By Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate
It’s hard to accept, but child sexual abuse happens in every community. Prosecuting these crimes means that kids have to disclose the details of what happened to them, and it’s easier for them to do so when their caregivers can read the signs and are prepared to listen and intervene. Parents have a huge role in this.
In my last post I talked about what led me to talk to my own children about sexuality and child sexual abuse, with examples of how I’ve spoken to them. Every parent will have this conversation differently, but it’s important that every parent knows and understands the facts so that the conversation leads to prevention. So, let’s start with the basics.
What is child sexual abuse?
“Child sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors. Touching behaviors may involve touching of the vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks, oral-genital contact, or sexual intercourse. Non-touching behaviors can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography. Abusers often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats, or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence. Abusers frequently employ persuasive and manipulative tactics to keep the child engaged. These tactics—referred to as “grooming”—may include buying gifts or arranging special activities, which can further confuse the victim.” (Source: https://www.rainn.org/articles/child-sexual-abuse).
As I mentioned in the last post, child sexual abuse is a problem that breeds in secrecy, so simply speaking openly and publicly about it will enhance efforts at prevention. It is critically important to educate our children. They need to know that their bodies belong to them and that they don’t have to go along with everything an adult tells them to do.
We must encourage our children to feel comfortable talking to their parents about their bodies without embarrassment and teach them what kind of touching is okay between a child and an adult, and what is not. Parents should explain to children that offenders may try to trick them into keeping the “not okay” touching a secret. It is important that we help them to understand the difference between secrets and surprises, good touch and bad touch. There are more tips about body safety and protecting children at the end of this post.
We can remind children not to keep secrets and that no matter what an offender might say, it’s okay for the child to tell. Finally, when children are brave enough to disclose sexual abuse, it is important that we respond with calm and understanding and to immediately seek professional help – both mental health and medical care. It’s critical to do everything you can to protect the rights of your child by reporting the abuse to law enforcement as well. It’s important to do everything to help children to recover from such experiences and to protect other children in the process.
Who is sexually abused?
Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions and economic backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse affects both girls and boys in all kinds of neighborhoods and communities, and in countries around the world. In other words, there is no community that is not affected by this tragedy.
How can you tell if a child has been sexually abused?
Children who have been sexually abused may display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions, many of which are characteristic of children who have experienced other types of trauma. These reactions include:
An increase in nightmares and/or other sleeping difficulties
Not wanting to be left alone with a particular individual(s)
Sexual knowledge, language, and/or behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age
Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional changes, many others do not. It is therefore critical to focus not only on detection, but on prevention and communication—by teaching children about body safety and healthy body boundaries, and by encouraging open communication about sexual matters.
Parents, you must talk to your children.
Many people believe that child sexual abuse is a rare experience. However, child sexual abuse is not rare. Retrospective research indicates that as many as 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. However, because child sexual abuse is by its very nature secretive, many of these cases are never reported.
It is also a myth that a child is most likely to be sexually abused by a stranger. Children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust. Approximately three quarters of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or other individuals who are considered part of the victim’s “circle of trust.”
Perpetrators can be male or female, although the majority are male. More often, offenders are known and trusted by the children they victimize. They may be members of the family, such as parents, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts; or non-relatives, including family friends, youth workers, neighbors, babysitters, music teachers, older peers, or even clergy. There’s no clear-cut profile of a sex offender. Some offenders were sexually abused as children, but others have no such history. Some are unable to function sexually with adult partners and so they prey on children, while others also have sexual relations with adults. Very frequently, abusers are repeat offenders and a significant percent are adolescents.
Prevention and raising awareness are key. There are many actions that we can take as a community to reduce the prevalence of child sexual abuse.