Have you lost track of the number of reports in the news of people abusing children? I know I have. One topic of discussion around the water coolers and in the media these days is the number of these reports and the number of times the thing we fear most, turns out to be true. Which makes one wonder- is there more child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, going on these days?
We are correct to distrust reports of more – or fewer predictors these days. More people being arrested does not mean more incidents. It is very likely that children have been victimized since time began, which is not to excuse it, just to say we can’t be sure there is more going on now. But the number, frequency, and severity of children being abused are beyond troubling.
With children, professionals like myself are what is called “mandated reporters” which means if we know or reasonably suspect someone is harming a child we are required to report this. From the number of adults who end up in therapy as a result of being victims of sexual abuse it seems clear that this has been going on largely overlooked for a long time. Mostly we don’t like to think that someone who is working with children might be harming them. The stranger molester is very rare, most of the time the person harming kids is someone that is close to them and is respected by the community.
Beyond the pain of the first abuse, most adult victims will tell you the most painful part of being a victim was the number of adults who dismissed the claim or covered up for the perpetrator. I read that one child victim was punished for “making stories up” about his abuser. Years later we find out that this victim was telling the truth but was intimidated by adults into silence.
The shocking thing about so many of these reports of an adult sexually abusing a child is not just that the incidents are occurring but that the activities have gone on for so long, involved so many children and the perpetrator was allowed so much access to children. There may be some societal changes that account for this.
We live in a more anonymous society than ever before. This is the first time in the history of the world that the majority of people on earth live in large cities instead of rural communities. In the small town there was always someone who was considered “weird” and the children were told to avoid them. This may not have protected anyone. Kids back then disappeared and things happened to them on the way home from school but we felt safer then thinking that by avoiding certain people we were keeping kids safe. Today we have little idea who lives next door let alone on the next block. We also know very little about public figures like the teacher, pastor or priest.
Some people think that putting lists of child predators on line will help reduce children being victimized. This process has proved inefficient in practice. I was at a county fair a while back. It was a relatively small county. The local police had a map in their booth with pins showing the location of registered sex offenders. In this one small town there was no street that did not have a pin within a block or two. The sex offenders we know about are everywhere. What about the ones we won’t know about for years to come?
There is some likelihood that in times past most predators were solitary creatures. They were afraid to let anyone know their secret. That reduced their ability to abuse children and may have limited the number of victims. You don’t share secrets in a small town where if one person found out your secret everyone might be out to get you.
There was also a lot more social disapproval of people who might be abusing a child especially sexually. There were and still are families in which child sexual abuse is a family tradition. Older relatives abuse children and the parents who were abuse themselves cover it up. More than once an adult has cried while talking about their child’s victimization and then they told me they had been a victim themselves, sometimes the adult was molested by the same uncle or cousin that had now molested their child.
In addition to the reduced social disapproval, these days it has become easier for predators to find others who approve of their behavior. They are able to connect via the internet and other electronic media. Children who don’t understand victimization, we all think things wont happen to us when we are young, put themselves in risky on line situations.
The increase in pornography and sexually explicit materials makes deviant behaviors look more normal. A few years back people who wanted sexually explicit materials had to go to a particular store and buy something that was kept under the counter. By today’s standards most of that stuff was pretty mild. Today situation comedies have more sexually content and more violence than the girlly magazines used to portray. Violence and sexual content is a lot more interesting to watch most of the time than normal behavior. If you watch a lot of violence or sex it is easy to get a distorted view of reality and think that things are normal that in times past were clearly off limits.
The widespread abuse of stimulants has added to the problem of inappropriate sexual behavior, especially the increase in hyper sexuality. Meth users report that under the influence they felt extreme sexual urges and participated in sexual acts that when off drugs they would never have considered. Much, but not all child sexual abuse is reported to be connected with drug abuse.
If it were possible to put aside the emotional cost of child mistreatment, which is not possible for most of us, there is still a huge monetary cost to society. According to the CDC, a single year of child abuse cost society over $200,000 in additional lifetime treatment costs. That is more that the cost of a stroke or most physical diseases. More years of abuse means more pain and more expense. We also know from studies of PTSD that the sooner someone gets treatment the less likelihood there will be a severe permanent disability. This makes the early detection and treatment of abused children all the more important.
So this blog post is running long.
The point of all this is that there may not be any more people who are having urges to sexually abuse children now than in times past. What we are seeing now are more cases involving people we all thought we could trust. There are societal factors that may be reducing the inhibitions of people who have these urges. These incidents can make us start to fear and distrust everyone. Some of these cases involve large numbers of victims and have gone on over long periods of time. Being a victim of abuse causes life long suffering and we as a society need to do more to prevent and treat these victims. The questions before us are how to prevent or reduce the number of these incidents and do we as a culture have the will to use resources to heal the victims?
Any thoughts on this?
David Miller, LMFT, NCC