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What a Mess: Beliefs About Child Sexual Abuse

What a Mess: Beliefs About Child Sexual Abuse

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Published by Jane Gilgun
Beliefs about perpetrators of child sexual abuse are a mess. They are contradictory. Most people want to protect children from sexual abuse. Many respond with anger, rage, and disgust when they learn what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators. Yet, most children even today do not tell when someone has sexually abused them because they are afraid they will be blamed, that they will not be believed, that they will break up their families, or that the perpetrators will go to prison.

In this article, I discuss these contradictory beliefs. At the end of this article is an article that reports upon what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators.
Beliefs about perpetrators of child sexual abuse are a mess. They are contradictory. Most people want to protect children from sexual abuse. Many respond with anger, rage, and disgust when they learn what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators. Yet, most children even today do not tell when someone has sexually abused them because they are afraid they will be blamed, that they will not be believed, that they will break up their families, or that the perpetrators will go to prison.

In this article, I discuss these contradictory beliefs. At the end of this article is an article that reports upon what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators.

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Published by: Jane Gilgun on Jan 19, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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04/23/2014

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By Jane Gilgun
eliefs about perpetrators of child sexual abuse are a mess. They are contradictory. Most people want to protect children from sexual abuse. Many respond with anger, rage, and disgust when they learn what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators. Yet, most children even today do not tell when someone has sexually abused them because they are afraid they will be blamed, that they will not be believed, that they will break up their families, or that the perpetrators will go to prison. In addition, children sometimes experience emotional abuse in their families and from others in their communities when they disclose. Family members may blame them for breaking up the family and damaging the perpetrators’ and the families’ reputations. They may tell them they are damaged goods. They may side with perpetrators and stigmatize survivors. Other children often taunt and tease survivors to the point where survivors have to go to another school. It’s time we examined these contradictory beliefs. These beliefs hurt survivors and their families and protect perpetrators. In this article, I discuss these contradictory beliefs. At the end of this article is an article that reports upon what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators.
Survivors Already Know
Survivors know from experience what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators.  Adults must be able to hear the stories that perpetrators tell so that they can empathize with survivors’ experiences. As survivors tell their stories, they give out pieces at a time. They notice how others respond. If they see shock, rage, or other emotional responses they stop.  They don’t want to feel as if they did something wrong, nor do they want to cause upset in others. They don’t want to risk stigma. They’d rather not say anything. If they see that the other persons are attentive and connected to them, they will continue.
Many People Understand
Many people realize the importance of understanding how perpetrators experience child sexual abuse and other forms of violence. Like me, they know that prevention depends upon an informed public. The more we know about child sexual abuse, the more effective prevention is. If we want to stop child sexual abuse, we have to know what it means to perpetrators so that we can take steps of change the conditions that lead to the sexual abuse of children in the first place.
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 Vitriolic Responses
 Yet, I have encountered a range of negative reactions to my reports on what sexual abuse means to perpetrators, from vitriolic to attempts at being helpful. The vitriolic responses include saying that sharing what child sexual abuse means to perpetrators is “perp porn,” that I am a perpetrator sympathizer, and that I have Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome means that people held captive sympathize with those who have abducted them. From my point of view, my motivation is to inform survivors and their families and the general public. An informed public can support public policies and programs that might promote the prevention of the development of sexually abusive behaviors in the first place.  As I already said, survivors know from experience the very things that some people see as “perp porn.” If they think that others see their experiences of sexual abuse as pornographic, they will continue to be silent.
 Attempts to be Helpful
Several people who want to be helpful have told me the article triggers the re-experiencing of trauma for survivors and that people who are not survivors could be traumatized as well. They tell me that I must take the article off the internet. These are serious issues to raise, and I think about them. I empathize with any trauma these stories may trigger. I hope that anyone who experiences or re-experiences trauma after reading the article find someone to talk to so they can process and learn to manage the trauma. On the other hand, most survivors are a lot tougher than many people realize. The reactions of others to child sexual abuse contribute to their sense of vulnerability. Most want other people to know what child sexual abuse means to abusers. If this were more widely known, many survivors would feel less vulnerable. Survivors want others to know what they have been through.
Beyond Rage and Disgust
In working with perpetrators, professionals must get beyond these strong negative emotions and commit themselves to understanding perpetrators. By doing this, professionals may be able to create settings where perpetrators can take honest looks at their behaviors and consequence of their behaviors, with no excuses and with a commitment to take responsibility for their behaviors. Perpetrators may want help. Some want to stop because they know their behaviors hurt children and others. Many one-time adolescent perpetrators stop out of shame at what they have done, and this may be true for adults as well. Typically perpetrators—whether children, adolescents, and adults--are at first be unable to connect with the hurt they cause, but they may want to stop because they do not want to go to prison or to spend many years in prison,  As perpetrators grow in understanding, they may reach the point where they understand the gravity of their behaviors. Creating safety where perpetrators can confront the beliefs associated with sexually abusing children is a major task of treatment
 
professionals, but perpetrators must be committed to change. Some perpetrators do not  want to stop and do so only when they are put in prison. Finally, rage, disgust, and desire to punish have led to social policies and programs that require hundreds of millions of dollars to enforce. In the meantime, survivors and their families do not have the services they require to work through the effects of child sexual abuse. Policy makers and the general public do not demand that survivors have services.  The meanings of child sexual abuse to perpetrators are difficult to hear, but important to grapple with. If we do so, adults will become more emotionally available to survivors and public policy will provide for public safety and for victim services.
 Abusers Were Children Once
Perpetrators were children once. It is important to understand what happened in their lives that influenced them to sexually abuse children. Why does sex with children mean so much to them? What happened to them that they didn’t learn other ways to find love, comfort, bliss, and affirmation? What they want is no different from what other people  want. The issue is how they can get what they want without harming others or themselves and that in fact contribute to the quality of life of others and the self.  That is the job of adults. We have to figure out how to socialize children so that they use prosocial ways of getting what everyone wants.
Summary
Beliefs and attitudes toward child sexual abuse are all over the place. Such a mess hurts survivors, protects perpetrators, and permits the continuation of the abuse. These beliefs and the practices that result also prevents a wide-spread and open discussion about perpetrators and where they come from and what they do.  To protect children and to prevent the development of sexually abusive behaviors in the first place are important public policy issue. An informed public is positioned to push legislators to take action on behalf of children and their families who suffer because of a contradictory beliefs that silence many survivors and block open public discussion of the issues.

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