Child Sexual Abuse Myths
The following are some common myths about child sexual abuse:
Children are mostly sexually abused by strangers
Fact: In 2008, of the 13,600 police reported cases of child/youth sexual assaults:
- 10% of the accused were strangers – Strangers were more likely to assault older children/youth between the ages of 12 and 17 than younger children (80% of stranger assaults were perpetrated against this older age group).
- 75% of the accused were known to the child/youth.
- Of those known, 33% were family members (97% were male relatives – 37% male extended family members, 35% fathers, 27% brothers), and 42% were acquaintances of the child/youth.
- Acquaintances were more likely than family members to assault older children and younger children were more at risk for assault by a family member.
- Risk from peers increases for youth aged 12 to 17 – 25% of the accused for this age group were ages 12 to 24. (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 2010).
Child sexual abuse is rare
Fact: Prevalence rates are difficult to determine with certainty. They are affected by different definitions of sexual abuse, different methodologies for collecting information (reported versus unreported), and different populations (children versus adult reports of child sexual abuse). The following are the most commonly cited prevalence rates for child sexual abuse:
- The Badgley report (1984) is the only national study ever conducted in Canada. The author reported on survey results from adults and indicated that 54% of girls and 32% of boys were sexually abused before the age of 18. Bagley (1988) re-analyzed the data from the Badgley report finding 17.6% of girls and 8.2% of boys suffered severe sexual abuse.
- Vine, Trocmé and Finlay (2006) referenced two reports (Finkelhor, 1994; MacMillan et al., 1997) and reported that approximately 12 to 20% of girls and 3 to 11% of boys had experienced sexual abuse.
People are too quick to assume that a person who has sexually abused a child is guilty, even when there is no supporting evidence
Fact: When a disclosure of sexual abuse is made, it is more common for the person who has been abused to be challenged about their assertion, than the person who has been accused. Salter (2003) notes that the vast majority of people distort reality to create a kinder and gentler world than what really exists. She notes that this leads people to assign blame to those who have been abused rather than those who offend in order to make sense of the injustice and harm that has been perpetrated. As a whole, our society tends to under-react to, and under estimate the scope of the problem. In fact, research has consistently shown that few abusers are ever identified or incarcerated. Estimates suggest that only 3% of all cases of child sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994; Timnick, 1985) and only 12% of rapes involving children are ever reported to police (Hanson et al., 1999). Based on the high prevalence of sexual abuse perpetrated against children, it is presumptuous to assume that the small number of cases that are actually prosecuted constitute a “witchhunt”, or that somehow mostly innocent people are targeted for prosecution. In fact, statistics suggest quite the opposite: child abusers are rarely identified or prosecuted.
Children often lie about being sexually abused
Fact: In child abuse cases reported to Children’s Services in 1998, 4% of those cases were considered intentional ‘false allegations’. Of those, the majority were related to neglect rather than sexual abuse, and most occurred within custody or access disputes (Vine, Trocmé, and Finlay, 2006).
Few boys are sexually abused
Fact: Depending upon the definition used and the approach to data collection, 6 to 15 % of adult men report a history of child sexual abuse (Badgley, 1984; Briere, 1992; Finkelhor, 1994).
- Common attitudes about masculinity place an unrealistic expectation on boy children to protect themselves from people who sexually abuse children (Finkelhor, 1994, 2009).
- Homophobic attitudes and a lack of information about people who offend against children can make it more difficult for boy children to disclose abuse by males (Finkelhor, 1994; 2009).
- Attitudes about male heterosexuality and sexual development can contribute to boys not identifying or disclosing sexual abuse by adolescent or adult females (Finkelhor, 1994; 2009).
Females do not sexually abuse children
Fact: In Canada, 90 to 95% of people who were reported to children’s services (Vine, Trocmé & Finlay, 2006) or police (Statistics Canada, 2010) for the sexual abuse of children were men. Of the females who offended:
- Most were family members who abused within their role as caretakers; 25% were baby-sitters, teachers or day care workers (Rudin et al., 1995).
- 7% of sexual abuse children’s services investigations involved mothers as the alleged perpetrators – 5% biological mothers and 2% stepmothers (Trocmé et al. 2001).
- There is no difference in the severity of abuse by female sex offenders as compared to male sex offenders (Rudin et al., 1995).
Parents would know if their child was being abused
Fact: Most indicators/symptoms of sexual abuse are signs of stress in children’s lives. Sexual acting out, injuries to genital areas, or sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy are the indicators that are most obviously connected to sexual abuse and many children do not experience these. Many children do not exhibit symptoms of sexual abuse at all (Children and Family Services, CFS, 2010). Most parents trust the individuals they leave their children with to keep them safe and to not abuse them (Collins, 1996; Wurtele, Kvarternick, & Franklin, 1992).
Sexual abuse that is not physically violent does not result in harm to the child
Fact: More than any physical injuries the offender causes the victim, the violation of trust that accompanies most sexual assaults has been shown to dramatically increase the level of trauma the victim suffers. Emotional and psychological injuries cause harm that can last much longer than physical wounds (Brown, n.d.; Perry, 2009).
Children could just say ‘no’ and tell someone if they were being sexually abused
Fact: Children do not usually feel empowered to say “no” to the person who is sexually abusing them or to tell. Children:
- Are told to keep it a secret.
- Are threatened.
- Are often in dependency relationships with the youth or adult who is abusing them.
- Are often taught to be unquestioningly obedient to older youths and adults.
- Believe in the myth of the dangerous stranger.
- Care about and want to protect the offender.
- Trust the youth and adults who care for them.
- Often don’t tell until at least 5 years have passed and many don’t until adulthood.
- Feel embarrassed or ashamed or confused.
Child sexual abuse is new
Fact: Child sexual abuse is not new, it has always occurred however sociopolitical changes such as awareness about the issue and access to information (internet etc.) makes it seem as though it’s more prevalent now. Increased public awareness has led to greater reporting: from 1970 to 1990, child sexual abuse reports increased more than other categories of neglect or abuse. Despite this gain, child sexual abuse still remains vastly under-reported. Given that only a small proportion of sexual offenses are formally documented, the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada has been difficult to quantify.
Other increases in individuals reporting sexual abuse may be improvements to the social, economic and political status of women; a heightened focus on victims of crime; a growth in victim’s services such as sexual assault centers; and special training of police officers and hospital staff with how to respond to victims of sexual assault and how to gather evidence for this crime (Kong et al., 2003); Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series Sexual Assault in Canada 2004 and 2007. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85f0033m/85f0033m2008019-eng.pdf
Children do not need to know about child sexual abuse, and talking about it with them will only frighten them
Fact: Numerous educational programs are available to teach young children about body safety skills and the difference between “okay” and “not okay” touches. This knowledge can be empowering for children and research demonstrates that similar to other safety programs (i.e. fire drills, street safety) children are not more frightened after participating.
Most offenders use threats or force to gain children’s compliance
Fact: In the majority of cases, abusers gain access to their victims through deception and enticement, seldom using force. Abuse typically occurs within a long-term, ongoing relationship between the offender and victim and escalates over time (Brown, n.d.).
Child sexual abusers are only attracted to children and are not capable of appropriate sexual relationships
Fact: While there is a small subset of child sexual abusers who are exclusively attracted to children, the majority of the individuals who sexually abuse children are (or have previously been) attracted to adults (Brown, n.d.).
If a child does not tell anyone about the abuse, it is because he or she must have consented to it
Fact: Children often do not tell for a variety of reasons including the offender’s threats to hurt or kill someone the victim loves, as well as shame, embarrassment, wanting to protect the offender, feelings for the offender, fear of being held responsible or being punished, fear of being disbelieved, and fear of losing the offender who may be very important to the child or the child’s family (Brown, n.d.).
Offenders could stop their sexually violent behavior on their own if they wanted to
Fact: Wanting to change is usually not enough to be able to change the patterns that lead to sexual offenses.
To create the motivation to change, some offenders need a variety of treatment and corrective interventions, and for others learning how to make the change in their own behavioral cycle of abuse is more effective (Brown, n.d.).
Men who (sexually assault) do so because they cannot find a consenting sexual partner
Fact: Studies suggest that most (sexual assault) offenders are married or in consenting relationships (Brown, n.d.).
If someone sexually assaults an adult, he will not target children as victims, and if someone sexually assaults a child, he will not target adults
Fact: Research and anecdotal evidence indicate that while some sex offenders choose only one type of victim (e.g., pre-pubescent girls, post-pubescent boys, adult women, etc.), others prey on different types of victims. Therefore, no assumptions should ever be made about an offender’s victim preference and precautions should be taken regardless of his crime of conviction (Brown, n.d.).
Sexual gratification is often a primary motivation for a person who sexually abuses children
Fact: While some offenders do seek sexual gratification from the act, sexual gratification is often not a primary motivation for a sexual assault offender. Power, control, and anger are more likely to be the primary motivators (Brown, n.d.).
Talking about sexual abuse with a child who has experienced it will make it worse
Fact: Although children often choose not to talk about their abuse, there is no evidence that encouraging children to talk about sexual abuse will make them feel worse. On the contrary, treatment from a mental health professional can minimize the physical, emotional, and social problems of these children by allowing them to process their feelings and fears related to the abuse. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, http:// www.NCTSN.org
Children who have been sexually abused are ‘damaged goods’ and will be impacted forever
Fact: There is an assumption in society that people who have been sexually abused in childhood are ‘damaged’ and not capable of living a normal life. In reality, survivors have great strength and courage and can successfully manage their lives. Despite the impacts of child sexual abuse, adult survivors resist the effects of the abuse in many ways, and find strategies to help with healing. Being sexually abused in childhood can affect individuals in many different ways however, survivors have many strengths and resources to help them overcome these effects (NSW Rape Crisis Center http://www.nswrapecrisis.com.au/index.htm).