National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse

National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse

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NAASCA Highlights
- Feature Article -
EDITOR'S NOTE: Here are a few recent stories and feature articles from a variety of sources that are related to the kinds of issues we cover on our web site. They'll represent a small percentage of the information available to us, the public, as we fight to provide meaningful recovery services and help for those who've suffered child abuse. We'll add to and update this page regularly, bringing you just a few of the featured articles on the web site.
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Lorna Littner, LMSW, M.S.
Human Sexuality Educator
  Seize The Day

Time to illuminate the issue of child sexual abuse

by Lorna Littner, LMSW, M.S.

Now that sexual impropriety in the workplace has caught and held the attention of the nation, isn't it time we broaden the media spotlight to also illuminate the issue of child sexual abuse? We are in a watershed moment where we are talking, reading, and maybe even disclosing our own experiences with sexual harassment and assault.

The question is: are we now ready, willing and able to use this moment and this platform to confront the issue of child sexual abuse as well?

Large numbers of children are at risk every day in places that are presumed to provide solace, service and a safe haven for them. While accurate statistics are very difficult to determine (because they are based only on reported cases and then inferred) the estimates of children who have been inappropriately and prematurely sexualized by an older person range from one in three to one in seven girls and one in six to one in 10 to15 boys. That translates into roughly seven million children in the United States alone.

Some new research suggests that these numbers are decreasing. This has been attributed, in part, to more prevention education efforts with children and parents and increased public awareness about the issue of child sexual abuse after so many sexual abuse scandals have been exposed recently by the media.

Some of the underlying characteristics that have made sexual harassment and assault so insidious and pervasive in the workplace are also present in the sexual abuse of children. For example, children are still, in many ways, defined by their biological sex and as such, continue to be socialized differently. Typically, females are taught to defer to males, especially those in positions of power, coupled with the lack of assertiveness skills this puts them at a decided disadvantage when confronted with situations that make them uncomfortable or puts them at risk. Many males are socialized to express power in ways that can be aggressive to and objectifying of others, especially females who are perceived as posing no threat of retaliation. Men lead, and women follow. Adults lead, and children follow.

Institutional compliance or complacency is another factor to consider. When individuals in the upper echelons of institutions, be they cardinals or bishops, entertainment executives, government officials, deans and the like, ignore claims of improper behavior. This sets the stage for its ongoing persistence. No response trivializes both the accuser and the accusation. Children, when they try to tell are, are not infrequently misunderstood or ignored. This happens for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is not having the language or experience of talking about anything sexual with parents or others who might understand and be able to provide a degree of protection. Additionally, and most probably unintentionally, it sends a tacit message to molesters that what they are contemplating doing or have done is not so “bad,” because if it was someone would do something about it.

The availability and access to pornography which focuses on sexual images of children and teenagers can be seen as suggesting a social tolerance to eroticizing children and sexualizing females, regardless of their age. Mainstream advertising reinforces this message. There is no doubt that sex sells. Witness the current focus on the modeling and fashion business where allegations of abuse and harassment abound.

Delayed disclosure is another common characteristic. Secrets are kept out of fear of retribution, loss of status or potential for advancement. For children, the secret is both the “source of fear and the promise of safety.” If no one knows, nothing bad will happen. If someone finds out, it will. The power of secrecy is so potent that it is estimated that three out of four people with a sexual abuse history will never tell anyone about the experience.

As a society, our default modus operandi is to be reactive, and only respond to problems after they have occurred. Let us change that. It is time for us, finally, to be proactive when it comes to child sexual abuse.

Evidence shows that prevention education can make a difference. There is little doubt that children can be taught to recognize behavior that puts them at risk for possible abuse. They can learn skills that will give them the potential to, at best, deter the abuser or, at least, report the behavior to someone who can intervene on their behalf. As sexual abuse tends to be progressive and can become more intrusive and damaging over time this is a good thing. Sex abuse prevention education is not a one-time only or one-size fits all event. It must be ongoing and, of course, keyed to the developmental age and stage of the learner. Parents would be the ideal source of this education, but many are under-informed about sexuality in general and not sure how to broach the subject of sexuality or sexual abuse with their children. So, the old “stranger danger” message gets repeated too often by too many parents and schools as a prevention approach.

I would suggest that the process of prevention education starts with the willingness and ability of primary caretakers to talk with children under their care about sexuality. Matter of fact conversations that, ideally, begin when a child starts asking questions or expressing curiosity set the stage for more targeted discussion of the issue of abuse as well as many other “difficult” topics. These conversations normalize talking about sexuality and communicates to the child that it is okay to talk with parents about it. The additional benefit is that it provides a platform upon which parents can begin sharing their own cultural, ethical and moral beliefs with their children.

Children need to learn the correct names for their genitals. By avoiding calling a penis a penis, and a vagina a vagina, we unintentionally communicate that these are words that should not be spoken. By the time a child is three or four discussion about specifics can begin. These should be realistic and factual. Warning children about the lurking stranger is not adequate ... nor does it reflect the fact that most children are abused by people in their immediate or extended social network.

Regrettably, child sexual abuse is a reality. Meaningful prevention results won't cost lots of money nor require a social sea change or generations to accomplish. Sex abuse prevention education can be difficult for adults to initiate with children, in part because many are reluctant or under informed about how to talk with children about sexuality. Many don't understand that our sexuality is a component of who we are from the earliest stages of life. Therefore, there are developmentally appropriate topics to raise with children at all different ages and stages of childhood. Even pre-verbal children assimilate much that is going on around them related to sexuality. For example, they integrate what they see and experience that reflect patterns of expression, of affection and love, of sex roles and attitudes toward nudity, etc., within their immediate family. We speak thousands of words without even opening our mouths.

Some parents are worried that if they talk openly with their children about sexuality, especially if the messages are sex positive, it conveys parental “permission” to be sexual. They are concerned that a child will hear “try it out .. it feels good.” This is one of the reasons, I think, that parents are reluctant to raise the issue of birth control and safer sex with older children and teens at a time when their bodies are maturing and their thoughts are turning to the idea of partnered sexual behavior. There is something about "sex-talk" that sets it apart from all of those other difficult “issues” parents need to tackle as their children grow and mature. We have the “drug-talk" with our kids without worrying that we are giving them permission to get high. We talk about bullying without concern that we are encouraging our kids to bully.

Any and all of these conversations can be a platform where we not only provide information but also encourage a discussion about feelings, and how to handle situations that arise that are associated with the topic at hand. No matter how tenaciously we try to protect our children, they will be faced with situations that are potentially dangerous. The better informed they are, the more prepared they are, the more likely they will be able act in ways that are self-preserving.

Carpe Diem. This is a watershed moment, let's not waste it!

Lorna Littner, LMSW, M.S.

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HOME PAGE
programs / projects
RECOVERY
together we can heal
RESOURCES
help stop child abuse
ABOUT
a little about us
CONTACT
join us, get involved