Hiding in plain sight

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.

11 thoughts on “Hiding in plain sight

  1. “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.”

    I am naturally skeptical of any research conducted using clients of DV shelters. These studies typically contain bias and are frequently self-serivng. Its not unlike studies of cigarette smoking funded by tobacco companies. However, this is a common finding, even in studies that use random sampling and are more scientific.

    The typical explanation is that somehow the women aren’t to be blamed for abusing their children, it is all due to the abuse from their male partners. the author’s quoting the New Zealand study immediatley following the above quote is typical of the way the child abuse is discounted, though this author at least continues to call it abuse.

    There is another explanation and that is that many of the women in the American shelters used in the study were the primary abusers in their intimate relationships. they abused their partners AND they abuse their children. The DV industry (and therefore the people conducting the study) would simply have considered these women to be victims and would not likely have entertained this possibility. Its part of the code of silence that you mention.


  2. There was an article on Feministe recently where a mother tells how she gets her (10-year old I think) to suck her breasts, because it gives her sexual gratification. Of course, only about 1 in 5 commenters called her out on it…

  3. “Society’s unwillingness to view women as potential abusers perpetuates this code silence.”

    What more needs to be said. The abuse dynamics discussed play out in all areas including Münchhausen’s. But that is a generic…..

    “Few involved with women’s shelters want to admit that women can be and often are just as violent as the men they left.”

    Every shelter I have been in contact with, and that is quite a few, have clear written policies for such matters, and if that is not admission, I don’t know what is! P^)

    It may be true of the US, but it does not apply to other countries. I know too many Shelter/Refuge workers and managers who would not agree with that one. Often such women are not provided support in shelters/refuges but only in the community. It is a known danger and flash point.

    The dynamic often reveals co-dependent aggression, and the aggression just gets shifted into the shelter/refuge and onto other residents and staff. False claims of abuse also do occur. Most fleeing aggressors are quickly dealt with and not supported in house.

    Oddly I have heard it as an excuse to not have shelters/refuges for male victims. P^/
    Apparently some believe that the only time a woman could be domestically abusive is when the man is too! That one gets shot down when it’s female on female domestic abuse.

    Some think of shelters/refuges as idyllic. They sure as hell are not! I have seen the explosions and people being shown the door, and tough luck if it’s the middle of the night and no where to go. Women with children are allowed the grace to depart at 8.00 am, so that the children are not endangered or their welfare compromised. They can seek support during office hours.

    I have even seen one woman leaving the local shelter/refuge on knotted sheets hanging from the window at 3.00 am. She had been ordered out and refused to leave. She barricaded the door of her room, and then exited by the window. I phoned the manager on duty and told them. The Response “Thank F the B had gone.”. Manipulation and power plays are nothing new in the shelter/refuge world.

    I’ve even seen some taken to the local train and put on it, with a label saying “One Way Ticket – Don’t Come Back.”

  4. Typhon, quite a few people call out the others for glossing over the “if you get aroused during breastfeeding, so what?” theme, but most of the comments from feminists basically support a woman breastfeeding a child if it gets her off and as long as the child and the rest of the family are cool with it.

    As I read the pro-breastfeed-your-five-year-old comments, I kept thinking about that South Park “Mr. Jefferson” episode.

  5. It is really telling that people at Feministe think that child abuse is “empowering”…

  6. Just two thoughts about the thread.

    They vilified the woman who spoke out and said that breastfeeding for your own sexual pleasure was abuse.

    And even if *you* don’t know any woman who’s admitted to sexually abusing her child in this manner, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

    I remember watching, a long time ago, a video in which a woman was forcing her breast on her infant, who was trying to push her away, while she masturbated.

    It happens. And it’s sexual abuse.

  7. Typhonblue i am stunned reading that.

    When will feminists realise that women are people too. And sometimes people are fucking paedophiles.

  8. Hooboy.

    Here’s the thing about the breastfeeding: It is generally best and it is natural for a woman to breastfeed, up until ages one or two. I don’t really care if it turns her on at that point, but please hear me out for the rest.
    Where it becomes abusive is when it is done to a child when it is no longer necessary and even more so when the child doesn’t want it to happen.
    A. No longer biologically optimal: if you do it past this point then IF there is a sexual thrill involved in it you are using the child for your own gratification, the child becomes the means to an end
    B. The child no longer wants it : add forced sexual contact to using the child for your own end.

    Now where I might get crap from you guys is that I don’t consider breastfeeding abusive even if mommy gets off on it if conditions “A” or “B” do not occur. Like it or not, human breast milk is made for human infants and its ridiculous to deny that fact, and I’m not interested in CPS getting in every breastfeeding mom’s business, unless she does it for an unusually long period of time, which usually means conditions “A” or “B” or both then apply.

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