The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been heralded a new epoch in Australian life that will finally ‘break the silence’ surrounding child sexual abuse.

Sceptical commentators, however, have questioned how the royal commission will ensure children are better protected in the future when its restrictive terms of reference (which only authorise an inquiry into how institutions such as churches, schools and sporting bodies respond to child sexual abuse) ignores the 70 percent to 80 percent of cases of child sexual abuse in which the perpetrator has a ‘familial relationship’ with the abused child.

The limited scope of the royal commission is symptomatic of the wider gaps and silences in the national conversation about child sexual abuse.

That the vast majority of child sexual abuse occurs within the family setting obscures a larger and more significant truth.

Numerous studies have found that children who do not live with both biological parents, irrespective of socioeconomic status, are far more likely to be sexually abused than their peers in intact families. In particular, girls living in non-traditional families are found to have been sexually abused by their ‘stepfathers,’ either the married, cohabiting or casual partner of a divorced or single mother, at many times the rate girls are sexually abused by their natural fathers in intact families.

The 2010 US Fourth National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) found that compared to peers in two biological parent married families, children who lived with a single parent with no cohabiting partner were five times more likely to be sexually abused; children who lived in a step-family (with married biological and non-biological parents) were eight to nine times more likely to be sexually abused; and children who lived with a single parent with a partner in the home were 20 times more likely to be sexually abused.

Step- and single-parent families accounted for only one-third (33 percent) of all children in the United States but accounted for more than two-thirds (66.8 percent) of all children who were sexually abused. The over-representation of ‘broken’ families implies that if all children in the United States lived with both married biological parents, the rate of child sexual abuse could be halved at least.

Child sexual abuse statistics publicly available in the United States are far more comprehensive and meaningful than in Australia. Despite the scholarly interest in the relationship between non-traditional families and child sexual abuse, and regardless of the good evidence that family breakdown is a major risk factor, data published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) do not provide specific information about family structure, the identity of the perpetrators, and their relationship with the abused child.

The silence of the statistics regarding this crucial information should be corrected by the agencies responsible in the interests of transparency and informed discussion of child sexual abuse.

Despite family breakdown exposing children to greater risk of sexual abuse, the issue receives scant attention in this country. When the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) released a major report on child welfare in 2011 that detailed the studies and statistics demonstrating the links between family structure and child sexual abuse, the evidence was neither disputed nor acknowledged in the little public discussion that ensued; the report simply washed in and out of the public domain and left little trace on community attitudes.

Child sexual abuse is not fully and frankly discussed because the public discourse is self-censored by politicians, academics, social service organisations, and the media in compliance with politically correct attitudes towards ‘family diversity’—the socially ‘progressive’ and ‘non-judgmental’ fiction that says the traditional family is just one among many, and equally worthy, family forms.

In hindsight, we are justifiably critical of the silences that in earlier times kept child sexual abuse a hidden problem. Yet a comparable silence exists today. To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we need to speak openly and honestly about the well-established but under-publicised links between family breakdown and child maltreatment—especially given the strong association between childhood sexual abuse and major mental health problems, particularly among women.

Greater community awareness is needed of the impact the relationship and reproductive choices of adults have on child welfare. This could be achieved by a government-commissioned, anti-child sexual abuse public information campaign, modelled on pro-marriage campaigns in the United States. The campaign should emphasise that the two-biological parent married family is a protective factor that prevents child sexual abuse. It should also publicise how divorce and single-motherhood endangers children by increasing the risk of sexual abuse for the more than one in four Australian children who currently do not live with both natural parents.

Governments already conduct advertising campaigns—such as anti-smoking and anti-drink driving campaigns—to educate citizens, promote certain values, and change attitudes and behaviours. A public information campaign that advertises the risks associated with family breakdown, and promotes the array of benefits marriage bestows on children, would end the new silence that hides the culturally inconvenient truth about the modern family.

Jeremy Sammut is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. His report, The New Silence: Family Breakdown and Child Sexual Abuse, was released today. This article is an excerpt from the report. 

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow in the Social Foundations Program at the Centre for Independent Studies, in Sydney.