The Missing Children in Public Discourse On Child Sexual Abuse by Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D.

, LICSW University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

This article shows that public discourse on child sexual abuse leads to policies and programs that focus on punishment and incapacitation of perpetrators, but neglects child survivors and their families. Survivors often have no one to talk to and families are on their own to figure out what to do. Survivors suffer needlessly. It’s time for the general public to press for much needed change.

About the Author Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. See Professor Gilgun’s books, articles, and children’s stories on Amazon Kindle,, and This was an article published in the NCFR Report in 2008.

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The Missing Children in Public Discourse On Child Sexual Abuse Child sexual abuse affects the quality of life of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and world-wide. Few conditions affect that many people. Yet, aside from huge media reaction and legislation meant to incapacitate perpetrators, child sexual abuse is one of the most neglected social problems in modern times. Survivors often have no one to talk to and families are on their own to figure out what to do. The public discourses focuses on perpetrators, with the result that services and care for child survivors are inadequate. Few services exist in the United States and internationally. The general public remains uneducated. What they know is informed by myths and misunderstandings with the result that most children believe sexual abuse is their own fault. Most survivors suffer in silence out of fear of the responses they will get if they talk about it. In many countries, victims are ostracized and even killed. Family members protect perpetrators and punish victims out of fear of public disgrace and destitution. When peers learn that a child has been sexually abused, some bully and harass child survivors to the point where children have to transfer schools to maintain any semblance of mental health. The lack of public will to provide services and wide-spread education protects perpetrators. As a result, child sexual abuse continues. I have been working in the field for almost 30 years and continue to hope that one day there will be a world-wide awakening to what we are allowing to happen to so many children. Forms of Child Sexual Abuse Sexual abuse of children takes different forms: incest, child molestation by persons children know, child molestation by strangers, pornography, child prostitution and trafficking,

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temple prostitution, forced child marriages, and rape in war. Sexual abuse that strangers commit gets the most publicity, especially if children are abducted, but more than ninety percent of all sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, friends of the family, and other persons children know. It is important to identify child sexual abuse wherever it occurs and not be blinded by misleading assumptions. Whatever forms child sexual abuse takes, children experience an abuse of power, where older, stronger, and often more knowledgeable persons take advantage of them for their own sexual gratification. Children need empathy, understanding, and education about what happened to them. One of the most helpful words children can hear when they are sexually abused is the words that a mother said to her child: “I’m so sorry this happened to you. I love you, and I am here for you.” Parents must do whatever it takes to be responsive to the hurt their children have experienced. Perpetrators require clear messages that what they do harms children for their life times. There is no justification for the use of children for sexual and emotional gratification. It is exploitation pure and simple. Children require protection from those who would harm them. Non-offending parents, persons children know, and the general public all have parts to play in prevention and in helping children recover. Simply understanding that perpetrators take advantage of children, that sexual abuse harms children, and that perpetrators have full and sole responsibility for children sexual abuse is a start. Denial Family members can have a hard time believing that someone they know, love, and trust can sexually abuse. When ten year-old Ronnie learned from his mother that the uncle he idolized had sexually abused his own daughter, Ronnie ran into his bedroom, slammed the door, and yelled, “You’re lying to me.”

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Many family members refuse to believe child victims, blame them, and do whatever it takes to protect perpetrators. Most come around eventually, but the typical initial reaction is disbelief. Annie said, “I don’t blame people for not believing me. I could hardly believe it myself. My father is such a nice guy.” When a court social worker told Loretta that her husband had sexually abused her daughter for four years, Loretta described her reaction I just didn’t believe it. She [the social worker] says, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I says, “I didn’t even want to be sitting in this room. I just want to get out of here. I just want to get away from it. I don’t want to believe it. Eventually, Loretta came to believe it happened. Her husband admitted the abuse immediately, spent a year in the workhouse, had work release, and received 20 years probation. With a great deal of therapy and pychoeducation, the family pulled itself back together. They had a supportive family system that pulled along with them. Child sexual abuse affects the entire family, and, the entire family requires empathy and education. Once the shock wears off, child and family recovery can take years. Children Think Sexual Abuse is Their Fault Children many times do not tell anyone about their abusive experiences... Questions such as “Why didn’t you tell?” “What did you do to provoke the abuse?” “How could you let it go on for so long?” are automatic for many people. Children have reason to fear that they will not be believed, or worse, blamed for their own abuse Many child survivors blame themselves for the abuse, even when they recognize that the perpetrators forced them. Lisa’s grandfather sexually abused her on his boat when the two of them went fishing. Lisa, nine, said, “I felt like jumping off the boat and swimming to shore, but I

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can’t swim.” Despite Lisa’s recognition of being forced, she said, “It was my fault. I didn’t tell him not to do it.” Randy, ten, was assaulted after her teenage babysitter told her to go to the bathroom. He stepped from behind the shower curtain, pulled her off the toilet, and raped her. She said the abuse was “sort of” her fault “because I went into the bathroom and was sitting on the toilet.” Randy could not put the pieces of her experience together. She went into the bathroom because the older boy told her to, but she could not see that the assault and the directive to go into the bathroom make the abuse his responsibility and not hers. Donna, fifteen, assaulted by her brother, sexually abused by her grandfather, and the victim of an attempted rape by her best friend’s father, thought she must be at fault. She said, “My judgment must be impaired.” She was confused, hurt, and ashamed that she was abused by three different males. Children blame themselves because so many adults blame them. For example, in the case of Donna, a county attorney who prosecuted the case against her best friend’s father, said to her in her mother’s presence, “Why didn’t you get out of the car when that guy went after you? I think you really wanted it.” Carla ran away from home because she felt blamed for the incest her father committed. She said My father was bitching. I asked my mother what he was bitching about. She said, ‘He said it was all your fault.’ I’m breaking up the family. I couldn’t take it. I took off. Carla was thirteen and lived on the streets for six months. Not all children think sexual abuse is their fault, but it is a common reaction. Caring adults can gently ask the children, “Do you think you did something wrong?” or “Sometimes kids think the abuse is their fault. Do you?” It is surprising how eagerly some children answer questions like

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these. Their answers also can be surprising, such as Lisa’s when she said it was her fault because she never told her grandfather not to do it. It is important for adults to give children opportunities to talk about whether they were at fault. It is also important for children to be able to express themselves in their own ways. Adults, maybe because of their own anxieties, want to reassure children by saying, “It’s not your fault.” Of course it is not children’s fault, but if they believe it is, such a statement can invalidate their experience. The timing of “It’s not your fault” can make a difference in children’s recovery. Perpetrators as Self-Centered Children think sexual abuse is their fault, but perpetrators know otherwise. They know full well that they are in charge. All they care about is what they want. Perpetrators rarely think of child sexual abuse as abuse. They believe sexual abuse is many other things, such as love, affection, play, comfort, a thrill, a high, a teaching moment, or payback. For many, sexual abuse is love. These perpetrators say they have fallen in love, what they do is love, they are having a love affair with the children, they want to run away with the children, and they want to marry them. Some make claims that the sex is mutually pleasing. They often become angry and disgusted when they hear that someone else is sexually abusing children. “String them up!” they say. In their minds, what they do is love while what others do is abuse. Those who see sexual abuse as play giggle and joke about the sexual touching they do or have the children do to them. They may play games like “You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” Some feel like children themselves. Many men who abuse boys establish a kind of “buddy” relationship with the boys where wrestling and “horsing” around lead to sexual contact.

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Sex abuse as comfort is common among perpetrators. Some say sex with children is a “fix”— it fixes them when they are feeling bad. Others say the only time they feel good is when they are have sexual contact with children. Sometimes perpetrators see themselves and the children they victimize as soul mates. For them, life is hard, and they think it is hard for some children. They seek children who appear sad to them. In their way of thinking, their sexual behaviors comfort and soothe hurt, sad children. Sex abuse for them becomes an act of kindness. Those who seek thrills and highs experience sex with children as the greatest feeling in the world. They would do anything to get the high that sex with children gives them. Still others see themselves as teaching children, often their own biological children, how to make love. They would rather that their children learn from them rather than some scruffy teenager. Some are rough and mean, deliberately hurting children. In their own minds, they believe children deserve to be hurt and damaged. They may confuse children with other people who have hurt them, and they think they have a right to take revenge on children. Children are scapegoats. The Best Case Scenario When children have been sexually abused, the best case scenario means that the children are surrounded by people who love them and who believe them when they say someone abused them sexually and do not blame them. The best case also includes parents who provide love, safety, accurate information, predictable routine, and access to therapy and to professionals who can help them deal with their powerful feelings of guilt, shame, and powerlessness. Children’s recovery depends upon empathy, understanding, predictability and a sense of safety, and accurate information. Children’s recovery is given a big boost when perpetrators take responsibility for the abuse, accept the consequences for their actions, and seek the help they require to stop themselves from

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sexually abusing again. Apologies in person or by letter to the children and other persons they have armed contribute to recovery. This should only be done when children are ready and are in safe situations that will protect them from any hint that the perpetrators blame the children. When perpetrators have the courage to do this, child survivors are relieved from the guilt, shame, and stigma that are part of being sexually abused. The adults in their lives have evidence in the words and actions of perpetrators that perpetrators alone are responsible, not the children, and that the perpetrators’ behaviors hurt the children. Over time, recovery means that the children understand that someone, often someone they loved and trusted, hurt them psychologically and sexually. Recovery also means that survivors have capacities to cope with, adapt to, and overcome the effects of the abuse. They know they are good persons who are worthy of the respect of others and self-respect. They have confidence in themselves and have the love and support of family and friends. They do not forget that they survived sexual abuse, but they have integrated the effects of the abuse into their understanding of themselves. They live full and rich lives based on their capacities to cope with, adapt to, and overcomes the effects of the abuse. Children can and do recover whether or not perpetrators take responsibility for their own actions if they have the support, love, and understanding of family members and other persons who are close to them. Some survivors are well into adulthood before they find the empathy and understanding that enables them to tell others about being sexual abused. This brings them relief and emotional freedom. Some live their lifetimes hurt by the effects of child sexual abuse. Most of all, we need a public will to create humane social policies and programs that will put an end to this egregious treatment of children. None of this will happen unless the general public pressures politicians to do something about this needless, prolonged, and long-term suffering.

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