Barbara Biggs: There is nothing normal about child sex abuse

The most disturbing issue in the Pitcairn case is the attachment of the child to the abuser
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The Pitcairn Island case and the relatively lenient sentences handed down to those convicted have raised again the highly sensitive issue of child sex abuse, and how far it is "normal" and how far the result of perverted behaviour.

The Pitcairn Island case and the relatively lenient sentences handed down to those convicted have raised again the highly sensitive issue of child sex abuse, and how far it is "normal" and how far the result of perverted behaviour.

I can see some people asking themselves, for example, if, in the tiny isolated community of Pitcairn, shut away from usual morality, sex with young girls really is, in fact, natural, as the islanders are saying. Maybe the taboo on child sex is just a cultural construct and isn't really that damaging after all. Maybe they're right. Maybe, away from civilised morality, girls are really "hot" for it, as one island woman professed.

Without analysis, or detailed, honest stories told by victims themselves, questions are left hanging. What are we to make of a 10-year-old girl who says she hoped her abuser would marry her? What do we make of a community ready to save itself at the expense of its female children?

We want to know more, but are revulsed by the details. I, for example, who have a story to tell from my own experience about the emotional attachment of the child to the abuser - the most disturbing issue raised in the Pitcairn Island case - am still told by editors (particularly of women's magazines, strangely enough) that people don't want to hear too much detail about child sexual abuse.

Not only do I not buy it, but in my view the dangers of failing to educate ourselves as a community about the complex psychological layers of this kind of abuse far outweigh any discomfort of hearing about the disturbing details.

I think the media has a responsibility to inform and educate its audience, particularly politicians, judges and law-makers, about this issue. Around the world, new and horrifying child sexual abuse cases are surfacing daily. The public is outraged. Yet more outraged still are we about lenient sentences handed down to offenders. There are 55 lenient child sex abuse sentences under review in the UK alone. Why? Because the issue of emotional attachment to the abuseris still so misunderstood. In one case, the abuser received a two-year suspended sentence because the girl had an orgasm and was therefore seen as a willing participant. Another man received 90 hours' community service because the girl, then eight, said she was "in love" with him.

Far from making the crime less serious, this emotional attachment, so common in cases where there is no violence, is the most damaging aspect of the abuse. It gives girls a skewed idea of love at an age where they are forming their new, adult sense of self. This warped view often prevents victims from forming healthy relationships for the rest of their adult lives.

Many child protection workers are frustrated, confused and stumped by the emotional attachment their clients sometimes feel for their abusers. But in my experience, it is a normal reaction by a young girl who is usually emotionally needy and also vulnerable because she is entering puberty. At the fragile age where a girl is trying to work out what the adult world is about and her place in it, having grown up on a diet of Hollywood romance, why would the Pitcairn Island 10-year-old NOT hope her abuser would marry her?

This is why we have laws protecting children from this confusing and damaging experience. It's my belief that it isn't sexual abuse, it's emotional and psychological abuse.

I don't speak about this emotional attachment academically or from a moralistic point of view. It happened to me. I too "fell in love" with my abuser and hoped he would marry me (my grandmother "sold me" to a paedophile barrister in Australia when I was 14).

When the horrifying truth finally broke through my childish fantasy, that the barrister would never kiss me on the mouth because he had no intention of having an emotional involvement with me, without the tools to process this, I became suicidal. When I was kicked out of the house because the sex had, for the barrister, become too troublesome, I went on throughout my teenage years to live out the sex toy self-image he had given me. That was followed by half a lifetime more of chronic low self-esteem, depression and suicide attempts.

In Australia, my childhood stomping ground, there was a country town where semi-organised pack rape was a weekly Saturday night entertainment. When complaints were made, police did nothing. The girls, it was said, were "asking for it". This was that town's culture in the 1970s, just like on Pitcairn.

When I was young, my family moved to a place that had just such a culture. I was a virgin when I was raped on my 14th birthday. My older sister was gang raped. One girl who reported her experience had her arm broken. We, of course, never told anyone.

Times may have moved on in the past 30 years. Let's hope, in many places and in many ways. But only because, as a community, we opened our minds and were prepared to take on board, and believe, the unthinkable.

But we're still only half way there, as the sentences in the Pitcairn case show. Forward ho. The rest is equally confronting and requires not outrage, but more complex understanding.

The author is an Australian journalist. Her autobiography 'In Moral Danger' is published by Metro Books

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