Sexual Abuse as a Social Problem

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Sexual abuse, like many forms of abuse, has been a persistent problem throughout history. It has been with us since biblical times; in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 13) there is a story of Tamar, the young daughter of King David, being raped by her older brother Amnon. It is apparent that the issue of sexual abuse is not a new social problem, but a growing one. Everyday, over 1,800 adult women are raped nationwide. In 1994, 345,000 sexual abuse incidents were reported to Child Protective Services in the U.S., which is a staggeringly high number considering it is estimated that only 10% of all cases are reported to authorities. A survey done by the Child Abuse Studies Unit of the University of North London and revealed that one in two girls (59%) and one in four boys (27%) will experience child sexual abuse by the time they are 18. Aside from the fact that it is morally wrong to force or coax an individual into doing something unwillingly, the after affects of this sort of trauma is long lasting and devastating.

Sexual abuse as defined by the Department of Health, Education and Home Office in their document “Working Together To Safeguard Children” 1999, ” involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative (rape or sodomy) or non-penetrative acts. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities, or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.” The increasing popularity of the Internet has given predators a new way to reach potential victims: About one out of every five children online is approached in a sexual way, and of those, only 25 percent tell their parents, according to the center for abused children in Virginia.

These acts can be committed by strangers, but most often is perpetrated by adults or older children in trusting care-taking roles. On TV and in the media abusers are usually portrayed as strangers in the park wearing dirty raincoats, but that is not the case. In fact, incest, or abuse by a person the child perceives as a member of the family, is the most common form of childhood sexual abuse. It is difficult to name one particular thing that causes this social problem since abusers can come from varied social standings. Abusers appear no different than any other man or women; they can be doctors, teachers, religious leaders; they can be poor, middle class, or rich. These varying factors make it difficult to predetermine who will be abusive and who will not. Often times those who abuse have been abused themselves and unconsciously “identify with the abuser” by engaging in behaviors which where once perpetrated against them. People learn by example, or what psychologists call modeling. It is this concept which feeds the ugly cycle of abuse. If a child grows up being molested or raped by those they trust and those individuals are never caught or no intervention is involved, the child grows up thinking it is okay to commit such hanious acts. Often they lash out at society because they are frustrated and broken down emotionally. The only way to stop this cycle is through education and therapy. It is also helpful to the abuse victim if there is some sort of resolution; for example putting the perpetrator behind bars or exposing the abuser for what he/she has done.

Children are vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their age, size and innocence. When a child or youth is molested, she/he learns that adults cannot be trusted for care and protection. As a result of, the child feels as if their well being is disregarded, and there is a lack of support and safety. This often leads to grief, depression, extreme dependency, inability to judge trustworthiness in others, anger and hostility. Most children are unable to protect themselves and therefore cannot stop the abuse. This makes them very susceptible to being forced or being tricked into sexual acts. And as if all that isn’t enough, children’s bodies are often aroused in response to the sexual abuse, bringing on shame and guilt. All of these factors can lead to a variety of problems for the individual.

Aside from the emotional difficulties, the symptoms of abuse often present itself in the form of physical ailments. Children who’ve suffered this type of abuse have reported physical complaints such as abdominal pain, nausea, and headache (to name a few).

Psychological problems, many of them with long lasting effect, seem to plague the victims of this type of abuse. Frequently the victim has a lowered self-esteem and/or little respect for their bodies. Often, they exhibit symptoms of panic and anxiety. They may also participate in self-destructive behaviors such as addiction or prostitution. Oftentimes they have problems with socialization, making friends or having deep connected relationships with others. Sexual difficulties can present itself in adulthood as a result of a partner inadvertadly touching or behaving in a way that evokes memories of the abuse. These victims often see themselves as damaged goods and therefore have very little self worth.

The combination of the trauma of being abused along and aftereffects often leads to the development of mental illness such as Post Traumatic stress disorder, dissasociative identity disorder, depression, eating disorders, and a various number of other psychopathologies. The most commonly experienced effect of sexual abuse is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Post traumatic stress disorder is a clinical syndrome whose symptoms fall into three clusters: reenactment of the traumatic event; avoidance of cues associated with the event or general withdrawal; and physiological hyper-reactivity. A recent article suggested over 50% of sexually abused children meet at least partial criteria of PTSD and another study suggested a third of all sexually abused children develop full diagnostic criteria. If not effectively addressed, PTSD can become a chronic problem affecting the child well into adulthood.

The development of sexualized behavior, also called sexually reactive behavior, is another common negative short-term effect of sexual abuse. Children who have been sexually abused engage in more sexualized behavior when compared to children who are not victims of sexual abuse, and when compared to clinical samples of children with other mental health issues. A recent report suggested that about a third of children who have been sexually abused subsequently manifest this symptom. Across the life span, individuals who were sexually abused as children are four times more likely to be at risk for developing a psychiatric disorder and are about three times more likely to abuse substances than their non-abused counterparts. Among women whose abuse involved penetration, an increased risk associated for the development of PTSD is experienced, resulting in about two thirds of this population developing PTSD at some point during their lifetime.

Mental illness, in and of itself, has a large effect on society as a whole and on individual communities. Without proper resources or good support outlets for the victims, the chances of mental illness are higher as are the odds of committing criminalized acts. If these kids grow up without a positive sense of self and feel they have nothing to offer to society, then they feel helpless and trapped. Runaways are often victims of sexual abuse and would rather live on the streets then be in that sort of environment, further adding to the growing population of the homeless. “I think it’s important that people understand there’s a direct victim and all the indirect victims who have to help that person get through it”(Alexander).

Now that I have discussed what the symptoms and long term effects of sexual abuse are, I would like to take the rest of the paper to discuss what we can do to prevent this horrendous crime and how we can further protect our children. Prevention of child sexual abuse occurs on three levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention targets services to the general population in order to decrease the frequency and occurrence of child sexual abuse. Recently, public awareness campaigns have emerged to address the issue. There is some indication that in the last couple of years, the incidence of sexual abuse may be decreasing and some experts have attributed this to an increase in public awareness at the primary prevention level as a possible explanation. Secondary prevention targets services to specific groups that are considered at high risk in order to avoid child sexual abuse from occurring. Some examples of secondary prevention programs include child assault prevention programs and safety education taught to children in schools. These programs may increase a child’s knowledge of sexual abuse and how to respond, and may even facilitate subsequent disclosures, which ultimately may reduce child sexual abuse from occurring. Tertiary prevention targets services to victims of child sexual abuse with the goal of minimizing its negative effects and avoiding reoccurrence. Although evidence suggests that trauma-focused interventions are effective at reducing specific sexual abuse related symptoms, more research is needed to understand how this works.

There are two major deterrents to prevention efforts in the area of child sexual abuse: lack of efficacy for prevention services and lack of adequate resources. It is imperative that prevention services document that they do indeed prevent child sexual abuse. Adequate resources are needed; both for treatment of victims of child sexual abuse and for prevention services that reach the broader population. Once effective primary prevention techniques are established, adequate funding for these programs may be more easily attainable and this problem may be more appropriately addressed.

Child sexual abuse is a problem in the United States that affects individuals of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The short-term and long-term effects of sexual abuse have been well documented and highlight the need for effective psychological interventions. Evidence also suggests that participation in legal proceedings following sexual abuse can be further distressing for the child sexual abuse victim. Future research efforts should focus on prevention efforts and therapeutic intervention for these child victims. Furthermore, efforts should be focused towards making the legal system more child-victim friendly in order to minimize further helplessness, distress and even trauma during this process.

Works Cited

“Child Sexual Abuse.” Enotes. 11 Feb. 2004. 10 Mar. 2008 .

Alexander, M. A. (1999). Sexual offender treatment efficacy revisited. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 11 (2),

Clacher, Maria. “Sexual Abuse Facts.” Women of Substance. 22 Apr. 2005. 18 Mar. 2008 .

Saunders, B. E., Berliner, L., & Hanson, R. F. (2001). Guidelines for the Psychosocial Treatment of Intrafamilial Child Physical and Sexual Abuse (Draft Report: April 6, 2001). Charleston, SC

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