By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., and David S. Prescott, LICSW
In April in the UK the media reported that children born of rape, or any form of sexual abuse, would be designated as victims of sexual abuse. This was accompanied by a BBC documentary examining the issue and the challenges involved for those children and their mothers. This designation of children born of rape is potentially a two-edged sword as on one hand it acknowledges the harm that was done to them, and their mothers, but at the same time it potentially labels, and could stigmatize them. Also, it expands the definition of “victim” in ways that could potentially dilute it and draw away from the experiences of those who experience direct victimization. This new legislation, while seeming on the surface to be more proactive and victim-centered, needs to be unpacked more.
Sexual abuse is potentially traumatizing to its victims and the people who surround them; research, policy, and practice has borne this out. The life experiences of children born as a result of sexual abuse is an under-researched area. Over the years, through work with those who have been victimized, individuals convicted of sexual offenses, and organizations dedicated to preventing abuse, there are anecdotes of the impact of being a child born of sexual abuse, many believe it should be recognized as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). The experience is often related to parental separation, growing up in a traumatized household, diminished parental mental health, and substance abuse issues as well as psychological and mental health issues brought about by the disclosure of conception.
In the BBC documentary, victims of rape who went on to have children as a direct consequence of the sexual assault talked about how it impacted them and the relationships that they had with their children, stating that they were traumatized, depressed, and anxious. The mothers felt that the fact that their child was a product of rape directly impacted their relationship with their child with some rejecting the child, others distancing themselves from them, and others being more protective; all of which was driven by the child being a constant reminder of a traumatic event in their lives that they would rather forget. As the child grew and developed, they often found out that they were born of rape, either through their mother telling them or another means (i.e., a family member or friend), resulting in shame, blame, depression, and anxiety. These children often blamed themselves for what happened. The documentary highlights the intense feelings of shame, guilty, self-blame, anger, and resentment that the mother and child feel around the conception and birth of the child. This includes what these children represented; both mothers and children hoping that they would not end up like their fathers. The documentary ends with the mothers and children reaching a common ground and being able to move forward. In many cases, however, this was after a lot of support and soul searching. The documentary finishes with a need to recognize children born of rape as such so that mothers and children could get the early intervention and ongoing support that they needed.
Another consideration is that it is not always only about the children and women who have been victims of the sexual violence. (New) partners of these women and other family members as parents also carry a great burden when faced with such consequences of sexual violence. They see the consequences and are expected to provide adequate support. But this is not always so obvious. They too struggle with this and experience the impact of these complex situations on their well-being and their relationships with other family members. However, this group rarely gets a voice in research and practice. We should not forget them and offer them the necessary tools to deal with this situation and support them when needed.
The creation of new legislation will hopefully identify children born of rape more readily and allow them, their mothers, and the broader family system to seek support; but what does that support look like? This is not addressed in the legislation and additional funding is not referenced in the press release. In the documentary, participants talk about therapy, counselling, social welfare, and family systems therapy as all being things that they have used in the past and found helpful; but these are all costly. While it is important to recognize the harm done to people, it is also irresponsible to expose that harm and not support those individuals in processing it. The recognition of the challenges faced by children born of rape and its impact on them, their relationships is important. While it’s important that we recognize the harm we must provide services to help and support these individuals in dealing with that recognition.