Sexual abuse is a very real problem. Today, we have a lot of research that shows us some of the long-term mental health and even physical effects of sexual abuse on victims. To say sexual abuse is a serious problem is an understatement, at best. Sexual abuse can be accompanied by a host of mental health problems from behavior issues, substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 1 in 5 girls and at least 1 in 20 boys are victims of sexual abuse. Other research tells us that 26.6% of 17 year old girls and 5.1% of 17 year old boys have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime. Further, among the female victims, 3% were sexually abused by strangers with 5.5% being sexually abuse by family members and 19.6% being abused by acquaintances. These statistics are from surveys of both youth and adults.
So what can we do to help prevent the problem of sexual abuse? Here are 5 things all of us can do:
1. Learn the Facts
Understand that child sexual abuse is a real problem that impacts a large number of children. You now have some actual numbers. These statistics are high, reminding us the problem is a serious one. It is also important to realize that about 20% of sexual abuse incidents are perpetrated by juveniles rather than adults.
2. Minimize Opportunities
The vast majority of sexual abuse incidents occur when the child is isolated one-on-one with other adults or youth. Reducing or eliminating the potential for children to be isolated with others can reduce the risk a child will be sexually abused. For organizations, there are training programs to help guide and design programs that reduce this risk. One example for churches is a program called Reducing the Risk. While this was developed for churches, it offers good structure and policies for any youth-serving organization.
One of the best defenses against sexual abuse is a strong, open relationship with our children.
3. Talk About It
Don’t be afraid to talk to your children about sexual abuse. Depending on their age, talk to them about private parts. Talk to them about what is and what is not okay. Let them know they can talk to you. One of the things perpetrators sometimes do is create fear in the child that prevents them from telling someone what is happening. If you open the door before the abuse occurs, you are more likely to hear about it if such an unfortunate incident occur. Talk to children about appropriate boundaries. One of the best defenses against sexual abuse (and a bunch of other things) is a strong, open relationship with our children.
4. Recognize Signs
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. There are rarely any physical signs. Although, especially for younger children, redness or swelling might be present. More often, emotional or behavioral signs are present. Sometimes children become angry, depressed, withdrawn, or nervous. Sometimes they are more restrained and actually become better behaved. Still at other times, there may be no signs at all. Having a good relationship with our children will help us see emotional and behavioral changes better.
5. Respond Appropriately
One thing we do know is that adults involved with children know about sexual abuse of a child more often than authorities. Numbers vary, but up to 80% of child sexual abuse does not get reported. When a child tells you about someone sexually abusing them, believe them. Allow the child to talk to you, but don’t ask a lot of specific questions. Asking questions like, “What happened next?” is much better than, “Did he touch you here?” The child is nervous enough. He or she may unintentionally alter the story to try to get the “right” answer. Stay away from specific questions.
The other necessary part of the response is to contact the appropriate authorities. Law enforcement should be contacted in every case. If the child lives with the perpetrator, Child Protective Services (or your state’s equivalent) should be contacted. This should be done immediately. Leave the investigating to the proper authorities. As adults, our job is to protect children – not investigate crimes.
If you know of a child who is being abused, respond. If you need help knowing how to respond or who to call, we will gladly help you take the steps needed and get you in contact with the right individuals.