The horrors of Pitcairn must be confronted, no matter how repellent, writes Barbara Biggs.
November 1, 2004
With all the stories that continue to surface about child sexual abuse, including that of Pitcairn Island, there is a dearth of information that can lead to a deeper understanding of this disturbing phenomenon. I can see some people asking themselves if, in this tiny isolated community shut away from usual morality, sex with young girls really is normal, as the islanders are saying. We're hearing it in the media every day. Who is disputing it?
Maybe the taboo on child sex is just a cultural construct and isn't really damaging at 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 unanswered. 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? Reporting of such bald facts leaves everyone curious. The public want an understanding beyond yet another story and to be more informed rather than titillated or outraged. Again.
The dangers of failing to educate ourselves about the complex psychological layers of this kind of abuse far outweigh any discomfort of hearing about the disturbing details. The media have a responsibility to inform - particularly politicians and judges - about this issue.
In Scotland, for example, 55 lenient child sex abuse sentences are under review. Why? Because the emotional attachment to the abuser is still misunderstood. In one case the abuser received a two-year suspended sentence because the girl had an orgasm. Another man received 90 hours of community service because the girl, then eight, said she was in love with her abuser.
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 when they are forming their new, adult sense of self. This warped view often prevents victims ever forming healthy relationships. Many child protection workers are stumped by such emotional attachments.
But in my experience, it is a normal reaction by a young girl, usually emotionally needy and also vulnerable because she is entering puberty. No one has told them there is sex and there is love and sometimes they go together and sometimes they don't.
This is why we have laws protecting girls from this confusing and damaging experience. In my view it isn't sexual abuse, it's emotional and psychological abuse.
I don't speak about this academically. I, too, fell in love with my abuser and hoped he would marry me after my grandmother sold me to a pedophile when I was 14. When the horrifying truth - that he wanted no emotional involvement with me -finally broke through my childish fantasy I became suicidal. When I was kicked out of his house I went on to live out the self-image he had given me, that of a sex toy. What followed was half a lifetime of chronic low self-esteem, depression and suicide attempts.
And if we think what happened on Pitcairn was an isolated case on an isolated island, think again. Better still, get out a video called Shame, the work of Michael Brindley, who was inspired to write the movie after hearing about semi-organised pack rapes every Saturday night in a country town in Queensland in the 1970s - the same period as the Pitcairn Island offences.
"I remember the girls were branded as asking for it," says Brindley. When people went to the police nothing was done. When a complaint was finally made - and one of the boys was from a wealthy family - lawyers arrived from Brisbane and got the boys off. He says it was the culture of that town - just like on Pitcairn.
Times may have moved on in the past 30 years but only because, as a community, we opened our minds and were prepared to take on board and believe the unthinkable. We're still only half way there. The rest is equally confronting and requires not outrage, but more complex understanding.
Barbara Biggs is the author of The Road Home (Sly Ink, 2004). This is an edited extract of an article first published in On Line Opinion (www.onlineopinion.com.au).
The devil lies in details of child abuse