Originally posted on September 10, 2010
One of the more insidious elements about child abuse is how abusers often hide in plain sight. They mask their abusive behavior in normal activities, keeping prying eyes from questioning them and confusing their victims. Many abusers will teach or raise a child to believe that the abuse itself is normal. This is particularly true with female abusers. Women who abuse not only mask their bad acts in seemingly “nurturing” or “motherly” activities, but they also play on social norms and expectations about women. As a recent article notes:
Female perpetrated abuse is often conducted in the context of an affectionate and loving relationship which children dare not risk losing. Studies into childhood sexual abuse have shown that young children have difficulty recognising the inappropriateness of a request when it is made by a “good” person, and research has shown that children can often feel loved, wanted and cared for by the parents who are abusing them.
This makes it almost impossible for the child to assimilate what is happening to them. As [Marc] Alexander observes: “Improper sexual behavior by women is grossly under-reported, partly because children are scared of saying anything against the main nurturer in the home but also because it can so easily be hidden in caring activities such as bathing, dressing or consoling the victim.”
The conflict between loving and abusive, appropriate and inappropriate is reflected in a 2005 study about maternal experiences of childhood of Pacific Island mothers in New Zealand which concluded that “abusive and supportive behaviours co-exist; physical abuse being recalled more strongly than emotional abuse, and mothers seeming both more abusive and more supportive than fathers”.
This betrayal damages a victim’s ability to trust women on a fundamental level because the very things women may do to show compassion for victims they know are often the same things female abusers use to control and manipulate their victims. It may also contribute to a victim’s willingness or ability to view the abuser’s actions as abuse:
The child remains trapped in a netherworld, potentially only recognising abuse decades later. [Dr. Robin] Fancourt, in her report on neglect and psychological abuse in childhood, makes the point well when she speaks of “the rare ability of children to conceptualise, comprehend, or verbalise what is happening due both to their developmental barriers and as a result of these forms of maltreatment being the expected background of family life”.
While victims may not potentially recognize their experiences as abuse until much later, they do experience the effects of the abuse throughout their lives. It effects all their relationships, their focus, their work, and their interests.
Society’s unwillingness to view women as potential abusers perpetuates this code silence. It allows people to believe that women never commit such violence or only do so because a man made them do it or because the women are crazy. The latter typically comes in the form of women suffering from some mental illness or women being victims of abuse. It is true that most people who abuse were abused themselves as children. However, the issues a person suffers as a result of their abuse are not necessarily the cause for the person abusing others nor are they necessarily evidence of some sort of mental illness.
The article also notes the victim as perpetrator dynamic. In some cases women who are abused by their male partners also abuse their children:
There is a heated debate about gender parity in family violence. Many studies argue that male and female intimate partner violence is similar in frequency and severity. This is countered by researchers who believe for example that women’s violence is exaggerated by bias and selective remembering.
Yet one American study of women’s refuge clients showed that 90 per cent of the women displayed aggressive behaviour toward their children. New Zealand government agency Child Youth and Family (CYF) also reports that about half of women who are physically abused by their partners also abuse their children, illustrating a key point which is that you can be a victim of violence and also a perpetrator of abuse.
Whether there is a direct correlation between domestic violence and child abuse remains to be seen. What does seem apparent is that women are just as willing to take out their anger and aggression on vulnerable people. This gets overlooked and sometimes denied in the domestic violence support community because of their politicized nature. Few involved with women’s shelters want to admit that women can be and often are just as violent as the men they left. This violence does not stop once the women reach the shelter, and it is possible that due to the nature of the shelters’ environments abusive women may have their violence reinforced.
All of this goes to show that it is not so much that women do not abuse as it is that people are unwilling to view women as potential abusers. This results in a code of silence that extends from the victims to society at large. No one wants to talk about female abusers, which in turns prevents any services for victims of female abusers from being created, which in turn keeps victims of female abusers from coming forward. The code of silence reinforces the abusers’ argument that no one will believe the victims and it reinforces the abusers’ position that the abuse itself is harmless, normal, and acceptable. It is only by confronting this issue and speaking openly about it that we can combat it. Each year the number of reported victims of female abusers increases. Some take this as an increase in women’s violence, but it is likely just an increase in the reporting of what already happens.
The more we talk about this issue, the more victims come forward. The more victims come forward, the more we shatter the myth that violence is something only or mostly men do.