“A Silent Epidemic”

Every so often – but never often enough – we are reminded of the frequency with which children are sexually abused.  Roman Polanski’s arrest and continuing legal struggles brings this to our attention again, and in last Saturday’s New York Times Charles Blow reminded us:  “nearly 70 percent of all sexual assaults are committed against children,” according to a Justice Dept report.  “While the age with the greatest proportion of assaults reported was 14, more than half of all child victims were under 12. And of those under 12, 4-year-olds were at the greatest risk.”

Blow went on to say:  “According to a Unicef report released this week, ‘5 to 10 percent of girls and up to 5 percent of boys suffer penetrative sexual abuse.’ Up to three times of those numbers experience some type of sexual abuse.”  But that’s only what’s reported, Blow noted.  It’s likely that, in fact, “up to 3 in 10 girls and 3 in 20 boys are still being assaulted.”  He concludes, “these are epidemic proportions. And, if most cases are never reported, it’s a silent epidemic.” (See, “No More Suffering in Silence.”)

But silence is the least of it.  Blow argues for a public health campaign that alerts the entire citizenry to the existence of this epidemic, encouraging children who are victims to overcome their fear and shame and speak up about what has happened.  That’s good and would be useful.

But the problem is usually buried deeper than silence.  For one thing, the memories of abuse, the feelings, the consequences for the victims often end up barricaded deep in their unconscious minds.  For another, the accusations can be buried as well:  few family members want to know that a relative, friend or, even, a parent sexually abused a four-year old child. They can’t bring themselves to remember or repeat what they saw or heard.

And then the public itself does not want to think about it – except in sensationalistic cases where a celebrity is involved, such as Polansky.  And then, usually, the public discussion is polarized and hopelessly stereotyped.  Horror and condemnation vie with naive calls to forgive and forget.

The experience of professionals teaches us that this is a very complex and difficult problem to address — not just another public health problem.  The solution to overcoming the fear and shame of sexual abuse may be, paradoxically, to normalize it.  If the facts were more widely reported, if more of the stories were told, if books for children were written about it, TV shows produced, if it became the topic of a national dialogue and adults were encouraged to talk about it, then, we might be better able to help the victims – and the victimizers.

As Blow points out, it is an epidemic, but there are many different forms it takes and some forms are worse than others.  The motives vary, the experience varies, as do the effects.  Could we talk about it, we might be able to come to recognize it for what it is:  a widespread problem that is made worse by our fears and taboos.