sexual abuse in perspective


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

Listen to The Paris Sisters performing “I Love How You Love Me”


3 Responses to “sexual abuse in perspective”

  1. 1 UKscot
    April 17, 2014 at 5:32 am

    I’m genuinely confused here Dan, what exactly are you saying? That society shouldn’t make such a big deal re sexual abuse? That if we viewed it as normal and part of some of society’s growing up, that the impact on the abused individual will lessen? Sexual abuse and sexual experimentation are two very different things and never EVER should abuse be put in quotation marks. We should never go down the road of comparing which is worse amongst the range of abuses inflicted on children. Each child is an individual and each type of abuse will have a different impact on them than it will for another child. The moment we start ‘rating’ abuse we lessen the crime and put the power right back in the hands of the abuser.

    • April 17, 2014 at 8:18 am

      I’m saying that adults should never EVER have sex with young people, but once it does happen, our attitudes about the offense can do more damage than the act itself. It’s kind of like accepting a diagnosis of cancer but not giving in to it, so that you have the greatest chance of recovering from it.

      I knew some readers would find difficulty with my nuanced and emerging view of this subject, but it is the hardest thing to understand being on the razor’s edge of acceptance/defiance of something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

      Knowing that you might find this confusing, I had quite a long conversation (before publishing this post) with one of the kids who suffered sexual abuse. We focused on the necessity of moving on with an attitude of acceptance/defiance, and he agreed that this was his belief, too.

      The word “abuse” was in quotes because a lot of sexual activity (like between a minor and someone who has just passed the age of legal consent) is defined as statutory abuse while it is not abuse by most standards of behavior.

      • 3 maxulic
        April 17, 2014 at 12:43 pm

        As a grown up who experienced sexual abuse when I was 10, I personally recognize myself in what Dan is explaining.

        First of all, I’ve been “lucky” not to be a victim of physical violence, I have been *coerced* into sexual activities but they were *not forced* onto me so the traumatism is certainly not as wide as these kids who have been raped. In the end the most damaging aspect of the abuse was emotional.

        1. It was (and still is) this feeling that your trust was abused (to this day I still find suspicious when people show interest in me, regarding my job, love, most aspects of my life in general, as I always end up wondering what the ulterior motive is).

        He was a very close person that I really loved and continued to love through the abuse as I accepted this as a part of the bond between us. Which lead to a greater distress when our relationship ended. I never saw this as abuse at that time, only when it was over I realized that his interest in me was not honest and that I was only meant to fulfill his sexual satisfaction. It leads to the second part of the emotional wound…

        2. That’s how society judges the events. I’ve never felt any shame during the whole time it lasted, that’s only when it came to an end that I started to be shameful. I realized that I should have said “no” but I never did… so it was my own fault. I can tell you that your self esteem takes a huge blow, you start considering how society might see you. So not only do you understand that you were considered as nothing but a piece of meat for his own pleasure (I assure you that it does hurt a lot when you find out that someone you admire didn’t care about you for the right reasons, probably even more when you are a kid) but you are convinced that society would see you as a boy whore consenting. That’s the picture I had of myself and it took my whole teen years regain some confidence, it took me these years to build something on this shitty basis.

        I never talked about it (I mean really talk, not anonymously behind a screen) but to one friend when I was a teen, one day that I felt really, really low. Not to my parents, not to anyone in my family, so I never had any counseling. But I am convinced that talking about that period of my life helped a great deal. The way I see it, there are 3 ways to cope with sexual abuse:

        – denial, burying the memories like it never happened. I’d bet that’s the route most kids who committed suicide have followed. Something is always going to resurface one day and it’s only going to make things worse. I never considered suicide but I felt like I was going to explode so many times for keeping these things to myself that I can feel for the kids who only delay the explosion.

        – refusing that the abuse defines who you are. That’s the dilemma I had to face during my healing process. There is this boy who was abused, it happened, I accept it but it is no longer me, it won’t define me. That would be like being able to give your childhood up as lost. I’d like to think that this is the healthiest way of coping and the best way to be free of any sadness.

        – accepting what happened. I believe that’s how things finally evolved for me. These things are part of me, there’s nothing I can do about it and the person that I am today was built from this experience. I know where I come from, I can put a reason for the way I react to different situations and it is simply who I am. There are days when I am still mourning the kid I was and I wonder how my life might be today if things had been different, that’s the days when I feel sad.

        This long post in hope that you don’t jump on Dan for his message. There is more truth in it that you could think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: