April is Child Abuse Prevention month and events for survivors, like Take Back the Night, are scheduled in cities across the nation. Giving Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) survivors a chance to tell their stories sounds underwhelming, until you really think about the taboos we put on discussions of sexual violence, and the ways we’re insensitive to survivors. Letting survivors tell their stories and connect with other survivors is healthy for them, and it gives the rest of the world a chance to learn things about child sexual abuse that they’ll never learn from the media.
These are the top ten things I’ve learned from listening to survivors.
- Arrests are rare- Usually, when we see discussion of CSA on TV, it’s in connection to a case being investigated by the police. But when you meet with groups of survivors, stories about putting their abusers behind bars are almost unheard of. Stories about not telling their parents are common, as are stories about telling a parent who did nothing useful. Sometimes I’ll hear stories about trying to prosecute a case as an adult and coping with a Statue of Limitations on the crime. But mostly, I hear about adult survivors seeing their abuser at the grocery store, at a family reunion, near their child’s elementary school. Research supports this observation, as it shows no more than 10% of sex offenders ever see a day behind bars for their crimes.
- Having multiple abusers is very common- Researchers Able and Harlow estimate 10% of adult American men, and 1-3% of women, are pedophiles. Some subsets of pedophiles average over 100 victims. Some subsets average fewer, but all average more than one. The ACE study shows about 22% of Americans experienced CSA. The numerical difference is explained by the fact that many, if not most, victims are victimized by more than one abuser. Sometimes all the abusers are part of the same family and act in concert with each other, sometimes the child is sexually trafficked, and sometimes there is no logical explanation besides bad luck and the sheer commonness of the crime.
- The line between child sexual abuse and sex trafficking is thin- I have reason to believe I was sexually trafficked as a teenager, and I was abused by two adults. A friend of mine was sexually abused by about 20 adults and has absolutely no reason to believe she was trafficked. Forcing or coercing someone to work as a prostitute is only a small percentage of what is considered child sex trafficking, although it’s the part that gets the most attention. I’ve also met survivors who will talk about working as a prostitute, a pimp, or both because after being sexually abused as a child “it was all I knew” or “it was the only thing I thought I was good at”.
- A lot of kids are abused by other kids- Some survivors recognize child-to-child sexual abuse as the same brutal, damaging crime that adult-to-child sexual abuse is. Others approach it with a certain shame or embarrassment, as though it wasn’t “bad enough” to warrant the lifetime of suffering it has caused. Realistically, about 40% of CSA is committed by children, and it is every bit as damaging as the abuse committed by adults.
- Rape as an adult is a lot more common for CSA survivors- I’ve only met a few people who were raped as adults who weren’t sexually abused as children. This is something the ACE Study predicts, but is rarely mentioned in discussions of rape among adults.
- Domestic violence is more common among CSA survivors- this is something else the ACE Study found. There are two very common themes I hear from CSA survivors who ended up in abusive relationships- one is that they are so desperate to leave a home where they are being sexually abused they are willing to settle for a partner they realize is dangerous. The other is that since they are used to being hurt and degraded by someone important to them, an abusive intimate relationship didn’t feel abnormal. It’s been my observation that women who started adulthood with low ACE scores and end up in an abusive relationship never enter another one. Women who enter an abusive relationship with high ACE scores tend to enter one abusive one after another.
- Everyone “knows” victims become abusers, and everyone wants to break the cycle- To me, this is the source of inspiration and angst. There is a lot of truth to this observation, but research shows the truths are more complicated than our colloquial knowledge predicts. If someone struggles with sexual attraction to children, it’s an attraction they develop at or before puberty- they don’t wake up one day with it. There are lots of other unhealthy behaviors survivors tend to have that can seriously impact their children- unchecked mental illness, drug addiction and abusive relationships are ACE’s themselves. A lack of parenting skills predisposes parents towards abusiveness, as does social isolation. But all these things can be fixed, too. Maternal Home Visiting programs, and their ability to prevent abuse among high-risk parents, are among our society’s best kept secrets. After listening to survivors tearfully talk about not having children because they’re sure they would abuse them, you really want to start getting the “secret” of these programs out.
- There is so much shame and stigma among male survivors- for years, I didn’t have any male survivors at the event I organize. I was sure it was because I wasn’t recruiting properly. I tracked down male-survivor support groups, de facto male survivor support groups, and male survivors I know personally. Now I usually get some, but not as many as statistics imply I should. I’m sure some of it is my recruiting skills, but I think some of it is that there is a whole lot of shame and stigma surrounding any sort of victimization of men. Yes, huge steps forward have been made since Penn State, but I think that says more about how bad of a place male survivors were in before, as opposed to them being in a good place now.
- Sometimes there are indirect victims- I hear a lot of stories where parents do the wrong thing. But, I consistently meet some parents who are as hurt by their child’s victimization as their child is. Their pain perfectly mirrors their children’s, but they have a wellspring of resolve to help their own child heal, to heal as many other survivors as they can, and to make some meaningful change.
- Everyone wants a happy ending- when CSA survivors get together to share their stories, you tend to see incredible acts of kindness and moments of connectedness. Usually, there’s much less crying and much more laughing than you’d imagine. Strangers from different walks of life share a common bond they’ve rarely, if ever, shared. Yes, there actually is a lot of laughter. A lot of friendships are made. Many survivors desperately want to help other survivors or to end child sexual abuse. We’re stronger together, and together we get to realize that.