Women Against Violence Exhibition 2001

Childhood Sexual Abuse: Stop the Silence


Copyright ©2002 magiamma All rights reserved

Not only is incest taboo, but apparently talking about incest is taboo also. The word “incest” typically generates reactions. Rooms become silent. People change the subject. This long lived, societal taboo silences the voices of the very people that experience this atrocity. 

What is incest? Let’s differentiate the definitions. Incestual assault is sexual contact between a closely related minor and an adult. Childhood sexual assault is perpetrated by non family members. A minor is defined as a child under the age of 14, 16 or 18 depending on the study. A contact offence is sexual penetration or sexual touching. A noncontact offence is exposure or voyeurism. 

Over the past forty years there have been a number of different surveys on childhood sexual abuse and all of them have parallel statistics. 

94% of offenders are male and 94% of the abused are female (Finkelhor & Russell, 1984). The American Humane Association Children’s Division, in a publication of 1969, found that 92% of sexually abused children in their survey were girls and 97% of the child molesters were heterosexual men. 

Studies show that childhood sexual assault is most often committed by people known to the child. These are typically men and come from all walks of life. They are criminals, priests, doctors, psychologists, and laborers. They are rich, poor, and are all races. There is no profile. None. 

There is no national reporting system for crimes against children. Legal statutes applicable to sexual abuse of children within their families differ from state to state. 

The most frequently quoted statistics on abuse state that one in three girls are victims and one in seven boys. Incest most often starts when the child is between one and three and lasts typically for seven long years. Those who first reveal the existence of abuse in their teens have probably been enduring it for years. In 1985, Dr. Arthur Green, director of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center’s Family Center, was quoted in a United States Government public affairs pamphlet on incest as saying that the hospital was “horror struck” by the number of babies and preschool children brought in with genital injuries, gonorrheal infections of the throat, venereal warts, and syphilis. Dr. Michael Durfee, of the Los Angeles Department of health Services, reported in 1984, that more sexual abuse was reported on 2 year olds than any other age group. Three and four year olds were next. The height of an average two year old is 5.5 penises and an average penis has the same diameter as the child’s arm. Talk about weapons of mass destruction. 

Currently, the best mechanism for determining the scope of child sexual abuse is through retrospective surveys of adult nonclinical populations. Such surveys show some variability because of differences in research methodology — the population surveyed, survey methods, type and number of screen questions, and definitions of sexual abuse all influence the figures reported. 

Two of the best studies show respectively 38% and 45% victimization by age 18 for contact offenses. Both studies had numerous screening questions, used broad definitions, and conducted in-person interviews (Russell, 1984, and Wyatt, 1985). 

A telephone survey of a national probability sample of adults revealed 27% of women and 16% of men reported a contact sexual offense by age 18 (Finkelhor et al, 1990). Similarly, in a mail-out questionnaire, to a national, stratified, random sample 32% of females and 13% of males reported a history of contact sexual abuse (Elliott & Briere, 1995) In general, 90% of the perpetrators are heterosexual males and 80% of the victims are females. And, 90% of perpetrators are repeat offenders. Most often members or close friends of the extended family. 

Why are perpetrators predominantly men? Men’s power over women in patriarchal societies often results in men assuming rights of sexual access to women which often includes certain levels of force, coercion or abuse. Men are socialized to prefer younger, smaller, more innocent, and powerless partners. For men, the opportunity to be sexual is often linked to self-esteem. Such prerogatives are omnipresent in the media. Children mirror the same characteristics as the “weaker sex”. 

Incest is a family issue. Interviews held in a Boston hospital with 42 children and adolescents who had been sexually traumatized indicated that half of the offenders were family members, including fathers, grandfathers and stepfathers. These assaults had continued for a period of time because the offenders’ access to the children had never been questioned by other family members. In 1969 the Children’s Division of the American Humane Association completed a study of 1,100 cases of child sexual abuse in the borough of New York. The organization found that 75% of the offenders were known to the children and their families. 27% of the offenders were members of the immediate household and another 21% were relatives who were not living in the home. The average age of the children who were victimized was eleven years and in 41% of the families studied the sexual abuse had continued for seven years. 

Incest is an ugly business. In 1981 the report on child labor to the U. N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities singled out child prostitution as one of the ‘most sickening’ forms of economic exploitation of children. In the United Stated alone it has been estimated than more than 300,000 boys are sexually exploited outside their families, and the total for both sexes is likely to be more than twice as high. 

Incest is horrific. In March 1988, Long Island Newsday published a report about a man accused of molesting a 1-month-old baby, who suffered permanent injury to her bowel. 

Although the statistics we have are incomplete, confusing and somewhat inconsistant, they point to a problem of enormous dimension and implication for the lives of uncounted thousands of young people who carry their secret alone and in silence. Stop the silence.