What is child sex abuse?
The school bell rang at 3:10. She was in the fourth grade, and would run home from school a fast as she could. The first thing she would do upon arriving at home, before even dropping her book bag off at the front door, taking her coat or shoes off, is run to her bedroom, and smell the hinges of her bedroom door. If the hinges of her door smelled like WD-40, she knew she was in for a nightlong evening of hell. That evening she hardly touched her supper. She was anxious. She stayed in her room, spend an extended period of time in the bathroom, and she was reluctant to go to bed. Numerous arguments occurred with her mother, and she would want to stay up. She would even try to crawl in bed with her mom, but to no avail. What she knew, and her mother didn’t is that her stepfather sprayed the hinges of her bedroom door with WD-40 to prevent squeaking when he entered her room in the middle of the night in order to take advantage of her. She would frequently freeze in a motionless position, and the abuse would continue.
The above scenario was one of my cases, and a good example of to what extent perpetrators will go to prevent being caught. It also displays the intense anxiety, stress and trauma that young victims of sex abuse experience.
It was not so long ago, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, that Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin and Gebhard perceived and wrote that sex abuse was not disturbing to children. They could not understand the intense emotion surrounding the issue of sex abuse as portrayed in the media, despite the fact that 80% of the victims in the city where they studied the population was drawn, reported being upset or frightening by the experience. They felt there was no logical reason that children should be disturbed by sexual abuse.
Fact: Kinsey, et al., 1953, states, “Some of the more experienced students of juvenile problems have come to believe that the emotions reactions of the parents, police officers, and other adults who discover that the child has had such contact may disturb the child more seriously than the sexual contact themselves.”
Fortunately enough, this belief has decreased greatly over the years. However, there are still lingering beliefs, even amongst psych professionals, that it is the child, not the offender, who is responsible for the sexual aggression being perpetrated. Again, this view, absurd as it may be, still exists in 2003!
In the 1950’s certain analytic therapists felt that children not only unconsciously desired sexual assault, but were responsible for the occurrence. These previous theories have impacted our professional community for years, and have changed drastically since the 1950’s, 60’s and even early 70’s.
The offender uses grooming and threats against their victims. The grooming that occurs can last for weeks and months before there is any attempt at sexual abuse. Usual sexual perpetrators are extremely good with children. They are engaging. They are fun. They give gifts, and are willing to spend time with the child. They know they have to develop a trusting relationship over time before they can make their move. Threats are also common. Offenders will tell their victims that they will kill their parents, lock them in a basement, lock them in a closet, or hurt them if they ever disclose. They may tell a child that no adult will ever believe them, that it would be their word against the offenders, etc. The list of what is presented to a child by an offender is endless. Subsequently, the VAST majority of children who are sexually abused do not disclose their sexual abuse. The silent secret can go on for many years, any in many cases may never be disclosed, i.e. victims now coming forward in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and even in their 5th decade of life, disclosing at this late date that they had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest years before.
There have been extensive writings regarding the mother of the victim of abuse. Should she be held responsible? Is she responsible? Is it due to the mother’s noninvolvement/involvement? Is she a silent partner in the abuse? The debate continues. Again, this is not a black and white issue. It is this author’s opinion that every case of abuse should be viewed as separate and apart from any other. There are many times that psychologists in the professional community perform research studies, so it is easier for us to group individuals together. In this author’s opinion, it is a continuum. There are situations where mothers may definitely be aware of abuse, but are afraid of losing their spouse/marriage and their financial security. A number of authors on the subject from the 1980’s and 1990’s felt that mothers are aware on some level, consciously or unconsciously, and are silent partners. A fantastic movie that portrays some of this, as well as the post-traumatic effects of sexual abuse later in adulthood is the movie “Nuts” starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss. This is a very well written and acted movie, based on the true story of Claudia Draper. I highly encourage adults watch this movie if I believe an individual has not processed through some of their own abuse issues. Please use caution when viewing this movie, since it is quite disturbing and quite accurate.
Many authors believe that family dysfunction, marital discord, absence of sexual intimacy with one’s partner over the years, leads to sexual abuse and incest. This has clearly been proven to be a fallacy. As early as 1981, this theory was still being tossed around. Offenders will try to rationalize that they are molesting a 9-year old neighbor because of the sexual frustration in their marriage. Many studies point out that if this is the case, why then do they have other fetishes, as well as offending and abusing other sexes. For example, of incest offenders, 44% molest unrelated female children, approximately 11% molested unrelated male children, 18% were involved in a rape, 18% had engaged in exhibitionism, 9% in voyerism, 5% in frottage, 4% in sadism, and 21% in other paraphilias. Let’s define a paraphilia. A paraphilia is a fetish, something that is done to elicit sexual arousal, i.e. frottage is sexual arousal which occurs secondary to rubbing up against or touching, and the individual may or may not be aware of the touching episode, especially if occurring in a subway or crowded area.
It is important to note that the spouses knowledge or lack of knowledge of the offender’s behavior, and her inability or ability to control the behavior, does not and should not diminish the offender’s responsibility for his behavior in the abuse. Offenders are notorious for distorted perceptions. The following are some examples that this author has run into over my 12-15 years of treating sex offenders. These statements are clearly believed by the offender:
- “Yes, I understand that she was 7, but she looked much older. She looked at least 9 or 10.”
- “When I woke up, her hand was in my pants.”
- “She was sitting on my lap, and I got an erection. What am I supposed to do?”
Offenders will frequently move into apartments or homes next to daycare centers. This is extremely common. They will state, “I have always liked the neighborhood, I don’t know what you are talking about,” and they will deny any plan of action. Surprisingly, offenders often admit that their favorite reading materials include catalogues such as Sears and Roebuck, and JC Penney’s, where they actual become aroused by looking at pictures of clothed children in the children’s apparel section of the catalogue.
To some degree, we are all dealt at least a few bad cards in our lives. What is important is how we play that bad hand, and not bluff our way through life.
The treatment of sex abuse victims can be very successful, as opposed to the treatment of sex offenders, where the rate of successful treatment is extremely low, as documented by high recidivism rates. In upcoming articles, we will discuss some of the standard, and more effective treatment methods for sex offenders and victims of sexual abuse.
As with serial killers, sexual offenders, for the most part, remain undetected after committing their worst offenses. Eventually, however, these individuals do get sloppy in the commission of perhaps lesser offenses such as exhibitionism, or voyerism. After thorough assessment, these individuals are found to have a longstanding history of pedophilia. This author had a patient who was a schoolteacher. He presented in therapy for a generalized anxiety disorder, where he could not talk to parents at parent-teacher conferences. He taught in a grade school. After discussing his anxiety in talking to parents for 5-6 sessions, it was revealed that even though his anxiety was very real, the etiology of this anxiety was some degree of awareness of the sexual fantasies he was having about some of his students. He ended up bringing in to this author approximately 550 photographs that he had taken of his students while on fieldtrips. He had numerous masturbatory fantasies using these photographs. Although he denied to this author that he ever sexually abused a child, and there was no evidence that he had, it was speculated that he probably did. However we never did discover evidence of perpetration. He was eventually expelled from teaching. This is a good example of where the initial complaint of anxiety was not the crux of the problem. Offenders frequently minimize the extent of their inappropriate behavior. They may admit to a part of the problem, but never come clean with all of it. It may take 5-6 months of thorough assessment to uncover all inappropriate behaviors. Offenders are often very astute regarding the legal penalties, and understand there are more severe consequences for penetration than for fondling, and may never admit to penetration.
It is also very, very common for offenders to see God and salvation as a cure-all. Please exercise caution with individuals who profess to this type of transformation. Many, many times this is just a smokescreen, and they have not turned themselves over to God at all and only pretend to believe that God is an avenue to behavior change. Instead, this is used as a convenient way to avoid these issues. Or, they may believe they don’t need treatment because they have found God, and have converted to Christianity, or have found some other source of salvation. In one study, for individuals who claimed they had “found God,” the recidivism rate was the same as those who made no such claim. Subsequently, therapist should use caution with this presentation. Many Christian therapists have fallen prey to this, and in discussions with them, they have since changed their treatment modalities, and come to understand that when dealing with sexual perpetrators, they are dealing with a different breed of individual entirely.
For more information on child sex abuse, read my book “Above His Shoulders – A true account of sexual abuse, its impact on relationships, and the emotional survival and healing.”
Treating Child Sex Offenders and Victims – A Practical Guide, Salter, Anna C.