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There is denial of abuse at all levels of society and, although it is painful to accept, it is a reality we need to own as a community before we can make any impression on it. It’s not ‘somebody else’s problem’ and it’s not ‘up to the authorities to worry about’. It’s up to every one of us. There can be absolutely no doubt that silence about sexuality serves the needs of the adults who are perpetrators of child abuse, not the children who are their victims. Until recently it was never discussed, as if it just didn’t exist. To find the reasons for ignoring the problem we don’t need to look beyond the painful realities. To acknowledge sexual abuse means stirring up feelings of disgust, rage, guilt, insecurity, and fear — emotions most people would understandably avoid if only the stakes were not so high for the victims.
And the question also needs to be asked: What does the community have to gain by this silence? Why would society want to protect this secret for so long?
Part of the answer must lie in a general reluctance to talk about sexuality at all. At a deeper level, what we have come to learn about sexual abuse rocks the very foundation of our society because it challenges the functioning of the family unit. This is the unit that is supposed to nurture children, take care of their needs and prepare them for life as an adult. So it is astonishing that over eighty-five percent of cases of abuse occur where a child should be able to feel secure and protected: in or near their own home. It can be a single incident but they are usually repeated attacks that can go on for years whenever the child is accessible to the offender.
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For some people, their earliest sexual experiences are synonymous with fear and betrayal. These people have been sexually abused in childhood and nothing in life can equal the damaging impact of this abuse on self-esteem and on the ability to enjoy lasting relationships.
Every parent needs to have power. Try getting a three year old to bed on time or negotiating a teenager’s curfew time without it! This position of authority is necessary if parents are to be able to teach, discipline, and establish trust and security for their children.
The physical relationship between parents and children is necessarily sensual. The kisses and cuddles, tickling each other, the comforting stroking of their hair when a child wakes frightened in the night by a nightmare. This is how we learn about affection, the appropriate expression of love and caring for another person that is so necessary to our emotional development. But there is a difference between appropriate expressions of affection and ‘abuse’.
What we need to try and figure out is this: At what point is the line crossed?
By abuse we mean an adult or someone bigger than the child using their power or position of authority to take advantage of that child’s trust or respect to involve the child in sexual activity. Now that might sound a bit long-winded but there are two key points — the betrayal of the child’s trust, and the sexual gratification of the adult.
In some cases the distinction is absolutely clear. Any adult coercing a child into intercourse, for example, is abusive beyond a shadow of a doubt. But there’s a huge gray area that would need to be taken case by case. Take the example of ‘exposure’. In many families, it is quite usual to keep the bathroom door open while you shower or dress. There is no sexual intention and it causes no distress. This would not be considered abusive but it is one of those sexual matters that depends on your perception. Sally is twenty-nine. ‘In my family when I was growing up, it was perfectly normal for everyone to share the bathroom. When we were little we often showered with one of our parents. When I married Jim and we had children of our own it just seemed to be the most practical way to get the kids clean. You know how much fuss they can make having their hair shampooed in the bath! We thought nothing more of it than that. But Jim’s father saw it differently. He thought it was really strange that we would shower with the children. Mind you, he’d never even undressed in front of his wife and they had been married for over forty years! He really tried to make us feel guilty about it.’
On the other hand, if the exposure was designed as a sexual turn-on for the adult then it would be abusive, as in the case of an uncle drawing a child’s attention to his erect penis. A child does not have to be physically touched to be sexually abused.
Take the example of sexually explicit language. What is appropriate in one context is quite out of line in another. When we talked about sex education for children, I pointed out how important it is to use the right words … a penis is a penis and so on. The information needs to be straightforward and honest to that extent. Answering a child’s questions about sex in a way that is understandable for their age group and sensitive to their need for information is an essential part of parenting. If the child is exposed to explicit sexual language or behavior that is forced upon them to the point of distress or goes well beyond their comprehension at that age, there is a problem. This is particularly the case if the adult derives sexual pleasure from it.
So whether a situation is abusive or not will depend on its context.
Some people will not realize the effect of abuse until later in life when they are confronted with a situation that somehow triggers a delayed reaction. A teenage girl became very upset and embarrassed when she started to hear about sex at school. She remembered that, when she was about five, a family friend easily coerced her into a ‘game’ during which she drew pictures on his penis with a felt pen. She said she thought nothing of it at the time and didn’t think of it as ‘sex’. Now that she was finding out about sex and starting to discover her own sexual feelings, she realized that the game was ‘sexual’ and she said she felt very angry and bad about it.
So it is clear that not all cases of sexual abuse involve physical force or violence. One of the very confusing aspects about looking back at sexual abuse is that it is not always a totally terrifying experience for the child at the time. There are even some sensations that they find pleasant, yet at the same time may recognize as ‘wrong’. These mixed emotions can make a survivor of abuse feel guilty that somehow they were responsible for the abuse and that they must have encouraged or seduced the perpetrator. However, on this point one truth is irrefutable: Children do not fantasize or lie about sexual abuse and they do not seduce adults.
The estimates of child sexual abuse are astonishing. One in four females and one in ten males has been sexually abused in childhood. The reasons that these figures can only be estimates is because so many cases still go unreported. Even today sexual abuse counsellors say that the numbers reported are the tip of the iceberg. One estimate puts the reporting rate at only five percent — only one in twenty — so the real facts about sexual abuse can come as quite a shock. It is vital for us all to know these facts so that we can fully understand its impact on a survivor, emotionally and sexually, and so that we can do something about protecting those who are at risk or suffering now.