Through a variety of influences in our life, whether it be at home, church, school, or social groups, we have naturally been taught several, “truths” about child sexual abuse throughout our lives. With all those truths aimed to keep the children in our lives safe, we pass that knowledge down with only the best of intentions. We teach children not to talk to strangers because they are dangerous, not to take candy from people they do not know because it is laced with poison, and to always steer clear of the windowless white vans. Sound familiar? It does to me. Because these are the truths that I believed once and taught my own children too.
We all want kids to be aware of their surroundings, to be able to identify which adults are safe and trustworthy adults, and to understand boundaries. But the truth is, we are not doing them any favors by dusting-off-our-hands and patting-ourselves-on-our-backs by stopping the conversation with the “stranger danger” narrative. According to National Children’s Alliance data collected by forensic interviews conducted at accredited Child Advocacy Centers in 2020, over 91% of alleged offenders that kids disclosed abuse from, were individuals that those children already knew. Those offenders included parents, stepparents, other relatives such as uncles, caregivers’ significant others, and other known people in their lives.
So, if the most well-taught way to keep children safe is a myth, what else are we getting wrong? I am going to break down 9 more common truths related to child sexual abuse so that parents, caregivers, and others can be more educated and aware, and in turn, their children, and children around them will be more prepared too. One of the best ways we can prevent abuse is to educate, inform, and share the key knowledge that everybody should know- even with our kids.
Myth #1: Stranger Danger
Depending on the demographic where the numbers are collected, minors are assaulted by adults they know at a rate of 80-90%. These are adults that they know and trust which can result in delayed disclosures and increased feelings of shame and guilt.
Myth #2: Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is Uncommon and Does Not Happen Around Here
First Witness Child Advocacy Center exists to facilitate all the multi-disciplinary team members required to effectively investigate allegations of child sexual abuse, specifically in Saint Louis and Carlton Counties. These people include folks like law enforcement officers, social workers, county attorneys, and others. In 2019, First Witness saw children for 167 reported cases of child sexual abuse. In 2020, that number was 116.
Myth #3: CSA Only Happens to “At Risk” Families
Victimization knows no demographic. Although it is true that there are certain factors that increase risk, it is not enough to discredit children who are living in a traditional two parent household and who attend religious gatherings are just as at risk as those who do not. We see cases of CSA in all socioeconomic levels, in all races, and in all family structures. One great author, survivor, and advocate that helps highlight this reality is Jenna Quinn, author of Pure in Heart, Abuse Recovery, and Childhood Sexual Abuse.
Myth #4: CSA Really Only Happens to Girls
Data does reflect that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of child sexual abuse, which does confirm that the rate that girls are victimized is higher than boys –but only slightly. This misconception comes from the cultural and generational norm that male presenting youth are more typically reluctant to disclose. Two studies in India even found the rate that boys were victimized was higher than the rate of girls being victimized. Reluctance to disclose can come from a variety of reasons such as cultural stereotypes/norms, shame, non-supportive caregivers, etc.
Myth #5: Child Abusers Are Big, Scary, and Noticeable
Abusers do not look any one way. It is untrue that only gay men abuse male children, and it is important to know women can also be abusers. Alleged offenders can also be minors. 20-25% of CAC (Child Advocacy Center) cases every year involved a child hurting another child – but intervention is the key and treatment is the goal. Abusers can be family, family friends, friends’ parents, coaches, teachers, neighbors, etc. Abusers don’t wear a badge that lets us see them coming, they don’t present any certain way, and there isn’t any ‘mental health illness’ that is truly indicative that someone will abuse a child. This is not to say you cannot or should not trust anyone – only that you should establish and practice healthy boundaries and relationships and teach your children to do the same.
Myth #6: Children Can Consent
The Minnesota age of consent is 16 years old. What that means is that if a child is under 16, they cannot legally consent in any way. If a child is 16 and the alleged offender is over 48 months (about 4 years older) or is in a position of authority (such as a boss, teacher, coach, or family member), then that child also cannot legally provide consent.
Myth # 7: Child Pornography is Different from CSA
Pornography is a socially accepted form of entertainment, but child abuse images are examples of child sexual abuse caught on camera and distributed. According to the Civic Research Institute’s Sexual Assault Report some may argue that the trauma caused by the taking and distribution of child abuse images comes with different trauma that travels with that child throughout the entirety of their lives, making it harder to heal from. The terms “child pornography”, “child porn”, and “kiddie porn” inaccurately describe the magnitude and impact that these images have on children and families. Child abuse images are not victimless, they are harmful, and they are created and distributed as a form of abuse.
Myth #8: Parents Can Always Tell When Their Child Has Been Abused
Knowing now that kids are often abused by people that they know and trust, we can also start to understand why they often wait a long time before disclosing the abuse. Offenders use manipulation tactics to scare, coerce, and shame a child into keeping the abuse a secret. Even when safe adults reinforce safety, internalized fear can often lead to delayed disclosures of abuse.
Myth #9: Trafficking is Always Done Suddenly and Without Warning
We often see stories on the news or in parenting groups of terrifying experiences of a stranger trying to snatch a child out of a shopping cart, but the reality is that grooming is often a process of manipulation of not only the child, but manipulation of the family to traffic a victim. Grooming is a process of gaining trust, fulfilling needs, creating a dependence, and/or isolating a child to make them more accessible to abuse them and to not be held accountable. Trafficking occurs when the abuser receives money, drugs, or goods in exchange for others also abusing the victim. In Minnesota, the Safe Harbor Law protects trafficking victims from prosecution for prostitution and provides resources to treat survivors as victims and not criminals.
Myth #10: Children Cannot be Trusted
According to a study conducted by Mark D. Everson, Ph.D. and Barbara W. Boat, Ph.D. for the National Child Advocacy Center (CAC) organizations, it was concluded that 2-8% of child sexual abuse claims coming from either an adolescent or an adult could be considered false. It is also helpful to point out the difference between the language of a false disclosure (meaning the abuse never happened) and unsubstantiated (which means it cannot be proven criminally or by child protection agencies). Child sexual abuse is incredibly hard to charge due to the nature of the crime being done in secret – with no witnesses and with delayed disclosures there’s often no physical evidence. When children do feel brave enough to come forward and talk about the abuse, the most important thing a caregiver can do is make sure that child feels heard and believed.
The key to effective child abuse prevention is education. That education must start with us: the caregivers. Just like when we make fire safety plans at home, we do not have to talk about our safety plans every day and scare kids into being afraid of everyone – but instead use teachable moments to reinforce safety conversations. Knowledge is power, and when we know better, we can do better. We can establish healthier boundaries and healthier relationships as we navigate the world and teach the kids around us to do the same to be more safe and someday end child abuse.
By Ally Kovach