When discussing the characteristics of child sexual abuse, it’s usually described as an adult using his or her position of trust within the family to force a child into unwanted sexual activity. The abuse includes fondling, masturbation, oral sex and intercourse, but doesn’t always include physical contact. Exposure, voyeurism and child porn are included in this type of abuse. Unfortunately, timely statistics and information about child sexual abuse is scarce because of the lack of accurate reporting of incidences and a true definition of what being molested constitutes. It’s now well known among mental health and child protection agencies that child sexual abuse is more common than originally thought and is a grave problem in the United States.
Psychological Effects of Being Molested
The effects of abuse sometimes aren’t obvious and other times the effects are very serious. The most serious types involving family members using extreme physical force present typical problems such as separation anxiety or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). In addition, young children faced with such circumstances often live in an environment of parental substance abuse as well. The sexual abuse along with its consequences may be only part of the child’s unfavorable encounters and subsequent behaviors. This fact makes it difficult to successfully diagnose child sexual abuse. The problem is exacerbated because physical evidence is non-existent in some cases. Only a trained professional should get involved in these situations.
In a study conducted by David Finkelhor, Ph.D. and Angela Browne, Ph.D. of the Family Violence Research Program, University of New Hampshire, Durham, they proposed there are four trauma-causing factors, traumagenic dynamics – traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness and stigmatization.
Traumatic sexualization refers to a process where a child’s perception of sexuality is altered in an inappropriate way as a result of being molested or sexually abused. This can occur when a child is exposed to sexual behavior by the abuser that is out of line with the child’s level of development. For example, bribing the child with gifts, affection, more attention and privileges intended in exchange for certain sexual behaviors. The behaviors include parts of the child’s anatomy fetishized, creating an unnatural importance and meaning. The twisted misconceptions about sexual behavior and morality are learned by the child from the abuser. Traumatic sexualization also occurs when scary memories and events of sexual perverseness are associated in the child’s mind.
Experiences resulting from abuse can vary widely in terms of the amount and severity of the traumatic sexualization. For example, the molester might make an effort to evoke some kind of response from the child in a sexual manner. These attempts likely are more sexualizing than just using a child to masturbate with. Depending on the results of his or her coercing, any sign the child is enjoying the experience or a willing participant is also likely to be more sexualizing for the molester. The same is true when force is used to accomplish the same thing, bringing forth a fear of sex depending on the child’s understanding of the experience.
Betrayal: when a child discovers someone on whom they were completely dependent to cause them harm. The harm can occur in many ways during the incidents of being molested. Abused children eventually realize that, either during the abuse or afterwards, they have been tricked and deceived with lies and untruths about sexual and moral standards. The betrayal reaches beyond the offenders themselves, to family members who were either unable or unwilling to protect or believe them when they reached out for help.
The hurt experienced by children betrayed by the those who were thought of as trusting and loving is greatly intensified based on how emotionally attached the child is to the abuser, whoever that might be. Imagine the shock and torment a child feels when someone they love and trust takes part in this type of behavior, and yet isn’t believed or is chided for even thinking about making accusations as serious as sexual abuse or being molested.
Powerlessness or in other words the feeling of utter weakness caused by the abuser constantly berating and exerting force over the child. This treatment often continues to the point where the child’s will, desires and self-worth are totally denied. Finkelhor and Browne theorize that a “basic kind of powerlessness occurs in sexual abuse when a child’s territory and body space are repeatedly invaded against the child’s will.” Of course, this is made much worse with whatever additional force and influence the abuser may bring to the abusive experience. The powerlessness is compounded when the child is unsuccessful in making adults understand what is happening and fear sets in, causing them to feel trapped with little or no understanding of how the situation originated.
Stigmatization results from the constant barrage of telling the child he or she is bad and shameful and this eventually becomes engrained in the child’s self-image. These effects come from a variety of sources such as the abuser blaming the child for the abuse, putting the child down and instilling shame into the child for the behavior. This problem is only made worse by adults or other family members shocked and dismayed by the knowledge of the abuse and the blame falling on the child.
Stigmatization can occur in different ways depending on the abusive situation. The younger the child, the less likely the stigmatization will have any affect. This is due to the child’s young age and lack of social awareness of the attitudes and cultural proscriptions. Having been forced to conceal the behavior also adds to stigmatization in that it reminds the child that something is different and not necessarily good.
According to Finkelhor and Browne, “these four traumagenic dynamics, then, account in our view for the main sources of trauma in child sexual abuse.”
Abuse Is Not Limited to Adolescents
Abuse is widespread and isn’t limited to young boys or girls. Children as well as those in their early teens are all subject to sexual abuse. Abuse knows no bounds. Race, culture or economic status don’t appear to be factors in determining who might be more susceptible to abuse. It is known, however, that as boys age their tendency is to hide the encounters. This shows itself in the way of bad behavior later in life as men who have been abused show up more in the criminal justice system instead of seeking help to heal and overcome their scars.
Majority of Offenders Are Family Members
The hideous nature of this behavior is also seen in the family members themselves. In the majority of cases, children are molested by someone they know and in most cases by family members, with most of them men. It’s the trusting nature of children to allow a family member to touch them or otherwise molest them. This is another reason why so many cases go unreported and makes preventing the abuse a challenge.
The Effects of Sexual Abuse Can Last a Lifetime
Sexually abused children suffer a range of psychological and behavior problems that run the gamut of severity, ranging from mild to severe. Because of the despicable treatment of these young people they tend to become depressed and anxious. They feel guilty as if their predicament is their fault, they have a misunderstanding about sexual behavior and lack healthy sexual knowledge. Eventually the child may act out sexually.
Certain signs emerge after the abuse has ended in the way of reverting back to behaviors associated with someone much younger in age. For example, bed wetting or thumb sucking, behavior issues, becoming a recluse both socially and at school, and insomnia are common warning signs of previous abuse. These negative effects can linger well into adulthood and manifest themselves with destructive behaviors such as alcoholism and drug abuse.
A peculiar yet disturbing fact is that previously molested or abused children are more likely to be victims of rape or involved in abusive relationships later in life. As mentioned earlier, the effects of child sexual abuse are widespread and the symptoms don’t seem to follow a given set of norms.
Recovery Is Possible
There are currently ongoing studies to help determine if children can fully recover from abuse, but the level of recovery is apparently affected by the egregious nature of the abuse, the age of the child, how often and how long the abuse occurred and the relationship between the child and abuser.
For the best possible outcome after the abuse has ended, reporting the abuse promptly helps to aid in the recovery of the child. Talking to a trusted adult not associated with the abuse also can help reduce trauma in children compared to those who choose not to talk about it. Of course, the sooner the abuse is brought out into the open, the sooner the healing can begin. Other factors that help in this regard is family support, high self-esteem, and the passage of time. It’s also vitally important that the molested child understands the abuse is not their fault and to release themselves from any guilt associated with the abuse. Counseling in addition is highly recommended and has been shown to help in the child’s recovery.