Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Molested

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Molested

Article excerpt

The molested live in a world of pain that is not strictly medical, but that often turns up first in the emergency rooms of hospitals--conspicuously but mutely. The sexual violation or the bruises show, but the victims often do not speak. Since not all victims report the crimes of molestation and incest, one can only guess at their frequency. Some experts estimate that as many as one in four girls in the United States have, at one time or another, suffered sexual abuse. Others put the figure as low as 2 percent. Three different studies of college students (as distinct from more restricted studies of victims treated in clinics) agree enough to suggest that 10 to 19 percent of women students have suffered, as girls, a long-term, abusive, sexual relationship. That percentage does not include single episodes of indecent exposure or fondling.

Mothers routinely warn their sons and daughters to beware of strangers. But in 75 to 80 percent of sex against children, the child knew and first trusted, or should have had reason to trust, the victimizer. Not an outsider in the alley but an insider in the home or in a trusted role abuses the child. Forty-four percent of abusers, in David Finkelhor's study of male and female college students, were family members, 22 percent were members of the nuclear family, and 6 percent were fathers or stepfathers.

I concentrate on abuse by fathers and stepfathers, not because such abuse predominates but because it structurally exposes the abuse of power, intimacy, and trust. I also concentrate on the abuse of girls. Earlier clinical studies suggested that women suffered abuse as children seven to nine times more often than men, but more comprehensive, nonclinical studies decrease that ratio to two to one. (Boys' experience of abuse is largely but not exclusively homosexual.)

Therapists report that some of the victims manage to do well in spite of the scars. But many do not. Abuse and incest, for example, can eroticize victims and thus distort their perceptions of self and others. They don't know the difference between sexual and nonsexual touch. Thus they themselves make sexual advances. The sexual serves as a prism through which they see everything; it limits other areas of their development. The specific nature of the sexual experience will also skew their preferences: some abused girls will, for example, turn on to older men, anal sex, or other unlikely gratifications.

Incest precedes or accompanies a vast array of human troubles, many of which persist long after the abuser, for reasons of fear or discovery, has stopped molesting the victim. A forty-year-old woman still finds it difficult to recount episodes of incest without fearing that she will lose her home. At thirty-eight, Charlotte Vale Allen comes home at night still expecing "The Man with the Knife" to attack her. Incest produces anxiety, depression, flashback terrors, guilt, shame, humiliation, pain, suffering, anger, fear, confusion, and a terrible isolation. It also causes a variety of disturbances in behavior: overeating, anorexia, prostitution (two-thirds to three-fourths of teenage prostitutes have suffered incestuous assault in childhood), other forms of sexual dysfunction, alcoholism, drug abuse (some 40 to 70 percent of adolescent drug addicts are victims of incest), sleep disturbance, runaway and suicidal behavior (75 percent of runaway children are seeking escape from incestuous abuse). In later life, incest victims often suffer from frigidity, sometimes behave promiscuously, sometimes unwittingly encourage incestuous behavior in their own families. In one study, over 75 percent of sex offenders in prison had suffered sexual abuse as children and 80 percent of their wives had suffered sexual abuse as children.

General statistics, however, about the scope and impact of incest do not illustrate the problem as well as specific cases. For example, Alayne Yates, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Arizona, reports in "Children Eroticized by Incest," American Journal of Psychiatry 139 (April 1982): 482-85, the case of two girls, who at four and six years of age, were taken by authorities from their retarded mother and placed in the hands of a foster mother after their natural father had abused and raped them. …

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