Online Child Sex Abuse as a Form of Domestic Violence: Implications for Policy

A recent professional symposium held in Melbourne presented research findings on the often hidden toll experienced by women whose partners perpetrate online child sexual abuse. Here Zoë Goodall, a graduate of the University of Melbourne and Media Coordinator for PartnerSPEAK, urges for a policy rethink in the area of family violence and victims of crime.

PartnerSPEAK is the only organisation in Australia dedicated to supporting partners and family members of people discovered to be accessing online child abuse material. It hosts an online peer support forum where partners of the offenders can share their experiences and seek advice from others in the same situation.

Recently ParterSPEAK held its first professional development symposium about the impact of online child abuse on families, where it was honoured to have domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty open the event by talking about gender-based violence in its various forms.

Stressing the connection between domestic violence and online child abuse is one of PartnerSPEAK’s primary aims. Our contention is that bringing child abuse material into the family home should be viewed as a form of domestic violence, and that people affected by their partner’s use of child abuse material must be viewed as victims of crime.

Trauma faced by affected partners

The number of investigations into online child sexual exploitation in Australia is increasing. In 2015, the Australian Federal Police made 11,000 investigations into this crime. Although online child sex abuse is gaining more attention from law enforcement, minimal attention has been given to the partners of the primarily male offenders.

Through our online peer support forum, and commissioned research undertaken by Dr Marg Liddell and Prof. S. Caroline Taylor AM, we know that affected partners frequently experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

The causes of the trauma are multiple: shock that someone they love could look at child abuse material; the stigma of being a partner of a sex offender; financial, housing and custody issues. From the online forum and research, we also know that partners are often not regarded as victims. Their communities may ostracise them due to ‘guilt by association’, and often the agencies they turn to for support – healthcare, counselling and social services – lack information about how to support them.   

Links with domestic violence

PartnerSPEAKadvocates that accessing online child abuse material be seen as a form of domestic violence against women and children. Just like other forms of domestic abuse, it brings violence into the family home. The sense of entitlement and objectification of women and children demonstrated by offenders is aligned with perpetrators of other kinds of abuse. Often, psychological abuse emerges: “no one will believe you” or “you’ll lose the kids”, for example. Furthermore, there is commonly a cycle of abuse where the offender is caught, promises to stop, and the couple enters a ‘honeymoon period’ before the offender is caught again.

Affected partners face issues similar to that of other domestic violence victims, such as relatives and friends of the offender minimising his behaviour and dismissing the partner’s trauma, being blamed for the actions of the offender, and experiencing shame, guilt, and disbelief. Without minimising the unthinkable trauma faced by the victims featured in the child abuse material, PartnerSPEAK contends that affected partners must be viewed as victims too.

Policy implications

Affected partners need to be acknowledged as victims of crime under the existing legal frameworks for secondary victims of crime. Based on the evidence from our online forum and Liddell and Taylor’s research, there is no doubt that affected partners are victims.

However, one of the obstacles to affected partners being recognised as victims – and having access to any meaningful support – is the inconsistent eligibility criteria for Victims of Crime services across Australia. Most states mention services for victims but do not mention secondary victims. Victims of Crime services also acknowledge that “gaps in service delivery” may occur if a victim moves interstate, meaning that an affected partner may receive services in New South Wales, but lose this support if they move to Victoria.  

It is critical that we work with Victims of Crime services to ensure consistency in the definition of a secondary or related victim, so that affected partners are able to access services in every state and territory of Australia. This will help secondary victims of other crimes also access consistent services across Australia.

In conjunction with being acknowledged as secondary victims of crime, it is essential for the experiences of affected partners and their children to be recognised as a form of domestic violence by federal and state governments. Therefore, the needs of affected partners should be considered in future policies and funding concerning domestic violence.

The number of affected partners will only rise as more offenders are discovered through the increased number of investigations into online child sex abuse. It is imperative that this growing class of victims receives recognition and support. Accessing online child abuse material must be recognised as a form of domestic violence, so that we may work with governments alongside other domestic violence organisations to help all victims rebuild their lives.  

PartnerSPEAK is a volunteer-run organisation founded by Natalie Walker in 2012. It is a multi-faceted organisation supporting traumatised partners in crisis, speaking-out about child sexual abuse, advocating, lobbying, educating, and fundraising.

Posted by @jrostant