Uncovering Sex Abuse

What is sex abuse?

Researchers differ on statistics related to sex abuse. For instance, some researchers define sex abuse as nonconsensual intercourse between adults or any intercourse between adults and children. Some differentiate between adult/child non-coital activity inappropriate touching or exhibitionism, for instance with full intercourse; others combine them all.

A great deal of attention has been given to clergy abuse, yet reliable figures are hard to come by. In one unscientific poll conducted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6 percent of Minnesotans said they knew someone who was a victim of clergy sex abuse with no difference among Catholics, Protestants or other religions. Yet a more scientific annual survey of 1,000 churches serving 75,000 congregants, conducted by Christian Ministry Resources (CMR), said an average of 1 percent reported a case of clergy abuse in their congregations, with the highest percentage being just under 4 percent in 1996. CMR's survey also showed that abusers were much more likely to be volunteers or other church staff rather than pastors or priests.

Clergy abuse notwithstanding, the scandals of 2002 reveal the basic issue surrounding sex abuse: the perpetrator is almost never the stereotypical stranger with candy. Rather, it is usually someone the victim and his or her family knew and trusted: a relative, neighbor, clergy member, camp counselor, teacher, doctor or therapist and so on.

Many studies take into account the unreliability of traumatic memories. A common factor among abused children is memory repression. Some victims seeking help are quite vulnerable to suggestion, leading to a number of false accusations against innocent adults after unscrupulous or careless therapists "implanted" false memories. The American Psychiatric Association, for instance, has issued guidelines that caution therapists against suggesting to patients that unspecific complaints might be the result of repressed memories.

Further muddying the water is the issue of consent. A sexual assault program at the University of Miami, for instance, points out that plaintiffs and accusers in date rape cases are often inebriated during the incident, calling the accuser's consent or lack thereof into question. In addition, while sexual contact with an 8-year-old will probably involve force or coercion, a 17-year-old could lie about her age and initiate sexual contact with an adult leaving the adult open to a charge of statutory rape.

Abuse victims are more often female; though many times abused males find it more difficult to recover from sex abuse than do females. A recent U.S. Dept of Health Population Report stated one in three women worldwide has been a victim at least once in her lifetime, although the report has been accused of casting its net too wide, as it groups verbal, emotional and economic abuse with violence, rape and childhood sex abuse.

Sex abuse, especially in children, can lead to a number of problems that may be difficult to trace back to the abuse, including:

  • A greatly increased risk of eating disorders
  • Promiscuity and irresponsible, unsafe sexual behaviors
  • Depression
  • Drug abuse and/or alcoholism
  • Increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases
  • Difficulty in sexual relationships within marriage
  • Psychiatric ailments, including anxiety disorders, affective disorders, dissociative disorders and personality disorders

While these symptoms are often associated with sexual abuse, parents and others should be careful to explore a variety of possibilities for one or more of these symptoms. There isn't an established "profile" that guarantees someone has been abused.

American Psychiatric Association studies also indicate that, assuming a direct family member was not the perpetrator, a child's adjustment to and healing from the trauma of sex abuse relies most on a healthy, strong family. Similarly, healthy relationships, especially marriages, are crucial to adult victims' recovery.

Background Information

Questions and Answers


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Other Things to Consider

Life Pressures: Workaholism

Parenting Teens Drugs and Alcohol, Eating Disorders, Internet Concerns

Relationships:  Anger