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Children & Sexual Violence : Chicago, Illinois, Rape Victim Advocates...helping victims become survivors since 1974
Children & Sexual Violence

1/3 of girls and 1/6 of boys, before the age of 18...
RESOURCE GUIDE for parents, guardians and survivors of sexual abuse.
According to the 1978 Russell survey, one-quarter of females experienced sexual assault or abuse before age 14, and well over one-third have had a sexually abusive experience by the time they reached age 18. One in six boys will have experienced sexual assault or abuse during childhood or adolescence. Some experts believe that, allowing for the underreporting of abuse against boys, the percentage of boys abused is the same as among girls.

Ninety percent of teenagers involved in trading sex for money or survival needs (prostitutes) are survivors of sexual violence, such as incest and sexual assault, according to the Michigan Family Impact seminars on prostituted teens, 2002. An older study revealed that at least 65-75% of people engaged in prostitution were sexually abused as children (Boyer and James, 1982; Enablers Study, Minneapolis).

Although assailants abuse children for many of the same reasons they assault adults, the needs of the child survivor can often be different from the adult survivor.

As with any survivor, with a child/adolescent survivor, you should:
  • Assure the child that he or she is not to blame for the assault.

  • Tell the survivor you believe him or her.

  • Tell the survivor that he or she is safe now and that he or she did the right thing by telling.

  • Assure the child that he or she did not deserve the assault/abuse (being out after curfew, going somewhere without permission, etc.)

  • Address the child's concerns and feelings of confusion, shame, fear, betrayal, and guilt.

  • Communicate with the child in a way that he or she can understand.

  • Not force a child to talk about their experiences if they aren't ready to.

The sexual assault and abuse of children can take a variety of forms. It can be perpetrated by individuals acquainted with the child to varying degrees, may occur over short or long periods of time, and may be accompanied by varying levels of physical violence.

Child sexual abuse that occurs over an extended period of time typically involves five phases:

The engagement phase is usually subtle and non-violent in nature. The child is usually enticed and coerced by gifts, preferential treatment, money or affection by the perpetrator.

The secrecy phase is usually a continuation of the physical contact and mental coercion begun in the first phase. A perpetrator will also test a child's ability to keep "little secrets" prior to demanding secrecy for sexual contact or conduct. The child is made to feel guilty and ashamed, and is reminded of his or her participation to help seal the silence.

The coercion phase is characterized by an increase in pressure on the child to keep the abuse secret. At this stage, advanced sexual contact and threats of violence are often made. The perpetrator may also tell untruths to a child, alleging that telling of the abuse can only lead to negative consequences.

The disclosure phase marks a time when the child either is able to tell someone about the abuse, or the abuse is discovered by some other means. Many years may elapse between the third and fourth phases.

The validation phase brings affirmation for the child's feelings about the abuse. During this phase, it is vital that the child be believed and that the responsibility for the assault be placed firmly and solely upon the assailant. Rape is never the victim's fault. Also, every effort must be made to protect the child from further abuse and/or retaliation for telling.

Children's Recovery From Sexual Violence

The sexual assault of a child by a stranger may often be accepted as an isolated incident. With stranger assaults, the child survivor may not have to deal with issues of trust and safety within the family. A child's recovery from assault by a stranger can be more rapid than that from the attack by a caretaker or a relative.

The speed and success of the child survivor's recovery depends, in large part, upon the degree to which the four factors described below played a role in the assault.

1) Degree of intimacy/acquaintance between the survivor and the assailant

Contrary to popular myth, rapists of children are generally not strangers lurking in the bushes. The Russell survey noted above found that 89% of child sexual assault cases involve persons (perpetrators) known to the survivor, such as a caregiver or a family acquaintance. The most highly reported cases of incest involve a father and a daughter. The entire family unit is often dysfunctional in cases of incest.

Assault committed by a relative or caretaker involves more trauma to the child survivor because the child's trust has been betrayed and his or her sense of personal safety within the family is disrupted. The child may also feel betrayed by other family members (mother, siblings) who they feel could or should have intervened but chose not to.

2) The period of time over which the abuse occurs

Long-term, repeated abuse (characteristic of incest) is more traumatic to the child survivor than a single incident of assault (characteristic of stranger assault) because the long-term abuse may involve extreme psychological pressure, causing confusion and guilt in the child. A child is more likely to report a one-time event to parents or other caregivers, who may then help the child understand what happened.

3) The relative intrusiveness of the abuse

Generally, incest situations involve abusive contact progressing from lesser, though still traumatic contact (i.e., sexual talk, showing pornography, unwanted affection or contact) to more intrusive (penetrative) abuse over time. The more intrusive the contact, (i.e., penetration, oral sex, genital fondling) the more traumatic it can be for child survivors.

4) The way in which the child was engaged in "sexual" activity

Although actual physical violence will exacerbate the trauma of assault for the child, a child survivor who was tricked into sexual activity may have a more difficult time recovering from assault later. As with adult survivors who were not physically harmed, the child survivor who was emotionally overpowered may not be believed as readily by others, and may feel that he or she could have done something to stop or prevent the abuse.

Child Survivors and Parents

The child survivor will often be very concerned about his or her parents. Children are extremely sensitive to their parents' emotions and may internalize some of the stress and anger that the parent is experiencing. Especially in incest situations, he or she may be concerned that he or she is to blame for breaking up the family.

Assure him or her that, whatever happens, he or she is not to blame. Do not promise, however, that his or her parents do not blame him or her for the assault. Although it may be difficult to accept, it is possible that they do blame the child for the assault.

Child victims of sexual violence are greatly impacted by fear, confusion, stress and being overwhelmed by all that is happening. Being the center of a controversy can be a burdensome challenge and can bring unwanted attention, scrutiny and focus to a child victim. As a result, some child victims may indicate that they lied about an assault in an attempt to cease the controversy or (as in many cases) to protect the perpetrator from being prosecuted. Changing a position or story does not necessarily mean that a child was not a victim of sexual violence.

The law requires that all cases of child abuse, in any form, be reported to the authorities. Unfortunately, the system often does not work on behalf of the victim. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the child will be protected as a result of reporting the incident to the proper authorities.

Parents may have a need for resolution, action or results pertaining to the sexual victimization of their child. As with any survivor of sexual violence, it is crucial to focus on the needs and interests of the survivor first. For many child victims the legal system, for example, may only serve to further traumatize and re-victimize them.

Indicators of Abuse

Indicators of Child Sexual Assault and Abuse are varied and should always be looked at in the context of what else is happening in a child's life. Any one indicator, on its own, is but one sign that something may be affecting a child's well being.

Behavior Indicators

  • Unexplained drastic change in comfort level (attachment to or fear of) around a family member, adult that is close to the family or any person in a position of trust or authority for the child.

  • Abrupt changes in performance in school or work.

  • Abrupt changes in socializing, being out with friends or being in the house.

  • Extreme avoidance responses to someone the child once liked or to a certain house or room in a house.

  • Sexualized behavior, often in front of others; exposing oneself, masturbation, touching other people's privates, sexually charged language.

  • Language and knowledge, especially detail specific, which is not age appropriate or has not been taught or shown in the school or household of the child.

Physical Indicators

  • Bruises, scratches, irritation/itching around genital areas that are not consistent with explanation of how they happened.

  • Signs of any sexually transmitted diseases or infections, crabs, herpes, gonorrhea, etc. for those who are not sexually active.

  • Unexplained pregnancy.

  • Tenderness or soreness around areas of penetration.

  • Blood in stool or urine that is pervasive and not explained by any other actions. Diapers and underwear often are sites where proof of abuse may exist.

  • A Note About the Hymen: All females are born with and all women (generally) die with a hymen. The hymen is a permanent part of the vagina. Therefore, checking for an "intact hymen" will not necessarily reveal if a girl or woman has been sexually active voluntarily or if a girl or woman has been sexually abused or assaulted.

Strategies for Safety

Even if you could be right next to a child you care for everyday, you cannot protect them from everything that may affect them. All people are susceptible to sexual violence at some point or at many points in their lives. Factors such as isolation, low self-esteem, and limited support structure can further complicate risk factors for sexual violence.

Some simple tools and habits can help kids you know and love be a bit safer:

  • Let your kids say "NO" when they need to. Saying or yelling "NO!" is a powerful tool and lets kids know they have the right to say it.

  • Teach kids that they have the right to talk about anything that affects them. Let them know they can talk to you and identify whom else they can talk to.

  • Teach kids that their bodies belong only to them. The parts of their bodies covered by underwear and/or bras are nobody's business but theirs.

  • Let kids know they do not have to hug, kiss, sit on the lap of any adult they don't want to (including relatives). They have the right to set their own physical boundaries.

  • Teach kids not to keep secrets. If someone asks them to keep a secret about anything they did, let them know they should talk about it. (A good rule of thumb is that a "good" secret is something you eventually are very happy to tell about, such as surprise gifts or parties.)

  • Teach kids that not only strangers can be dangerous and that if ANYONE violates them (even a family or someone close to the family) they can talk about it.

  • Teach kids to tell if something happens. If they are not believed by the first person they tell, they should keep telling until someone does believe them.

  • Teach kids actual, real words for parts of their bodies. Baby talk can create a challenge when a child is explaining what happened to them after an assault.


*Rape Victim Advocates serves on the Joint Management Team of The Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline, a program of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago-Loop Women's Services, along with the YWCA of Chicago-Harris Women's Services, Community Counseling Centers of Chicago's Quetzal Center, Pillars Community Services' Midway Sexual Assault Victim Services, and Mujeres Latinas en Accion."

** This is a national hotline available 24/7 that will connect a caller to the nearest rape crisis hotline or rape crisis center all over the US.