As a criminologist studying organised child sexual abuse, I sometimes feel like I live in the ‘upside down’, the shadow world parallel to our own in the TV series Stranger Things. In the TV series, the ‘upside down’ looks like our own world, but darker and filled with unpredictable terror. Kids disappear into it sometimes, and occasionally something awful slips out of it to disrupt our brighter universe. For the most part, people would prefer not to admit it exists.
I’ve interviewed over 40 Australians who report being abused by groups or networks as children. I’ve met many, many more survivors from around the world. Each of them has escaped from their own ‘upside down’: a dark childhood ruled by abusive adults demanding their compliance and silence. Far too often, their own parents orchestrated their abuse. We now know that parents are amongst the most prolific producers of child abuse material.
Every victim of child sexual abuse survives in his or her own way, often by pretending the abuse isn’t happening. The majority of sexually abused kids never disclose at the time, but even when they do, research suggests that most children are not believed. When a child offers us a glimpse into their ‘upside down’, it seems that most of us don’t want to help them, or don’t know how.
Trapped between two worlds – the shadow world of their abusers, and the world that turns a blind eye to it – is it any wonder that some survivors also turn away from knowledge of their abuse? One study of women with documented histories of sexual abuse found that one third did not remember the abuse seventeen years later. Of those that did remember, 16% said there were times where they did not recall the abuse. Many could not fully recall what had happened.
The traumatic dynamics of abuse and memory make investigating and prosecuting complex sexual abuse cases very difficult. Profoundly abused children are the least likely to disclose their abuse, and even where there is forensic evidence, they may grow up having forgotten or even denying the abuse took place. Some may even ally themselves with their abusers who reinforce the victim’s desperate wish that the abuse didn’t happen. These impulses are understandable and require a compassionate and sensitive response.
Unfortunately, there are many myths circulating in the media and community that reinforce individual and collective denial. Since the 1980s, journalists have claimed that children make up stories of sexual abuse, and are encouraged or even forced to do so by social workers, therapists and police. It has become an item of faith amongst skeptics that investigators have a perverted interest in sexual abuse cases, to the point of inventing them.
This is ridiculous. When you work in the field of sexual abuse, the very last thing you want to hear is that another child has been hurt. However, when a child discloses sexual abuse, we have to take them seriously. Children are far less suggestible than people realise, and disclosures of sexual abuse should always be listened to and reported to the correct authorities. Child protection practices and interviewing techniques with children are constantly being studied and improved to ensure that children’s evidence is as robust and accurate as possible.
Nonetheless, people still don’t want to believe the ‘upside down’ world of sexual abuse exists. They don’t want to hear about parents who abuse their kids and allow other people to do so, advertising them online, making them available for money or circulating abuse images and video of them. One way to make this awful knowledge disappear is to attack the messenger, and blame the people who support child and adult survivors and investigate their allegations. This has become a common technique of denial and it’s not going away anytime soon.
“This idea is not coming from a bad place. It’s coming from a scared place.” says Mia Freedman. Post continues after audio.
There’s a moment in Stranger Things where one of the young protagonists confronts a monster from the ‘upside down’, and it invades him. When I’m confronted by people who deny the seriousness of sexual abuse, I wonder if that’s what they are afraid of too: that they will somehow be infected by the fear and the terror that comes with severe sexual abuse. However, it’s only by sharing in the knowledge that such abuse exists that we can understand what victims are trying to tell us, and hold perpetrators to account.
Through the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Australia has proven that we can bring victims and survivors of sexual abuse in from the cold. We can look into the worst aspects of human behaviour and come out the other side armed with new insights and tools to prevent abuse and support victims. As we move forward, we should stay mindful of our own instincts for denial and minimisation. There are still many kids trapped in the ‘upside down’, and many perpetrators who would prefer that we didn’t know it exits.