When I first started to recover memories of repressed childhood sexual abuse, I began to research topics such as what it is, what the long term impacts of it are, and about sexual abusers abuse in order to understand, examine and validate what had really happened to me. I also joined a number of support groups online and went to Adult Children of Alcoholics for some time in order to find survivors like myself that I could share stories with and find advice from. Within a short amount of I realized that while 12 step groups like ACA did not fit me well, other support groups did. From these groups, I have found support and have also been able to see the toll that child sexual abuse takes not just on me but on countless others.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. These numbers, to me, seem quite high, especially because before I started to actively seek out other survivors, I had only talked to one other person who admitted to being sexually abused as a child. Although I was in denial about most of my sexual abuse, I did have a few memories of it here. Sometimes I was aware of them and sometimes I was not, and even when I was aware of them I didn’t always comprehend them as memories of child sexual abuse. I thought that they were uncomfortable situations that had happened in my life. Today, after working through these memories and others, I accept the fact that I was sexually abused as a child.
Child sexual abuse is not a commonly discussed problem in our society in comparison to other forms of abuse. As the Metoo movement grows, one wonders why a movement of childhood sexual abuse is not also occuring since child sexual abuse can lead survivors to be vulnerable to later sexual abuse and can lead a small percentage of survivors to become sex offenders later in life. If this is the case, then why is child sexual abuse not a hot topic in today’s world? I believe that one reason for this is that people are unwilling to admit that terrible things such as this occur in our world today.
Many times, sexual abuse is not even recognized within children. Part of this is that many adults feel that the child must come forward and tell about the abuse in some way before they will address it. The reality is that children who have been sexually abused may not even remember the abuse, and those who do may be too terrified, fearful, and ashamed to tell. Sexual abusers use manipulation tactics like shame, blame, and the promotion of fear along with grooming tactics like an overshow of love and support that make a child feel helpless to tell and/or make the child feel tied to the abuser in a way that they feel close, love, and loyalty to them. This can discourage them from speaking up plus cause confusion to the fact that there is any form of abuse going on at all. The abuse itself, as well as the conflicting messages, become normal, and the child is left carrying the burden of sexual abuse on their own. Even though a child’s behavior problems that arise from sexual abuse may be noticed by schools and even private counselors, I’ve noticed and heard from survivors that the possibility of child sexual abuse is ignored for a number of reasons. I argue that because of the difficulties that arise in children in speaking up about this type of abuse, it is up to the adults in their lives to look for the signs and symptoms of childhood sexual abuse rather than rely upon on anecdotes from children themselves.
Child sexual abuse can wreak havoc in many ways on a child’s life. There are many signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse. These include:
- nighmares and other sleep problems
- seeming distant or distracted at times
- Changes in eating habits
- mood swings
- nightmares and other sleep problems
- seeming distant or distracted at times
- changes in eating habits
- mood swings
- an interest in sex, body parts, or sexual material that is inappropriate for age level
- develops new or unusual fears of people or places
- refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult
- suddenly has money, toys, or gifts without reason
- Thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty, or bad
- exhibits adult-like sexual behaviors, language and knowledge
- has new words for private body parts
- resists removing clothing at appropriate times
- Asks other children to play sexual related games
- Mimics adult like child sexual behavior in games
In adolescents, signs and symptoms can include:
- Inadequate personal hygiene
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Sexual promiscuity
- Running away from home
- Depression, anxiety
- Suicide attempts
- Fear of intimacy or closeness
- Compulsive eating or dieting
Looking at these symptoms, it would seem as though it should be easy for schools, parents, social workers, family members, and friends to catch the signs of child sexual abuse. What I have noticed today is that much of the time the signs are dismissed as something else, such as other forms of abuse, a behavioral disorder such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder, developmental disabilities, ADHD, peer pressure, social or behavioral problems, or problems at school. This especially occurs when children do not openly disclose the abuse. Misattributing these symptoms to other problems even happens to professionals such as counselors and teachers. So why is child sexual abuse so frequently overlooked? My main hypothesis is that most people (including some professionals) don’t want to admit the reality of the terrible acts of child sexual abuse in society. Furthermore, of the adults who have been sexually abused, many are in denial about their own abuse or aspects of it and tend to overlook symptoms in children in order to protect themselves from having to deal with their own abuse. This isn’t true for every survivor, but it is happens often enough to cause problems within families and to further the existence of child sexual abuse. Those with sexual abuse in their family might also overlook or dismiss the signs of sexual abuse in children in order to stay in denial about the dysfunction in their family. The overall result of all of this is that child sexual abuse continues to occur at high rates in our society, and dysfunction within families continues.
So what can we do in order to eradicate or lessen this problem in our society? First of all, we have to admit that child sexual abuse does occur. Secondly, we need to learn how to deal with our emotions. In order to admit that a child that you know or love may be being sexually abused, you have to be comfortable with dealing with the uncomfortable emotions that come with this realization. In our society today many people are uncomfortable with feeling emotions, so it is no wonder that even professionals commonly overlook or do not contemplate such things as child sexual abuse when presented with a troubled child. Lastly, we have to be willing to work through any hardships that we have been through in our lives. Denial of the hardships that have occurred and are occurring in our lives can keep us from seeing the truth around us and can keep us from experiencing such things as critical thinking, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves, others, and situations in our lives. Therefore, whatever issue you may have been avoiding in your life, work on it now. This way, you will be equipped to see the signs of child sexual abuse and other atrocities and to deal with them in a constructive and healthy way.
What should be done if you do suspect child sexual abuse in a child? If the child is not a family member, it will likely take more than just talking to a child’s parents to really find help for the child. While it may seem best to talk to parents and only the parents, the truth is that some may not respond in the way that you are hoping. You might be met with denial and anger, or false promises. Parents themselves can be the perpetrators of child sexual abuse and if child sexual abuse is within the family, parents may be so mired in the family dysfunction that they will not take any action to help their child or even admit what is going on. And even without child sexual abuse in the family, other forms of abuse within the family structure could be present that will prevent the parent from taking action. Lastly, a family may simply not want to or be equipped to deal with something like this. So while talking to certain families about your suspicion may make all of the difference in the world, in others it might not. This is why I believe that it is always important to tell a professional and/or authority figure outside of the family when childhood sexual abuse is suspected.
Even if a family guarantees that they will take action when you bring your concerns to them, due to all of the factors that I have discussed they may or may not do so. Talking to someone outside of a familt might be hard for you for many reasons: you may want to stay out of another family’s business, you might be afraid of losing family members or friends, or you might feel loyalty to the family. While these are important concerns, one must think about what the child is going through and about the many consequences that can arise in a child or adult’s life due to child sexual abuse. Additional short and long term effects of childhood sexual abuse on a child are:
- performance problems in school
- unwillingness to participate in school or social activities
- alcoholism and substance abuse
- anxiety attacks
- low self-esteem
- interpersonal difficulties
- feelings of powerlessness and betrayal
- confusion surrounding sex
- revictimization as adults
Thus even if you are hesitant to tell authorities about suspected child abuse, it is imperative that you do so. If you or someone that you loved was sexually abused as a child, wouldn’t you want someone to do something about it?
If you suspect a child in your family is being sexually abused, it might be especially hard to confront other family members, and if you do and they do not take action you might find yourself torn about whether or not to tell authorities. While this is a very personal decision, I believe that we all have a personal responsibility to protect and defend the children in our lives, even if it means a possible fallout with other family members.
Today if I see signs of child sexual abuse I will report them to CPS, my counselor, and to others in authority, regardless of if the child is part of my family or not. This was not always so. In 2011-2013, I was in an abusive relationship where there were many signs that the man that I was dating was sexually abusing his son. I was in much denial, though, about my own abuse and about the situation and did not even notice that there were signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse, and as far as I know, neither did anyone else, including the child’s school. I also was not to the point yet where I would admit that terrible things happened in this world. I reasoned that his symptoms due to other things, mostly that my boyfriend told me about.
About a year into my healing, I realized that I had likely overlooked and even enabled childhood sexual abuse within my home during this relationship. I quickly made a CPS report. Although the representative that I talked to doubted that there was much that could be done based off of the stories that I gave, I’ve been told by sexual assault advocates that every CPS or police report helps to create a case against possible abusers. So while I’m glad that I made the report, I have deep regret about the situation in general. My experience should speak to all of us about the importance of working through our own life experiences as well as the importance of accepting child sexual abuse as a possibility in any child’s life, including children in our own family or those that we are closely connected to. Today I am on the lookout for signs of child sexual abuse in the children in my family and with other children that I know. I am not afraid to cause friction in personal relationships in order to advocate for a child’s welfare. The truth is that we all need to overcome whatever fear or reason is holding us back from taking action when it comes to protecting and advocating for the children in our lives.
It is imperative that everyone be aware of the possibility of child sexual abuse in children that we know and love. While it is easy to attribute the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse to other problems, it is time that we begin to focus on the reality of child sexual abuse as being just as possible as the many other problems that are faced with our youth today. If we practice early interventions and counseling in children who have been sexually abused, they may be less likely to be further victimized throughout their lives or to become abusers themselves. To advocate for adult survivors of sexual assault and abuse, then, should mean to also advocate for children who are being sexually abused, as these two can tie in together.
One more aspect of knowing what to look for in children is to learn what to look for in predators, as well as signs and symptoms of dysfunctional families. While this is a discussion on its own, it is up to each of us to find information on the behavioral patterns of sexual predators, narcissists, and psychopaths/sociopaths. I understand that this can be a very uncomfortable topic to deal with, but the truth is that most predators and abusers can come across as normal, everyday people. They can be the most loved person in town, and the one who always seems to have the best advice. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the nice little old lady down the street or the man who always is there to help is incapable of sexual abuse. Sexual predators are highly manipulative and know how to manipulate and control whole communities and may just be the most popular person that you know.
Child sexual abuse is a horrific reality in our society and is something that we can no longer overlook. It leads to problems that affect not only survivors but everyone around them as well and society as a whole. We have a responsibility not only to the children in our lives but to ourselves to address and find a way to stop this epidemic. I implore you to educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of this type of abuse and to be ready and willing to advocate for the children of our world. We all need to work together to get children who have suffered from sexual abuse all of the help that they need. Thank you.
Bass, B., & David, L. (2008). The courage to heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Child Sexual Abuse Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics
Effects of child sexual abuse on victims. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/effects-of-csa-on-the-victim.
Tip sheet: Warning signs of possible sexual abuse in a child’s behavior. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics
Warning signs in children and adults. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/warning-signs-in-children-and-adults.htm