Child sexual abuse
In addition to April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is also recognized as Child Abuse Prevention Month. The statistics on the sexual abuse of children are shocking. Some estimates place the prevalence as high as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys that are sexually abused before their 18th birthday (Aust. Institute of Criminology, 1993). And these are only the reported cases. It is highly likely that you know someone who has been abused. We teach our children “stranger danger” but statistics tell us 95% of sexually abused children will know their abuser (Child Protection Council, 1993). The abuser will often be an immediate family member, a close family friend or someone with whom the child has regular contact.
What can we do to lessen the chances that we or our children will be assaulted? You can take an active role in increasing your safety or the safety of those you care about. While there’s no way to eliminate the chance that something may happen, there are strategies that may reduce your risk.
First, age appropriately, talk to your kids. “Conversations about sexual assault can be a part of the safety conversations you’re already having, like knowing when to speak up, how to take care of friends, and listening to your gut. Teach young children the language they need to talk about their bodies and information about boundaries to help them understand what is allowed and what is inappropriate. These lessons help them know when something isn’t right and give them the power to speak up.” (Rainn.org.)
Secondly, being actively involved in your child’s life can make warning signs of child sexual abuse more obvious and help the child feel more comfortable coming to you if something isn’t right. If you see or hear something that causes concern, you can take action to protect your child. Get to know the people in your child’s life. Ask about their friends, their friend’s families, coaches, teammates, etc. Be careful with allowing sleepovers. It’s not just the friend who may be at the home, but also siblings and siblings’ friends. Make sure you properly vet anyone who is babysitting your child. Talk to your child about things they see and hear on the media and help them process these things so they will feel comfortable coming to you with questions and concerns. Teach your children about boundaries and be available for them to talk to you about anything that is bothering them, knowing they will not get in trouble.
Child sexual abuse isn’t always easy to spot. Clues that a child is being sexually abused are often present, but they are often hard to identify apart from other signs of childhood pressures. “Explicit physical signs of sexual abuse are not common. However, when physical signs are present, they may include bruising, bleeding, redness and bumps, or scabs around the mouth, genitals or anus. Urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and abnormal vaginal or penile discharge are also warning signs. Sometimes a child who is being abused will suddenly display signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, express suicidal thoughts, inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors, nightmares or bed-wetting,” d2l.org/education/5-steps/step-1/).
What does a perpetrator look like? If only it were that easy to identify. People who abuse children usually look like everyone else. The majority of perpetrators are someone the child or family knows and trusts. A perpetrator does not have to be an adult to harm a child. They can have any relationship to the child including an older sibling or friend, family member, a teacher, a coach, a babysitter, or the parent of another child.
Childhood sexual assault impacts everyone and the impact of the abuse continues to affect survivors well into adulthood. It is a root cause of many health and social problems we face in our communities.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse, Crisis Services of North Alabama can help. We offer free and confidential services to ages 14+ and to non-offending parents of children who have been abused. Many of our clients are finally reaching out after keeping their abuse a secret for many years. It’s never too late. You may reach our Jackson County office at 256.574.5826 or our 24-hour HELPline at 256.716.1000.