Childhood sexual abuse is equally traumatic for boys and girls

Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a traumatic event and often results in long-term psychological damage.

By Vihan Sanyal

Almost every second child in India has been subjected to sexual abuse. According to a study conducted in 2014, nearly 53 per cent of children in India are subjected to sexual abuse. It has also been stated that a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes in India, according to recent government figures. Contrary to popular belief, boys are just as much sexually abused as girls in India.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined sexual abuse as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person.”

What would constitute as sexual abuse?

Parents, caregivers and children should be informed that any of the following would constitute sexual abuse and is a criminal offence:

-Fondling or unwanted touching of private parts.

– Forcing the person to perform acts sexual in nature (including oral sex).

– Attempted rape

– Penetration (rape)

A majority of cases of childhood sexual abuse go unreported in our country due to a number of factors and only a handful of children receive the care and treatment they require. As in most cases the perpetrator is a close family member or is known to the victim, the situation is often suppressed and not spoken about or made public. This affects a child’s concept of trust and safety, coupled with emotions of fear, guilt and shame. A history of sexual abuse is linked with an increased risk of long-term issues that include multiple neurotic and psychotic disorders.

Also Read: ‘Mom, Dad, what does rape mean?’

Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a traumatic event and often results in long-term psychological damage. CSA usually occurs during the time of rapid brain development of the child. During this phase of development, any damage resulting from trauma can be long lasting and also result in neurobiological abnormalities.

Victims of sexual assault are at an increased risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Substance Abuse & Addiction, Eating Disorders, Anxiety, Depression, Personality Disorders, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Schizophrenia. People often report of feeling violated, experience flashbacks of the event, become shocked, avoid social contact, feel confused, experience feelings of shame and guilt. It is also common for young children to blame themselves for the event and can easily give birth to self-hatred and damaged self-esteem.

Children, who are victims of sexual abuse, often psychologically detach themselves during the assault. This is a defence mechanism that the mind uses to help the victim cope with the immediate trauma. If the child is not helped professionally to deal with the trauma in childhood, it can lead to intimacy issues, trust issues and multiple personality disorders in the future.

Research has shown that there is decrease in brain volume within the hippocampus part of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for formation of memories, regulation of emotions and motivation levels. This explains how the biological basis of childhood abuse leads to manifestations of psychiatric disorders later in life.

Due to the introduction of sex to a child before they reach sexual maturity, it distorts the child’s understanding of sex. If the child is very young, then they are likely to take the act as a normal part of childhood. Later in life, these children often exhibit inappropriate sexual behaviours, often in the form of compulsive sexual behaviour. Many of them face sensitivity issues and may even show little concern for their partners wants and needs. They may even find it difficult to differentiate between sex and sexual violence and may assume that sexual violence is a normal part of the act.

Researchers have successfully established a link between CSA, alcohol abuse and risky sexual behaviour of a promiscuous nature. There is reportedly a strong relationship between CSA and subsequent alcohol and substance abuse and engaging in sexually risky behaviour of a promiscuous nature.

Depression, suicide and suicidal attempts as well as self-injurious behaviour have all been reported to be significantly greater in patients than have been exposed to CSA versus those who have not been exposed to the same.

Social support in many victims of CSA is minimal as the perpetrator is often a primary caregiver or family member. Parents often tend to suppress what has happened, turn a deaf ear or sometimes even blame the child in view of the stigma associated with the problem.

Also Read: How to talk to your kids about sexual abuse

What are some of the signs a parent or caregiver should look out for?

– Child becomes withdrawn.

– Child becomes easily irritated and aggressive.

– Child shows little care for others feelings and emotions.

– Child finds it difficult to show emotions.

– Child starts to experience disruptions in their sleep (including frequent nightmares, recurrent upsetting dreams and bedwetting).

– Child shows disinterest in doing things which they use to find interesting (like going out to the park to play, playing with toys, going out with their parents, watching movies).

– Child loses interest in academics and their academic results take a nose dive.

– Child becomes easily enraged and inflicts self-harm.

– Child avoids interaction with specific family members.

– Child shows signs of obsession with hygiene and cleanliness. No matter how often they have a bath, they tell you that they feel dirty.

– Child speaks often about disliking their physical appearance.

How is child sexual abuse different for boys?

In India, out of all the cases of child sexual abuse, unreported cases of male child sexual abuse is likely to be significantly higher than that of females. Most incidents are likely to be squashed and discounted by the boy’s parents. It would be seen as an unfortunate event and the boy is likely to be encouraged to forget about it as a bad dream! If the incident were to happen closer to the child reaching his teens, he is likely to feel ashamed at his helplessness during the event as he is likely to have a better understanding of the event. In certain hostels and such institutions, it is often a case of a group of boys targeting a physically weaker boy and sodomising him. It is at times a case of a prank or ragging which takes an ugly turn and results in abuse. Since mostly boys tend to be abused by other boys or by men, this can also lead to confusion of sexual identity for the victim.

Here are two incidents of boys being victims of CSA in India:

Case 1: A four-year-old boy was referred to a child response unit by another hospital. The child had symptoms of fever and of skin alteration in his anal region. According to the boy’s father, the child was sexually abused in the school toilet by boys who were older than him.

Case 2: A seven-year-old boy was referred to the hospital by the police from an orphanage with reports of sexual abuse by a 14-year-old boy from the same orphanage.

Tips for parents and caregivers

Don’t trust anyone with your child

Always be passively vigilant when your child is with another male member of the family. It is especially important for mothers to stay on guard with their children. There is no need to panic and be paranoid and overprotective of your child, however, do stay vigilant. Don’t allow your children to run around naked or semi-naked. Don’t allow close physical contact (sitting on a person’s lap, etc) with male members.

Educate children about their private parts early

It is important for younger children to understand and differentiate between body parts. They should know the names and should be told that certain areas are private parts. If someone tries to touch them inappropriately, then the child will be able to accurately tell their parents which part was touched.

Educate children about inappropriate touching

Children should be educated about appropriate and inappropriate touching as early as possible. They should be encouraged to inform the parents immediately if someone tries to touch them inappropriately.

Educate children about taking immediate action

Many children are either too scared to speak up or worry that they will get into trouble if they told their parents. Some perpetrators scare children by telling them that if they reveal the incident, the perpetrator may harm their parents. Children need to be taught to be fearless about such things and to speak about such events immediately.

No one should ask to see or take pictures of their private parts

Many adults like to take nude pictures of children and to sell them online to various porn sites. Children should be told never to allow anyone apart from trusted parents, caregivers and a medical doctor (in the presence of the parents) to see the child without their clothes.

Educate children about inappropriate games and about keeping secrets

Many pedophiles make games up to attract children. They take advantage of a child’s inquisitive nature. They then tell the child to keep the event a secret. Such games can go on for months and even years without the child knowing that they are being abused. Children need to be made aware that no games should involve getting undressed and or touching of private parts. They should inform parents immediately if someone tries to play such games with them.

Equip children with ways to handle emergencies

Tell children that they are to find ways of getting themselves out of such a situation immediately, even if they need to lie about going to the toilet. They should contact their parents or caregivers immediately and report the incident. If the perpetrator happens to be a caregiver or a parent then they need to seek help of a neighbour or trusted family friend.

Encourage them to share

Tell children that you would never get angry with them for telling you something of this nature. It’s extremely important for parents to tell their children that they do not have to feel afraid of speaking to them about such incidents. They should have faith that their parents will believe whatever they are saying to be true. They need to know that they have not done anything wrong and are not to blame themselves for telling on someone else.

No one is too young or too old to be a perpetrator

Many parents feel that a family member (cousin or friend of the child) is in safe hands when playing with a slightly older child. This is not always the case. Others may believe that a person old enough to be a grandparent of the child is a “safe” person for the child to be around. This is often far from the truth. Parents should never leave young children unsupervised. Every parent is responsible for their child’s safety and welfare. Blind faith results in carelessness on the parents’ part and they risk their child’s present and future being tarnished.

Have faith that your child is telling the truth

Parents, please trust your child over and above every other relation. Trust your children without exception and investigate the matter. Take necessary steps to safeguard your children.

The bottomline is, to make our country safer for children, we need to take steps to protect our sons and daughters equally. Never think that something like this can never happen to your child or that your home is the safest place for them. Unfortunately, most cases take place within familiar walls. Be aware and take precautions. It is also wise not to allow young children for sleepovers. The safety of your child is much more important than leaving them unattended. Make the necessary adjustments you need to make to be with your child especially when they are very young. This will also strengthen your bond with each other.

(The writer is a psychotherapist.)

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