Sexual Abuse of children

Dra. Charley Ferrer

Nothing is more devastating or more tragic than the physical or sexual
abuse of our children.  The trauma and pain a child experiences lasts
for decades, even a lifetime; but it doesn’t end there.  The trauma and pain is pasted down to the next generation through their children and their grandchildren and so on. 

According to estimates from the Community Learning Center in Venezuela 10 to 20% of the child population has been sexually abused, yet only one case in ten is ever reported.  In another study made by FUNDA-CI and CISFEM indicated that some 40,000 children and adolescents were being prostituted in Venezuela during 1994.  In a study on Latina sexuality conducted by The Ferrer Institute in 2000, 12% of the participants had indicated they experienced rape or incest by the time they were twelve years old.  It’s estimated that one 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be victims of sexual abused before the age of 18; and girls between the ages of 11 to 17 are three times more likely to be raped than boys.   

The misconception regarding child sexual abuses is that the perpetrator (the abuser) is a stranger when in fact most times it is by someone they know. Yes, sad as it may be most sexual abuse against children is done by family members, neighbors, friends, even other children. The abuse can be sexual to include intercourse, oral and anal sex, digital penetration, or use of an object in conjunction with penetration.  Non-sexual methods of abuse include photographing the child for sexual purposes; showing the child pornographic material; masturbating in front of the child; making the child witness others being sexual; and even ridiculing the child’s sexual development, preferences or genitalia.  

How can we change these statistics? 

What can we do to keep our children safe?  How can we be more vigilant to ensure that our children are given the chance to grow up in a safe environment and lead healthy lives?  What more can we do that we are not already doing?

It’s important to talk to your children about sex—in an age appropriate manner.  You’re already doing it.  Here are a few examples:  every time you tell them it’s “their body and no one is suppose to touch their private parts”; when you talk to your daughter about her menstrual cycle and wearing a bra; when you talk to your son about his semen coming in as he reaches puberty (something we often forget to do and would assuage our son’s fears); when you talk to your daughter about how she’s suppose to sit like a lady; or as they get older when you talk about sex and love and condoms.  These are all ways we teach our children healthy sexual behaviors. 

Ironically however, we also contradict ourselves at times confusing our children or denying them the boundaries and safeguards we gave them for their protection.  For example:  we tell children it’s their body, yet we force them to hug and kiss a relative (yes, even their grandparents or aunts and uncles).  Though this may be our cultural custom—to kiss and hug upon greeting or departing, it instills in children the idea that it’s their body but they have no rights and no boundaries when it comes to relatives.  And since most children are abused by non-strangers, we are opening the door to possible abuse.  Instead of forcing the child to give hugs and kisses when they don’t wish, explain to the adult that you are teaching your child to set boundaries for themselves and enlist their help. Yes, I know this is difficult.  I went through it with my mother when my son decided he didn’t want hugs and kisses during one of her visits. Even if there are a few hurt feelings, the fact that you’re reinforcing your child’s right to “not be touched” ensures their emotional health and reinforces your teachings.

When we tell children they should tell us if anyone touches their “private parts” (chest, buttocks, and genitals) and merely dismiss their complaints when they say the neighbor kid slapped their bottom because we thought it merely a playful spank on the culito, we negated everything we thought them about having the right to set boundaries for their body.  The also learn that their concerns didn’t matter. One of the most common complaints from children is unwanted tickling and yet most adults see nothing wrong with this. However, remember, if you’re telling a child it’s their body, then what right does anyone have to tickle them when it’s uncomfortable for the child and makes them feel bad?  The most appropriate thing to do is to listen attentively,  praise the child for telling you, then have a talk with the adult or friend about the healthy boundaries you’re trying to set for your child and enlist their assistance. 

 It’s essential that we create a safe haven for children to talk about sex.  If you are too embarrassed to talk to them about sex, ask a trusted friend to talk to them for you, with you present or taking into consideration your values and what you’d like your child to know.  Or employ the services of a counselor or sex therapist to discuss these issues with them.  If you make sex a taboo subject, then whom do your children have to go to when they have concerns, or God forbid when they’ve been assaulted.

Taking to your children about sex

Almost every parent dreads the question, “where do baby’s come from” and “what is sex”?  It’s the feelings of inadequacies or embarrassment that pledges men and women when talking to their children about sex. Remember this: our children are bombarded with sexual images every day.  From the music they listen to, the commercials on television, even the advertisement on the buses and billboards around town. And let’s not forget all the misinformation they receive from their friends or listening to other children talking.  Isn’t it about time you started providing the accurate information?  By talking to your children about sex, you can provide them with your values, your hopes for their future, your wishes that they wait until a certain age before being sexual or wait until marriage.  Then again you might decide to set limits for them and age constraints.  For example, kissing and touching are alright but nothing more until their at least 17 or 18 years old when they can make more appropriate decisions for themselves.   

Studies show that adolescents who are taught the truth about sex, its consequences, and ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, wait longer to engage in sexual activities and have fewer teen pregnancies than adolescents who were taught abstinence only education.  The old belief that if you talk to adolescents about sex they’re run out and do it is false.  If children ran out to do everything you talk to them about, their rooms would never be dirty. By talking to your teenagers about sex, you’re sharing your values and your boundaries with them, nothing more.  Lies and treats aren’t necessary and in fact are detrimental to their health.  Remind them that if they want to make adult decisions (have sex) they should behind like responsible adults and protect themselves against possible consequences such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections by using condoms and birth control medication.

Warning Signs

There are several warning signs that you can notice in children who have experienced sexual abuse.  These include:  abrupt changes in behavior or personality, aggressive behavior, temper tantrums, excessive crying, depression, over compliance, school adjustment problems, a sudden drop in school performance, self-mutilation, suicidal ideation/gestures/attempts, flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, lack of trust, isolation, and lack of friendships.  Even sexualized play and promiscuity are warning signs as the individual is trying to reclaim what was stolen from them.

Overcoming past trauma

Children don’t stay children.  Thus, as adults many still suffer from the after effects of shock, depression, and anxiety.  The most common effect is PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD can become a chronic debilitating illness which stretches far into adulthood.

Other emotional and development problems due to sexual abuse as a child are alcohol and substance abuse, sexual dysfunctions, depression and anxiety, poor self-esteem (which can also lead to abusive relationships), promiscuity, self-mutilation, self-sabotage and feelings of worthlessness, lack of trust issues, suicide attempts, and other emotional health issues.

Though there is nothing we can do to make past events disappear, there are ways to help pick up the pieces and help our children (girls and boys) develop into healthy adults.  The same is true of assisting men and women who’ve experienced sexual trauma in the past to reclaim their right to a healthy sexual life.

Treatment options and alternatives

A few of the options available for children are:  enlisting the services of a therapist who specialists in child trauma. If the youngster is adamant about pressing charges, support their decision.  If you do not, this may feel like a betrayal on your part.  Remember children feel the need to talk about their hardships.  Remember all the times they talked about how they scraped their knee. You can help them tailor whom they reveal their experience to reassuring them that it’s not bad to talk about it.  In some instances, children are more traumatized by the reaction of the person their telling; thus watch your response.  Reassure them it wasn’t their fault, that you still love them, and that you’ll protect them for the perpetrator.  Most of all, that you still love them and want them in your life. 

A few of the options for adults:  finding a psychotherapist or sex therapist that can help you reclaim your divine sexuality is paramount.  If you are having flashbacks (recurrent fears or thoughts/images of the abuse) while you’re with your partner, stop what you’re doing and reorient yourself to the here and now.  Find five things in the room that are blue.  Say your partner’s name out loud. Say your age and today’s date out loud repeatedly.  Have your partner hold onto you and whisper a few words you may have previously discussed that will remind you that you are safe. Choose sexual positions which allow you to feel safe or be able to see your partner’s face.  Use mirrors in your bedroom, which allow you to see yourself on the bed so when you feel anxious you can look into the mirror and see whom you are with and that you’re safe and it is not the abuser from your nightmares. There are several books on the market that deal with childhood trauma including The Courage to Heal and my own book Para La Mujer Sensual which has an entire chapter dedicated to overcoming past sexual trauma. And of course, there is the use of crisis hotlines and trusted friends. 

Whatever works best for you is what I always recommend.  If you’re not sure, keep exploring.  Remember not every therapist specializes in sexual trauma or is comfortable speaking of such.  When looking for a therapist, find the one you feel most comfortable with. If after four sessions you cannot bring yourself to open up, consider another.  If  you’ve already been to three or four therapist, consider the fact that perhaps you’re not comfortable enough with yourself to feel vulnerable again and need to have faith that the therapist will not judge you; or continue looking if you feel you just haven’t found the right person to be that open with. Regardless of what you decide, remember, you have the right to sexual freedom and a healthy sexual lifestyle.  You are now in control of your life. You are no longer the defenseless child but the mature adult who can protect themselves and/or contact others, such as the police, to help keep you safe.

Dr. Charley Ferrer is a Clinical Sexologist.  She welcomes you comments and questions.  Please contact her at ferrerinstitute@aol.com