Talking about Sexual Abuse: Teacher as Catalyst

Article excerpt


Because of the subiect matter content, the philosophy, and the systems approach of the family and consumer sciences discipline, teachers in the middle and high schools are in a unique position to impact the incidence and the effects ofsexual abuse among their student populations. Open and nonevaluative discussions of sexually abusive behaviors, causative factors, avenues for relief for the abused, and resources for assistance can provide abused students with the security they need to seek assistance for themselves and perhaps to even report ongoing abusive relations.

As many as 27% of adult women and 16% of adult men responding to a national survey published in 1990 reported a history of childhood sexual abuse (Finkelhor et al., 1990). Community studies of adult women conducted over the past 20 years indicate even higher prevalence rates of abuse. Russel (1983) found that 54% percent of the women in her sample, 62% of the women in Wyatt's (1985) study, and 32% of adult women in Murphy et al.'s (1988) sample indicated a history of childhood sexual abuse prior to age 18. Finkelhor et al. (1990) found the median age of abuse was 9.6 for girls and 9.9 for boys. A large percentage of boys and girls will have experienced sexual abuse by the time they reach middle school and high school. Because family relationships, interpersonal relationships, sexual behavior, and personal safety are common subjects for the family and consumer sciences curricula in the public and private school setting, teachers in this area have many opportunities to introduce the complex and sensitive issue of sexual abuse in a nonthreatening environment. For students who have suffered sexual abuse, such an environment may allow them to begin to confront and resolve some of the emotional conflicts caused by the abuse. in active abuse situations, students may gain the confidence and identify the resources necessary to report and stop the abuse. In either circumstance, the result is an empowerment of the individual to understand, confront, and resolve what otherwise could be a lifelong barrier to effective emotional and social functioning.

Sensitivity to the complex and volatile emotional field of abused students is critical for the teacher preparing to introduce either a single class presentation or a longer unit on the topic of sexual abuse. Awareness of the risk factors for abuse and some of the typical effects of abuse on the victim provides the teacher with a foundation for evaluating in-class behaviors and discussion and giving appropriate responses. This article provides information helpful to teachers in identifying typical family characteristics of abused children, characteristics of the abusive experiences, the psychological and relational impact of sexual abuse on the victim, teacher characteristics conducive to promoting disclosure, and, finally, effective methods and resources for addressing the subject of sexual abuse in a classroom setting.


Comparisons of family relationships of sexually abused children with those of nonabused children have yielded some significant differences, and these differences were constant whether the abuse occurred within or outside of the family. Although it is not accurate or even wise to assume all families having all of the identified characteristics will be linked with actual abuse, knowing the typical characteristics, or risk factors, can aid in identifying those students who may be in a statistically higher risk environment than others.

Comparison studies of women from nonabusive homes with women sexually abused as children find that parents of abused women typically believe women should not be placed in authority over men (Finkelhor, 1979; Sims, 1992). Both parents in abusive families are likely to hold very traditional views about men's and women's roles in the family and in society. Typically, the male is considered the head of the household with the female partner assuming a subordinate role. …