Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future

By John E. B. Myers | Go to book overview

5
CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

Historically, society’s response to sexual abuse has differed somewhat from the response to physical abuse and neglect. For this reason, sexual abuse is treated in a separate chapter.


Prevalence and Effects of Child Sexual Abuse

The true prevalence of sexual abuse is unknown because the abuse occurs in secret.1 David Finkelhor observed, “Because sexual abuse is usually a hidden offense, there are no statistics on how many cases actually occur each year.” Research suggests that as many as 500,000 new child sexual abuse incidents occur in the United States every year.2

Approximately 20 percent of girls experience some type of sexually inappropriate experience during childhood, from minor touching to brutal rape. The rate of sexual abuse of boys appears to be lower than of girls. Five to 15 percent of boys are sexually abused. For both genders, sexual abuse occurs at any age, from infancy through adolescence.3

Most sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator.4 Finkelhor wrote, “Sexual abuse is committed primarily by individuals known to the child, unlike the child molester stereotype that prevailed until the 1970s. In adult retrospective surveys, victims of abuse indicate that no more than 10% to 30% of offenders were strangers, with the remainder being either family members or acquaintances.”5

Turning to the effects of sexual abuse, not all victims exhibit outward manifestations of trauma. For children who are symptomatic, symptoms vary from child to child.6 Generally, the more severe the abuse, the more likely the child is to be symptomatic. As Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Linda Meyer Williams, and David Finkelhor wrote, “Molestations that included a close perpetrator; a high frequency

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