The Monster out there, the Monster in here

I recently met with some friends who have a three-year-old daughter. The mother was telling me about the precautions that she takes to teach her child about stranger danger, the risks of childhood sexual abuse. My intelligent and well-meaning friend felt torn. She wanted to give enough information so that her child would be watchful for predators, but not too much to develop a generalised paranoia about newcomers, outsiders.

Like many parents I speak with about childhood sexual abuse, my friend is concerned about the Monster-Out-There. Perhaps a lurking mysterious weirdo ready to snatch a child at the park. Fears of the Monster-Out-There have been amplified by news stories of horrific events perpetrated by strangers. Stories like William Tyrrell and Madeleine McCann send chills through the spines of parents. The thought of your child being here one day and gone the next is horrifying, even more so when thinking about a sexual abuser capturing them.

And sexual abuse is very common. A 2019 fact sheet, published by sexual abuse charity Bravehearts, cites research estimating that 5% to 19% of boys and 11% to 30% of girls get sexually abused in Australia. Cumulatively, this adds up to millions of abuse survivors amongst us at present. This is one of the great crime stories of our time. How can there be so many monsters having such ready access to our children?

Because a monster is a human not a monster. And more often than not a trusted human.

Childhood sexual assault/abuse is quite a common part of my clients’ personal history. Of the top of my head, over the past few months, I was told of an older family friend abusing a male client, a father abusing a female client, an uncle abusing a female client, an older mate abusing a male client and a step-father abusing a female client. In all cases the abuser was a trusted person for both child and parent. In all cases but one the abuse occurred within the same building the parents were in, or by the parent themselves.

According to a 2016 Family and Community Services fact sheet, “girls are more likely than boys to experience sexual abuse involving stepfathers, biological fathers and other male relatives that takes place within the family home”. The same study states that boys are also more likely to know their abuser than not and “experience sexual abuse by their peers or others closer to their age more often than girls”. Bravehearts (2019) report that “more than 90% of victims knew the perpetrator including approximately 55% who were abused by a relative”.

The Monster-In-Here is often not recognisable as a monster. It is a brother, father, family friend. Regardless of the gender of the victim, the Monster-in-Here is almost certainly male. In many cases a beloved and trusted male. In many cases that I have been personally aware of, it is someone who continues to have an important role in the victim’s life. It is messy and confusing. All the harder sometimes in the victim’s inability to demonise the abuser as a monster.

It’s hard to advise about avoiding childhood sexual abuse. We can cite research, but there are exceptions to every rule. The Monster-In-Here is more often the abuser, but Monsters-Out-There still exist. That’s why I usually counsel to parents to improve communication with their child. Rather than teaching your kids generalised mistrust and vigilance, better to let them know that they can always approach you about any uncomfortable encounters.

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