Sexual abuse of minors: between fragility and indifference
Child sexual abuse is one of the most extreme forms of violence in our society. It damages the physical, psychological, emotional and social development of children.
Advertising message It is a phenomenon of enormous proportions: according to the United Nations, about 10% of European minors are or have been victims of some form of sexual abuse. Yet still it is difficult to recognize the devastating effect that this can generate, even after many years. Often it is not really understood what happens to an abused child and adults, deeply touched by the victim’s stories, tend not to listen carefully, to doubt.
The basis for eradicating this phenomenon is to improve its study and understanding, to assist minors who are victims of abuse. Instead, it often happens that adults doubt a child’s words, while the victim struggles to express what he feels and has experienced.
One of the theories that can help us understand what happens to these children is Abuse Adaptation Syndrome, developed by the American psychiatrist Roland Summit (1987). The author divides this syndrome into five stages. It begins with that of “secrecy”, in which the minor is emotionally manipulated. Before the abuse, a dark context is created where the child can perceive that something is wrong, but nevertheless trusts the word of the adult. The abuser obtains the physical and emotional submission of the minor, who is in a situation of fear and insecurity. Often the victims say that whoever inflicted violence on him “was good” and that he did not report because he was “asked not to say anything”.
The second stage is the “feeling of helplessness”. The child victim of abuse is in a state of vulnerability and lack of references. He suffers abandonment and lack of protection. The abuser can take advantage of this, taking advantage of the need for affection by the child.
In a situation of chronic and repeated sexual abuse the child desperately seeks a balance, adapts to pain and violence. In fact it dissociates. Try to isolate the emotions caused by the abuse so that it doesn’t invade the rest of your life too. Thus the minor maintains a facade of normalcy, without showing his suffering. It adapts to trauma. This is the third phase, which Summit calls “entrapment and adaptation”, and explains how very often the other adults surrounding the abused child are unaware of what is happening to them.
The next stage is that of “delayed, conflicting and unconvincing revelation”. Sunk in fear and manipulation by the adult, the child is unlikely to report it spontaneously, even less outside the family. However, it may happen that the violence is discovered accidentally or a medical professional becomes aware of it. Or, the minor finds the opportunity to report in a time of crisis within the family. But the denunciation itself leads to a new crisis and to the reaction of the family and this often causes the victim to feel guilty, other fears, shame. The child can feel responsible for the adults’ reaction, regret having spoken and consequently – this is the last phase that Summit calls “retraction” – to say that he was wrong,
Advertising message Let us now turn our attention to adults. Often they do not know how to listen to children’s requests for help or how to intervene. These are obstacles related to myths and erroneous prejudices: it is believed, for example, that sexual abuse of minors occurs only among the lowest socio-economic classes, or that children lie or exaggerate their stories, or that these things concern only girls and in any case are very rare. Many are still convinced that abuses only happen outside the home and that they are serious only if they include coitus. Or even that the children themselves provoke or seduce the adults and that they are therefore actively responsible for the abuse.
But those who work in this field know all too well that all this is false: abuses occur at all levels of society, to the detriment of boys and girls. A child is unlikely to invent an episode of abuse. Abuses that are largely carried out within the family or by acquaintances: in general there is a relationship of trust or pre-existing affection between the abused and the abuser.
Furthermore, it is necessary to broaden our concept of sexual abuse: this is not limited to penetration. For the minor, episodes of exhibitionism, masturbation and contact with genitals can also have devastating effects. And it is a dangerous mistake to think that children have some responsibility for seeking affection and physical contact. They are innocent, although they need closeness, caresses, hugs suitable for their age. Blaming them for this is nothing more than a sneaky way to take responsibility away from adults.
Sexual abuse of minors arises from various factors. To fight it, one must start from the central point of the question, that is, the conflict between the experience of the child and the indifference of the adult world. We must promote greater awareness of the risks to which children are exposed, in addition to eradicating myths and wrong beliefs about the phenomenon that prevent prevention and correct assistance to victims. Above all, the adult who knows of a child who suffers from sexual abuse always has the responsibility to report and do everything in his power to stop the violence. This does not mean believing everything a child says, but widening their eyes to avoid falling into inattention or prejudices that can be harmful.