Last month, a young man in my community was arrested on charges of child molestation. Countless concerns were voiced following his arrest from parents, youth, and even his friends. Time and time again I heard confusion about the charges. “But we know him and trust him.” “He is so nice looking.” “He is such a good Christian.” And then after the shock wore off, what normally happens with allegations of sexual abuse happened here. Silence. And silence makes me angry.
Why? Because silence about child sexual abuse sends the wrong message. It tells victims, past, present, and future, that we are willing to look away. That we are too uncomfortable or too disturbed by what has happened to tackle the problem head on.
Not one to let anger get the best of me, I started thinking. What if we could all just talk about the confusion? The shock? What if we could use this situation to talk MORE about the topic of child sexual abuse instead of less. What if instead of sweeping it under the rug, we shined a light on it to let the whole world see? Whose future sexual abuse could we be responsible for preventing? Whose daughter? Whose son?
Let’s start by looking at the facts. Studies have shown that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the time they turn 18. Take a minute and think about all of the girls and boys that that you know. Your daughters and your sons. Your nieces and nephews. Children who are friends with your kids, that live in your neighborhood, that go to your child’s school. Then imagine that 1 in 4 of those girls and 1 in 6 of those boys were being or were going to be sexually abused. That’s an epidemic. That’s a bigger prevalence rate than any disease out there. And we have the power to eradicate it. But so far we haven’t. Because the majority of us prefer silence to talking. The topic is just too uncomfortable.
How then can I be so confident that we can make a difference? Just look at what we’ve been able to accomplish on behalf of children’s safety in my lifetime through talking, teaching, and training. Car accident injuries? We used to sit unbuckled in the front seat. Now we start our kids off in car seats and when they are old enough we teach them how to buckle up on their own in the back seat. Skin cancer? We used to sunbathe in baby oil. Now we put sunscreen on our babies and teach them to use it whenever they go out in the sun. Flu season? We’ve schooled our kids to wash their hands to prevent the spread of germs. Bike accidents? Helmets. The list goes on and on. And you know what? We can make just as big of a difference in stopping sexual abuse if we put our collective minds to it.
If you’re not with me yet, then let’s talk about the effects of being a victim of child sexual abuse. That should make us all pause and consider just how serious this problem is. I love what the Darkness To Light organization has to say on this. “If child sexual abuse left physical scars instead emotional ones, people would be horrified. Sexual abuse can negatively impact every part of a victim’s life. The real tragedy is that it robs children of their potential, setting into motion a chain of events and decisions that follow the victim throughout his or her life.”
As children, victims of child sexual abuse are significantly more likely to have academic, behavioral, and emotional problems. They are more likely to be promiscuous, act out sexually, and become a teen parent. Plus, they have an increased likelihood of substance abuse problems and juvenile delinquency.
But then it gets worse, because the effects of child sexual abuse continue on into adulthood. Right now there are more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S. That’s right, 42 million! Adults who were victimized as children are more likely to have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, suicide attempts, obesity, eating disorders, physical health problems, and criminal involvement (either as a victim or a perpetrator). Not every survivor suffers these effects, but the likelihood that they will increases dramatically just because they were the victims of child sexual abuse. As a parent, I know that I would do anything in my power to keep my children from these risks. And I know that deep down, even if you’ve been silent on the issue, you want to keep your children safe from these risks too.
But what about the perpetrator? 90% of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are individuals that are known and trusted by the victim or their family. 90%! Over the past month I’ve talked to countless people who have had difficulty believing this statistic. But think about it. As parents, we wouldn’t leave our children alone with people we didn’t know or trust. You certainly wouldn’t entertain the idea of leaving your child alone with a person who “looked like” a child molester. That’s the thing. People who sexually abuse children look just like people who don’t. There is no way to know who is or who is not a perpetrator based on their appearance.
Sex offenders are, however, more likely to be men. Although the percentages vary, of those offenders that are brought into the legal system, fewer than 5% are female. But otherwise, perpetrators of child sexual abuse come from all walks of life and look and act just like everyone else. The fact that someone is a Christian, or any other religious orientation for that matter, does not make them any more or less likely to be a sex offender.
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse most often abuse children in situations where they are one-on-one with the victim. More than 80% of child sexual abuse occurs when the child is alone with the perpetrator. Adult perpetrators often try to establish a trusting relationship with children and their families just so that they can have access to the child. They often slowly introduce inappropriate comments and touches in a way that makes the child unaware that abuse is actually occurring until it is already happening. But juveniles can be perpetrators of sexual abuse too. Studies have shown that 34% of perpetrators are juveniles. Adolescent sex offenders are less likely to re-offend if provided with appropriate treatment, compared to adult offenders.
Now that you know some of the facts about sexual abuse, how do you feel? Do you feel like you want to stay silent? Or do you feel like you want to start talking to prevent children from being the victims of child sexual abuse? I hope like me you chose the latter.
Starting now, talk about this epidemic with your friends, with your family, and within your community. Post about it on Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be embarrassed. Talk to your church leaders, day care directors, and school administrators. Ask what they are doing to protect children from child sexual abuse. Shine a light on this issue. Talk to your children, uncomfortable as that might be (For tips on this check out my post Let’s Talk About Sexual Abuse). By talking about it openly, we can shift the inaccurate perception that child sexual abuse is something that should be kept secret or swept under the rug. More importantly, by talking about it we can help prevent it.
We should be able to get to a point where talking about the prevention of child sexual abuse is as natural as telling our children to put on their helmet before going on a bike ride or asking them if they’re wearing sunscreen before heading off to the pool. We’re not there yet, but together one day we can be.
If you suspect abuse or have questions, call the National Child Abuse Hotline, ChildHelp, at 1-800-4-A-CHILD for guidance 24 hours a day.