18 April 2011

Bringing Child Sexual Abuse Out of the Shadows

April is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Prevention Month, a time when advocates for both causes work to raise awareness about the prevalence of child abuse and sexual violence in our culture. Throughout the month, hundreds of events are taking place nationwide in an effort to train communities to stop these destructive acts before they start—and to put an end to the culture of violence that leaves millions of women and girls, men and boys, subject to abuse each year.

There’s no question that recognizing both of these issues as the epidemics they are is of vital importance to the future of our society. But it’s also worth noting that there’s another type of abuse similarly plaguing our nation that we don’t talk about nearly enough. It’s an issue that sits right at the intersection of where child abuse and sexual assault meet—but that has no such awareness month of its own. That issue is child sexual abuse.

Historically, child sexual abuse (CSA) has existed in a veritable no man’s land on the abuse spectrum. Where sexual violence advocates have predominantly focused on adult experiences, child abuse advocates have tended to focus on physical abuse and neglect. Centered in neither arena but touching both, CSA advocates have largely found themselves exiled to the peripheries of these bigger movements—rendering the issue of CSA nearly invisible, and overshadowed by these other, more prominent causes.

This lack of visibility, however, bears no correlation to the actual incidence of CSA in our society. Conservative estimates suggest that one in three girls and one in six boys in the US are sexually abused before the age of 18. This represents millions of adult survivors, all of whom live with the effects of this trauma. These effects, scientifically documented and anecdotally related, are cyclical, chronic, often debilitating and sometimes fatal.

Yet with the exception of major scandals—like those emanating out of the Catholic Church—we as a culture remain dangerously silent about CSA, especially in the media. A recent study from the Berkeley Media Studies Group has found that while CSA appears “regularly” in news coverage, there is, on average, less than one story a week on the topic in newspapers nationwide, and “even fewer stories that cover the issue in depth.”* When child sexual abuse is covered, BMSG reports, it is usually associated with an isolated episode viewed through a criminal justice lens (i.e., the arrest or trial of an individual offender). In other words, any discussion of the systemic nature of the problem disappears —and all-important conversations about prevention are similarly missing.

But as advocates in the sexual assault and child safety movements already understand, it’s precisely the systemic nature of this problem that must be addressed. 

Child sexual abuse is a broad, cross‐cultural and cross‐economic issue. It touches every community and a multitude of diverse individuals. Preventing CSA will require dramatic shifts in the way our society envisions children, family and social responsibility – not to mention the ways in which power, sexuality and systematized oppression manifest in our lives. For that reason, communities themselves must play a central role in devising solutions to the problem; their investment in this issue is the first step in changing the attitudes and behaviors that allow CSA to flourish. By mobilizing adults to respond to CSA in their own communities and by engaging advocates and allies at every level from the grassroots (local engagement) to the grasstops (national policy)—we can at long last begin to shift the social paradigm that has kept CSA isolated and under-addressed by communities and individuals alike. 

Developing these new, multi-tiered alliances won’t be without its challenges. But already, the hard work has begun. After years of watching CSA fall through the cracks in the advocacy field, organizers now see a new movement to end CSA emerging across the nation. Coalitions are forming to provide communities with the relationships and infrastructure they need, and in some states, leaders in the anti-sexual assault movement, anti-child abuse movement, sex offender treatment and management field, as well as survivors, friends and families of survivors, are linking arms to begin to craft workable solutions together.

As this national movement to end child sex abuse grows, the Ms. Foundation is proud to be taking a leading role in its development. Our recent request for grant proposals on CSA generated a historic level of submissions; we look forward, in the coming weeks, to announcing the cohort of groups selected to receive funding as part of our efforts to end child sexual abuse, once and for all.

Of course, April is just one month, and opportunities for all of us to push back against the violence in our culture will continue well into the future. To this end, we hope that you’ll join the Ms. Foundation in the growing, diverse movement to end CSA, and lend your support as we continue to deliver key resources to encourage new thinking about the root causes of this problem, and advance innovative models for prevention. Together, we can end the silence around child sexual abuse. Together, we can mobilize to make CSA a vestige of the past.

Senior Program Officer

* Berkeley Media Studies Group, "Case by Case: News coverage of child sexual abuse, 2007-2009." Issue 19, Pg. 10

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