It seems like some terrible child sexual abuse stories have been in the news a lot lately.
Here in the St. Louis area, Patch has been covering the Authorities said the man confessed because he believed the crimes happened so long ago that he couldn’t be prosecuted for them. (He was wrong.)
And just before that, we heard Pennsylvania State University would receive harsh penalties (but not the death penalty) for creating an environment where football coach Jerry Sandusky could abuse boys in locker-room showers.
Sexual assault is an important issue for communities like ours to discuss, but it’s a hard subject to bring up—for reporters, for residents, for advocates, for police, for all of us.
In light of current events, Patch would like to answer a few of the questions we’ve heard about sexual violence in our communities. We hope you’ll see this, as we do, as the starting point for a much larger conversation.
1. If a person is raping lots of children, why don’t any of them come forward? Why are we just hearing about these stories now?
To answer this question, Kathleen Hanrahan, the director of the YWCA St. Louis Regional Sexual Assault Center, asks you to think about your own sex life.
“When you think about whom you share your sexual experiences with, you certainly aren’t going to tell your mother or teachers or counselors about your sexual experiences or exploits,” she said. “Why would you tell them about the worst sexual experience that you have?”
Advocates and organizations that serve victims of sexual assault say there is a large gap between the number of assaults they see and the number reported to police. It's impossible to know how many victims choose to keep quiet about their attack, but the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network said only about 54 percent of sexual assaults are reported.
“People are set up to keep this information to themselves,” especially by their abusers, who threaten, cajole and convince victims to keep silent, Hanrahan said. “Universally, it doesn’t matter the age. Victims blame themselves. They are embarrassed. This is the most personal aspect of our lives, and someone invaded.”
2. Won’t the victims come forward now that they are hearing about other attacks on the news?
Possibly, yes. For many victims, seeing their abuser arrested and hearing their community get upset about the abuse is enough to make them feel safe.
“Our experience has shown us, just like Penn State, once you find that one person came forward, we started to learn more and more about it and more and more people come forward,” Hanrahan said.
But sometimes the secret and consequences for breaking the secret are too ingrained in a victim for him or her to come forward.
Ilene Bloom-Ellis, director of clinical services at Safe Connections, a counseling and resource center for vicitms of sexual and relationship violence, said some perpetrators make their victims feel like no one would believe them, or even care, if they come forward. Still others threaten the victim or their families.
“The victim may feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to ruin my father or ruin somebody else that I love if I tell, so I better just not because there is going to be repercussions for someone I love.”
3. How does an abuser choose whom to abuse? And why children?
Sexual violence is all about power and control, experts say. It has nothing to do with sexual interest or desire.
And of all the groups in our society, who is more vulnerable than children?
“They don’t go after the strong kids who are capable of raising their voice and standing up,” Hanrahan said. “They go after the kids who might have vulnerability.”
Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Girls 16-19 years old are four times more likely to become victims.
“The perpetrator is going to pick somebody they know they can have power and control over,” Bloom-Ellis said. “Often, perpetrators with a child will make it sound like this is just a normal part of loving somebody. The child may not realize this is wrong, this is outside the norm of what a relationship should be.”
4. Did the perpetrators think they were having loving relationships with the victims?
Whether the perpetrator says they loved the victim or not, sexual conduct between adults and minors is illegal. And it’s illegal for a reason.
“Whenever we talk about a sexual relationship with a child, we are not talking about any kind of mutual relationship whatsoever,” Hanrahan said. “People who choose to have sexual relationships with children function under a whole different mindset that allows them to seek out vulnerable children and to switch from one child to another.”
5. Aren’t people usually sexually assaulted by strangers?
About two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. More than 70 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger.
“You can just imagine someone who was supposed to help you and take care of you, an adult that your parents trusted to mentor you, how easy is it to continue to trust people after this?” Hanrahan said. “How do you come back from this? It’s just impossible to move forward unless, hopefully, you get some real, real serious help.”
6. What will happen to the victims? How does this affect them?
Experiencing abuse and keeping silent about it can be devastating to anyone’s emotional and physical well-being.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, body image issues, sexual disorders and other mental illnesses can develop from childhood sexual abuse, Bloom-Ellis said.
Children sometimes use several unhealthy coping mechanisms to live with their abuse, including putting on lots of weight to seem less “desirable” or disengaging from reality during an attack to the point of developing Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Sexual assault victims are 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, 13 percent more likely to abuse alcohol and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
7. If I know someone who experienced abuse, where should they go?
For help dealing with sexual violence, call the Safe Connections Crisis Helpline at 314-531-2003.
For children, call the Child Abuse Hotline at 800-392-3738.
If you’ve been the victim of a sexual assault, call the Crime Victim Advocacy Center at 314-652-3623.
Notes about language: We chose to use masculine pronouns for perpetrators and feminine pronouns for victims because statistical evidence shows that the vast majority of offenders are male and of victims are female. However, women do perpetrate sexual violence, and men are victims.
We also chose to use the word “victim” rather than survivor. We honor and respect the decision of people around the world to be identified as survivors. However, we chose the word victim because, when reporting about crimes, journalistic style refers to those affected by a crime as victims.