The trial of Jerry Sandusky and his sexual abuse of young boys has dominated headlines during the trial of the past weeks and in prior months. For many who have experienced sexual abuse, reading and hearing about the abuse of others can be intensely distressing and re-traumatizing to some extent. This is true of all trauma experiences. Events that remind the affected person or recall significant aspects of the trauma can cause acute anxiety or depression or make the person feel like they are re-living their own experiences. Still, overall, I believe the publicity surrounding these crimes is a healthy thing for society.
In my work as a psychologist for over thirty years I have worked with very many survivors of childhood sexual assault. When I was in graduate school in the 1970’s sexual abuse was not part of the curriculum. It was not studied or talked about or considered a significant factor in psychopathology or development. How wrong we were! National surveys reveal that from 9-32% of girls have a history of sexual abuse and 5-10% of boys. Statistics are enormously hard to find reliably because there is no way to independently verify claims and many people, even in anonymous interviews will not admit to sexual abuse. It is now routine to ask in a psychological evaluation-done when someone comes for treatment- whether or not the person has a history of sexual abuse. I believe most clinicians would say the rates are fairly high for this population, that is, people coming for mental health services. It is much less common for men to admit to sexual abuse but I certainly believe it occurs more often than it is revealed.
It is difficult for women to reveal to others that they were sexually abused. It can be even more difficult for men for a number of reasons: 1)for most victims there is a sense of shame and responsibility no matter how young or vulnerable they were. Many children enjoy the attention of the often doting adult who promotes sexual acts with them. Bodies are designed to feel pleasure so if the child experienced any positive feelings there is great shame and guilt. 2) Admitting to passive victim-hood is more difficult in a culture that still expects all men to be strong and dominant and 3) Since sexual abuse of boys is primarily done by men and we have a homophobic culture there is often deep shame from having been involved in homosexual acts however unwanted.
Because of the difficulty of talking about and revealing a past history of sexual abuse I believe the media attention focused on the Sandusky trial and before that the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church help people to speak about their own past. It becomes so clear, hearing these painful stories, that the child was not to blame-in fact these adults are receiving criminal penalties and society wide condemnation. There is definitely strength in numbers and once one person speaks out it becomes much easier for someone else to speak up and, by speaking up, to release some of the shackles of shame, humiliation and pain that they have experienced over the years.
I have always felt that the best way to deal with personal tragedy is to become an advocate in society to try to help other people affected or at risk. The more openly we can talk about sexual abuse in both boys and girls the easier it becomes to recognize when it is occurring; that is to take action, to call the police, to believe a child who accuses a trusted family member, to avoid the denial we all tend to choose as a first coping strategy when dealing with the horror of child sexual abuse.