Family structure and child sexual abuse

One of the most prevalent myths about child sexual abuse is that it has only really one cause—the deviant sexual interests of a sadistic perpetrator. But only a small minority of real-life cases resemble that stereotype. The reality is more nuanced: there’s a network of risk factors that can make a child more susceptible to sexual abuse, which are counterbalanced by a network of protective factors that can make them less susceptible. The family structure that a child grows up in is one factor that can have either a protective or an adverse impact on their safety.

Statistically, one of the biggest single risk factors is when a child lives in a household with a single mother and a cohabiting male partner. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with being a single mother with a cohabiting male partner, nor that most men who date such women would ever commit sexual abuse. Remember that child sexual abuse has more than one cause. Single motherhood exacerbates a whole range of other risk factors, such as poverty and homelessness. Untangling these is complex,  just as the higher rates of sexual abuse of black children and transgender children are inextricable from our society’s history of racism and transphobia.

So it isn’t necessarily the case that all non-traditional family structures pose a higher risk of child sexual abuse. Indeed, the statistics don’t point that way; for example, there is little difference in perpetration rates between married and unmarried cohabiting couples, nor is there a very high rate of perpetration by adoptive couples. It’s even possible that there might be safer relationship dynamics for children than the traditional exclusive heterosexual marriage.

Polyamory and child sexual abuse

Polyamory is a good illustration of this possibility. On the surface, it might be assumed that having more unrelated adults in a household with children would be extremely risky, by multiplying the likelihood that one of the adults might commit an act of abuse. But the only long term, peer-reviewed study of hundreds of members of polyamorous families contradicts that assumption, and echoes anecdotal evidence from the community itself that polyamorous families don’t pose a greater risk to children.

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, the author of that study and an expert on children in polyamorous families, affirms that the extent to which polyamorous families are safe for children is the product of a variety of protective features and adverse features that are commonly present in such families. She writes:

As in all relationship styles, polyamorous relationships have the potential for abuse. Depending on how people handle it, the multiple partners in polyamorous relationships could be either helpful in preventing or stopping abuse, or could contribute to creating and perpetuating the abuse.

The 3 Cs of polyamorous parenting

Cards on the table, I’m not a researcher or an expert, I am a person who works in child protection, a childcare specialist, a happily polyamorous woman, and “bonus mom”. All three of my current partners have kids which means I get to share in the joy of helping to raise six awesome people! In my time in the poly trenches and in childcare, I have learned a lot about how parenting with partners works. Here are some things I have found helpful that all happen to start with the same letter!

  1. Communication

    Communication is the cornerstone of every healthy relationship. It’s impossible to get anything done effectively without communication. Raising kids requires constant communication between parents, partners, and kids. The idea of all this talking can sound kind of daunting with extra people involved and I won’t lie, once in a while things get lost in translation. However, poly also means there are more people to communicate to. Much as it can sometimes be hard to make sure everyone gets a message, extra parents means there is more likely to be one available at any given time.

    Communication styles differ greatly from person to person even within a biologically related family. Every adult is not necessarily the right adult for every conversation. So with extra adults around, a child who has trouble talking to one parent, has others to choose from who can then resolve an issue or help them to get their message across.

    I have been the adult a child went to when they were worried that mom or dad might be mad or they didn’t know how to tell them something. It’s a pretty great experience to hold someone’s hand and encourage them to say what they need to say and know they feel safe saying it to you.

  2. Coparenting

    Parenting is hard. Coparenting makes it less hard. The basic idea of co-parenting is ensuring that all parents are on the same page and are thus able to present a united front for their children. But it’s really more than that. Communication between parents keeps the family on track. Checking in with your coparents allows everyone the chance to express frustration and joy. Support between parents means more support for children.

    We all need breaks, having extra parents around makes that a reality. It truly takes a village to raise happy, healthy, kids… and parents.

    Having other coparents around can also reduce the risk that an adult who is having trouble coping will take that out on the child. Hopefully it will never be necessary, but there is always the possibility of their coparent stepping in if they observe an unhealthy situation developing.

  3. Consent

    Few things in relationships are more important than consent. One of the tricky things about being a bonus parent in a poly relationship is that you don’t always know where the line is between you and your partner’s child. Communication and coparenting help to make sure consent is obtained and understood.

    A good for instance is discipline. This is a tricky topic no matter how many parents are involved. Every family has a different structure, every structure handles things like discipline differently. So, if I see behavior from a bonus kid that I think needs correcting and am unsure how my partner would feel about me correcting them, I communicate and either obtain consent or back off accordingly.

    We owe it to our kids to demonstrate strong models of consensual relationships. They see and learn from how we treat others, they notice when we set one standard for ourselves and another standard for them. Since polyamorous relationships are built on a foundation of consent, they provide parents with an opportunity to model consent-based relationships, rather than simply lecturing their kids about the concept.

Conclusion

As far as we know, there is no perfect family structure that guarantees happy, healthy, successful kids. What we do know is that there are ways to make most family structures work provided they are free of toxicity and abuse. A few important principles around communication, coparenting, and consent can go a long way towards making any family successful.

There are risk factors for children in any given relationship dynamic. The best we can do is remain vigilant and work as a team in raising them. But there are other ways we can help children remain safe. Lessons learned from watching parents communicate, work together, and support each other gives children a model for their own behavior. Kids who communicate and understand consent are less at risk of abuse and more likely to recognize inappropriate behaviors around them. When parents communicate effectively with their children and coparents, it becomes much harder for problems to slip through the cracks.

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