Sexual Abuse of Children

Renee Z. Dominguez, Ph.D., Connie F. Nelke, Ph.D., Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
ChildTrauma Academy

Introduction

Child sexual abuse is a significant public health problem in the United States and across the world. In the United States one out of three females and one out of five males have been victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18 years. Sexual abuse occurs across all ethnic/racial, socioeconomic, and religious groups. Unfortunately, sexual abuse is considered a relatively common experience in the lives of children. A report released by the National Institute of Justice in 1997 revealed that of the 22.3 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 years in the United States, 1.8 million were victims of a serious sexual assault/abuse. There are gender differences with regard to sexual abuse incidents; specifically, girls are at twice the risk than boys for sexual victimization throughout childhood and at eight times the risk during adolescence. Because significant physical, emotional, social, cognitive and behavioral problems are related to childhood trauma, the need to more effectively address the issue has become paramount.

There are a number of commonly held misconceptions regarding child sexual abuse in the United States. These include the following: sexual abuse is limited to sexual intercourse between an adult and a child; the perpetrator of the sexual abuse is always a stranger; and rape occurs with adult women, not children. However, these beliefs are false. Sexual abuse involves a range of activities including non-contact and contact offenses (see Table1); stranger abuse comprises only a small percentage of total victimizations; and children are approximately three times more likely than adults to be victims of rape. In fact, among females, almost 30% of all forcible rapes occur before the age of 11 years, and another 32% occur between the ages of 11 and 17.

Researchers in this area use somewhat different criteria for sexual abuse; the most common definition of sexual abuse, however, is any sexual activity involving a child where consent is not or cannot be given. Sexual contact between an adult and a minor child, as well as an older teen and a younger child, are both examples of sexual abuse. Depending upon the age at which a state deems a child capable of giving consent, sexual abuse between two minors can also occur. For example, the law in Texas dictates that there be greater than a three-year age differential between children in order to be considered sexual abuse. The types of sexual abuse vary widely and include both physical contact as well as non-contact offenses. Despite the choices made by laws and research criterion, the impact of a forced or coerced sexual activity can be devastating on a child even if the action cannot be legally or academically described as sexual abuse.

All states require some kind of mandated child abuse reporting. Child abuse reporting laws most often require specified professionals (e.g., physicians, teachers) who have contact with children to report to law enforcement, the department of social services, or children protection agencies incidents in which abuse is suspected. These laws were developed in order to better protect children. From state to state, it varies as to who is mandated to report and what abuse acts require reporting. For example, according to California Penal Code there are two categories of sexual abuse that are reportable: sexual assault and sexual exploitation. According to the code, sexual assault includes rape and rape in concert, oral copulation and sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14, penetration of a genital and/or anal opening by a foreign object, and child molestation. Sexual exploitation includes conduct involving matter depicting minors engaged in obscene acts; promoting, aiding, or assisting a minor to engage in prostitution; a live performance involving obscene sexual conduct, or posing for a pictorial depiction involving obscene conduct for commercial purposes; and depicting a child in or knowingly developing a pictorial depiction in which a child engages in obscene sexual conduct.

Effects of Sexual Abuse

There are a significant number of negative short-term effects of sexual abuse that impact a child’s functioning. The most commonly experienced effect of sexual abuse is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Posttraumatic 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 review 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. Additionally, a third or more of child victims of sexual abuse report depression and anxiety. Other frequently occurring symptoms include promiscuity (38%), general behavior problems (30%), poor self-esteem (35%), and disruptive behavior disorders (23%). In some important recent research conducted, in part, by the Centers for Disease Control, risk for health problems in adult life including heart disease were increased by adverse childhood events, including sexual abuse.

It is estimated that somewhere between 21-49% of child sexual abuse victims appear asymptomatic post-victimization. Potential explanations for this include: difficulties with the methods used to detect problems in children, delays in symptom development post-sexual abuse, underreporting of symptoms, resiliency, and mitigating factors that may make the impact of the abuse less severe for some children.

Mitigating factors can increase or decrease distress related to sexual abuse and include characteristics of the crime itself, characteristics of the individual child, and characteristics of the environment. Regarding the crime itself, sexual abuse involving force and penetration are associated with increased distress as are multiple victimizations. If the perpetrator of the crime is a parent rather than an adult stranger or older child, the child is also more likely to experience distress. Child characteristics include age and developmental level. With advanced cognitive development, a child’s perspective regarding the victimization may include more or less distress. Children with lower self-esteem experience increased levels of distress. Children whose coping methods include avoidance are also more apt to develop distress symptoms. Characteristics of the environment include children who have a supportive relationship with an adult, parent, or sibling. These individuals generally have better adjustment than children who experience little support. Similarly, family cohesiveness is also a positive buffer for child victims of sexual abuse. Parental distress is associated with child distress, i.e., the more the parent is negatively affected by the crime, the more the child is negatively affected.

Evidence suggests that the negative psychological impact of child sexual abuse persists over time, often into adulthood. Potential long-term effects of child sexual abuse include depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, sexual dysfunction, and substance abuse. Further, among the female adult outpatient population, individuals with sexual abuse histories as children were twice as likely to attempt suicide than their non-abused counterparts. Across the lifespan, 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. It is estimated that approximately one third of child sexual abuse victims experience PTSD as adult survivors. 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.

Identification of Sexual Abuse

It is rare for a child to speak directly about sexual abuse. Evidence of physical trauma to the genitals or mouth, genital or rectal bleeding, sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, unusual and offensive odors, and complaints of pain or discomfort of the genital area can all be indicators. An aware medical practitioner may notice these symptoms during a physical examination. However, in most cases of sexual abuse, there are no physical indicators of the crime. It is rare to actually have positive medical findings upon medical examination, although such findings can provide powerful corroboration of a child’s account of sexual abuse. Most often, children who are victims of sexual abuse exhibit emotional or behavioral characteristics that may indicate distress. These neuropsychiatric symptoms (see Table 2) indicate a distressed child. The presence of any one of these indicators does not necessarily mean that the child is or has been sexually abused. Children with several of these symptoms, however, are often referred for mental health evaluations. Most disclosures from children are to trusted friends or adults in their life – the teacher, coach, pastor, grandparent or therapist.

The reaction of the adult to whom a child discloses sexual abuse can significantly impact the child’s subsequent adjustment. It is important for the adult to be respectful, caring, and believing. A response involving panic, shock, or disbelief, or an overly emotional response can negatively impact the child. Children often feel badly and blame themselves for the sexual abuse. Therefore, a response in which the adult communicates that the abuse was not the child’s fault and that disclosing the information was the right thing to do is recommended. Preparing the child for the potential aftermath of the disclosure is also important. For example, if the adult to whom the child disclosed is a mandated reporter, the local child protection agency or law enforcement will have to be notified. If the adult to whom the child disclosed is a non-offending parent, the parent must take steps to protect the child from further abuse, including reporting the abuse to the proper authorities. In some states (e.g., Texas), if a non-offending parent fails to report, sexual abuse charges can be filed against them as well.

The legal process can be especially intimidating, confusing, and frightening for children. Many aspects of the process (such as providing testimony and multiple interviews) can be overwhelming for children. It is estimated that the average number of interviews a child victim whose case is going through the court system undergoes is eleven. It is often said that during this time, a child can potentially be “re-traumatized.” The pre-trial phase can be more distressful for the child than the disclosure phase because the pre-trial phase often involves ongoing investigation, multiple interviews, and protracted fear of perpetrator retaliation. Children report a number of courtroom related fears. Approximately 95% report being frightened to testify and many children report that the day they testified was the worst day of their lives. Other reported fears include retaliation by the perpetrator, being sent to jail, being punished for making a mistake, having to prove their innocence, crying on the witness stand, describing the details of the offense(s) in front of strangers, and not understanding the questions which are being asked.

Intervention

There are several modalities of psychological treatment that have demonstrated positive benefits for child victims of sexual abuse. These include individual psychotherapy, group-based psychotherapy, and treatments that involve the entire family. When treatment for this population is trauma-focused, structured, and targets the specific symptoms of sexual abuse, it can be effective at reducing short-term and long-term effects. Individual treatment usually involves the child and a therapist meeting together for an hour a week. The therapist may be a master’s level clinician, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Despite varied professional backgrounds, it is important that the treating therapist have specific training and expertise in working with child victims of sexual abuse. Different techniques may be used to process the sexual abuse experience, normalize reactions, and develop adaptive coping strategies to address symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Trauma-focused play therapy, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy are all specific individual child-focused interventions that may be appropriate treatment for child sexual abuse. Group-based psychotherapy can be particularly powerful for sexual abuse victims; they are exposed to other victims and subsequently do not feel alone. Moreover, this modality is useful in helping child victims understand that people cannot simply look at them and identify them as a sexual abuse victim. Treatment interventions that involve the entire family include family preservation services, attachment-trauma therapy, and Parents United programs. The focus of these interventions is to strengthen the parent-child relationship in order to help process the trauma and to ultimately increase the level of family functioning.

Treatment is also available to the offender of sexual abuse. While highly controversial and with questionable documentation of efficacy, sexual molestation of children is a treatable, but not curable behavior problem. The primary goal of the treatment of sexual offenders is to minimize the likelihood that the individual will re-offend. This is best achieved by modifying emotional, cognitive, behavioral, environmental, and psychological factors, which support the desire, capacity, and opportunity to offend. Cognitive-behavioral therapies, including Relapse Prevention, have proven to be the most successful at reducing recidivism rates. The recidivism rate for individuals who undergo cognitive behavioral treatment and/or Relapse Prevention is estimated to be 8.1% compared to 25.6% who are untreated (Alexander, 1999). Treatment often occurs in a group therapy context and involves approximately 100-150 weekly sessions. When offenders have particular needs that cannot be addressed within this therapeutic context, adjunct treatments are often utilized as a supplement (e.g., substance abuse treatment, individual psychotherapy, anger management training).

Central to cognitive-behavioral therapies and Relapse Prevention is the belief that sexual abuse is something that does not “just happen.” The overwhelming majority of the time there are identifiable behaviors in which offenders engage prior to offending. Successful treatment involves educating the sexual offender about this process of sexual offending and facilitating an understanding of his particular pattern of offending. Within this conceptualization, it is important to teach sexual offenders how to identify circumstances that place them at greater risk for re-offending. Based on the offender’s understanding of his behavior, he can then learn to identify problematic behaviors early in this cycle, modify his behavior, and consequently reduce the liklihood that he will re-offend. Other important areas of treatment include accepting responisiblity for offending, developing victim empathy, and correcting faulty thinking patterns.

In the end, however, the most effective way to prevent subsequent abusing is to decrease or eliminate opportunity; offenders should not have uncontrolled access to vulnerable children or previous victims.

Prevention

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. 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. Examples of such programs were described in the Intervention section above. 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 tertiary programs may be more easily attainable and this problem may be more appropriately addressed.

Summary and Future Directions

Child sexual abuse is a pervasive 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.

References

Alexander, M.A. (1999). Sexual offender treatment efficacy revisited. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 11 (2), 101-116.

Briere, J., Berliner, L., Bulkley, J.A., Jenny, C., & Reid, T., (1996). The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Finkelhor, D. (1979). What’s wrong with sex between adults and children? Ethics and the problem of sexual abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 49, 692-697.

Harris, G.E., Cross, J.C., Vincent, J.P., Mikalsen, E., & Dominguez, R.Z. (2001). Giving kids a chance: Helping victimized children and their families. A Guide for professionals in educational settings. Washington: DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

MacFarlane, K. & Waterman, J. et al.(1986). Sexual Abuse of Young Children. New York, New York: Guilford Press.

Perry. B.P., & Azad, I. (1999). Posttraumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 11, 310-316.

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

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