We clearly understand the victims of child pornography are the children - but we are beginning to understand the innocent families of abusers are victims too. Photo: Stocksy
Her husband arrived at the door, accompanied by two plainclothes policemen.
The police were there to remove the computer; and to search the house.
They were looking for child pornography. And they found it.
The woman, now 68, had no idea – none at all. She knew her husband had a predilection for mature pornography but they'd had many long conversations and he had promised he was going to stop. In fact, he'd said he had stopped.
"Look, I felt he hadn't but people lie and you can't prove anything unless you catch them," she says now, five years since the police arrived on her doorstep.
"There was nothing in his character that made me think he would have gone towards child pornography; and even now, I know this sounds a silly thing to say, but the concept of it is still hard for me to believe.
"I believe it because he admitted it. I believe it because he was incarcerated."
We clearly understand that the victims of child pornography are the children. What we are only now beginning to understand now is the other damage done – to the innocent families of the abusers.
New research from RMIT commissioned by national not-for-profit PartnerSPEAK shows a band of women whose worlds are completely destroyed when the police come calling. Their families abandon them, their friends shun them.
RMIT University justice and child protection expert Marg Liddell describes what happens as "a range of almost snowballing factors that traumatise these women". It's not just the discovery of the material – although that is utterly devastating – it's what happens to the women who thought they were living very normal lives, with partners they thought were normal people.
The research shows a wide spread of ages – the ages of the women interviewed ranged from the late 20s to 60s. For the young women in the sample, the discovery of the child abuse material occurred when one of the young women was in her early 20s and three were in their mid to late-20s. Eight of the women were married. All of their partners were male. Four had divorced their partners after the discovery of the child abuse material and three of those interviewed were still living with their partners but were preparing to leave.
If you imagined for one minute that the offenders were all dirty old men, think again. And if you imagined that the partners of those men somehow secretly knew all along, you would be very wrong.
Natalie Walker knows exactly what you are thinking. You are thinking she must have known all along.
Which is precisely why she set up PartnerSPEAK, which supports and advocates for the affected partners and family members of those who use child abuse material.
She says: "For most people in this situation, yesterday this was the person they loved and trusted in the world [and then they find their partner] has been doing this horrific thing.
"That person has been lying to them for two years, ten years, a whole life."
Walker knows because it happened to her. Her partner was in his early 20s, a long way from the picture of that most of us have of old men, men who are alone.
"We were the couple all our friends wanted to be like," she says.
Most of us think we would know if our partners were offenders.
Walker says most of us believe it would never happen to us. "We think we are cleverer than everyone else, that there would be some secret cue we would be clever enough to pick up."
But she didn't – and nor did those in the RMIT study.
During the interviews for the research, many of the women expressed feelings of responsibility for their partner's use of child abuse material – but there were other feelings too. Shock, hurt, anger, extreme trauma and depression. For some, there was also a feeling of disbelief. Could this man they thought they knew really be a user of child abuse material?
And that was true of some of the friends and families of the women affected. Some minimised the offence. "He was only looking." Or: "They are only pictures, so what is the harm?" As the RMIT research shows, there is a real disconnect between that kind of response and recognising that for the material to be available, some child somewhere was the victim of abuse.
Some women were totally ostracised by their families. As one woman said in the study: Not a lot of people want to talk to me about this or be friends."
The woman who began this story tells me that for a long time she felt estranged from her own children. When she told her family how she felt, how lost, how hurt, her son replied: "It's not about you, mum."
She says now: "I think that families especially see the mother as strong, always supportive, helpful... and his mother was a mess.
"I was in a situation which was shameful and embarrassing and I did feel shame and guilt."
Five years on and her former husband has been deported to the US. She is trying to get her life back and sees a counsellor, but it is hard to recover.
"I've lived with someone who was lying and caused so much pain in my family. I felt like I was just a cover for his tendencies."
PartnerSPEAK offers a safe, confidential online peer support forum at www.partnerspeak.org.au. It also aims to conduct research and increase public awareness of this issue.
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