Who wrote the questions?
"Maori girls suffer 'horrific' rate of abuse" screamed the headlines on the front page of the Herald 25 October 2007. The article is another Simon Collins special and I do hope for his sake that he is not responsible for his headlines.
The article dealt with a recently published "university-based international study" which placed New Zealand right at the top of the list of countries in respect of child sexual abuse.
Now one of the interesting features of Collins writing is that the actual information in his articles often calls sharply into question the message of the article itself. In this case, he quotes the questions actually asked of those who took part in the survey. I am assuming at this point that Collins is a sufficiently competent reporter to get these right.
The following questions asked whether anything of the kind had occurred "at school", or from a "friend or neighbour", or "anyone else."
Now this is not the same question at all as:
"Before the age of 15, do you remember if anyone in your family ever touched you sexually in a way that you didn't like, or made you do something sexual that you didn't want to do?"
OK. Maybe that might be unnecessary in a family context, but not in the others.
I spent 17 years teaching adolescents in the sixties and seventies, and my general impression was and remains that if any 13 or 14 year old girl had not done at least some sexual experimentation - it was called petting in those days and nobody stressed too much - they would have been part of a minority. There was even research around which suggested that a significant percentage of girls had actually lost their virginity before they reached the fifth form.
So, when categories like "at school" and "friends and neighbours" are included, not in "unwanted sexual touching", but simple "sexual touching" I am surprised the figure is not closer to sixty or seventy percent or even higher.
("Friends and neighbours" is also a grossly ambiguous term in that it makes no distinction between peer "friends and neighbours" and adult "friends and neighbours" and sexual activity seems to me to bear quite different interpretations depending on which is involved.)
Even inside families the sibling game of "doctors and nurses", or "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" was far from unheard of. To bring on the incest word here is just insane. Children are naturally curious, and siblings are often the most convenient source of information. And to suggest that any third or fourth form sexual activity is ipso facto evidence of "sexual abuse" is plain ludicrous.
Granted that sexual intimidation might and very likely did occur at times, and was then as is now unacceptable, this question, as it is written, does not distinguish between fairly normal child and early adolescent sexual experimentation and "child sexual abuse". Perhaps the context of the interview made "unwanted" understood, but the question itself does not.
So, right off, I am inclined to doubt the reliability of the survey. If its questions, as asked, had been answered honestly, I suspect a realistic figure would have been far higher, and would also have had little value as a sexual abuse indicator.
Personally, what I do find disturbing in the survey as reported is the incidence of intergenerational sex that appears to be occurring.
There is fairly substantive evidence, in a number of reports, that a significant, if not major, perceived source of damage in cases of intergenerational sex is the behaviour of the social workers and counsellors who have intervened following discovery. (The standard method of dealing with such reports has typically been to attack the researcher rather than the research.)
Nevertheless, I remain doubtful that any adult can be sufficiently clear of power issues for such behaviour to be regarded as healthy. The very fact of such engagement, for starters, suggests that there are difficulties engaging at peer level and hence likely problems around personal power. And further, in any case, it is not appropriate for any adult to engage a minor in activities that are illegal.
It does seem to me, however, that failing to distinguish clearly between intergenerational and peer sexual activity, between wanted and unwanted sexual touch, seem to be essentially and necessarily disabling features of this research.
I am, as many readers are already aware, a former member of the Centrepoint Community. In 1983, when local body politics forced the entire community to spend approximately a year in various temporary accommodation, we spent several days at Te Unga Waka, an urban marae in Epsom. In order to satisfy requirements of protocol we were decreed by the marae council to be "tangata whenua". It was made very clear to us that sexual activity of any kind in the communal sleeping areas was a definite no-no, and, as far as I was aware, that requirement was respected, and by the notorious sex commune no less.
It may be that Te Unga Waka was unusually strict in this respect, and as a "Catholic" marae that is just possible, but I have no reason to believe the prohibition is not widespread or universal on marae.
I wonder, therefore, what might have occasioned such an apparent cultural blunder as Dr Kim McGregor, the director of Auckland Rape Prevention Education saying, "But there could be more opportunity for abuse in the wider Maori whanau experience, with communal sleeping on marae."
It suggests, whatever the figures reveal, or hide, about sexual abuse among Maori, that Dr McGregor has limited appreciation of some specific areas of Maori culture and should probably take the trouble to do some homework before sounding off.
Or that her experience of communal sleeping areas may differ in important respects, certainly from those at Te Unga Waka, and possibly more widely among Maori.
Perhaps she does know something I don't, but I would not bet heavily on that.
There's yet one more tree I want to bark up before I go. When I was at secondary school at Waiuku in the fifties, of our 250-odd pupils one only was from a divorced family, and the social stigma for that pupil was considerable. Adultery and fornication, for that matter, also had serious social implications if they became public knowledge. Today, neither term is used to any great extent. They're simply not highly relevant in the wider social context. But other labels have come to feature, possibly even more strongly.
What has happened, since the eighties, is that all varieties of unwanted sexual attention, from wolf-whistling to gang rape, plus a number of consensual sexual activities between children, have been subsumed in the single term "sexual abuse", and all of it generating much the same sense of social opprobrium. To be labelled a sexual abuser is major bad news.
Now this kind of clumping serves only to confuse. The Otago project demonstrated this brilliantly quite recently, when it took the trouble to distinguish between degrees of violence in family discipline. It appeared that receiving mild physical discipline as a child was in fact associated with a degree of subsequent social success somewhat greater than those who were either violently disciplined, or who were not physically disciplined at all.
It challenged the whole idea that all violence is harmful, which has been almost immune from serious question for many years. It also reinforced the average concerned and caring parent's common sense in such matters.
It occurs to this concerned and caring male that until degrees of sexual abuse are once more acknowledged and examined separately for their consequences, much of the hysteria that pours out of the sexual abuse machinery is likely to be quite as damaging as anything it purports to deal with, and, what's more, in its dire predictions of permanent damage, very likely to be self-fulfilling.
5:00AM Thursday October 25, 2007
Before we go any further, let me make it quite clear where I stand on violence: I don't believe it is OK for men to hit women. I don't believe it is OK for women to hit men.
Nor do I believe that the common combination of intimidation, verbal harassment, putdown, windup, and so forth that often accompanies, precedes, or serves instead of, physical violence is OK, from either sex.
I believe it is sometimes appropriate for parents to use physical means to discipline children, but certainly not to the extent that physical injury occurs. We are not talking in this case about conflict resolution between adults, we are talking about appropriate limits being established and maintained for children whose upbringing is our concern and responsibility.
If you can't tell the difference between a child and an adult, I'm not sure you should be looking after children.