Beware of anyone who wants to be with your children more than you do. It surrounds us; everywhere. It acknowledges no boundaries, geographic or cultural. It’s insidious and, at it’s extreme, life threatening. Fighting it is ridiculously simple, yet inexplicably avoided. Child sexual abuse is a criminal behavior that has always been with us and unfortunately always will.
As with overcoming the social reluctance to discuss cancer in the 1960′s, alcohol and drug addiction in the 1970s, the most effective way to counter child sexual abuse is through acknowledging that it exists, educating yourself (which you are doing now) and by talking to your children about it. Seems simple enough, but for some, near impossible. Some parents are embarrassed – for cultural, religious or personal reasons – at the mere thought of speaking to their young children about sex. However sex is the center of our being. As George Michael so famously sang “Sex is natural, sex is good,” and it is in the appropriate setting, between consenting adults. It’s what ensures our survival as a species.
Children have an innate knowledge of their sexuality on their own scale of development. A young child doesn’t need to know the entire life cycle of the birds and the bees; they need to know what is appropriate for their age and emotional level. They need to know what comprises healthy and natural contact with others, particularly adults and more importantly, what does not.
By the age of ten most young children have a fairly good idea of what’s going on. As parents we owe it to them to set them straight before they start trading in the rumors of middle school when they start to hide within their social shell and communication on the subject becomes difficult. By talking frankly to your children you are arming them with the shield of knowledge, self confidence and the ability to protect themselves. Child sexual abuse as a subject needs to be dragged into the sunlight and dealt with as the reality that it is. We have to face the issue head on in order to learn how to eliminate it as a threat to our families and friends. We must face it publicly so the perpetrators of this iniquitous behavior know that they are “on notice”, that they cannot prey on our young.
How prevalent is sexual abuse with children? It’s disturbingly widespread. In some Asian countries child sex abuse is an industry, relied upon for national income. As incredible as that sounds it’s true and it accounts for what is referred to as “sex tourism”. The ‘why’ part of this behavior, is the subject for another article, if indeed there is, or can be, a ‘why”.
Let me set the framework of what we’re dealing with. First let me answer the question most often asked “What are the indicators of child sexual abuse?” Answer: they’re aren’t any. More on this in a minute.
A standard misconception is that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim or the victim’s family. Another misconception is that the majority of sexual offenders are caught, convicted, and in prison. Not true, only a fraction of those who commit sexual assault are apprehended and convicted for their crimes. In fact, the vast majority of child sex crimes go unreported. Most convicted sex offenders eventually are released to the community under probation or parole supervision.
Here are some core numbers: 90% of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they know – inside or outside the family. 1 in 4 girls (25%) is sexually abused before the age of 18. 1 in 6 boys (16.5%) is sexually abused before the age of 18. Abusers will victimize as young as infants right up to 16 years old. The amount of sympathy a victim receives is directly proportional to their physical development. An estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse exist in America today. This represents a fraction of the true number of abused children. Young victims may not recognize their victimization as sexual abuse. For more statistical information visit the Child AbuseWatch.net website here.
Why are there no tell-tale signs of child sexual abuse? The quick answer is that nature has made vaginas elastic and self-lubricating even in young girls. Anus’s stretch and any lesions quickly heal. Oral abuse does not leave a trace. Semen and sperm disappear fairly quickly. Repeated abusers take care not to hurt the children so as to avoid disclosure. Let’s talk about sexual predators. There are three kinds.
Pedophiles have a sexual preference for children. This in itself does not make them criminals. They get into trouble when they act on their impulses and, for example, start collecting child pornography which is a serious victim-exploiting crime.
If they act on their impulses they become the second type of predator; preferential child sexual abusers. They have no interest in having sex with adults, only children, usually pre-pubescent. These are generally male and have a distinct pattern to their predatory behavior, including recruiting victims – referred to as ‘grooming’ – and retaining them in an ongoing pattern of sexual abuse while ensuring that they do not disclose the abuse. These first two kinds of predators are called preferential; meaning that they have a distinct sexual preference for children.
The third kind is the situational sexual abuser. This abuser is one of opportunity. He or she enjoys having sex with adults and have sex with children when the opportunity arises. For example, when they are left alone with a child, they’re drunk, they’re angry at the child or mother and assault the child to hurt the mother – there’s a long list of reasons. They key word is opportunity.
All three are dangerous to children all the time. What is a distinctive feature in their behavior is their lack of conscience.
How do we identify a predator? Contrary to popular belief, predators do not often skulk around playgrounds in dirty raincoats. They are everyman or everywoman. They live in plain sight among us; sometimes in our own families. They are fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, friends, doctors, soccer coaches, clergy, boy-scout leaders, police, child care workers, therapists, teachers. Not all of these people are child sex abusers but many child sex abusers choose these professions for access to children. The key word here is access. A particular red flag are single parent families which offer predators’ immense opportunity to have access to children under the guise of dating, marriage or being ‘good to the children.’
An important element in the grooming process is the selection of a victim. Many abusers have multiple concurrent victims and, if left to run their life course un-arrested, some will have had hundreds if not thousands of victims in their lifetime. They ‘court’ the child the way adults court each other in a romantic relationship. Gifts, flattery, play, attention, all go into the mix. What the abuser is doing is replacing the parent’s role of providing affection and attention. They often choose as their victims children who have problems communicating with their parents; those whose parents don’t pay enough attention to them. They look to fill that void. They are so good at what they do that parents never suspect their intentions. They also woo the parents to be accepted and trusted with the children. Predators are masters at building relationships. Their biggest problem is not getting the child, it’s getting rid of the child when they become too old and their interest in them wanes.
How do predators and abusers choose their victims? Children in general have certain characteristics that make them ideal victims from the offender’s point of view. Here are some; they are naturally curious; many are easily led by adults particularly when brought up to respect their elders; they have a need for attention and affection (most of us do); some have a need to defy their parents.
The ‘secret.’ As already mentioned recurrent abusers rarely hurt the child as that would encourage disclosure. They encourage the child to understand that the behavior be kept a secret – just between them. They do this by keeping photographs, warning of the embarrassment to the child and family should anyone find our about what has happened; by blaming the child for initiating it; by rewarding the child with gifts and outings; by telling the child that disclosure would break up the family structure; that the sexual abuse is a demonstration of their ‘love’ for the child. On and on. And the child, being a child, believes them. They know no differently. The ‘secret’ is the key component of this disturbing relationship, one that is a cornerstone of a child sexual abusers success and survival.
How do we as parents combat this?
Talk to your children about their bodies and their sexuality; good touching and bad touching. Get over your embarrassment. We are intimately familiar with our genitalia from the moment we are born and curiosity about the same and opposite sex is perfectly normal. And when you get down to it, there’s not that much involved.
Keep the opportunity for one to one contacts between your child and other adults or adolescents to zero. If there is no opportunity for someone to be alone with your child there will be no opportunity for abuse. Be present at doctor visits; at the soccer game; at music practice. Nobody but you has the right to be alone with your child.
Empower your child by acknowledging the presence of their own “inner voice”, the sense they innately possess that something “feels” wrong. And tell them that only they have the power to act when they feel a circumstance is not right irrespective of who is involved. They must know and trust that you will support their actions.
Talk to your family and friends frequently about the subject. Take personal responsibility for your child, don’t delegate it to anyone else. Keep the lines of communication open with your children no matter how hard it can be. That’s their lifeline. Encourage your children’s school to have someone come and talk to parents about this subject. Finally if you suspect sexual abuse of your children or other children report it immediately. That is your responsibility. If you’re wrong you can always apologize. You name is never disclosed. Depending on your area 911 is probably the best first number to call; they’ll give you the abuse hotline number.
An easy to remember acronym to help you remember the elements of keeping your children safe is TOPER – Talk to your children, family and friends. Eliminate Opportunity by not allowing anyone one-to-one access alone with your child, be Present for your child, Empower your children, Report suspected abuse immediately. TOPER. One last word. Predators will do whatever it takes to get access to children including dating or marrying a woman with children; marrying in order to have and abuse his own children; offering to baby-sit the neighbors kids or pick them up from school. They’ll do whatever it takes. For them it’s an urge, an impulse, an obsession, a drive, an incurable compulsion.