What does a victim of child sexual abuse look like? For many of us, the image we carry in our mind’s eye is a child, usually a girl, perhaps with a tear running down her cheek, abused and afraid, eyes pleading for help, for rescue. It is a powerful image, evoking sympathy and outrage — as it should. But it is incomplete.
Victims of child sexual abuse are young girls — and young boys. They are teens, both girls and boys and those questioning their sexual identity. They are young adults, who sadly are at increased risk of being assaulted again. And they are adult women and men, many of whom still carry the secret of the abuse buried inside them. Some struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, others have developed other coping mechanisms both healthy and unhealthy. They are our neighbors, our friends and sometimes our family members. In short, adult victims of child sexual abuse look just like us.
If the statistics are accurate, and most experts agree that they are, then 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 6 adult men were sexually victimized as children. The next time you are in a crowd of people, a crowd of adults, do the math. Look around you and mentally count off 1 in 4 and 1 in 6. It is astounding to contemplate. In addition to being astounded, looking at the adults around us and knowing that so many of them carry the scars of child sexual abuse should elicit the same sympathy and outrage that comes when we picture a child victim. But unfortunately, that is often not the case. Why is that, I wonder?
One reason, I’m sure, is that most of us feel protective of children, whether or not we are parents ourselves. It is a part of a healthy human response to care and nurture children. But as those same children grow up, we often become less protective and more judgmental in our responses to them. Perhaps it is because the strategies they adopt to cope with their trauma are often less than healthy. Sometimes teens and adults act out in destructive or harmful ways — ways that when not understood in the context of trauma look like disobedience, self-destruction or “manipulating the system.” While most of us would never blame a child for being a victim of sexual abuse or for their response to that abuse, too often it is easier to see teen and adult survivors as somehow culpable, if not for the abuse itself then in how they respond to it as they grew. We doubt their stories and are suspicious of their motives if they don’t behave as we think victims should.
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I believe that if we truly want to create a society where child sexual abuse is prevented, then we must address sexual violence across the life span. We must recognize the impact of sexual violence on children when they are children and on child victims as they grow into teenagers and adults. We must nurture that child-protective part of ourselves so that it will be extended to those harmed by sexual violence, girls and boys, women and men and those of all gender identities and sexual orientations. Because the truth is, adult survivors of sexual violence don’t only look like us — they are us.
Anne K. Ard is the executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.