The sexual abuse of children has become a great concern of the public, legislation as well as professionals around the world. This is evident through the growing number of literature on the subject, the amount of adult survivors who have stepped forth and increasing amounts of media coverage. What encompasses this crime is a variety of different sexual activities. These activities include voyeurism, sexual dialogue, fondling, touching of the genitals, vaginal, anal or oral rape and forcing children to participate in pornography or prostitution.
Child Sexual Abusers
There is no one profile that embodies a child sexual abuser. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse come from different age groups, genders, races and socio- economic backgrounds. Women, men, as well as juveniles are possible perpetrators of this crime. One common denominator is that victims frequently know and trust their abusers.
Child sexual abusers coerce children by offering attention or gifts, manipulating or threatening their victims, using aggression or employing a combination of these tactics.
Child Sexual Abuse Victims
Falling victim to childhood sexual abuse is never the fault of the victim. Victims of childhood sexual abuse can come from all different racial backgrounds, age groups, social classes, or genders. However, parental inadequacy, unavailability, conflict and a poor parent-child relationship are among the characteristics that distinguish children at risk of being sexually abused.1 Both boys and girls are most vulnerable to abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.1
Incest traditionally describes sexual abuse in which the perpetrator and victim are related by blood. However, incest can also refer to cases where the perpetrator and victim are emotionally connected.2 There is no question that interfamily abuse is more likely to go on over a longer period of time and in some of its forms, particularly parent-child abuse, has been shown to have more serious consequences”.1
Symptoms of Child Sexual Abuse
Many sexually abused children exhibit physical, behavioral and emotional symptoms. Some physical signs are pain or irritation to the genital area, vaginal or penile discharge and difficulty with urination. Victims of known assailants may experience less physical trauma because such injuries might attract suspicion.3
Children 3 and under may exhibit:
- Fear or excessive crying
- Feeding problems
- Bowel problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Failure to thrive
Children ages 2 to 9 may exhibit:
- Fear or particular people, places or activities
- Regression to earlier behaviors such as bed wetting or stranger anxiety
- Victimization of others
- Excessive masturbation
- Feelings of shame or guilt
- Nightmares or sleep disturbances
- Withdrawal from family or friends
- Fear of attacking recurring
- Eating disturbances
- Nightmares or sleep disturbances
- Poor school performance
- Substance abuse
- Running away from home
- Fear of attack recurring
- Eating disturbances
- Early pregnancy or marriage
- Suicidal gestures
- Anger about being forced into situation beyond one’s control
- Pseudo-mature behaviors
Consequences of Child Sexual Abuse
Consequences of child sexual abuse range “from chronic depression to low self-esteem to sexual dysfunction to multiple personalities. These may include dissociative responses and other signs of post-traumatic-stress syndrome, chronic states of arousal, nightmares, flashbacks, venereal disease and anxiety over sex or exposure of the body during medical exams”.5
Cycle of Violence
Abused and neglected children are more likely to become criminal offenders as adults. Child sexual abuse victims are also at risk of becoming ensnared in this cycle of violence. Some victims become sexual abusers or prostitutes because they have a difficult time relating to others except on sexual terms.
Stopping the Cycle of Violence
With early detection and appropriate treatment, society can prevent some victimized children from becoming adult perpetrators. In order to intervene early in abuse, parents should educate their children about appropriate sexual behavior and how to feel comfortable saying no.4
Steps must be taken to ensure that perpetrators do not abuse again once the criminal justice system’s punitive measures have taken their course. All states and the federal government have enacted versions of Megan’s Law that require community notification and sex offender registration. Under these laws, authorities are required to notify communities when sex offenders move in. In some cases, law enforcement agencies make the notification while the offender is responsible in others. Registration laws require offenders to provide information such as name and address to a law enforcement agency. The FBI maintains a nationwide sex offender registry.6
Child Sexual Abuse Reporting
Children may resist reporting sexual abuse because they are afraid of angering the offender, blame themselves for the abuse or feel guilty and ashamed. In order to increase reporting, parents and adults who interact with children should be educated about the behavioral and physical symptoms of child sexual abuse.4 Children are more likely to reveal sexual abuse when talking to someone who appears to ‘already know’ and is not judgmental, critical or threatening. They also tend to disclose when they believe continuation of the abuse will be unbearable; they are physically injured; or they receive sexual abuse prevention information. Other reasons may be to protect another child or if pregnancy is a threat.5
Recovery from Child Sexual Abuse
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 victim to talk freely, 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.7
Suspicions of child sexual abuse should be reported to a child protective services agency or law enforcement agency. Local child protection agencies investigate interfamilial abuse and the police investigate extra familial abuse. The law requires professionals who work with children to report suspected neglect or abuse.
In addition to reporting child sexual abuse to the authorities, victims can sue their abusers in civil court to recover monetary damages or win other remedies.2 Many states have extended their criminal and civil statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse cases.8
Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
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.9 The healing process can begin when the survivor acknowledges the abuse. When working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, therapists should consider the survivor’s feeling of security and the personal and professional ramifications of disclosure.
1. Finkelhor, David. (1994). “Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse.” The Future of Children, 4(2): 31, 46-48.
2. Crnich, Joseph & Crnich, Kimberly. (1992). Shifting the Burden of Truth: Suing Child Sexual Abusers – A Legal Guide for Survivors and Their Supporters. Lake Oswego, OR: Recollex Publishing.
3. Hammerschlag, Margaret. (1996). Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Child Sexual Abuse. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.
4. American Humane Association Children’s Division. (1993). Child Sexual Abuse: AHA Fact Sheet #4. Englewood, CO: American Humane Association.
5. “Child Sexual Abuse: Does the Nation Face an Epidemic – or a Wave of Hysteria?” (1993). CQ Researcher, 3(2): 27-28.
6. Walsh, Elizabeth Rahmberg. (1997). “Megan’s Laws – Sex Offender Registration and Notification Statutes and Constitutional Challenges.” The Sex Offender: New Insights, Treatment Innovations and Legal Developments, Barbara Schwartz and Henry Cellini, Eds. Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.
7. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (1992). Child Sexual Abuse. Washington, D.C.: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
8. National Center for Victims of Crime. (1995). “Extensions of the Criminal and Civil Statutes of Limitation in Child Sexual Abuse Cases.” FYI, No.57. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.
9. Sgroi, Suzanne. (1989). “Stages of Recovery for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.” Vulnerable Populations: Sexual Abuse Treatment for Children, Adult Survivors, Offenders, and Persons with Mental Retardation Volume 2, Suzanne Sgroi, Ed. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.