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.

"Before the age of 15, do you remember if anyone in your family ever touched you sexually, or made you do something sexual that you didn't want to do?"

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.

Maori girls suffer 'horrific' rate of abuse

5:00AM Thursday October 25, 2007
By Simon Collins 

A new international survey has found one in four New Zealand girls is sexually abused before the age of 15, the highest rate of any country examined.

The results show, for the first time, that Maori girls suffer roughly twice as much sexual abuse as European girls - 30.5 per cent of Maori compared with 17 per cent of Europeans in Auckland, and 35.1 per cent of Maori compared with 20.7 per cent of Europeans in the northern Waikato.

The survey, based on a World Health Organisation study that asked the same question in 10 developing countries and Japan, prompted sexual abuse counsellors yesterday to alert parents to the signs their children may be suffering unwanted sexual contact.

Nearly 3000 women were questioned about unwanted sexual contact before they were 15.

Hamilton Abuse Intervention Project co-ordinator Lila Jones said the "horrific" figures were no surprise.

"It's sadly quite rife amongst our young people," she said. "Our young people are divulging sexual abuse, particularly within the family and Mum's new partner or previous partner, but sometimes Dad has been the culprit and/or his mates."

Child, Youth and Family Minister Ruth Dyson said the sexual abuse of women and children "cannot be tolerated in a civilised society and we must act collectively and collaboratively to remove this behaviour from our homes and our lives."

She said the Government was committed to working with non-government organisations to address abuse.

Auckland Sexual Abuse Help clinical manager Kathryn McPhillips said the figures showed the need for parents to "get informed about what to look for" in their children.

"The signs are not necessarily anything other than the child being upset - withdrawing, regressing to some earlier behaviour, becoming more aggressive, not eating, eating more, going back to bedwetting. Sometimes overt sexual behaviour with another child or a sexually transmitted disease, but that's not likely."

The 2855 randomly selected women aged 18 to 64 in Auckland and northern Waikato were asked: "Before the age of 15, do you remember if anyone in your family ever touched you sexually, or made you do something sexual that you didn't want to do?"

After answering the question about their family, they were asked: "How about someone at school? How about a friend or neighbour? Has anyone else done this to you?"

Overall, the survey found that 23.5 per cent of women in Auckland and 28.2 per cent in the Waikato had experienced such abuse.

The median age when the abuse started was 9 and the median age of perpetrators was 30. Half the women said the abuse happened once or twice, a quarter said a few times and a quarter many times.

For 83 per cent of women, there was only one perpetrator. For 14 per cent there were two, and for 3 per cent more than two.

Uncles were the most common male perpetrators (24 per cent), followed by brothers/stepbrothers (14), fathers (13), cousins (11), stepfathers and grandfathers ( 9), other family members (5), family friends and acquaintances (14) and strangers (1).

More than half (54 per cent) of those who suffered childhood sexual abuse later suffered sexual or physical violence from a partner, compared with 31 per cent of other women.

Lead author Dr Janet Fanslow of Auckland University said the questions were clearly answered in different cultural contexts in different countries. For example, the lowest rate of childhood sexual abuse (1 per cent) was in rural Bangladesh, where girls often married as young as 9.

Auckland Rape Prevention Education director Dr Kim McGregor warned the survey covered only women so it did not necessarily mean that Maori men were also more likely to be perpetrators. But there could be more opportunity for abuse in the wider Maori whanau experience, with communal sleeping on marae.

Constantine, Larry: Children and Sex; Little Brown & Co (T); 1st edition (October 1981)

Time magazine used a review of this book to vilify Constantine. He sued and won. His research stood up to everything Time magazine could bring to bear on it. He was the first person, as far as I know, to sue Time magazine successfully.


Rind, Bruce et al. An Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Based on Nonclinical Samples
Paper presented to the symposium sponsored by the Paulus Kerk, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, on the 18th of December 1998

This article provoked a storm of criticism following its publication, most of it based on a misrepresentation of what the article in fact claimed, and including arguments for the appropriateness of the term abuse and for scientific terminology that reflects rather than contradicts consensual public morality. (In other words, scientific findings should be shaped by moral principles.)

The authors published a chronology and rebuttal of criticism which can be read at this url.


Burgess et al. (1984) found that the majority of their child and adolescent subjects showed vague or no symptoms while their CSA was occurring, but they developed many symptoms after the intervention of the criminal justice and social service systems. Rather than parsimoniously attributing these symptoms to the intervention, they interpreted them as posttraumatic stress stemming from the CSA.


The overstatement of child abuse researchers and advocates regarding CSA effects on psychological adjustment and memory led to profound iatrogenesis in the 1980s and 1990s (Nathan & Snedeker, 1995; Pendergrast, 1996). 





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Who wrote the questions?


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.