SocraticGadfly: Look at reality and not myths on child sex abuse

April 05, 2008

Look at reality and not myths on child sex abuse

Note: This is from my newspaper column for our April 3 weekly issue; I do a column every April on this subject.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month is a good time to clear up stereotypes about child abuse, above all, child sexual abuse.

In the last few years, Myth No. 1 has been that the Catholic priesthood in specific, or the clergy/ministerial profession in general, has some sort of special problem with child abuse.

Not true, overall. It does have some degree of problems because clergy have two special factors that facilitate child abuse — they are in positions of authority, and they are in positions from which they can develop familiarity with children.

But, they’re not the only profession or group of people in that situation.

So, too, are Scoutmasters, who have in the past faced some stereotyping themselves over child sexual abuse.

So, too, are schoolteachers, who have more daily contact with children than do either Scoutmasters or religious leaders.

And …

So, too, are parents.

That leads to Myth No. 2, that child abuse is “out there.”

No, it’s not. It’s very rarely the “old man on the park bench” that’s sexually abusing children.

It’s much more likely to be someone in a position of familiarity with the abused child, whether a religious leader, a schoolteacher … or a parent or other relative.

Related to that is Myth No. 3, that child abuse is a problem of poverty, or only of certain social ethnic or social groups.

This myth is about as false as a similar one about drug abuse.

Plenty of child sexual abuse goes on behind the doors of middle-class and rich families as well as poor ones, white families as well as black and Hispanic ones. Families respected and recognized in communities, as well as those who aren’t, can have the same secrets inside closed doors.

Myth No. 4 is that it happens just to girls.

While far more girls than boys are sexually abused, nonetheless, estimates are that perhaps one-quarter or even one-third of child sexual abuse victims are boys.

Then, there’s Myth No. 5, that child sexual abuse is so rare as to be like lightning striking.

This is the most dangerous and pernicious myth of all.

That’s in part because it’s the most direct attempt to minimize child sexual abuse and not face it in our society.

It’s tough getting an accurate handle on the numbers. Of course, many children don’t report sexual abuse when it happens, and don’t even face the issue until after they become adults. Many adults have narrow definitions of what sexual abuse is.

But professional estimates go as high as one in three girls and one in six boys suffering at least one incident of some sort of sexual abuse in their lives. And, many of those children suffer far more than one incident, often combined with physical, emotional or verbal abuse.

And, there’s one more myth, that survivors of abuse, especially sexual abuse, should be able to “just get over it.”

As recent scandals with politicians and infidelity have illustrated, many child sexual abuse victims — and not just girls — end up in prostitution because of images and attitudes toward sexuality they’ve picked up from the abuse. Others turn to alcohol or drug abuse at a young age to numb out emotional and psychological pain.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Prevention of a problem starts with being aware one exists.

This is an imperfect world, and we’ll never prevent every case of child abuse, whether sexual, physical or verbal/emotional. But, we can continue to improve our efforts.

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