Most representations of child abuse (and to some extent domestic violence) tend to be portrayed in terms of drug-fueled degenerates or else debauchery among privileged high status power players. There’s little discussion about ordinary respectable-seeming hard-working middle-class people and what makes them either use physical punishment inappropriately or sexually abuse children, their own or those of others, without ever admitting to themselves or others that they are doing something wrong.
(I want to make a side-remark that a large part of the criminal under-class has all the earmarks of the respectable middle class: hierarchies, careful management, enforcement of standards, prosperity -- they’re just antisocial standards that support criminal activity by a kind of in-group. Not all of it is as dramatic as a TV show, and in fact, flying beneath the radar is one of their values. The crimes may be entirely on paper, but -- in terms of the larger culture -- as destructive as shooting people. Within the smaller self-contained group, this is simply what "our" people do. No guilt.)
Much of what supports and even encourages child abuse is old-fashioned ideas about discipline. I remember complaining to the parent of an unmanageable boy. The father sighed and said, “All right, I’ll beat him again, but I don’t think it will do any good.” It didn’t. And I had never suggested such a thing. But clearly the father thought he was obligated to do his part and had no argument against it. This was a white family, nothing remarkable about them.
Prison punishment, 1912
Calvinist religion put much emphasis on punishment, ultimately God putting individuals into eternal burning hell. In those days power was raw and torture was considered effective. Diluted versions of those assumptions hang on in our own ordinary government and -- secretly -- in full intensity. The ancient grisly practices persist in all their intensity in individuals and the Middle East. I will point out that in Africa the present tin god authorities were taught by the overseers of Empire, right down to amputation of hands and feet. (Look up Leopold II of Belgium). In unsophisticated parts of the world, some people confuse intense religious devotion with a kind of merging with God, which means trouble for the “children of God.” People still say "Spare the rod and spoil the child" and really mean it.
In my own family my humanist father was a spanker -- I’ve explained that this was related to pre-frontal cortex trauma that let anger get out of control -- but my mother used a switch on my bare legs hard enough to make stripes. My cousins on both sides deny any such thing and I never witnessed any of them “getting a licking,” but I don’t think my parents ever punished us in front of family or neighbors. My parent generation was moving “up” from the farms, as were the majority of people as the cities of today formed. They were used to managing animals by using a switch or whip. Children can seem pretty much like little animals. I can’t remember anyone in the decades after WWII getting upset about corporal punishment. Schools all had wooden paddles.
The counter-advantage of those places was that relatives could be a buffer who intervened for children in a quiet way, an advantage lost in the anonymity and mobility of the city. No one would even necessarily know how many family members there were, so a missing kid might go unnoticed. The more force is used to keep secrets, the more secrets there are to be kept. The more hard work is needed for survival, let alone upward mobility, the more stress there is.
Now to add the element of sex. It is generally agreed that much sexual abuse is not about the act of coitus, but in the imposing of authority, the assumption of privilege, a defense against the perp’s own weakness, frustration. and self-hatred. Sex is the core because it is violation of intimacy, the most protected of our inner selves, replacing it with ownership, stealing our souls from us. Of course, the perp gets nothing. Not even an illusion. Which is why he returns. Alcohol is a way to undermine resistance if you don't have access to date-rape drugs.
Sex has been a highly tabooed aspect of life, controlled by the notion of marriage which muddles entitlement with ownership while pretending it's about love. Few taboos still remain unexploited by the media. Men with an uncertain sense of their own life will be drawn to transgression, even within their own family. In fact, the incest taboo may add an extra kick rather than a restraint, the smugly risky feeling that they can get away with it. A little child who can’t yet talk won’t tell. What damage can it do? No marks on the body. Deep marks on the formation of the child from inside. And economic motivation for everyone to look the other way because it is dad who pays the bills.
Violence even to the point of death and sexual misuse are biologically deep in humans (those apes), and no culture yet has succeeded in controlling the forces entirely, though we try in many different ways. Probably the real maximum of protection is equal economic safety, which is not possible on a planet swept by drought, hail, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, catastrophic fire, and so on. We have not solved the problem of territory- or identity-based wars.
So what are we to do? If we are trying to develop a “better” civilization, then clearly secrecy and neglect are not the answer. They only perpetuate what we’re trying to get rid of. As we grow more able to understand and address the individual human brain, more possibilities for healing and protecting develop in our groups. Institutions are changing in response to what science tells us about the cosmos, the planet, the other life here including microbes. Less force, more strategy, better patterns for the creation and care of children.
The persistence of species is based on the conservation of behaviors and ideas that help humans survive as both individuals and groups. We can make pretty good guesses about what will be “conserved” but we may be wrong. It may be that those who are willing to get drunk, rape children, set cities aflame, kill, cheat and steal, will be the ones who survive. That’s sometimes the way it’s been so far. Roll the dice. Before we run out of air and the oceans become vinegar. Otherwise, why survive?