Awanui and Ani Black

Ani Black’s explosive child sexual abuse claims on social media last month — against her former husband Awanui Black, who died in 2016 — caused an uproar that’s still being felt around the country.

Not surprising was the sudden need to pick a side.

According to the Facebook judicial system and carpark hui tribunals, and depending on which side you landed, either Awanui and his friends are now guilty, without any investigation, of pedophilia and running a pedophile ring — or Ani is just a woman scorned, with mental health issues and a questionable friend with supernatural powers.

But, regardless of anybody’s point of view, Ani has created a space for us to talk about child sexual abuse — a space for victims/survivors to be courageous and brave and speak out about what their abusers did to them. She has ripped the blindfolds from our eyes and initiated confronting conversations within communities, whānau, hapū and iwi.

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I have witnessed the outcome of this kōrero first-hand — through discussions, emails, and private messages from both victims/survivors and offenders of child sexual abuse who have reached out for support.

Some have disclosed their abuse for the first time, while others have been on a lifetime journey and are still trying to understand what happened. Whānau have also reached out for support in convening hui within their own families to address historical claims of sexual abuse.

This is good news.

Māori in Awanui and Ani’s circle have chosen a side, and so their energy has gone into proving and protecting their truth. This is an understandable and valid response, and we should let them get on with what they need to do.

But while the fight for whose truth is the truth continues, the reality of child sexual abuse remains the same. High. Under-reported. Not understood. Silent.

Some have argued that Awanui Black has been used as a pawn to push peoples’ agendas about child sexual abuse. I agree to some extent with this, but not in the negative vein in which it was intended.

I agree because those on the periphery of this story, who are less emotionally attached to the people involved, are confronted only with the issue of child sexual abuse. And so there’s an opportunity, and a responsibility, to ensure that this story is used in a constructive way to effect change.

I’m one of those who sits on the periphery, and the best way I feel I can contribute is by addressing child sexual abuse in my capacity as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve spent some time working with people on all sides of the issue: perpetrators, victims/survivors, and whānau.

My journey working with perpetrators of child sexual abusers began in my internship year, where I was conned — it felt like that, but probably didn’t happen that way — into working at a child sex offenders treatment unit.

Like most people, I shared the same negative views about child sex offenders, but I soon realised that I had to get over myself pretty fast if I was going to get through my internship year.

And so I was forced to understand the perspective of child sex offenders. I had to help them understand how they came to offend. I had to help them heal. To learn their triggers and early warning signs. To help them put in place a safety plan to keep themselves from re-offending.

It became one of the best learning experiences of my life. I was forced to understand a world that nobody wants to go near, a world that is rarely seen, but which ultimately enriched my understanding of child sex abuse.

Child sexual abuse is one of the most difficult topics to discuss without putting yourself in the firing line. It’s difficult for people to engage in an objective conversation about this issue when all they can imagine is a small child being molested, raped, sodomised, and whatever other imagery is conjured up in the conversation. I understand that.

I also understand that I have been blessed. I’ve never been abused and I’ve never offended against children — or anyone else for that matter.

But with that blessing comes a responsibility to understand the issue of child sexual abuse from all angles, and to offer some light and objectivity to an extremely sensitive issue, to prevent it from happening altogether.

I don’t believe that victims/survivors of sexual abuse should have to understand their abuse from an offender’s perspective — but I do hope that those who’ve been blessed, like me, are able to do that.

Because, until we learn to understand child sexual abuse from all perspectives, including that of the offender, we cannot truly bring about the change we need to protect our babies.

It’s important to point out that many child sex offenders have been victims/survivors of child sexual abuse. Victims create victims.

That doesn’t mean that all victims/survivors will go on to offend, but it sheds a different light on how offending against a child can occur.

Experiencing traumatic events such as child sexual abuse has the potential to rewire a brain — for want of a better term — to view relationships, intimacy, and sex abnormally, and it can have an impact on our ability to regulate our emotions. The extent of this rewiring depends on a number of factors.

Child sexual abuse includes a wide range of sexual activities, including fondling genitals (underneath or on top of clothing), attempted fondling, child pornography, exposing children to pornography or sexual acts, oral to genital touch, exhibitionism, intercourse, attempted intercourse, and so on.

Such a diverse range of child sex offences means the impact and outcomes for victims/survivors vary as well. There are other factors that make a difference, too, like the relationship to the abuser, the age of the abuser and perpetrator, the length of the abuse, the severity of the abuse, and the child’s own coping mechanisms.

The interplay of all these variables, as well as other environmental and social factors, will determine the outcome for the victim/survivor.

Child sexual offenders are such a heterogeneous group that it’s difficult to generalise about them.

We don’t fully understand child sexual offending yet. We’ve come a fair way in understanding abuse from the perspective of victims/survivors. As a society, we’re willing to understand them — because we empathise with them, we want to protect them and help them heal. And we have been fierce in this support.

But, in our efforts to do so, we have unconsciously perpetuated the secrecy and darkness that breeds child sexual abuse. We’ve done this partly because of our explicitly hostile and violent response to child sex offenders. (For the record, I completely understand that response.)

Such hostile responses might be appropriate if we could identify all of the child sex offenders in the world, but the reality is that most child sex offenders are currently walking our streets, living in our communities, hurting our babies.

We can’t put a bullet in the heads of the invisible offender. We can’t castrate the invisible offender. That argument is narrow-minded, illogical — and old.

Vilifying child sex offenders pushes them further and further into the darkness where abuse thrives, because the risk of offending increases the more isolated they become.

If we want perpetrators to stop offending, we need to create a safe space for them to seek and receive the support they need. This is the hardest part to understand, and requires us to dig deep.

In the same vein, if we want victims to speak up we need to create a safe space for them to do so, where they will not be judged and re-victimised.

There’s a vicious cycle in the way we talk, or don’t talk, about child sexual abuse, which thrives in the secrecy and darkness that we wrap around it, and in our reluctance to confront it.

Our silence serves a number of functions. It protects us from being labelled “the troublemaker”, and from being condemned by others. It protects our own secrets. And it helps us avoid the issue altogether.

But our silence has enabled child sex offenders to continue hurting our babies. It has restricted our ability to talk constructively about child sexual abuse, and, as such, we don’t know what to do about it when it occurs. These feelings are uncomfortable and our natural response is to withdraw in the hope that it will all pass.

And it does — until the next time it pops up. But, in the meantime, in our silence, the voices of our babies have been lost. Our silence has told our babies that they are worthless. That we don’t care. We’ve turned a blind eye and left them alone and helpless.

So what can we do to contribute to this issue constructively?

We can start by being guided by a united vision about what we want for our babies. We want our babies to be safe, to be raised in environments that are full of love. We want our babies to know what healthy relationships are because they have them with their whānau. We want our babies to have positive, deep connections with their whānau that are empowering and unwavering.

These are the end goals. Let’s have these goals in mind when we’re thinking of ways to manage child sexual abuse in our communities. There is no room in these aspirations for the segregation of anyone or any group.

We should also be mindful of the little gossip sessions we have when we hear a rumour about a victim and their whānau. As disclosures begin to unfold, our babies are watching every move we make. They’re watching how we respond to those disclosures. They’re listening to how we talk about the victims that have come forward.

So, grab your lips and hold them tight if you think you might pass any critical judgment about any victim and/or their families. You don’t know their story.

Our response, now more than ever, will have the greatest impact on whether our children will have the courage to talk to us and come forward with their experiences of abuse. Don’t be the reason they stay silent.

Let’s be brave. Let’s talk about child sexual abuse with each other and our babies. Let’s encourage one another to speak up. Let’s wrap ourselves around our whānau who need support, and celebrate those who have come forward. Let’s break the silence.

And let’s be more thoughtful about our own behaviour and think about the bigger picture.

The can of worms has been opened. Let it stay open. Let the worms pour out. Let us prepare ourselves to facilitate the healing of a wave of courageous and brave victims/survivors ready to come forward with their stories. They are coming.

 

Dr Kiri Tamihere-Waititi (Ngāti Porou/Ngāpuhi/Whakatōhea) is a clinical psychologist and head of Whānau Ora services at Te Rūnanga o Te Whānau, in Te Whānau ā Apanui.

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