Let’s Talk About Sex: Bringing Childhood Sexual Abuse Out of the Closet and Onto the Table//Aimee M. Poleski, M.A.

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Sexual abuse is defined as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent (Kazdin, 2000).”  Children are frequent, common targets for penetrative and non-penetrative sexual acts, most often assaulted by a family member or other trusted adult (Lalor & McElvaney, 2010). This form of trauma is most often experienced by young girls.

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA), one of the most damaging traumas, is well documented throughout history, yet this universal problem began gaining attention only as recently as the 1960s (Lalor & McElvaney, 2010).  As something that appears to be an innate and often generational form of dysfunction fairly unique to humans, sexual abuse is an enduring, common phenomenon.  However, the true and present danger of CSA is one that does not receive comparable attention as threats more typically discussed, such as drugs, alcohol, or community violence.  Statistics range, but on average, about 30% of women will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen, and just under 15% of males are victims of CSA.  Over half of childhood sexual abuse cases involve penetrative abuse, and about 47% are incestuous.  Though perpetrators are most often men and victims most often female, both boys and girls are sexually abused by both sexes, with the perpetrator most often being someone with whom the child has a close or trusted relationship.  The effects of forced sexual contact on a child are deeply impactful and longstanding, with the victim experiencing psychological distress that manifests through various emotional, psychological, behavioral, and social problems.

Trust that up to a third of children in any school classroom may have been sexually abused. For many of these children, traumatic events persist.

Children who are sexually abused are twice as likely to experience future sexual trauma.  This is especially true for women.  Various emotional, psychological, and social factors effect this potential.  Initially, a child’s ability to seek out rewards from his environment becomes inhibited or distorted.  During normal childhood development a reward is experienced from emotional satisfaction gained through relationships (Lalor & McElvaney, 2010).  When sexual contact is forced upon a child, he comes to lack the ability to appropriately derive rewards from relationships.  This may be due to the distortion that occurs when a child does not experience reward through the sexual act or is rewarded for behaving in a way that facilitates the abuse, such as accepting a gift for keeping it a secret.  Truly rewarding experiences, such as a hug or nonsexual physical affection, may become less rewarding to the child through coming to associate physical contact and forced sexual acts.  This deficit can lead to maladaptive behavior that may effect the potential for risk taking behavior and revictimization.

Abuse stems from abuse.

Deficits in interpersonal functioning may contribute to patterns of dysfunction in relationships, increasing the potential for involvement in future abusive relationships.  This is especially true for those who become susceptible to coercion.  When early experiences normalize feeling unsafe, a child becomes less able to sense danger and respond appropriately. At times, feeling helpless can cause a child to cease efforts to stop or prevent the abuse, resulting in learned helplessness (Filipas & Ullman, 2006). This response, outwardly observable as a characteristically apathetic response to danger, hinders an individual’s ability to assert oneself in future compromising situations.  Failed attempts at preventing childhood abuse reinforce an individual’s sense of powerlessness.  They may come to believe that outcomes are outside of their control, exhibiting little resistance to future unpleasant experiences. The CSA victim can also develop a range of inappropriate sexual behaviors and associate sex with pain or punishment (Grauerholz, 2000). Pain and coercion become normal within their view of sexuality, and these individuals are more likely to tolerate low affection, pleading, and various forms of coercion. These maladaptive behavioral responses can ultimately cause an individual to be more likely to submit to forceful acts, increasing the prospect of revictimization during adolescence and adulthood.

Bad behavior is not a product of immaculate conception.  

Many children who are sexually abused exhibit behavioral problems. Adolescents who were sexually abused are more likely to run away from home, engage in consensual sex early, use drugs or alcohol, or exhibit promiscuity (Grauerholz, 2000).  Less blatant behavior may be observed in withdrawal or isolation. Clearly, such behavior is not well-received by families or the community. However, I encourage any parent who observes these behaviors to try to understand what is driving them. Quite often, the underlying cause could be sexual trauma. Children and adolescents often choose to speak through their behavior rather than their words.  Listen to what you see. 

Neglect is not limited to failing to meet a child’s physical needs.

Parents often do not believe reports of sexual abuse. While it may feel difficult, even impossible, to believe your child has been sexually assaulted by a family member or other trusted adult, the adult that has access to your child simply has opportunity to abuse him. That person is most likely a family member or friend, and your faith in believing those close to you would not harm your child may enable the abuse.  This is understandably painful.  Facing this reality upheaves people’s lives.  Family ties are severed, marriages end, or distrust can breed within a social network or community.  Yet the consequences of confronting the abuse are necessary to prevent it from recurring. Sadly, family members are less likely to be reported due to guilt and shame the family system experiences (Grauerholz, 2000). Not only does this allow the child to remain accessible to the abuser, it leaves the child to experience the persistent, longstanding emotional and psychological distress that arises from a parent not protecting him or her. I have worked with many adults in individual therapy who spend years grappling with not having felt protected by parents and struggle to cope with the awareness that their abusers are still free to abuse others. The single most beneficial thing a parent can do when a child discloses sexual abuse has occurred is to believe the child. The next best thing the parent can do is take legal action to ensure the abuse ends without another victim.

Get comfortable with discomfort. 

If you are concerned a child has been sexually abused or would like to understand what may be potential indicators, there are some common behaviors that can be observed in victims.  Some of these behaviors are protective, such as bed wetting or nightmares, observed during early childhood, or poor personal hygiene, more common in adolescents (NSOPW). These behaviors serve as attempts to make oneself less desirable in effort to discourage the abuse.  Unusual behavior, such as sexual language or play, should receive attention. Remember that a child has no basis for sexual knowledge, so if he or she speaks in a sexual manner you can err on the side of caution in assuming the content came from somewhere. Be attentive to a child having new toys, gifts, or money in his possession for no reason. These things could be used by the perpetrator to bribe the child to stay quiet or groom the child to trust the adult, preceding abuse.  Behavioral signs vary, but if you are paying attention to your child you will notice an uptick in aggressive, unruly, withdrawn behavior, or a behavior that simply seems abnormal for your child.  If something does not seem right, explore it. Be mindful that abuse occurs quite commonly in boys, and they are less likely to perceive themselves as victims and therefore less likely to report CSA.

Get comfortable with conversation.

Talk to your child about sexual abuse. Children can understand the concept of sexual danger when communicated in an age appropriate way, and through my work I have come to believe that children should be educated about sexual abuse from the moment they begin to speak. Infancy, sadly, does not prevent against sexual abuse, and a child at this stage in development has no means to protect herself.  However, a child can begin to understand the real danger of CSA during toddlerhood. I recommend initially framing discussion about body parts to the “swimsuit rule,” a common reference indicating no adult can touch the child on parts of the body a swimsuit covers.  Be sure to explicitly state exceptions by indicating a medical professional can assess these areas with a trusted adult in the room and explain under what circumstances. I also believe that there is no need to create childish pet names for the vagina, penis, anus, and breasts. These body parts have unique biological functions that are entirely unrelated to sex behaviors. They are used for urinating, defecating, and breastfeeding.  In talking to your child about sexual dangers, educate your child about the true functions of these body parts.  Limiting a child’s understanding of these normal, every-day behaviors may also influence the potential that a child will eventually identify sex organs more so with sex than other functions. Tell your child that if anyone asks to see these areas or exposes themselves, to say no, leave the room, and tell someone as soon as possible.  Get comfortable with these discussions, have them over time at different developmental phases, and experiment with practice conversations to help your child master assertiveness in uncomfortable situations. Help your child avoid feeling shame and embarrassment in discussing their bodies to increase the prospect that he or she will come to you if there is something important to discuss.  Think about it: Would you prefer they turn to you, someone else, or no one at all?  Be your child’s safe space.

Trust the influence of your role.

Childhood sexual abuse exists. I believe it can be found in most classrooms, neighborhoods, churches, daycares, or homes.  Girls are most often preyed upon, yet it is important to acknowledge the risk exists for both sexes.  Bring the reality of this danger into regular discussions as you would drugs, alcohol, or other threats to your child’s well-being.  There is no shame in preparing ourselves and our children to face being confronted by a sexual abuse perpetrator.  If we willingly arm ourselves with guns and other means to avoid various threats to our wellbeing, why are we so reluctant to be well-prepared to face unwanted sexual advances?  A child does not have to understand sex to be as prepared as possible if confronted with sexual acts. In educating children, we are preparing them to respond in the best way possible.  Over time, with continued discussion, this common phenomenon may become more rare, and ideally, obsolete.  Yet for the threat to become less present, we need to start talking about it.

Written by: Aimee M. Poleski, M.A.

Filipas, H. H., & Ullman, S. E. (2006). Child sexual abuse, coping responses, self-blame, posttraumatic stress disorder, and adult sexual revictimization. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21(5), 652-672.

Grauerholz, L. (2000). An ecological approach to understanding sexual revictimization: Linking personal, interpersonal, and sociocultural factors and processes. Child maltreatment, 5(1), 5-17.

Kazdin, A. E. (2000). Encyclopedia of psychology, Vol 6, New York: American Psychological Association.

Lalor, K., & McElvaney, R. (2010). Child sexual abuse, links to later sexual exploitation/high-risk sexual behavior, and prevention/treatment programs. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 11(4), 159-177.

NSOPW: U.S. Department of Justice. Recognizing Sexual Abuse: Learning the Warning Signs. Retrieved from https://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/RecognizingSexualAbuse

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