Child sexual abuse is the last and most disgusting topic in this series. As a survivor of this tragedy, I thought I had heard and read it all and that I had recovered. But in collecting and verifying statistics and information, I am sickened anew. Children are constantly warned to be aware of stranger danger but sadly, their greatest risk is in their homes and their day to day lives. Children continue to be raped and violated by parents, friends, priests, ministers, teachers and cub scout leaders. There are no pictures, for how could I depict this depravity? And as always, if this post triggers anything see a mental health professional or contact me.
Child sexual abuse as defined by the Government of Canada, Justice Department occurs when an older child, adolescent or adult takes advantage of a younger child or youth for sexual purposes, including for participation in prostitution, pornographic performances and in the production of pornography. Sexual abuse and exploitation is perpetrated on children of all ages, from infancy to adolescence. It includes every single type of perversion: inappropriate touching; anal, oral and vaginal rape; animal rape; gang rapes, often with simultaneous multiple perpetrators. It can start in infancy and go on for many years. Some of my clients began to realize in their late teens or early twenties that their father’s or brothers’ behavior was not acceptable. But when you’ve been abused from infancy, it’s all you know and it’s normal.
Types of Sexual Abuse
Non-contact sexual abuse
- making sexual comments to the child or youth,
- exposing intimate body parts,
- having a sexual fixation on a child or youth’s clothing or body parts,
- making sexually related phone calls and
- engaging in sexually related correspondence through the Internet
Contact Sexual Abuse involves making the child or youth participate in acts such as
- touching (fondling) or
- digital or
- object penetration of intimate body parts of the victim or the perpetrator.
Sexual exploitation may involve
- making children and youth participate in pornographic acts or performances for personal or commercial use. There is an increasing international dimension to the sexual exploitation of children through sex tourism and also through the Internet.
Dynamics of Sexual Abuse
Various tactics are used to gain access to, isolate, manipulate and control victims. Typically there is a power and age differential between the perpetrator and the victim. Perps are likely to be more knowledgeable about sexual activity. They may spend a lot of time grooming their victim, ie befriending them. Coercion in the form of threats, physical force, bribery, trickery or other forms of psychological force to gain access to, and make their victims compliant. Usually, the abuse becomes more serious, frequent and intrusive over time.
Extent of Sexual Abuse
Because of the nature of the acts, sexual abuse of children is grossly under-reported. The Badgley Report (1984), a cross-Canada study on the abuse of children, revealed horrifying statistics about the prevalence of these crimes in Canada. It reported that one in two girls and one in three boys were the victims of unwanted sexual advances before the age of eighteen; three out of five of these victims were threatened or physically coerced. Ironically, once a child is victimized in this manner, they are at greater risk for abuse by other people. (These rates are very high; more recent studies hesitate to postulate against the general population because of the low reporting rates.)
What are the Effects of Sexual Abuse?
Ironically, not everyone is equally affected in adulthood. There is great debate and discussion about this topic and every victim/situation is unique but at this time, conventional wisdom suggests that long term effects are impacted by:
- The relationship between victim and perpetrator: more damage results from a closer relationship
- The age of the first incident and its duration
- The type of sexual activity perpetuated on the child
- The degree of physical violence included in the abuse
- The response to the victim when he/she discloses the abuse
- The availability of a support person during and after the abuse
Signs of Sexual Abuse
- Physical complaints – headaches, nightmares, psychosomatic complaints
- Inappropriate sexual behavior
- Sexualized behavior including a preoccupation with sexual organs and bodily functions
- Behavior problems
- Abrupt changes of behavior e.g. sudden bedwetting
- Sudden awareness of sexual organs and sexual behavior
- Anxiety and depression
- Running away (in a recent study 85% of runaways were sexual victims)
- Drug and alcohol dependence (victims are 7 times more likely to become addicted)
- Self-harm, including cutting
- Understanding, beyond the child’s age of ‘dirty’ jokes and ‘blue’ comments
- Preoccupation with sex, including promiscuity
- Self-destructive sexual behavior and prostitution
- In adulthood, sexual dysfunction is common
- Suicide attempts (victims are 10 times more likely to try suicide)
- Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder), while not a diagnosis that is universally accepted, is one outcome of severe, ongoing, chronic abuse
- Personally I think one third of obese women have been sexually abused. I haven’t any sense of the numbers for men.
Beyond the obvious, victims have many issues to recover from their abuse. One client can’t tell if her skin is dry after a shower. She can miss places (usually on her back and buttocks) and not realize she’s still wet – thirty years after the abuse ended. She can’t tell if she’s hurt herself – after years of violence her nerve endings don’t respond normally.
This topic could cover hundreds of pages, but I’m stopping here. It is a very difficult topic to research and write about. My sexual abuse (remember babies like to suck) started in infancy and continued until I was 11. I married my husband at eighteen, because he was a gentle man – I knew he wouldn’t hurt me or our children. Love didn’t matter (although I told myself I loved him); safety was all that counted.
Like many victims, I buried most of the memories. Or distorted them. But at various significant times (turning 30 for me, giving birth is common for others) the memories or the feelings surfaced. And I would be thrown into a maelstrom of dis-ease and discomfort. Fortunately for me, I was willing to get help and thus began the work of changing a life.
The journey has been long and it’s not finished yet, but for the most part I have recovered. I have reclaimed my life. I wish that each of you who has been victimized like I was finds the same quality of recovery; the discovery of joy; and the ability to trust and form friendships, both in person and on the net.