Any time a politician wants to raise taxes or start some new program the simplest way to gain acceptance is to claim “it’s for the children.” We all want to be on the side of the children. At least we want to say we’re on the side of the children. But what does that mean? Are we nurturing and raising our children toward a healthy, responsible, happy adulthood? We can gain some insight into this by looking at the issue of child sexual abuse.
There are 60 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States today. Some experts report that one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused before they turned 18. That’s a staggering number.
While some sources report these figures as fact, in reality there is little agreement on the actual numbers of children who are sexually abused every year. Some experts claim the problem is growing. Others that it is decreasing. Regardless, just about everyone agrees that the problem is very serious and involves significant numbers.
One reason there is so little agreement on the size and scope of the problem is that most victims of this kind of abuse never tell anyone about it. They keep it a secret. Sometimes they remain silent out of fear, sometimes because of shame or guilt, sometimes it’s because they believe they engaged in the activity willingly and enthusiastically. Sometimes the victims don’t even know what happened to them.
Another reason for the lack of clarity is that far too much of the research is agenda driven. There are so many different sources and types of statistics that any knowledgeable researcher can pick and choose whichever they want, in order to show whatever they like. Several years ago one researcher, John Ioannides, thoroughly documented that a majority of statistically driven studies produce findings that are demonstrably false. Moreover, Ioannides claims that many researchers often knowingly and intentionally misrepresent the findings in order to advance their personal or professional interest, or that of their funding sources. We don’t know what findings we can trust.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons we don’t have a more precise understanding of the problem is that the term, child sexual abuse, covers such a wide ranging multitude of abusive activity—everything from incest to sexting to kidnapping and raping a child to sex talk to voyeurism to exchanging sexual favors with a minor for alcohol, drugs or just car ride to the next town. In addition to this, the legal definition of the various crimes that fall under the generic title differ, often significantly, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and seem to be in a constant state of flux.
When the definitions are confused, imprecise and flexible; when the research is sloppy and biased; when crimes are committed in secret and the victims themselves help maintain the secrecy, it’s almost impossible to see clearly the many faces of the problem. But see them we must. Accurate description is a prerequisite to solving the problem.
Our failure to describe child sexual abuse in a way that makes the problem clearly visible is at the core of our failure to find effective solutions. Any artist will tell you that if you can’t draw something, you haven’t really seen it. If you don’t see the problem, not only can’t you describe it, you can’t fix it.
Thirty five years ago I was involved in an in depth five year investigation into the sexual exploitation of children. Although our investigation was centered in the State of Illinois it included an examination of the problem on a national level. At the time it was believed that the problem of child sexual abuse was fairly limited.
The typical child molester was understood to be a loner, a stranger who lured little girls into his car to sexually assault them. But this view changed in the mid 70’s when newspaper articles began appearing, claiming that a new form of sexual exploitation was emerging. Young girls allegedly were being lured by organized groups of criminals into prostitution rings based in large metropolitan cities. One group supposedly was trafficking young teen girls from Minnesota to work the streets of New York. It was labeled the Minnesota Connection.
Fr. Bruce Ritter, the founder of Covenant House, fueled the claims as a means of encouraging increased contributions for his work with Runaway teens.
Our investigation during the 70’s documented that the whole thing was hype. Yes, there were young girls from Minnesota who were showing up on New York streets and prostituting themselves. But it wasn’t just girls, they weren’t just from Minnesota, and they weren’t landing only in New York. Moreover, they were not being snatched from their mothers’ arms and turned into prostitutes by a national network of organized crime figures.
Most of these young prostitutes were runaways who had left home because of the physical or sexual abuse they experienced in their own families. They were showing up on city streets all over the country. The commercial sexual exploitation of children was largely fueled by familial sexual and physical abuse. That was true then. And it remains true today.
Today, these teens who are being sexually exploited commercially, are by current definition, victims of human trafficking. Again, the image is that such activity is driven by organized criminal groups. It is not. Such a view fails to take into account what took those children onto the street in the first place.
As I mentioned earlier, prior to our investigation 35 years ago, the average American believed that the vast majority of child molesters were strangers to their victims. Sadly, this is now and was then completely false, and virtually all researchers would agree that it’s false. Stranger molesters account for around 10 percent of the total cases. While I’m not familiar with any reliable studies that breaks this down further, my own qualitative findings indicate that most of this 10 percent are “johns” hiring teen prostitutes. A tiny fraction would be represented by strangers kidnapping children off the street.
It used to be that teens would literally stand on street corners in areas where prostitutes congregated and they took all comers. Girls often had pimps who looked out for them, supplied them with drugs, bailed them out when they were arrested, but also seized a fairly large portion of the money they earned to keep for themselves. The pimps also forced them to work even when they didn’t want to. This is still common today, but technology has been put to use to increase the number of “dates” and reduce the need to stand on street corners. The street corner is now largely electronic.
Teen boys didn’t usually have pimps and still don’t, while they, too, have established an electronic presence. Teen boys seem to be even more deeply involved in adapting to the electronic world, using “hook up” apps like Grindr, more so than do their female counterparts. As it was three and a half decades ago, there is almost no attention being paid by law enforcement, or anyone else, toward the problem of boy prostitution. But my investigations indicate that the problem of boy prostitution is at least equal to that among young teen girls.
My best guess is that commercial sexual exploitation of children accounts for between 6 and 9 percent of the total number of children who are sexually abused.
Both the male and female teen prostitutes also are used in the production of child pornography, a problem that has expanded exponentially in our digital age. The ability to take any photo without the need to send film off to a photo lab for developing and printing, combined with the ability to transmit tens of thousands of images at the push of a button has caused this problem to become significantly worse. Adding to the child porn problem is the frequent production of pornographic images by some teen, themselves, for use in “sexting” each other.
Most researchers roughly agree that about 40 percent of children are sexually abused by someone they know but who are not family members or members of their own household. These are the children who are abused by teachers, coaches, clergy, youth group leaders, neighbors, family friends, classmates, etc. It is this group of victims where the general community can have the greatest impact on reducing the abuse.
These victims are stalked in public and partially groomed in the plain view of the rest of us. Because of this, the informed and observant are in a position to successfully intervene and disrupt the efforts of the predator. Most of the victims in this group generally have an obvious vulnerability. They tend to be lonely. Maybe they are from single parent families where the parent does not or cannot spend as much time with the child as he or she wants. Maybe they are abused or neglected by their parents. Perhaps they are shy or have few friends. Whatever makes these children vulnerable to the predator is likewise visible to us if we are alert.
The largest group of children, sixty percent, are sexually abused by a family member—a parent or step-parent, a sibling, an uncle or aunt, a grandparent. These are the victims who are most hidden from public view. But we all are in families, large and small, so that puts us all in a position to keep an eye out for all of the children in our extended families.
Over the last 30 years I have not seen much change in the percentages of how the abuser is related to the victim of child sexual abuse:
Family member – 60%
Acquaintance – 40%
Stranger – 10%
I don’t know why that is. It’s very possible, and likely, that the studies launched to detect the nature and scope of the problem over the last 30 years have been inadequate. The reason I say this is that other changes I have observed have been dramatic.
For example, it used to be relatively easy to recognize a very young child who was potentially abused by scenes and portraits they would draw or paint, by their language, by their knowledge (or lack thereof) of sexual activity. Today that has all changed. With ubiquitous cable tv, the uncensored internet which is readily available to very young children, explicit sex education programs, magazines of all kinds, nudity and simulated sex in prime time even on broadcast channels, it is the rare child who is not acquainted with sexual details that a child the same age three decades ago would have no knowledge whatsoever.
Sex talk, early childhood sexual interest and imitation, late childhood/early adolescent sexual activity has vastly increased, much to the detriment of childhood itself. Certainly, childhood innocence has all but been destroyed by our hypersexualized culture. This has consequences.
Children being sexually abused by other, usually older children, has always been a problem. In fact, historically about 30 percent of the victims of child sexual abuse have been abused by other minors. But surface observations indicate that this figure no longer holds. A recent study of high school students in Switzerland indicated that 70% of boys and 50% of girls had been sexually abused by other students. The same study showed that same sex assaults were up dramatically. In fact, most of the boys were abused by other boys. Most of the girls were assaulted by boys as well, but a significant percentage were assaulted by other girls.
Thirty years ago same sex assaults were very rare.
Admittedly, extrapolating findings in Switzerland to the United States has limitations. But there are very many similarities in sexual activity between European and U.S. populations. Additionally, anecdotal observations in the U.S. seem to indicate that such a study done here would result in similar findings.
Pornography use and addiction among early adolescents, almost unheard of 30 years ago, has exploded today. Often the introduction of pornography to a child is made by predators attempting to sexually exploit children. But with the easy availability of pornography these days, more and more children are preparing themselves for later exploitation by clever and experienced predators. A child already hooked on pornography is an easy mark for sexual exploitation by others. Current pornography isn’t just for boys, either. There is a whole line of pornography that targets girls as well, the “romance” genre popularized by porn star turned producer Jenna Jameson.
One more apparent change is worth noting here. Teen girls and women apparently are becoming more predatory than in the past. It used to be that it was very rare for children to be sexually abused by a female abuser. For example, an extensive study of predators conducted several years ago by Drs. Gene Abel and Nora Harlow found that 1 in 20 men had a sexual attraction to children under the age of 13 (that does not mean that 1 in 20 acted on the attraction, however), while only 1 in 3300 women had such an attraction.
I’m not sure those findings would be valid today. There seems to have been an enormous increase in sexual assaults by women against both teen boys and girls, as well as an increase in the teen girls seeking sexual activity with younger children. I’m not aware of any studies on this other than the Swiss study mentioned above. This could be just a selection bias that we see so many of these cases reported in the media. However, I tend to think we are seeing a real change. Children mimic adults. Popular culture today praises sexually active and sexually aggressive women. It’s an issue worth examining more closely.
Child sexual abuse has a devastating impact on our children. It leads to drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, depression, suicide, homelessness, child and adult prostitution, sexual addiction and dysfunction. Some studies have shown that a large percentage of severely abused children are dead by age 35, the result of drug or alcohol related deaths or suicide. Even those victims who live an outwardly normal life, carry the scars and the pain of their abuse throughout their lives. Some of the victims become abusers themselves.
Child sexual abuse is a cultural infection, a disease that signals something has gone terribly wrong in the soul of our society.
Tens of billions of dollars have been thrown at the problem by government and private groups just in the last three decades. So why is there disagreement on whether the problem is growing or shrinking? Why don’t we know exactly how many, and under what circumstances, victims become abusers? Are women becoming more sexually predatory, and why? Why are more children becoming sexually aggressive and what can we do to stop it? Why do our schools and churches continue to hire child sexual predators? What can we do to prevent intrafamilial sexual abuse? How do we stop child prostitution?
We don’t have any better answers to these questions today than we did 35 years ago.
So I ask, how serious are the politicians who claim they want to help the children? How serious are you?
It’s time to stop leaving the solutions to the politicians and the experts. They have already proven themselves either unwilling or incapable—or both.
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