All abuse is demoralising. However, the mechanisms implemented by the perpetrator of abuse can be very different.
At the charity Hope (Healing Our Past Experiences) we work with the non-offending and non-complicit female partners of those men who sexually abuse children. As such we are in a distinct position to document their experiences and add another dimension to the child protection assessment process which is informed and facilitative.
What we are discovering when working with the female partners of male sexual offenders is that a large number of them have experienced sexual abuse themselves as children. The figures are not statistically researched (although we now intend to) but our experience suggests that it is anything from 50-80% of these women have been sexually abused.
When working with these women to help them deal with the issues from the present shock of the disclosure of their partner’s sexual offending, it has been impossible to separate this from their unresolved childhood trauma of being victimised by sexual abuse, and their current betrayal by their partners as both wives and mothers.
Unlike physical abuse, they have not directly witnessed the incidents. They are therefore “split” between what they thought they knew made up their family image and the reality of the new knowledge given to them often by officials who do not know their own family.
To accept the reality of the abuse is a challenge to the structures and fabric of all the woman’s previous experience of her relationship with her partner and her family. It is no surprise then that the response of many is to deny the existence of the abuse or to deny the impact of it on themselves. For women who have also endured sexual abuse in childhood the resonance can be overwhelming, the “con” of the early grooming process is doubly painful for the adult survivor now facing a further con, both of her and her own child’s abuse. The reverberations to her own sexual abuse locks in and a normal period of fight or flight or most often “freeze” follows.
It is our proposition that this denial should not be viewed as abnormal, but a natural reaction to overwhelming information and a defence. If she accommodates her partner now than this is what she has learned from the original enforced accommodation of her abuser as a child.
We are continuing to review and establish ways of working with these women. We have learned that we need to be clear and protective while retaining non-judgemental support. In our adversarial systems mothers must be given time to respond to assessments and also helped through what is essentially a grieving process. We believe that essential counselling must be offered alongside ability to protect assessments before a resolution can be reached.
If a woman disengages and is not deemed protective to her children then action must be taken to protect those children without a doubt. However, it is essential to leave the door open for those women to return for help, advice or counselling, or at least to acknowledge their position. In cases of women affected by domestic violence, who typically make many attempts to leave the men who are abusing them, we would never ask them why they never left on the first occasion so how can we expect women who have suddenly discovered the awful secret of the man they love to suddenly walk out and leave the situation?
In the counselling process we try to help these women deconstruct their view of reality and find out what they really thought, felt, experienced away from the perpetrator. However, their timescales rarely coincide with those imposed by the agencies involved. What we are finding is that many of these protective mothers felt they were “on trial” by agencies.
The attitudes and behaviours of the professionals assessing such situations in cases of child sexual abuse need to incorporate as much awareness and empathy for mothers in these situations as in purely physical and emotional domestic violence.
For assessment purposes I have adapted the Duluth Power and Control wheel to incorporate some of the essential differences between sexual abuse directed primarily at children in the domestic environment and physical and sexual abuse directed at mothers.
Denise Alcock runs Fourth Dimension Training and teaches at the Centre for Employability and Professional Skills at Hull University. Contact her by email. HOPE is a charity offering self-help and support services for adult survivors of childhood and or adult sexual abuse