“When sexual abuse occurs in the absence of violence,
and in the presence of trust, kids may be totally disarmed.”
Early in my career, as a child protection social worker, I was dispatched to a school, accompanied by a police officer. A school nurse had reported a 12-year-old girl who disclosed sexual abuse. The nurse asked “Amy” if she would tell us how her father would come into her room at night and hurt her. Amy quietly shook her head, “No.” It seemed Amy was recanting. Then the nurse asked, “Amy, do you remember telling me how your dad would come into your bedroom at night and touch you under your pajamas?” Amy nodded, “Yes, but he didn’t hurt me.” The ‘ah-ha’ moment struck all of us - the nurse had chosen words that conflicted with Amy’s experience. Amy added tearfully but confidently, “I love my dad. I just don’t want him to come into my room at night.”
In that short exchange, Amy conveyed two important lessons: first, that professionals should let victims tell us how they experienced sexual violations, and second, a victim will often have an otherwise valued relationship with their abuser. This is especially true for child victims, when more than four out of five sexually abused kids are abused by a friend or relative.
Amy was indeed harmed, in ways that she would need help understanding, but she didn’t experience the kind of violence that immediately cues kids that something bad is happening. When sexual violations occur with the recognizable violence of pain, bodily injury, force, or threats, even young children instinctively know that something is very wrong. Sexual abuse that includes “violence” is easily recognizable, always harmful, and always against the law. But when sexual violations occur without veritable violence, many children, predisposed to trust their abuser, often don’t recognize that they are in the midst of sexual abuse. Sometimes sexual abuse is a violation of a relationship.
One insidious characteristic of non-violent sexual abuse is that it may be unrecognized. When people are asked why they didn’t report the abuse, they sometimes say they felt duped, perhaps complicit, but mostly confused. And when victims otherwise liked their offender, they often didn’t report because they were afraid of the uncertainty of the aftermath – for themselves and for the offender.
These are among the findings of research conducted by psychologist Susan Clancy. Dr. Clancy interviewed hundreds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse for her 2009 book, The Trauma Myth; The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and Its Aftermath. Clancy reported that the vast majority of sexual abuse of children occurs without violence, and, as a result, adult survivors typically expressed that, as children, they felt more confused than traumatized by the experience, especially if the abuser was someone who they otherwise liked and trusted. Clancy suggested that children experience sexual abuse in a range of unique ways and that professionals should be supportive in letting kids tell us how they experienced sexual abuse, with cautious judgment. Clancy validated Amy’s experience.
In the years after “lessons from Amy,” when I began to work with offenders, I discovered that offenders are similarly disabled by the other side of the same coin: offenders usually admit they knew they were taking advantage of another, but are slow to understand sexual harm that is not accompanied by violence. Non-violent sexual violations often occur in a blind spot for both victims and offenders, especially when abuse is within families or between friends.
When people have an understanding of “sex offenders” as violent rapists, predatory child molesters, or otherwise “evil monsters,” and family or friends don’t fit that description, children are unguarded by familiar relationships. When sexual abuse occurs in the absence of violence, and in the presence of trust, kids may be totally disarmed. The “monster myth” and perceptions that sexual abuse must be “violent,” may obscure both victims and offenders from recognizing a broad range of sexual violations.
More than half of all children who are sexually abused, are abused by an older child. Depending on the age difference between kids, sexual contact might be against the law in one state (or province), but not in another. In many states, sex between teenagers might be “statutory rape,” even if it meets criteria for consent. If certain sexual behaviors are “statutorily” proscribed, they are, by definition, illegal, but if it is truly consensual should it be called “rape,” which in any form is understood to embody violence?
Prevention of sexual abuse should begin by teaching kids about sexual respect, but teenagers need to also know local “statutory rape” laws, or risk becoming a “child molester” or “rapist” because they crossed a legal definition or jurisdictional line. People are taught from a young age that violence is never okay, and that sexual violence is particularly reprehensible. But in the absence of violence, the rules for interpersonal sex are often confusing for young people. Teaching people about sexual respect goes beyond avoidance of sexual violence, and inoculates both future victims and would-be offenders.
In summary, sexual violence is not a synonym for sexual abuse – it is a subset. When we describe all sexual abuse as sexual assault or sexual violence, we risk losing recognition by victims as well as offenders. We also lose the critical importance of context and the actual continuum of sexual abuse. Perhaps in our zeal to convey that sexual abuse is a serious matter, we use “sexual violence” as an attention-getting, generic term, however, using “sexual violence” to describe all sexual violations might exacerbate deceptive myths, and unwittingly hinder public education and prevention efforts.
Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW