Overview of Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is any manual, oral, or genital manipulation or contact between an adult or child where the child is unable to change or understand the adult behavior because of lack of power or psychological development. The last phrase, "a lack of power or psychological development," is the key to understanding the sexual assault of children and adolescents, and both the short and long-term consequences of the abuse.  Children who are sexually victimized are vulnerable because of their age, their naiveté, and their trust in adult or authority figures. Rarely is the child victimized in an aggressive manner. Sexual victimization is the abuse of power and trust by an adult of a child or adolescent. The following quotes illustrate that violation:

·         "I remember thinking:If this is what people who love each other do, then why shouldn't I tell people about it?’"

·         "No one ever listened, let alone helped. Even if I did want to tell, where was I supposed to go?"

·         "I would sit for hours on end and try to think of why this happened to me. I thought of every mistake, every lie, every bad feeling I had ever had towards another person. I thought that I was being punished for something, but I couldn’t think of exactly why."

·         "When I'd question my dad about what he was doing, you know, if it was right, he would tell me, 'You come from me. I made you, so you belong to me!' It didn't make a lot of sense at the time, but I couldn't think of anything else to say. "

The impact of the damage to the child does not stop after the abuse has ended. It is difficult for each individual family to specifically identify how the abuse affects them. Children often exhibit a wide range of behaviors and symptoms as a result of sexual victimization. Problem areas can include:

  • eating disorders
  • sleep disorders
  • dropping grades
  • anger and hostility
  • mood swings
  • low self-esteem
  • inability to trust
  • somatic complaints
  • bed wetting
  • inappropriate sexual behavior
  • extreme change in appearance

For adolescent victims, these behaviors can take the form of suicidal behavior, promiscuity, and other extreme, sudden behavior changes. The after effects of child sexual assault can be long lasting and just as severe for adults.

Parents of children who have been assaulted report they worry about whether certain behavioral manifestations are normal or if they represent unhealthy modes of dealing with the experience of the assault. Sometimes they tend to magnify symptoms and sometimes they overlook signs of disturbance. STSM provides services to parents of children who have been sexually abused and will provide referrals to agencies that provide direct services to children.  Both for the welfare of the child and the parents' peace of mind, it is advisable to have the child evaluated by a counselor.  It is possible that siblings of the victim or children outside of their family may also be the victims of the same perpetrator. Encourage them to seek help for these other children as well.

Due to the nature of the crime, child sexual abuse is rarely discussed and mostly concealed. If victims of sexual abuse are to receive the help they need, they must confide in someone. Therapists say that keeping the secret is almost as psychologically damaging as the abuse because the child continues to remain isolated from others. Once the child reveals the abuse, the treatment is geared according to how long the abuse went on and how significant the offender was to the child.

Other factors influencing recovery are reactions by family members and the love/hate relationship with the offender. When the offending parent is the more nurturing of the two, incest victims struggle with a terrible ambivalence towards the offender. In this case, the victim is severing her strongest tie with her family by rejecting the abuser or expressing anger. Families shocked by the horror of incest almost always initially deny its existence and then turn their anger on the victim. The victim is blamed for the abuse and is accused of causing the break up of the family. Keeping the family together and stopping the abuse depends on whether or not the family receives help.