My reaction at first was gratitude and amazement: gratitude that I had not shared this experience in my own life, and amazement that so many people I know had. As people recounted the damage their abuse had inflicted on them, as I witnessed the serious wounds that had still not healed (in some cases after many decades), my reaction changed to anger. And then, as I’ve reflected on their stories and the consequences of their childhood experiences, my reaction has changed to profound sadness. Compassion exacts an emotional toll.
Now my reaction has shifted to curiosity: just how prevalent is the sexual abuse of children here in the US and throughout the world?
A couple months ago an e-mail showed up in my spam filter from a service that was trying to get me to pay them to learn how many people in my community are sexual predators. The e-mail claimed that 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused by age 14 (25%), and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused by age 16 (17%). These numbers seemed awfully high to me–but then, I’ve already told you I have lived a sheltered life–and these people were trying to sell me something.
As I looked into the research that is actually out there, I learned that child sexual abuse is a particularly difficult area for researchers seeking conclusive figures. The answers vary widely depending on whom you ask, how “child” and “sexual abuse” are defined, and whether you are looking at a particular country or region, or at incidents occurring in a particular year or over the lifetimes of people who have been victimized. The answers are further complicated by the fact that sexual abuse is typically under-reported and concealed because of the social mores and personal shame involved in these particular incidents.
There are widely varying estimates of one year incidence rates of victimization. The National Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-2) estimated that 320,400 children had experienced a sexual assault or other sexual offense in 1999. This is an annual rate of 4.6 per 1,000 children. This rate is higher than another government study, the National Crime Victimization Survey, which only covers youth 12-17, but estimates the rate as 1.9 per 1,000. On the other hand, a national telephone survey of a broad range of victimizations of children aged 2-17 estimated a sexual assault rate nearly 7 times that of the NISMART-2 (32 per 1000, or over 2 million US children in 2002).
The studies about sexual abuse which have received the most attention are the ones estimating “lifetime” prevalence rates. In these studies, adolescents or adults are asked whether or not they were ever the victim of childhood sexual abuse or assault. The results of these studies vary considerably. Researchers using national samples of adolescents or women have found low-end estimates of lifetime sexual abuse that range from 3% to 9%. Higher estimates of victimization have included 24% to 32% of adult women who reported sexual abuse during their childhood.
The highest prevalence rate of child sexual abuse geographically was found in Africa (34.4%.) Europe showed the lowest prevalence rate (9.2%). America and Asia had prevalence rates between 10.1% and 23.9%.
Finally, a meta-analysis of 22 American-based studies, those done with national samples as well as local or regional representative samples, suggested that 30%-40% of girls and 13% of boys experience sexual abuse during childhood. An international meta-analysis of 169 studies found that lifetime prevalence rates of sexual abuse for females is 25% and for males is 8% in the US. This same study found that rates for North America range from 15%-22%, so it is conceivable that the “high” numbers used in that sales e-mail could be real.
What the research says about the demographics of child sex abuse victims confirms common sense expectations. All reliable studies conclude that girls experience more sexual abuse than boys do–the percentage of female victims ranges from 78% to 89%. One national study which uses information from law enforcement agencies found that 14% of sexual assault victims are ages 0-5, 20% are ages 6-11 and 33% are ages 12-17. Another study found that over half of the children who were sexually victimized were between 15-17 years old, while others have shown show a relatively uniform risk for children after age 3. In the absence of complete agreement on this issue, it is probably best to say that the risk continues across the spectrum of childhood, with teens at possibly higher risk.
Findings about race are inconclusive. Though some studies have found more sexual abuse among children from lower income backgrounds, there is a greater correlation of sexual abouse with other family problems including parental alcoholism, parental rejection, and parental marital conflict.
Under the law, “child sexual abuse” is an umbrella term describing criminal and civil offenses in which an adult engages in sexual activity with a minor or exploits a minor for the purpose of sexual gratification.
According to Wikipedia, child sexual abuse can result in both short-term and long-term harm, including psychopathology in later life. Psychological, emotional, physical, and social effects include “depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, eating disorders, poor self-esteem, dissociative and anxiety disorders; general psychological distress and disorders such as somatization, neurosis, chronic pain, sexualized behavior,school/learning problems; and behavior problems including substance abuse, self-destructive behavior, animal cruelty, crime in adulthood, and suicide.”
The American Psychiatric Association states that “children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults”, and condemns any such action by an adult: “An adult who engages in sexual activity with a child is performing a criminal and immoral act which never can be considered normal or socially acceptable behavior.”
My own observations of adults who were sexually abused as kids has caused me to conclude that such individuals find it much more difficult to form secure and trusting relationships with others. They expect to be lied to and betrayed, and may even invite such behavior in their unintentional social signals.
My belief is that the best “medicine” for helping former victims overcome the long-term effects of sexual abuse is to always deal with such individuals (and, indeed, all people) with absolute integrity. If you tell them you love them, you must love them unconditionally, tell the truth, and keep your promises without fail.
Groove of the Day