When working with an at-risk population of adolescents, listening to stories of triumph and tragedy makes a person appreciate the resilience of our youth. However, I have also heard many stories of profound trauma and pain, stories that have admittedly kept me awake at night, questioning my faith in human beings.
I estimate that over the past three years alone, a good 85 percent of my clinical cases have involved some form of trauma, and many of those have involved childhood sexual abuse (CSA).
There is no easy way to discuss this subject, particularly because many of you who are reading this know full well the reservoir of pain that is created from the experience of sexual trauma at an early age. In fact, consider that by the time you are done reading this article, by some estimations, there would have been approximately 30 new reported cases of CSA in this country. The most frightening thing to note is that most cases of CSA go unreported, so what we know about the prevalence of CSA is just a small percentage of the actual picture.
Recently, the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University has dominated national discourse. For many, this is bound to stir up memories of a past filled with betrayal, confusion, and isolation. It is important to realize, however, that many people do not seek out therapy (nor are they encouraged to seek out therapy) because of direct knowledge of past or present CSA. Rather, individuals often seek out treatment because of secondary symptoms that are much more noticeable to others. These include (among others) depression, erratic behavior, promiscuity, passivity, aggressive tendencies, and social withdrawal (though the existence of these symptoms does not mean that CSA has definitely occurred).
You may be wondering why promiscuity would be a possible symptom, since you may naturally conclude that being victimized by CSA would make a person completely disgusted with the very thought of sexual activity. However, the mind can be incredibly fragile, and sometimes the easiest and most efficient way to reconcile past trauma is to make that trauma a part of your normal, everyday experience. Unfortunately, individuals who have been victimized by CSA may find themselves getting involved in highly damaging and/or codependent relationships, both with friends and with romantic partners. These relationships only serve to reinforce feelings of low self-worth.
It is also important to understand that many individuals are not ready to discuss and seek treatment for the experience of past CSA…and that is perfectly fine. There are unimaginable feelings of betrayal, shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing that come with being victimized to such a degree. In most cases, it is because the perpetrator is someone who the victim knows, such as a family member or close family friend. For many, coming forward would only stir up these types of feelings.
While this article should not be interpreted as therapeutic or medical advice, it is nonetheless important for all of us to become aware of the signs and nature of CSA. This becomes especially relevant when you consider than many in the Latino community are reluctant to either seek, or encourage others to seek, professional services, especially for matters that are considered “private.” My hope is that you can take advantage of some of the following resources:
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD