Stories of child sexual abuse disclosed years later have prompted questions as to why victims don't speak out sooner. The silence endured by many young victims is the result of careful planning on the part of predators who exploit children's trust, uncertainties, compromised coping and fear of harm to themselves or family members.
Every eight minutes a child is sexually assaulted in this country, most by a familiar person. Although one in four women and one in 20 men have been sexually abused or assaulted by age 18, they may never tell.
Contrary to the popular idea that "strangers are danger," most instances of early sexual abuse occur between a child and someone the family has learned to trust, whether it's an older babysitter, church member, teacher, coach, relative, step-parent or a neighbor who occasionally offers to help out. Frequently, the relationship develops in the context of a legitimate connection in which the child as well as the family has confidence that this older person will behave in ways that are safe and nurturing.
In half of all child sexual abuse cases, the predator engages in a process called "grooming," in which a psychological connection is developed with the child while the predator simultaneously establishes him- or herself as a respected, perhaps even idealized, figure in the family's life. The steps, outlined in a recent article by Georgia Winters, proceed from selecting a victim and gaining access to developing trust and desensitizing the child to touch. The predator may bestow small gifts upon the child or family; positive attention alone may increase the child's bond with the predator. But one day the predator will cross over the boundary. The initial act will be shrouded in secrecy; silence will be part of the bargain. Often the first act occurs in a way that leaves the child questioning: Was it an accident or a one-time occurrence? Would someone who is so trusted by my family and community risk hurting me? How can someone who has been nice do something that seems wrong?
When a person experiences an event that is frightening, surprising, or potentially harmful, the heart rate automatically increases and breathing becomes more rapid to prepare for flight (escaping the danger) or fight (shutting down the danger). Think about a time when you experienced a frightening event, perhaps a traffic accident or tornado. Your adrenaline kicked in, catapulting you into survival mode.
But children's problem-solving skills are not as sophisticated as an adult's, and because they are less powerful, they often can't leave the situation or defend themselves. Hence, they may shut down physically and psychologically. They may not remember details, or they may think about the details only when they are safe. In the meantime, they may convince themselves the event didn't happen or won't happen again. When predators cross the boundary again, children are often retriggered, which can prevent them from running away, telling someone, or avoiding the situation in the future. Children may inaccurately believe they played a role in the abuse. Over time, shame, humiliation and fear of retaliation overpower children's ability to confide in any trustworthy adult.
If children aren't able to tell their secret, the abuse often continues and can become more severe. On the other hand, stopping the abuse requires children to accomplish a complex series of steps: They must have enough knowledge about body safety to recognize they are being abused, muster the courage to break free of the predator's threats or favors, find words to express what is happening, and locate someone safe who will believe the abuse.
Make no mistake, when children tell, they are subject to intense scrutiny. They are often exposed to intense emotional reactions by adults, which they may mistakenly interpret as anger toward them instead of their abuser. Even adults, after weighing the risks and benefits of exposing abusive or exploitative behaviors, decide that speaking out can have far more damaging consequences for them personally than for the predator. Nationally representative surveys show that most people who experience sexual abuse in childhood do not disclose their abuse until adulthood.
It's a difficult task but, as a society, we can raise the curtain on predators' manipulative behaviors and abuse of our children. We must engage in frank conversations with our children, carefully monitor who has access to them, and adopt a healthy skepticism about favors that may precede hazardous bargains with our children. In the whirl of social media, we must be even more involved in our children's technology, despite their desire to be independent.
While we would wish for a world where children are free from harm, we must listen to the voices of courageous men and women who, after many years of silence, are taking the difficult, risky steps of speaking out.
Teresa Kramer, Ph.D., is a professor in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Department of Psychiatry and directs the Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma (ARBEST) program.
Editorial on 12/23/2017
Print Headline: Silent scourge