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family-violenceThe family is perhaps the most violent of all social groups 

By Leela Ginelle, and first published on PQ Monthly

“With the exception of the police and the military, the family is perhaps the most violent social group, and the home the most violent social setting in our society.” (“Violence in the American Family,” Richard Gelles & Murray Strauss)

Finding accurate statistics about childhood sexual abuse in our culture is, in my experience, not possible. Reporting abuse requires a combination of agency, bureaucratic fluency and social capital, which children, on their own, don’t possess. Tragically, this leaves children uniquely vulnerable to violation.

The statistics one does find reflect this dynamic, such as an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin suggesting only 1 to 10% of child sexual abuse survivors ever disclose their experiences, or a report from the Children’s Assessment Center, finding that 73% do not disclose within the first year.

deportation-policyThis silence on the children’s part, a group I once belonged to, belies a problem of epidemic proportions. The Department of Justice reports that the sexual assault victimization rate for 12 to 17 year olds is 2 to 3 times higher than it is for adults.

The most vulnerable age for these assaults, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, is 7 to 13, with the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center’s website reporting the median age as being 9.

A nine year old, of course, would not know facts such as these, or possess a frame of reference with which to understand the horrors they hint at.

While our culture has long demonized strange men in vans lurking near schools as our children’s greatest threats, the data paint a different picture regarding perpetrators.

A USDOJ report concludes that 90% of childhood sexual assault survivors knew their attackers. Similarly, the National Institute of Justice tells us 3 out of 4 survivors are assaulted by someone they know well.

While the number of reported sexual assaults against children each year is small, the percentage of adults who self-report having experienced such attacks are not. According to Crimes Against Children Research Center statistics, 20% of adult females and 5 to 10% of adult males identify as childhood sexual abuse survivors.

My experience correlates with the story I see in these gruesome numbers. I was raised by my perpetrator, in a “most violent social setting,” as Gelles and Strauss put it. Faced with overwhelming hopelessness, I blocked out all detail of the assaults.

Like other non-disclosing survivors, I carried the burden of what had transpired mutely and in isolation, unwittingly surrounded by others who shared my shattering experience.

Statistics demonstrate that children who survive such assaults, through their experience of violation, likely imbibe terrible lessons about life.

Revictimization is a nauseatingly prevalent trend among child sexual assault survivors. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime more than 60% of women who suffered sexual abuse by a family member also reported a rape or attempted rape after the age of 14, a statistic found consistently across multiple studies spanning 20 years.

This, too, was the case with me, as I experienced assaults from a classmate in middle school and a family acquaintance during my adolescence.

What becomes of this invisible class, children subjected to sexual assault, often from “loved ones” on whom they’re dependent, who silently bear their secret wounds with no capabilities for understanding or healing them?

The picture painted by available data depicts a group desperately attempting to cope with pain, numbing or escaping it via drug and alcohol addiction or unsafe sexual practices.

The American Psychiatric Association links childhood sexual abuse to an “accelerated risk” for substance abuse, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, a view echoed by the group Advocates for Youth. The organization Darkness Into Light, which is dedicated to the prevention of child sex abuse, estimates that 60% of teen first pregnancies are “preceded by experiences of molestation, rape or attempted rape.” They report, likewise, that more than 75% of teen prostitutes have experienced sexual abuse.

These patterns are emblematic of the injustice life in our culture hands to child sex abuse survivors. Rather than pursuing future satisfaction and contentment, we spin, in anger, confusion and futility, harming ourselves and, at times, others, ignorant of our own motivations, our perpetrators facilitating our misery through denial and escaping all punishment for their crimes.

The long healing process, should one undertake it, from repressed trauma, involving weaning one’s self from addictive behaviors, facing and processing nightmarish memories and taking stock of unfathomable loss, can feel, like the assaults themselves, private and shameful.

Coming out of the shadows, cleansing one’s spirit, and shedding the fear, anger and despair one has known for as long as one can recall, can take what feels like ages. It’s the price of the violence our society commits against its most vulnerable, and the cost of seeking a life unaffected by crimes that should never have occurred.


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