There are many estimates of the number of young people who are sexually abused.
Despite the outsized publicity about this subject, the annual incidence of sexual abuse is fortunately lower than we are led to believe. One US government source counts 78,188 child victims of sexual abuse in 2003. That’s a rate of 1.2 per 1,000 American kids—a small rate, but unacceptable. The 2001 National Crime Victimization Survey (which only covers youth 12-17) estimates that 1.9 per 1,000 young people are raped or sexually assaulted, and reflects a higher risk and vulnerability for teenagers.
Yet these relatively low annual numbers have a way of adding up over time. National surveys of adults find that 9%-28% of women say they experienced some type of sexual abuse or assault in childhood. I don’t have any figures for adult males, but I have no doubt that at least 10%-20% of boys have, over their lifetimes, experienced sexual adventures and experimentation which could qualify as “abuse.”
You may not like my saying this, but for a subset of people, it is a part of what we, as sexual beings, experience as “growing up.” I would even go so far as to speculate that sexual “abuse” is more normative than we might like to think.
Until recently, I have been using a history of sexual abuse as a kind of heuristic in deciding which juvenile parricides the Redemption Project would back. Sexual abuse of young people by their caregivers is so beyond the pale, that its presence presented a kind of shortcut for understanding and, to a degree, even justifying the desperate states of mind that preceded the murder of some parents.
But notice that I said “until recently.”
My thinking has taken quite a turn since I have focused on the Clemens Initiative, because two of the four inmates reported no sexual abuse at all. All four inmates, however, reported horrendous emotional abuse, and it is only after recalling that most parricides say that this emotional abuse is more damaging than sexual abuse that I have concluded that it was an error for me to rely on sexual abuse as the acid test of a parricide’s lessened culpability for their act of murder. In other words, I have concluded that sexual abuse, as terrible as it is, is only an indicator of what has led to the act of parricide. Far worse and more damaging—and probably the more direct contributor to murder—is the emotional abuse parricides suffered. After some intense soul-searching, I concluded that rejecting parricides who had not been sexually abused was as arbitrary and unfair as selecting only people who were blue-eyed or left-handed.
Childhood sexual abuse cases are probably made as traumatic as they are, not because of the sexual act itself, but by society’s reaction to the sexual activity when it comes to light. Society has invented a certain idealized conception of childhood, attempts to keep kids “innocent” (that is, ignorant of sex) as long as possible, and oppresses the natural learning process. I have had the recurring thought that kids do not “break” as a result of their sexual experimentation unless they receive a lot of reinforcement from society to see the sexual activity as anything but disastrous to their development—a self-fulfilling prophesy that sells short the resilience of positive-minded young people.
We make it worse for kids than it needs to be. And unless you may believe in a moral or religious tradition that insists there must be pain for learning to occur, I suggest that we can do better for kids who find it necessary to deal with this reality.
To give you an idea to what lengths society will go to turn sexual abuse into a personal catastrophe, I will write the day-after-tomorrow, Saturday, about society’s treatment of pedophiles who attempt to live celibate lives. This category of people is a is not just some priests who have avoided recent troubles, but a sizable chunk of the population.
If the question of sexual attraction is even discussed, society rejects these individuals because of their mere attraction to young people (a thought crime), and condemns them as severely as it does pedophiles who actually act on their desires and can be called predators.
This reaction by society is understandable, but it somehow doesn’t seem right or productive. I say we make a commitment to developing a perspective which contributes to more hopeful futures for young people who have experienced sexual abuse.
It is up to us to figure out a better way.
Groove of the Day