What does a person who sexually abuses children look like? We hear all the time, “I could tell if he was a child molester.” The reality is that you can’t.
Most child molesters aren’t creepy men in vans. They aren’t hardened criminals. They aren’t from one race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Those who sexually abuse children look and act just like everyone else. The chances are that you have met an offender and never even realized it. They often seek out “safe” neighborhoods, churches, schools, and youth sports leagues – any place that gives them easy access to children.
Molesters aren’t usually strangers. Only 10 percent of those who sexually abuse children are strangers. A staggering 60 percent of abusers are known to the child or the family, while 30 percent are actually family members. Significantly, nearly 40 percent of abusers are children themselves, as we learned recently with Josh Duggar.
Most disturbing, the very qualities that we admire in a person – a passion for nurturing children, for enriching their lives – are qualities that are common in those who abuse children.
When high profile abuse cases fill the headlines, we experience shock and horror. By many accounts, Josh Duggar was a model of morality and family values. As part of a highly popular reality television series, the nation watched him marry, have children, and celebrate parental milestones. Before the news broke regarding his molestation of other children as an adolescent, he seemed to be well on his way to establishing a new branch of the picture perfect family.
Today, further details were released in the Dennis Hastert child sexual abuse scandal. Before these allegations, many would agree that Hastert lived a life of honor and service. He spent 16 years as a dedicated teacher and coach, followed by a long and successful career as a politician. Married for over 40 years, Hastert is a family man with children and grandchildren. Whether he is found guilty or innocent, these cases show us that with child sexual abuse, there is no “typical” perpetrator.
Some ask, “Why did the victims keep the abuse a secret – why didn’t they come forward?” The fact is that only 30 percent of victims disclose sexual abuse to friends, family, or the authorities within a year, and many never tell. The reasons are numerous. Fear, shame, and even love for the perpetrator can keep victims from disclosing. Often, children are conditioned to believe the abuse is their fault. In many cases, they’re afraid they will not be believed and yet only four to eight percent of disclosures are fabricated.
The reality is that many victims who speak out about child sexual abuse face disbelief, and in some cases are even shamed for their disclosure. We see this reflected in high profile cases where despite convictions, a portion of the population supports the abuser and blames the victim. In the case of Hastert, many assumed that he was being extorted by the alleged victim until the news was released that there may be multiple potential victims, one of whom is deceased and apparently never publicly disclosed or sought reparation. Victim shaming on this scale makes it even harder for those who experienced child sexual abuse to talk about it.
For those who suffer in silence, the consequences of child sexual abuse are tragic. Victims are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD, depression, and anxiety. As adults, they are also twice as likely to smoke, engage in substance abuse, and be severely obese. Adult survivors of child sexual abuse are 30 percent more likely to develop serious conditions like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart problems. The list goes on and on.
In the midst of this negativity, there is hope. When news headlines hit us with the hard truth that people we consider to represent the best in society are capable of sexually abusing children – that there is no perfect portrait of a perpetrator – it is scary. The good news is that child sexual abuse can be prevented, stopped, and overcome. We can prevent and intervene to protect children. Parents can take action that reduces risk, and professionals can learn how to recognize and report in a way that produces the best possible outcome for an abused child.
At some point in time, the attention surrounding these two cases will wane. Media tends to focus on shock without moving the conversation to prevention. Another news story will emerge and we will move on and forget – until the next headline that a celebrity, church official, political figure, or community leader has sexually abused children. How many need to occur before we realize the larger message?
As parents, educators, youth workers, and responsible adults, we have the opportunity to use these events as an incentive to educate ourselves on this issue and learn how to protect our children and our communities.
Learn the steps you can take to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse: www.D2L.org/5Steps.