory child protection authorities intervening to protect a child whose parent has accessed child exploitation material on the internet.
Online child sexual abuse and child exploitation material offences over the internet are international crimes constituting a global problem (Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council, 2017). Online child sexual offences are dealt with in Commonwealth and jurisdictional criminal legislation. These laws cover access, possession, distribution and the making of material. Although there are definitional differences across jurisdictions, all Australian jurisdictions agree that such activities and materials must be criminalised (Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council, 2017).
Commercial child sexual exploitation
Commercial child sexual exploitation includes:
the production and distribution of child exploitation material
exploiting children for prostitution (sometimes called child prostitution), which may involve promising money, food, clothing, accommodation or drugs to a child, or more often to a third person, in exchange for sexually abusing the child
the abduction and trafficking of children for sexual abuse purposes, which can occur within or across countries
sexual exploitation of children in the context of tourism (sometimes called child sex tourism)3 where individuals (generally Western men) travel from higher to lower income countries for the purpose of sexually exploiting children (Cameron et al., 2015; Interagency Working Group in Luxembourg, 2016; Johnson, 2014).
In Australia, the individual states and territories have their own unique sets of laws that criminalise all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children. Although there are differences in how it is defined across jurisdictions, there is an overall commitment to working with other governments (domestic and international) to prevent commercial child sexual exploitation, to prosecute perpetrators and to protect victims (Cameron et al., 2015). For example, in Australia the sexual exploitation of children in the context of tourism offences have been in place since 1994. In 2010 the laws were reformed to broaden the scope of criminalised activities and increase penalties. The Australian Federal Police are active in their efforts to protect children in foreign countries and to prosecute child sex offenders in the context of tourism. There have been a number of successful prosecutions of Australians involved in these crimes (Johnson, 2014).
Exposure to family violence
Children and young people are often a hidden population within the family violence literature and discourse. Richards (2011, p. 1) refers to them as ‘silent, forgotten, unintended, invisible and/or secondary victims’. Forcing a child or young person to live in an environment where a primary caregiver experiences sustained violence is in and of itself emotional and psychological abuse (Goddard & Bedi, 2010). Children and young people who are forced to live with violence are at increased risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse (Dwyer & Miller, 2014; Goddard & Bedi, 2010; Mitchell, 2011). These children and young people tend to experience significant disruptions in their psychosocial wellbeing, often exhibiting a similar pattern of symptoms to other abused or neglected children (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, & Kenny, 2003; Mitchell, 2011).
Family violence commonly occurs with inter-related problems such as drug and alcohol misuse and mental illness. These inter-related problems exacerbate and increase the risks to children in these families (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010; Mitchell, 2011).
In all Australian jurisdictions, exposure to family violence is grounds for ‘when a child is in need of protection’ (CFCA, 2016). It is normally dealt with under the category of emotional and psychological abuse. However, in some jurisdictions (e.g. NSW and Tasmania) there is specific mention of family violence as grounds for protection (CFCA, 2016).
Additional forms of child abuse and neglect As well as the five main subtypes of child abuse and neglect, researchers have identified other types, including:
fetal abuse (e.g. unborn babies who are harmed or placed at risk of harm as a result of maternal drug or alcohol use)
exposure to community violence
institutional abuse (i.e. abuse that occurs in institutions such as foster homes, group homes, and religious and sporting groups)
state-sanctioned abuse (e.g. female genital mutilation in parts of Africa, the Stolen Generations in Australia) (Corby, 2006; Miller-Perrin & Perrin, 2007).
The relationships between the different subtypes of child abuse and neglect
The relationships between the different subtypes of child abuse and neglect Although it is useful to distinguish between the different subtypes of child abuse and neglect in order to understand and identify them more thoroughly, it can also be slightly misleading. It is misleading if it creates the impression that there are always strong lines of demarcation between the different abuse subtypes, or that abuse subtypes usually occur in isolation. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest many children who are abused or neglected are subjected to multiple forms of abuse and neglect (Price-Robertson, Rush, Wall, & Higgins, 2013). White, Hindley, & Jones (2015), for example, found that neglect (as opposed to other abuse types) is a particularly strong predictor of all other abuse types. Goddard and Bedi (2010, p. 7) found there were ‘high rates of overlap’ between intimate partner violence and child physical and sexual abuse. Vachon, Krueger, Rogosch, & Cicchetti (2015, p. 1140) found that child sexual abuse is ‘almost always accompanied’ by other types of child abuse and neglect.
Answering the question ‘what is child abuse and neglect?’ is not always a straightforward task. Cultural differences, questions about thresholds (at what point is the child experiencing significant harm?), determining ‘good enough’ parenting, and predicting likelihood of harm all give reason for pause and reflection. In order to make appropriate determinations about whether a child is or is not being abused it is important that professionals in all parts of the service system know the relevant laws and research findings, that they value and practice interdisciplinary work, and that their assessments and decisions are informed by the voices and experiences of children, young people and families.
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Chronic child maltreatment in an Australian statutory child protection sample (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Deakin University, Geelong. Bromfield, L., Lamont, A., Parker, R., & Horsfall, B. (2010). Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems. Family Matters, 88, 76. Broughton, D. D., (2009). Child exploitation in the 21st century. Paediatrics and Child Health, 19, S197–S201. Cameron, G., Sayer, E. M., Thomson, L., Wilson, S., Jones, D. N., & Florek, A. (2015). Child Sexual Exploitation: A study of international comparisons. Virtual Staff College [Online]. Retrieved fromthestaffcollege.uk/wp-content/uploads/CSE_exec_sum_final_publish_1.0.pdf Child Family Community Australia (CFCA). (2016). Australian legal definitions: When is a child in need of protection? (CFCA Resource Sheet). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Corby, B. (2006). Child Abuse: Towards a knowledge base (3rd Ed). Berkshire, England: Open University Press. Dwyer, J., & Miller, R. (2014). Working with families where an adult is violent. Melbourne: Department of Human Services. El-Murr, A. (2017). Problem sexual behaviours and sexually abusive behaviours in Australian children and young people (CFCA Paper No. 46). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/problem-sexual-behaviours-and-sexually-abusive-behaviours-australian-children Fernandez, C. (2016). Sibling Sexual Abuse Series: Part 1. Australian Childhood Foundation Prosody Blog. Retrieved from http://www.childhoodtrauma.org.au/2016/may/sibling-sexual-abuse-1 Garbarino, J., Guttman, E., & Seeley, J. W. (1986). The psychologically battered child: Strategies for identification, assessment, and intervention. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc. Goddard, C. (1996). Child abuse and child protection: A guide for health, education and welfare workers. South Melbourne: Churchill Livingstone. Goddard, C., & Bedi, G. (2010). Intimate partner violence and child abuse: A child centred perspective. Child Abuse Review, 19, 5–20. Interagency Working Group in Luxembourg. (2016). Terminology guidelines for the protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Bangkok, Thailand: ECPAT International Johnson, A. K. (2014). Protecting children’s rights in Asian tourism. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 22(3), 581–617. Kitzmann, K. M., Gaylord, N. K., Holt, A. R., & Kenny, E. D. (2003). Child witnesses to domestic violence: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71(2), 339–352. Mathews, B., & Bross, D. C. (2014). Using law to identify and manage child maltreatment. In J. Korbin, & R. Krugman (Eds.). Handbook of child maltreatment (pp. 477–502). Dordrecht, NL: Springer. Miller-Perrin. C. L., & Perrin, R. D., (2007) Child maltreatment: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Mitchell, L. (2011). Domestic violence in Australia: An overview of the issues (Parliamentary Library, Information Analysis Advice). Canberra: Parliament of Australia. Platt, D., & Turney, D. (2014). Making threshold decisions in child protection: A conceptual analysis. British Journal of Social Work, 44(6), 1472–1490. Plum, H. J. (2014). Legal responses to child maltreatment. Child Abuse and Neglect Worldwide, 1, 181–204. Price-Robertson, R., Rush, P., Wall, L., & Higgins, D. (2013). Rarely an isolated incident: Acknowledging the interrelatedness of child maltreatment, victimisation and trauma (CFCA Paper No. 15). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/rarely-isolated-incident-acknowledging-interrelatedness-child-maltrea Quadara, A., Nagy, V., Higgins, D., & Siegel, N. (2015). Conceptualising the prevention of child sexual abuse: Final report (Research Report No. 33). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from aifs.gov.au/publications/conceptualising-prevention-child-sexual-abuse Quayle, E. (2013). Child pornography. In Y. Jewkes, & M. Yar (Eds.), Handbook of Internet Crime (pp. 343–368). New York: Routledge. Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council. (2017). Classification of child exploitation material for sentencing purposes: Final report. Brisbane: Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council. Retrieved from http://www.sentencingcouncil.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/531503/cem-final-report-july-2017.pdf Richards, K. (2011). Children’s exposure to domestic violence in Australia. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 419. Sheehan, R. (2006). Emotional harm and neglect: The legal response. Child abuse review, 15(1), 38–54. Stathopoulos, M. (2012). Sibling sexual abuse (ACSSA Research Summary). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Tomison, A. M., & Tucci, J. (1997). 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1 In Australia children and young people are those under the age of 18 (AIHW, 2018). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child also defines a child as any human under the age of 18 years (United Nations, 1989).
2 In Queensland, consensual anal sex is considered to be an offence when the activity involves any person under the age of 18 years.
3 The use of terms such as child prostitution and child sex tourism imply that the child has given informed consent to the sexual abuse. The terms used in this resource sheet have been chosen because they better reflect the fact that the child is a victim of abuse and exploitation (Interagency Working Group in Luxembourg, 2016).
Authors and Acknowledgements
This paper was updated by Karen Broadley, Senior Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Previous editions have been compiled by Kathryn Goldsworthy, Rhys Price-Robertson, Leah Bromfield and Nick Richardson.
The feature image is by Aurimas(link is external), CC BY-ND 2.0(link is external).
CFCA Resource Sheet Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, September 2018. Last updated September 2018 Creative Commons – Attribution CC BYCopyright information SHARETwitter logoFacebook logoLinkedIn logoemail logo Further reading Understanding child neglect CFCA PAPER— APR 2014 This paper aims to provide a broad overview of child neglect, one of the most common forms of maltreatment.
Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse CFCA PRACTITIONER RESOURCE— MAR 2015 A practical guide for organisations, professionals and any other person responding to children and young people disclosing abuse Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse Reporting child abuse and neglect CFCA RESOURCE SHEET— OCT 2021 Information on how to report suspected child abuse and neglect, including key contacts in each state and territory
Who abuses children? CFCA RESOURCE SHEET— SEP 2014 An overview of the current evidence on who is likely to be a perpetrator of child abuse and neglect Need some help? CFCA offers a free research and information helpdesk for child, family and community welfare practitioners, service providers, researchers and policy makers through the CFCA News. Subscribe(link is external)
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GHISALINE Maxwell won’t reveal who she is secretly married to, say American prosecutors.
Evidence, however, points to this secret husband being millionaire tech company CEO Scott Borgerson, 43, who has previously been linked to Maxwell and is now believed to be offering £19 million as part of a bail package for Ghislane.
Scott Borgerson is the 43-year-old CEO of CargoMetrics, born in 1976.
The company processes data-analytics for maritime trade and shipping.
He has most recently been valued at $100million (£76m).
Borgerson lives in a sprawling £2.3million ocean-front mansion in Massachusetts.null
Is Scott Borgerson Ghislaine Maxwell’s husband?
It’s thought that Borgerson is Maxwell’s secret husband, after her matrimonial status was revealed on Tuesday, July 14, as Manhattan prosecutors accused her of purposely hiding her wealth, reports the New York Post.
“The defendant also makes no mention whatsoever about the financial circumstances or assets of her spouse, whose identity she declined to provide to Pretrial Services,” Assistant US Attorney Alison Moe told Manhattan federal Judge Alison Nathan.
It was alleged that Epstein’s ex had “stolen” the CEO from his ex-wife five years ago, in 2013.
The Mail claims that the pair met at an ocean preservation conference, with Borgerson’s devastated wife only uncovering the affair when she viewed a video of Borgerson and Maxwell “kissing and cuddling”.
They say that Maxwell had been living at Borgerson’s ocean-front pad, hiding out in the build-up to Epstein’s arrest.
Borgerson again denies this and says he doesn’t know where she lives.
Just days later she was pictured at a burger joint in the area.
An unnamed source said: “Scott left his wife for Ghislaine around five years ago. It’s just egregious what’s happened to Rebecca.
“Rebecca and Scott seemed like a really nice couple. But as time went on, he was very preoccupied and would be on his cell phone a lot, presumably on business calls. He was away a lot for work.”
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She moved to New York in 1991 after her father’s death and reportedly socialised with Ivana Trump.
In 1992 she had a romantic relationship with American financier Jeffrey Epstein and remained closely associated with him for decades afterwards.
On July 2, Maxwell was arrested by the FBI in Bedford, New Hampshire, on charges she conspired with Epstein to sexually abuse minors.