Imagine this, a room full of people: a college student, a musician, a lawyer, a teacher. All of them having once suffered from the atrocities of sexual abuse. The National center for victims of crime states that, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are subjected to some form of sexual abuse, before their 18th birthday. However, the actual number of children who experience sexual abuse may be much larger because many cases go unreported. Many victims harbor feelings of fear or embarrassment so they do not come forth or talk about their experiences.
The text I found all centered on the physical and psychological effects victims of sexual abuse suffer from. I am curious and compelled to continue to research and study sexual abuse and its many facets because of how often the topic shows up in my life. Whether I am in class talking about risk factors in adolescents, watching Law and order SVU, or reading the nightly news; it is alarming to see how many times the abuse of adolescents is the main topic. This horrid abuse has affected many people in and around my life, which is why I am interested in finding ways to bringing awareness to this issue. This topic proves to be significant because sexual abuse knows no boundary, race, religion, or ethnicity and the effects it has on its victims are substantial. This paper will focus on childhood sexual abuse, its affects, and relevancy to me and my learning.
Defining Childhood Sexual Abuse
The world health organization defines childhood sexual abuse as:
“The involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society (World Health Organization, 2003)”
The victims of CSA can range in age, gender and culture. Many times, the abuse is done by a someone the victim is familiar with. Sexual child abuse can happen in many different places. This can be done at home in the trust and care of a family member, on the streets in the form of child trafficking, or as we have seen in the news lately at the hands of a grade school teacher. The fact that it can occur in so many spaces is extremely daunting.
One of the issues associated with CSA is the lack of accurate data that can be found on who is being victimized. This lack of data stems from the fact that many cases go unreported so the prevalence may be much more than what research has found. For example, boys are less likely to talk about their experiences because they tend to be afraid of what people might think of them if they admit to being assaulted (Finkelhor, 1999). Children who are more likely at risk for victimization are those who have at home and life issues. These risk factors center around unstable home conditions such as: divorce, drug and alcohol use, violence, homelessness, and emotional deprivation (Finkelhor, 1999).
Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse
The effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse are both vast and long term. People may suffer from emotional, physical, and mental trauma after experiencing this abuse. The emotional effects of CSA are often associated with feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Victims of CSA may sometimes feel as if they are responsible for the assault. In an analysis done by the University of British Columbia researchers found significant interactions between sexual abuse and self-conscious emotions (Kealy, Spidel, & Ogrodniczuk, 2017). These feelings of guilt and shame that arose from a history of childhood sexual trauma revealed that woman who suffered from CSA were more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and ideations (Kealy).
Since the nature of CSA offenders are manipulative, definitive signs of genital trauma are rarely seen in cases of child sexual abuse because physical force is seldom involved (World Health Organization, 2003). Physical trauma can be associated with the self-inflicted harm many CSA victims bestow upon themselves. Self-harm such as cutting and drug use can deteriorate a person’s health over time. With the use of Machine Resonance Imaging, researchers found that the volume of the hippocampus in CSA victims were reduced when compared to non-victimized woman. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memories and emotion. (Stein, Koverla, Hanna, M, & B, 1997).
This finding reflects the mental health aspect that a CSA victim can encounter. CSA is a risk factor for many mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Woman who have reported CSA are at a higher risk for acquiring psychiatric and substance use disorders in their adult life (Kendler, Bulik, & Silberg, 2000). Research also found that males with a history of CSA were at greater odds for suicide attempts and mental health disorders (Turner, Taillieu, Cheung, & Afifi, 2016). After careful research, it is my opinion that all the effects of CSA are long term and detrimental to the victims’ overall health.
After reviewing what CSA entailed, it led me to the question: What is being done to alleviate this problem? Often in social work we have the mindset that we will go out into the world to save underprivileged and disadvantaged children and I believe that to make a change the mindset must go deeper than self-gratification. Since many children do not divulge information about abuse after the event, it is our job to be on the lookout for indicators of CSA. It must also be noted that no indicator can clearly predict a presence of abuse. The response to abuse can be expressed in an array of troublesome behaviors or no behaviors at all (Finkelhor, 1999). Interventions need not to be shed as a negative process. Children should feel like they are in a safe place once their abuse is brought to light. Some cases of CAS in the United States are handled collaboratively by mental health, police officials, social work, and medical officials (Finkelhor, 1999). This is beneficial because everyone involved in the case is coming at the issue at different angles. Every person involved has the best interest of the child in mind. This may sound counter-intuitive but interventions must also be kept to a minimum. It is important to be sensitive to what the child has gone through. Children must have a sense of normalcy and not constantly relive the experience through interviews and consistent prodding. It is also important to be explicit about all procedures so children can have a sense of ownership in their healing process (Finkelhor, 1999). Familial support is also a key factor in the road towards recovery. Family members can sometimes feel a sense of guilt for not having known or stopped the abuse. I believe families should handle sensitive topics such as sexual abuse in the presence of a therapist or mediator. Having someone who can effectively demonstrate how to properly communicate can reduce any confusions or hostility towards the victim or the family.
The common trope for every course I have taken during my time here at FAU has in some way or form mentioned the emotional, physical trauma that stems from sexual abuse. Abuse in children more specific sexual abuse is a risk factor for many of the issues we see in social work. Issues such as battered woman, drug use, and alcohol abuse. During my field placement for my Bachelors many of the woman I interacted with had suffered from some type of sexual abuse in their childhood. The initial abuse was a sort of gateway to deeper issues later in their life. One of the topics that was covered in this course was the Child Maltreatment Index. A section of the index focuses specifically on what sexual abuse is. The Child Maltreatment Index has three forms of sexual abuse listed and defined. Childhood sexual abuse coincides with the learning in some of my other classes that focus on emotional, physical trauma and how we approach these issues in the social work field.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, exploring the clinical and cognitive aspect of it has helped me grasp an understanding of how it affected me and how I can use my experience and knowledge to help others. I consider myself lucky to have not been a part of the statistics of people who have fallen at the hands of abuse. Sensitivity and authenticity will be used in all my approaches when dealing with children and adults who have gone through this wickedness. I want them to know that although they suffered a terrible thing; with the proper help and care they too can overcome. I once heard a saying by Camille Paglia that has stuck with me, and is the driving force for my success “We are indeed formed by traumas that happen to us. But then you must take charge, you must take over, you are responsible.” It is so important for people to view themselves as more than just a victim, they are too a survivor.