child sexual abuse has been at the center of unprecedented public attention during the last decade. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted statutes identifying child sexual abuse as criminal behavior. This crime encompasses different types of sexual activity, including voyeurism, sexual dialogue, fondling, touching of the genitals, rape and forcing children to participate in pornography or prostitution.
Child sexual abuse can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative; or outside the home, by a friend, neighbor, child care person, teacher or stranger. When sexual abuse has occurred, a child can develop a variety of distressing feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
- Psychological Effects
- Child Sexual Abuse Victims
- Adult Survivors
No child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a 2- or 3-year-old, who is not aware that sexual activity is wrong, will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the situation.
The child 5 years or older, who may know and care for the abuser, becomes trapped between affection and loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.
A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and a distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.
Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms. Some sexually abused children may become perpetrators themselves, or may have other serious problems when they reach adulthood.
Often there are no obvious external signs of child sexual abuse. Some signs can only be detected during a physical exam by a pediatrician.
Child Sexual Abuse Victims
Although child sexual abuse is reported almost 90,000 times a year, the numbers of unreported abuse is far greater because children are often afraid to tell anyone what has happened, and the legal procedure for validating the abuse is difficult.
- 67 percent of all victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies were juveniles under the age of 18; 34 percent of all victims were under age 12.
- One of every seven victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies were under 6.
- 40 percent of the offenders who victimized children under age 6 were juveniles under the age of 18.
Studies have not found differences in the prevalence of child sexual abuse among different social classes or races. However, parental inadequacy, unavailability, conflict and a poor parent-child relationship are among the characteristics that distinguish children at risk of being sexually abused.
According to studies by the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, girls are sexually abused three times more often than boys, whereas boys are more likely to die or be seriously injured from the abuse. Both boys and girls are most vulnerable to abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.
Once a child discloses the abuse, an appropriate response is extremely important to the child’s healing process. The adult being confided in should:
- Encourage the child to talk openly
- Reassure the child that he or she is not to blame, and
- Seek medical and psychological assistance
Family members may also benefit from mental health services.
Suspicions of child sexual abuse should be reported to a child protective service agencies or law enforcement. Local child protection agencies investigate abuse by family members and the police investigate abuse outside of the family. The law requires professionals who work with children to report suspected neglect or abuse to child protective services.
Survivors of child sexual abuse use coping mechanisms to deal with the horror of the abuse. One such mechanism, protective denial, entails repressing some or all of the abuse. This may cause significant memory gaps that can last months or even years.
Victims also use dissociative coping mechanisms, such as becoming numb, to distance themselves from the psychological and physiological responses to the abuse. They may also turn to substance abuse, self-mutilation and eating disorders.
In order to recover, adult survivors must adopt positive coping behaviors, forgive themselves, and relinquish their identities as survivors. The healing process can begin when the survivor acknowledges the abuse.
Societal influences play a big role in the recovery process. Although males are raised to shoulder responsibility for what happens to them, male victims need to understand that the victimization was not their fault. Only then can they begin to accept that they were not responsible for the abuse.
- Prevent Child Abuse America: preventchildabuse.org
- Cyber Tipline: missingkids.org/cybertipline or 1-800-843-5678
- National Center for Victims of Crime: victimsofcrime.org
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: missingkids.com
- Child Abuse Prevention Association: http://capacares.org/