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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


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


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.


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


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


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.