Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is defined as any sexual act directed at a child involving sexual contact, assault or exploitation. Sexual abuse is divided into two categories: contact and non-contact. Acts of contact child sexual abuse include fondling, rape, incest, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, oral copulation, intercourse and penetration of a genital or anal opening by a foreign object. Examples of non- contact sexual abuse include exhibitionism, presentation of pornographic pictures, telling of sexual stories, allowing the child to witness adult sexual relations, treating the child in a sexually provocative way or promoting prostitution in minors.

Physical signs that may suggest sexual abuse of children include sexually transmitted diseases; genital discharge or infection; physical injury or irritation of the oral, anal or genital areas; pain when urinating or defecating; difficulty walking or sitting due to genital or anal pain; and stomachaches, headaches or other psychosomatic symptoms. Again, most, if not all, of these symptoms can result from other, non-abuse related causes or conditions. Please keep this in mind as you evaluate your own history.

Behavioral signs that may result from sexual abuse include age- inappropriate sexual behavior with peers or toys; excessive curiosity about sexual matters; overly advanced understanding of sexual behavior (especially in younger children); compulsive masturbation, prostitution or promiscuity; and incontinence (in the case of anal intercourse). Once again, these symptoms may be the result of other occurrences, and you should be wary of jumping to any conclusions.

Concern about and awareness of sexual abuse have grown dramatically in recent years as numerous public surveys have reported its pervasiveness. It is currently estimated that up to one third of all women and up to one seventh of all men over the age of 21 have been sexually abused as children. Sexual abuse may be the final skeleton in the family closet, one that has been obscured for years or even generations behind a veil of secrecy and denial. Thanks to the emergence of the adult survivor movement, men and women who have suffered from childhood sexual abuse for years as children are now breaking their silence about their secret.

Sometimes abused children think that if they couldn't stop the abuse, then they were at least partially responsible for it. Trends in state laws challenge this kind of thinking. For example, in California, if the child victim is under the age of 14, any sexual contact with an adult is presumed to be sexual abuse, even if the child has purportedly consented. In the case of child victims over the age of 14 who may have consented to the sexual contact, the issue is determined by looking at a number of factors including the age of the adult, the nature of the relationship, and the emotional maturity of the child. Some teenagers under the age of 18 may not have sufficient psychological maturity to consent to a relationship with someone much older, while others may be deemed to have consented. The determination will vary in each situation.

There are many factors that place children at risk for sexual abuse, especially in an era of high divorce rates and blended families. Children are most likely to be sexually abused between the ages of 8-12. Girls are more at risk for sexual abuse than boys (statistics show one out of every three girls compared to one out of every seven boys). Girls who are abused are more likely to live in a blended family or with a single mother who is employed outside the home. When a natural father is the abuser, the girl's mother is often absent or uninvolved for some reason. She may be disabled, ill, working outside of the home or alcoholic. Factors such as these may result in less than adequate care-giving and a lack of parental authority. The parents' marital relationship may be in discord, and the parents may be avoiding dealing with each other. Ever so gradually, the father may begin to place the girl in the role of wife.

Sexual abuse also happens to boys, although not to the extent reported for girls. Boys are more likely to be abused by adult males, teenage siblings and other older boys known to the victim. Some male victims might later point to this sexual abuse as the cause of confusion about their sexual identity. When the molester is female, boys are confused about how to interpret the experience. Is it sexual abuse or sexual opportunity? Because boys are socialized to want sex, cultural norms often cloud their perceptions of the experience. Because boys are supposed to be "tough" and able to defend themselves, they may be disinclined to speak up about having been taken advantage of. In many cases, it may be a more convenient psychologically for them to interpret their abuse as a "conquest" rather than a victimization. But the conflicts do not go away just because the abuse is cast in a positive light.

Incest between mother and son is every bit as harmful as father-daughter incest. Mother-son incest is usually the outgrowth of a long-established seductive relationship that may then evolve into overt sexual relations when the boy reaches puberty and begins experiencing his own sexual awakening. This is an important dynamic that touches on issues of emotional abuse as well. Although some children may feel responsible, the responsibility always rests with the parent to set appropriate standards of behavior. In cases of mother-son incest, the mother is almost always incapacitated as a parent due to addictions, severe emotional problems or her own unresolved childhood sexual abuse.

There are many factors that can influence the degree of impact of sexual abuse on a child. A child who has been abused by more than one offender is likely to be more traumatized because the repetition of the abuse reinforces the child's attitude that s/he is somehow responsible. The type of sexual contact can also be significant. Intercourse can have more serious consequences than fondling or exposure to pornography. When aggression or violence is used to force sex, the impact is even more negative because the child feels fear and greater loss of control, as compared to more seductive molestation in which persuasion and manipulation are employed.

When children participate to some degree in the sexual contact or are unable (as is usually the case) to find a way to prevent the abuse from happening, the guilt and shame over their involvement often causes severe consequences. If there were some pleasurable sensations from the contact (common when the abuse involves fondling), children often interpret their feelings as evidence of their culpability and responsibility. Children do not usually understand that the responsibility for preventing sexual expression of affection lies with the parent or adult.

In cases where the sexual abuse occurs outside of the home, the reaction of the family is paramount in shaping the degree of impact on the child. When the family is supportive, gets immediate help for the child and avoids any blaming or stigmatization, the long-term effects can be lessened. However, when the family does not understand, blames the child for the sexual abuse or is unable to accept that the child was victimized, the impact can be truly devastating because the family's reaction confirms the child's worst fears: that s/he did something wrong or did not do enough to prevent the sexual abuse. In these cases, the family members become co-conspirators in the abuse because, in failing to give the child what s/he needs during a time of tragedy, they may do far more damage to the child than did the abuser. It is no surprise that children will feel stigmatized by the sexual abuse if their families treat them with disdain and disgust.

Sexual abuse outside the family may have actually increased during the last twenty years because more children are being cared for in daycare centers, after- school programs and juvenile institutions. There has been a rash of stories of sexual molestation in daycare centers across the country, although proving guilt in these cases has often been unsuccessful. There are even three "pro-pedophilia" organizations operating in North America, all dedicated to finding and maintaining sexual relationships with young girls and boys.

With the explosion of the adult film industry, there is evidence that child pornography rings are proliferating. It is estimated that upwards of half a million children are involved in these activities. Teenage runaways, many of whom end up on the streets hustling for food money, are likely targets for sexual abuse and exploitation. Unfortunately, the effects of child sexual abuse will not be fully felt until today's child victims grow up to become tomorrow's adult survivors.

Go to journal questions for sexual abuse

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© 2007 THE MORRIS CENTER, Revised 11/06