In the wake of recent high-profile sexual abuse cases, people are struggling to make sense of these situations and reconcile the allegations with their previously-held views of particular people, institutions, and the nature of child sexual abuse. Many adult victims of child sexual abuse are coming forward to share their stories, and people are asking questions about sexual violence. Many others are experiencing some degree of disbelief, anger, confusion, and grief; this type of trauma mirrors the feelings many sexual assault survivors experience - more evidence of the wide-ranging impact and harm caused by sexual abuse.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) work closely together and share similar missions – to prevent all forms of sexual violence. NSVRC understands the impact on victims and their families; and the roles that organizations and communities can play in prevention; and ATSA understands the factors that may lead to the perpetration of sex offenses and the most effective methods of treatment and management for offenders. Both of these perspectives are critical in fully understanding sexual violence and its prevention. Recently, both organizations have fielded calls from media and others seeking insight into the complex dynamics of these alleged crimes. Some questions being asked include:
How could this happen?
Sexual violence thrives in silence, and it’s much more common than people think. Professionals on both ends -- who work with victims and people who sexually abuse -- are not surprised by many of the stories and dynamics in recent reports. They hear similar stories every day. What stands out in some of the recent high-profile cases is that there may have been witnesses to some of these alleged crimes; the seemingly large number of adults who may have known about them; and the way these particular stories have captured the public’s attention.
If this intense spotlight causes us to prioritize the well-being of our children; strengthen the services available to victims and their families; seriously examine the priorities and practices of our institutions; create thoughtful and effective laws to promote public safety; and commit to being engaged and responsible bystanders, then perhaps something good may develop as a result.
Why are so many survivors coming forward now?
As horrific as the stories are coming out of Penn State, Syracuse, the Citadel, churches, etc., it seems that the public, media, and some esteemed institutions may finally be “getting it.” Now, it seems society is ready to examine the dynamics of child sexual abuse and make it an open topic of conversation. Maybe some survivors feel that it is now safe to come forward, because people are listening? Perhaps they are just now realizing that what happened to them as a child was sexual violence? Perhaps they want to do their part to make sure that other children do not have to endure similar abuse? Whatever the reason, we applaud their courage and thank them for coming forward.
What should I do if someone discloses to me that they were a victim of sexual abuse?
If someone you know discloses sexual abuse, believe them, listen attentively, affirm the fact that they are talking about it, and remind them that they were not at fault. Avoid asking questions that may be perceived as blaming or judgmental such as, “Why didn’t you tell anyone at the time?” Instead, offer supportive statements such as, “That must have been awful for you,” or “I’m so sorry you were betrayed in that way.” Offer to help by asking, “Is there anything I can do to support you?” Oftentimes, sexual assault is committed by someone who is known and trusted. In these incidents, it can be very confusing. Feelings of betrayal may cause survivors to doubt others or themselves, but talking about it is part of the healing process. If someone wants to talk to an experienced advocate, help them locate their local rape crisis center or other community resources.
How could someone so well-respected do this?
Many Americans have deeply-ingrained, yet inaccurate, ideas about people who sexually abuse children. Perhaps it’s because of stories, media coverage or TV shows about children being abducted by strangers? Or perhaps the truth -- that most people who sexually abuse children are people that we interact with every day -- is just too overwhelming to grasp? When individuals sexually offend they are often perceived as “monsters” and are defined by their offenses. However when we look at an offender’s entire life, we realize that often they are not “monsters;” like everyone else, individuals who sexually abuse have multiple roles in society and have many aspects to their life and personality. Many of us have been focused on protecting children from stranger dangers that are relatively rare while ignoring the potential for abuse in situations that are much more common.
Does treatment work for sexual abusers?
Treatment of individuals who have sexually abused others is an essential component of a comprehensive system to prevent sexual abuse. The goal of sex offender treatment is to increase an individual’s accountability for their criminal behavior, assist people to develop the skills that will reduce the chance that they will sexually reoffend and increase community safety. Like other kinds of interventions, not every individual responds to treatment in the same way and some will benefit more than others. Any reduction in the rate of sexual abuse must be considered meaningful as it represents the protection of children and adults from victimization.
It is important to remember that many people who commit sexual violence are not apprehended and therefore are not provided the option of treatment. To demonize or ostracize people who are at risk of sexually offending often drives them deeper into silence and shame and prevents them from reaching out for help that could prevent a sexual offence.
What can I do?
We encourage people to continue asking questions, learn the truth about sexual abuse, and talk through feelings and concerns. Become familiar with local resources and experts. Find out about statewide prevention programs and where you can report suspicions of child sexual abuse. You do not have to personally witness something in order to report a concern. Pay attention to the children in your life, and who they are spending time with. Look for sudden or unexplained changes in their behavior. We do not need to become overly paranoid or suspicious of every interaction, but we can become more knowledgeable about potential red flags. Many adults who sexually abuse children seem to prefer the company of children over other adults, and they may create opportunities where they’re inappropriately alone with children. When in doubt, speak up, ask questions and report any suspicions. There are many resources available for helping people build skills to become more effective, empowered, active bystanders. Moving forward, decide what you can do by familiarizing yourself with available options. Model these behaviors in your own life, and support and encourage others to do the same.
What can institutions do?
Now is the time for institutions, organizations and workplaces to look at their own policies and culture. Do employees/students/volunteers know what to do if they suspect someone is being harmed? Is there a “whistle-blower policy” to protect those who report possible wrongdoing? Are there regular trainings on preventing sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence? Is there a general climate of respect and openness? Are there any pictures, calendars, cards, etc., displayed in the workplace that could be perceived as being disrespectful or exploitative? Are there physical spaces that are not easily observable where a crime could occur undetected? This is a crucial time for organizations to assess current practices and update expectations and priorities to prevent sexual violence and other harmful acts.
Sexual abuse thrives in silence. It’s time to talk about it.
Karen Baker is the Director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, PA.
Maia Christopher is the Executive Director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Beaverton, OR.