Magazine article New Internationalist

Lolita's Not to Blame: Only Recently Has It Become Recognized That the Impact on the Sexually Abused Child Can Last a Lifetime

Magazine article New Internationalist

Lolita's Not to Blame: Only Recently Has It Become Recognized That the Impact on the Sexually Abused Child Can Last a Lifetime

Article excerpt

ONCE seen as confined to a handful of crazed paedophiles, child sexual abuse is now recognized as endemic to society. Only very recently have we begun to acknowledge and address the unthinkable proportions of this problem.

By far the most abuse -- a term covering everything from suggestive petting and fondling to penetration and rape -- is against girls. Statistics vary, but the widely accepted view in North America is that one in four girls and one in eight boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Unlike boys, who tend to be abused by a teacher or coach outside the family, girls are usually abused by someone within it: fathers, brothers, male partners of their mothers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers. Only 10 per cent of child sexual abuse is at the hands of total strangers. Over 90 per cent of the offenders are men.

Just as every occurrence of sexual abuse within families -- incest -- is characterized by secrecy and suppression, so has the history of this reality been subjected to the most rigorous denial. Widespread incest was first uncovered in 1896 by Sigmund Freud who, in The Aetiology of Hysteria, concluded that the origin of the then most common female psychiatric complaint was childhood incest. A year later he repudiated this theory entirely, claiming that his female patients had lied to him and were merely projecting their incestuous fantasies. Apparently the prevalence of child molestation in upright, bourgeois Viennese families was too high -- and too awkward -- to be believed.

No less repressive an attitude was to be found 50 years later in the US, when Kinsey's 1953 report Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female also uncovered widespread girlhood sexual abuse. Kinsey did not deny the findings but he assured the public that the girls concerned would not be seriously upset by such experiences.

These reactions of denial and belittlement are still being played out in families and courtrooms today. At stake is the sanctity of the family as a social ideal and the time - honoured notion that whatever goes on inside its boundaries -- whether wife - battering or incest -- is none of society's nor the law's business. Behind the smokescreen of 'keeping the family together at all costs' lies the true stake: men's inalienable rights to do as they please sexually and in other ways within their domestic fiefdoms.

Sexism and sexual abuse are linked. Father - daughter incest frequently occurs in families where sex roles are rigidly divided and where men exert strict control over the lives of wives and progeny. Incest families are also often characterized by marital discord, a hostile mother - daughter relationship, and lack of a strong, supportive mother. When children are reared by subordinate women a psychology of male domination and female victimization tends to be reproduced in their offspring.

Girls in such families are primed very early to become pleasing and compliant. Survivors of incest often recall being enrolled as 'little mothers' -- their task that of 'keeping Daddy happy'. When this began to entail sexual favours many believed that this was one more aspect of their duty to please and part of their responsibility to calm family tension. Only recently has the true impact of incest on children and adult survivors been analyzed -- and found to be far from Kinsey's 'not very upsetting'. Sexually abused children are prone to a huge variety of psychological and behavioural problems: bedwetting; nightmares and sleep disorders; depression; anxiety; running away from home; multiple personality disorders; precocious sexual behaviour or its inverse, extreme inhibition; low self - esteem; inability to experience feelings.

Unless the child receives prompt support and treatment upon disclosure, much of this havoc may carry over into adulthood. Ninety per cent of women in Canada's mental - health system and 80 per cent of women in prison were physically or sexually abused as children. A high percentage of women in prostitution or with histories of substance abuse experienced incest in girlhood. …

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