The sexual victimization of children is ethically and morally wrong and the terrible effects of sexual abuse extend far beyond childhood. Sexual abuse robs children of their innocence and creates a loss of trust and feelings of shame about their sexuality and themselves. Very often, it leads to self-abusive behavior, such as cutting, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. Disobedience, rebellion, or oppositional defiance disorders; despair and depression; a poor sense of self; low self-esteem; and promiscuity are all serious emotional problems that may arise in children who have been sexually abused. Such abuse can also lead to difficulty maintaining healthy intimate relationships later in life.
Child sexual abuse can be touching or non-touching. Non-touching abuses can include such things as engaging in indecent exposure or exhibitionism, exposing children to pornographic material, deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse, or masturbating in front of a child.
Touching sexual offenses include fondling a child’s genitals or making a child touch an adult’s sexual organs; sexual intercourse with a child or penetrating a child’s vagina or anus, no matter how slight, with a penis or any object that doesn’t have a valid medical purpose. Engaging a child in sexual acts or soliciting a child for the purposes of prostitution and/or using a child to film, photograph, or model pornography is also considered sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse often takes place within the family or is perpetrated by a friend or neighbor, a teacher, or someone else in a position of power. However, in some cases abuse may be carried out by a stranger. No child is emotionally prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. An older child who knows, and in many cases even likes, the abuser, may become wedged between affection and allegiance for the person and the sense that the sexual activities are dreadfully wrong. If the child tries to stop the relationship, the abuser may intimidate the child with violence. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy, or shame of other family members, or may be afraid the family will break up if the secret is revealed.
A victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness, and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. Such children often have difficulty relating to others, except on sexual terms. Some may become child abusers themselves, or may become sex workers or sexually promiscuous.
Children who have been sexually abused need professional evaluation and help to regain a sense of self-esteem, handle feelings of guilt about the abuse, and begin the process of overcoming the trauma. Ideally, the family should also be involved in the therapy sessions.
What are the signs of sexual abuse?
Signs that a child may be suffering from sexual abuse include such things as an overly curious interest in things of a sexual nature or excessive masturbation (or, conversely, a revulsion for or avoidance of anything sexual); depression; drawing pictures of a sexual nature or exhibiting sexualized play; seductiveness toward others of the opposite sex; and physical signs such as sexually transmitted diseases, persistent or frequent uterine tract infections, bleeding from the genitals or anus, or physical marks on the sexual organs or body. Sometimes, a young child who suffers from sexual abuse may complain of soreness around their genitals.
Emotional signs might include a normally outgoing child suddenly withdrawing from family or friends. They might exhibit symptoms of guilt or shame or become rebellious and challenging. An older child may suffer from depression, experience a sudden decrease in grades or performance at school or in sport activities, may become promiscuous, or may seek solace in drugs or alcohol.
What can parents do to decrease the chances of sexual abuse?
Parents need to first cultivate a trusting relationship with their children and teach them that if someone ever tries to touch the child’s body or do anything that makes the child feel funny or uncomfortable, they must tell that person “No” very forcefully and then tell the parent immediately. Paying attention to the child, so that the parents know the child’s school friends and their families and are confident that the child will be safe in their care if they do attend sleepovers, is also important. It is also crucial that parents only ever leave their children in the care of individuals the parent considers will protect the child.
While the majority of sexual abuse offenders are men (as many as ninety-seven percent) parents should be vigilant around any babysitters, coaches, teachers, priests or other individuals who have regular contact with their children. Anyone who works with children should have the valid qualifications and checks and balances to do so, and parents and carers should watch for any signs of inappropriate conduct. Regularly chatting with their child about their schoolyard, after-school or weekend activities, and whether they are enjoying the activity and why, also helps build a platform of trust for the child to speak about anything that may be troubling them.
It is also a good idea to teach children the difference between blind compliance and respect. Just because a person is a teacher, a babysitter, or a priest does not mean that a child must always do as they say, especially if the child knows it to be wrong or against their principles. Parents must instill in their children the idea that a child’s body is his or her own business, and that no one has the right to tell them to keep a secret about their own body.