During a recent interview, Bob Matthews, Clinical Psychologist at the local Victim Assistance Center, shared both personal insights and important information.
Bob defines sexual abuse this way: “Any type of exploitation of children of a sexual nature – it runs the gamut from comments about bodies to intercourse. If it is obtrusive to the person who is on the receiving end, it is abuse. Abuse usually starts long before the first touch.”
He shared the following national statistics:
One out of every four females is sexually abused before the age of sixteen.
One out of every six males is sexually abused before the age of eighteen.
One in three women will be raped in their lifetime.
Bob works with children between the ages of two and fourteen. His average client is eight years old. The female-to-male client ratio is 60% females and 40% males.
According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, women with a childhood history of sexual abuse are 4.7 times more likely to be subsequently raped. Girls who were raped are about three times more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders and more than four times more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse as adults. Women who are raped face a 50-95% chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
In more than 90% of all cases of sexual abuse, the abuser is someone the victim knows well and trusts. Most often, it is a member of the immediate family or a close relative. Many times, the abuser is an acquaintance – a friend of the family or a neighbor. It is rarely the “Stranger Danger” that we warn our children about. In 2001, approximately 81% of child victims of sexual abuse were assaulted by a parent, relative, or someone who lived in their house.
The statistics are staggering and unnerving, to say the least of it. That means many who read this could commiserate; the familiarity of this piece will hit home – perhaps, uncomfortably.
There is no profile of an abuser. There’s no rhyme or reason; it transcends gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic boundaries; and solid homes/dysfunctional homes.
Of course, all children react differently, but the most common effects are that children become less trustful of adults and experience fears and anxieties, lack confidence, and suffer from low self-esteem. Sometimes, the reverse can also happen: children become too trusting of adults.
There are signs to watch for: very young children who are affected tend to act out, touching each other; they may ask mature-content-type questions about sexual acts; they may exhibit unusual kissing behavior, as in adult-type kissing; they may express distress at being alone with a certain person (“I don’t want to stay home with Daddy today.”). In a preteen child, behavior patterns may change, such as a drop in school grades; a sudden disinterest in a previously-loved sport; depression; dressing in layers (false protection); or changes in eating habits, such as overeating or disinterest in eating.
If you are suspicious of sexual abuse, help a child to “tell” by giving the child a safe haven. Let him or her know it’s safe to tell by being direct and encouraging. Always insure the child’s safety. Be sure to let the child know that you’ll protect them – and then do it. Go to a person of responsibility (the child’s mother, aunt, care provider) in a non-threatening way and discuss your suspicions with them. If you don’t believe the circumstances are taken seriously, take further action. (Resources are listed at end of this article.) 30% of the abused will abuse if it is not addressed.
Often, children are not believed because each time the child repeats the telling, the story “changes”. It’s important to recognize that this is because young children remember in segments. Each time a child’s story is told, the child may remember another piece. This is especially true if the child has been experiencing long-term, reoccurring abuse.
When a child does tell, believe him or her. It is extremely rare for the telling to be fictitious, especially in a young child. Young children don’t have the exposure and/or life experience to fabricate something of this grandiosity and relay minute details to an adult, especially one of authority – police, for example. Additionally, it’s very important to tell the child out loud that you believe him or her. This gesture reaffirms the child’s decision to tell, offers validation, and is an important first step in the healing process.
Early intervention is essential. Early intervention affords early healing and averts problematic adolescent years. Counseling and/or therapy is not for everyone, but dialogue on some level is. Finally, healing is not only possible, but it is also essential.
Helpful reading material:
The Courage to Heal - Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
ISBN # 0-06-095066-8 - HarperPerennial
Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child - Laura Davis
ISBN # 0-06-096883-4 - HarperPerennial
Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse - Carolyn Ainscough & Kay Toon
ISBN # 1-55561-225-3 - Fisher Books
If there’s reason to believe a child is being abused, please take action. Please make the call and make a difference in a child’s life.
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape