The Violence and Trauma of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuseEvery two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). 44 percent of those victims are under the age of 18. In fact, research indicates that  at least 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

Child sexual abuse is any sexual act with a person who is under the age of 18 that is performed by an adult, an older child, or a peer. Like other sexually violent behavior, child sexual abuse is not restricted to physical contact (touching genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy). It is also non-contact abuse, such as sexual harassment, exposure, voyeurism, and exploitation through prostitution and pornography.

Child sexual abuse has been reported between 300,000 to 400,000 times a year, but the number of cases not reported is far greater. It’s been estimated that 60% of child sexual abuse goes unreported. because of the secrecy or “conspiracy of silence” that characterizes abuse, because victims are afraid to tell anyone what has happened, and because the legal procedure for validating the abuse is difficult.

Among the findings of the 2001 study, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico:

  • Child abuse is the least frequently reported form of abuse.
  • 325,000 children were reported as being sexually exploited in the United States annually. Of that figure, 121,911 ran away from home and 51,602 were thrown out of their homes by a parent or guardian.
  • Family members – fathers, stepfathers, uncles, older siblings – committed 47% of all reported sexual assaults against children in their own homes.
  • 49% of all sexual assaults against children were committed by persons known either by the child or the child’s family – teachers, coaches, physicians, ministers, priests,  neighbors, youth leaders.
  • 4% of sexual assaults against children were by strangers (persons unknown to either the child or the child’s family).
  • 25% of exploiters of children were other children.
  • 75% of children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation were from middle-class backgrounds.
  • 40% of the girls who engaged in prostitution were sexually abused at home, as were 30% of the boys.

When sexual abuse has occurred, a child will develop a variety of distressing feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. No child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two- or three-year-old, who cannot know the sexual activity is wrong, will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the over-stimulation and emotional deceit.

The child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love.

When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.

A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal. Personality disorders, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (also known as Multiple Personality Disorder) have been linked to sexual abuse.

Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms. Some, but not all, sexually abused children become child abusers. Some engage in promiscuous behavior. Some become prostitutes. All will have serious problems in adolescence or when they reach adulthood, if the silence is not broken, the trauma not addressed, and recovery not supported.

Sexually abused children may develop the following:

  • unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature
  • sleep problems or nightmares
  • depression or withdrawal from friends or family
  • seductiveness
  • statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area
  • eating disorders
  • self-injury
  • refusal to go to school
  • delinquency
  • conduct problems
  • secretiveness
  • running away
  • aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games, fantasies
  • unusual aggressiveness
  • suicidal behavior

 In adolescents and adults, common symptoms of childhood sexual abuse include:

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) offers information and tips on how parents and caregivers can help prevent sexual violence and support survivors of sexual abuse (Understanding Sexual Violence: Tips for Parents and Caregivers), including: 

  • ŸBe a role model for respectful behavior to those around you.
  • ŸTalk with your children about healthy sexual development and personal boundaries.
  • ŸIntervene and speak up when you see inappropriate behavior.
  • When someone discloses sexual abuse, appreciate their resilience, strength, and bravery. Be mindful of your own response.
  • Create a safe space for the child or teen to talk and share. Allow them control over the environment as much as possible.
  • ŸListen and allow them to share the amount of information that they are comfortable sharing. If a survivor wants to share with you allow them to do so in their own way, in their own words and in their own time.
  • ŸBelieve them. Survivors often struggle with disclosing abuse because they fear they won’t be believed. It takes immense bravery for them to trust you and share the details of their story.
  • Be open and honest about your responsibilities. Children and teens have a right to be safe, valued and respected. Connect them with community resources or trained professionals to provide continued support.

If you suspect a child is being abused, contact the police, the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4463), RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673), or your local crisis line. Also see Hotlines and Crisis Lines in USA and Worldwide >>>

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