Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections on the Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal and a Call to Action

The Penn State scandal is bringing much needed attention to the problem of child sexual abuse in our society.  Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D., Executive Vice-President of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, pointed out in her recent commentary that "the reality is that these crimes flourish because of an attitude of societal denial, aversion, and looking the other way."*

Child sexual abuse makes people uncomfortable. As a trauma  therapist who has specialized in treatment of survivors of child sexual abuse for over 25 years, I have seen this first hand. When I worked in a sexual abuse treatment program (for children age 3-18) and told people what I did for a living, some would look uneasy, others would change the subject, still  others would say that they couldn't believe it was as prevalent as was reported. One such person insisted that she would know if any of her family and friends had been sexually abused. She said that if 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused  before the age of 18 (these are old stats, more recent studies indicate it may be even higher), then some of her close circle must have been sexually abused.  Since she was convinced that was untrue, the stats had to be inflated.  Years later, she approached me at a gathering and told me that she found out that a relative had been sexually abused and that it must be more frequent than she wanted to believe.

Stephanie Dallam, PhD, a researcher with the Leadership Council, said  "adults who are in a position to help the child ,or notify appropriate authorities, fail to act" and "this lack of action by others convinces the child that the perpetrator is all powerful and that no one cares about his or her pain and suffering."* It also makes them doubt their own right to be uncomfortable and have control of their own bodies.  This stops many from speaking up. I have worked with hundreds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse and many did not tell anybody until they entered therapy as adults.

 Our society subjects children to all sorts of unwanted touch.  When Aunt Sophie pinches your child's cheeks  and you laugh it off, you are teaching your child that it doesn't matter  if she is uncomfortable with the way someone is touching her. At the very least it is a mixed message; you teach them they have a right to say no to unwanted touch…unless it is Aunt Sophie.

 Steve Brown of theTraumatic Stress Institute said: 

One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is --what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action when they either have direct information that abuse has occurred or, more commonly, just an inkling that something might not be right…. WHAT prevents us from speaking out, not ignoring what we see, paying attention to these gut feelings, checking them out, talking with a friend or colleague about them, and ultimately taking action to alert the proper authorities? **

He went on to point out that we don't want to believe that so much sexual abuse is committed by people the victim knows and  trusts. Many people are so worried about falsely accusing someone and tarnishing their image that they convince themselves they must be wrong or block it out of their minds. He also pointed out the fear of social rejection for accusing someone who is seen as a fine, upstanding citizen.

Sigmund Freud is the most famous example of this. He discovered that many of his patients were sexually abused and that this was a major source of their  problems .  When he began to report this to his colleagues, he was disbelieved and shunned.  As a result of this, Freud reexamined his conclusions and decided that his female patients were actually fantasizing about being sexual with their fathers and that it wasn't really happening. He set back awareness of the reality of sexual abuse 100  years.

As a society, we all have an obligation to protect children and we all share the responsibility of challenging the status quo. Children deserve for us to do more than give lip service to our concerns about abuse. We need to take action! Here are some links to organizations that are doing just that:

  • Stop it Now! mobilizes adults, families and communities to take actions that protect children from sexual abuse to prevent them from being harmed in the first place. Their website has resources for children, parents and professionals regarding child abuse prevention including The Nine Questions Parents Need to Ask When Selecting a Program for their Child. Their  online helpline is for anybody who is worried that a child might be getting abused but is not sure and doesn't know what they should do about it.
  • The Centers for Disease Control wrote a guide, Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations, to assist organizations in setting policies and procedures that can protect the youth they serve from sexual predators. Bring this information to the youth organizations that your children participate in!

  •  The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence is a nonprofit independent scientific organization composed of scientists, clinicians, educators, legal scholars, journalists, and public policy analysts who are committed to providing professionals and the general public with accurate, research-based information to help strengthen society's commitment to actively protect its most vulnerable members.

  • The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. The Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who can provide assistance in 170 languages. The Hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are anonymous and confidential  ChildHelp is a national movement to end child abuse whose goal is to "create awareness, public involvement and a widespread outcry against the terrible injustice of cruelty toward children." To join them in the fight against child abuse, go to their website and become a member:
 Join, donate, volunteer--don't just talk the talk; walk the walk! Take a stand! Get involved! Together we can make a difference.  I welcome comments and suggestions about other ways we can advocate for change. If you know of other resources, especially outside the U.S., please share them with us below.