Aboriginal Child Sexual Abuse
26 June 2007
I thought I knew. Until I read the Bringing them Home Report I was an Australian like any other non-indigenous Australian. I lived under a set of understandings about our past that were sketchy - well-intended but misinformed. Since reading that report and much of the highly contested but irrefutable Indigenous history, this knowledge has rebuilt me from the inside out. It is a way of ‘knowing’ that indelibly alters how I occupy this land and collect the dividends of colonialism.
Over the last week Mr Howard has read another report – Little Children Are Sacred – and has experienced, it seems, a similar epiphany. Yet given Mr Howard’s record of undermining Indigenous land rights through his response to the Wik decision, his dismantling of ATSIC, his marginalizing of Indigenous leaders, and his cutting of funding for a range of health, housing and education programs while espousing ‘practical reconciliation’ - it’s difficult not to view his epiphany with a grain of salt.
In fact Mr Howard has stated his motives. He wants to avoid the shame of inaction, such as that the Bush administration incurred through its abysmal failure to respond to hurricane Katrina and the ensuing ‘human misery and lawlessness’. Sadly, his call to arms, mandatory perineum examinations and forced taking over of leases are only likely to worsen the trauma of the communities, while they assist mining companies in the latest rush for dispossession. It is an extraordinary and unprecedented supposition that the army can operate as some kind of peacekeeping force for domestic violence.
Howard’s failure to respond to another national calamity of child abuse - namely the stolen generations - and his attempt to relegate it to a history that he had no part in, has already coloured the way he will be remembered. And after 10 years of sitting on ‘horrifying and sickening’ reports, he is too late to be remembered other than shamefully.
It’s been easy to argue; the Stolen Generations was then. Its national stain cannot be expunged because you can’t change the past. But the past indelibly shapes and determines our present and until we collectively reconcile ourselves to it, we will remain haunted by its ongoing impacts.
Arguably the trauma of the stolen generations is written through every page of the Little Children Are Sacred report. The sexual abuse of Aboriginal children was already endemic in mission settlements, church and government training homes, in pastoral and domestic work placements, and in foster and adoption placements.
Precisely because child sexual abuse is rife across all communities, it has a number of characteristics we can identity with confidence. It is cyclic, in that victims often become perpetrators. But this cycle is entirely decided by gender. Girls remain the overwhelming majority of victims, yet they do not go on to offend as adults. It seems paedophiles can pass on to their male victims a particular version of masculine identity, in which sexual intimacy is framed by violence and coercion, and the right of sexual access inheres in being an adult male. But for Aboriginal victims the cycle goes back further and is enmeshed in the ‘civilising’, ‘assimilation’ and ‘integrating’ projects.
From the first decades of settlement Europeans witnessed the calamitous impact of their presence on local Aborigines. Early colonials saw suffering through disease, alcoholism and violence. They sometimes wrote with dismay and resignation of the appalling toll of European occupation, but mostly they looked across the barrier of colour and imagined they were seeing a ‘Hobbesian nightmare’ as Howard calls it - a state of nature in which humanity is degraded by the daily grind for animal subsistence.
Yet they felt a deep ambivalence about making the ‘native’ over in their image. All their claims of racial superiority were beset with the insecurity that we were far from perfect and that ‘civilising’ ‘assimilating’ or ‘integrating’ Aborigines might not alleviate but rather contribute to their ‘benighted condition’. The drunken, brawling itinerant ‘savage’, of early colonial art was none other than our own civilisation’s portrait of Dorian Gray. By displacing that ‘moral vice’ on to the ‘Aboriginal problem’ we kept up an exulted image of ourselves.
All the contemporary signs of social dysfunction - alcoholism, pornography, domestic violence, child sexual assault: we’ve set ourselves apart from Aborigines by imagining that we’ve got a ‘handle’ on them. Indeed, over the past decades any causal relation between pornography and sexual assault has been roundly rejected. Not for Aborigines it seems. It is widely believed that Aborigines can’t ‘hold their drink’ and now ‘can’t handle their porn’. Perhaps what’s most confronting about the present crisis in remote Aboriginal communities are the implications for wider abuse of alcohol and access to porn in the non-indigenous community. Not because alcohol and porn disinhibit but because their modes of consumption can encode meanings of masculine heterosexual identity that tally with ideas of the right of sexual access through coercion.
From early settlement to now we’ve failed to relate the tragedy of ‘social breakdown and family dysfunction’ with dispossession: to see that loss of land was also the deprivation of economy, and without it law could not be sustained. Now we’re seeing a new push into Aboriginal traditional lands, under the guise of the moral absolute of child safety. We all agree child safety has to be established before it can be debated. And anyone who raises objections to Howard and Brough’s flouting of the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred Report are thereby ethically checkmated.
But European Australians have never seen Aboriginal men as part of their families. In early accounts there was sometimes surprise at their tender involvement in the care of children, but they were mostly seen them as unaware of their biological paternity, as unable to provide for their families, and as undisciplinary of their children. Given the traditional organization of care, law and resource management around future generations, it is ironic that whites have never really thought of Aboriginal men as fathers. But if Aboriginal families were seen to be improperly headed, then the intervention of the paternal state seemed almost natural. Howard has thus cast himself in a fatherly light.
Then as now we rushed to ‘save’ the children without any reflection that our institutions – church run orphanages, police ‘protectors’ and now the army – may not be the ideal state apparatuses with which to induct a people into our laws, our language, our relation to property, our way of living. As though there is no other viable way to live. As if our way of living isn’t in fact the crux of the problem.
Throughout the debacle of the Stolen Generations, children who were removed because of ‘neglect’ suffered the most appalling deprivation of sanitation facilities, housing, food, maternal attachment along with their rightful inheritance and the denial of their aboriginal identities. Few non-indigenous Australians know the truth of the chronic underfunding of the settlements – often at a third of the rate of white orphanages - and resulting child mortality rates. Incredibly the story prevails: ‘they get heaps’. Anna Haebich’s Broken Circles and Rosalind Kidd’s The Way we Civilise should be mandatory reading for all Australians – only then will the ‘heaps’ of state engineered destitution and shameful neglect be exposed. The ‘horrifying and sickening’ reality of assimilation is that aspects of our way of living were ultimately destructive of this nation’s first peoples.
We have reached a moment of reckoning. If we want to ‘save’ indigenous children for their sake we also have to reconcile with the failings of our past and not attempt to shift white ‘dysfunction’ on to Aborigines. And if we ‘save’ Aboriginal children only for our nation’s future, as if it were some grandscale patriotic paternity claim, we’ll once again displace them from their distinct and rightful inheritance as first peoples. And we’ll only compound the cycle of trauma, dependency and alienation.
Liz Conor is a post-doctoral fellow at Melbourne University researching white imaginings of Aboriginal women and children. In 1990 she counselled at the Bendigo Sexual Assault Centre.