Girl with bunny
By SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD
(Editor's Note: This article was updated on 6/22/14 to clarify some points and cite additional research on child sexual abuse.)
I am sure, as a social worker, you firmly believe and support the American promise that in our country one is innocent until proven guilty. I surely do also. Yet, I must tell you that when I read Dylan Farrow’s words in Nicholas Kristof’s The New York Times February 2nd column, which accused her father, Woody Allen, of molesting her at age seven, I believed her.
Before you read on, it is important that I tell you that I have had no contact with Farrow or Allen, have not been directly involved in the case or their lives in any way, and of course, have not done a psychiatric evaluation of either. I am basing my comments on my years of clinical experience as a social worker, information that has been publicly available about the case, as well as research that can shine the light of awareness on the prevalence of sexual abuse of children and the defined characteristics of those who harm them.
My opinions are my own. Regardless of your own beliefs about guilt or innocence in this particular case, the accusation offers an important opportunity to inform and guide us in a focus that is vitally important to the welfare and protection of children. When such accusations are in the news, we have the opportunity to call attention to the fiercely unsettling realities of sexual abuse of children and examine its prevalence more closely.
With the above in mind, when an accusation of sexual abuse includes specific details of the abuse and how the accused “groomed” the accuser, I believe the accuser. According to the research of Conte, Wolf, and Smith in their 1989 Child Abuse & Neglect article, “What Sexual Offenders Tell Us About Prevention Strategies,” sex offenders do not molest all children they come into contact with. They carefully select and “groom” their victims. Toward this end, bribes, threats, and force are used. (See Elliott, M., Browne, K., & Kilcoyne, J., in their article, “Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: What Offenders Tell Us,” in Child, 1995).
I have worked for more than 25 years with men and women who have been sexually abused as children. Those in therapy because they feel sickened when offered sexual love by a caring, devoted partner; those who can only find sexual release in an abusive relationship that causes pain to oneself or others; or those who fear commitment because they cannot be monogamous do not make up the kinds of heinous acts that have darkened their intimate lives. The things I have heard are too detailed, searing, and sickening to ever have been implanted.
Other professionals’ experiences may differ from my own. During my years as a social worker, I have only met one person I believe lied about sexual abuse, and this was abuse said to have been received as an adult. I have never met someone I believe lied about sexual abuse endured as a child. I have certainly never witnessed someone summon the courage to take on a wealthy, powerful, and influential parent without possessing a certainty of inner knowledge about what they were involved in.
Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center estimates that at least 20 percent of American women and 5 to 10 percent of American men are sexually abused as children. Most sexual abusers know the child they abuse, and approximately one third are related to the child.
One in four girls, and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study published by the Centers for Disease Control in 1997. Today, Darkness to Light reports one in ten children either has experienced abuse, is experiencing, or will experience sexual abuse by age eighteen. That's 400,000 children a year.
An estimated 9.3 percent of confirmed or substantiated child abuse and neglect cases in 2005 involved sexual abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007; National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, NCANDS). This figure translates into more than 83,800 victims in 2005 alone (USDHHS, 2007), a rate close to 1.2 per 1,000 children. National surveys show that 9 to 28 percent of women report experiencing some sort of sexual abuse as children. Other studies suggest that more children suffer sexual abuse than is ever reported.
As social workers, we know that most cases of sexual abuse are not reported. We well understand that many are in denial about the frightening preponderance of sexual abuse because of its intrinsic horror. We also know that many may be in denial to protect themselves from their own childhood memories. In their confusion, young children may not say what happened to them immediately. However, studies have shown that in their cries for help as they struggle to explain their violation, they speak truthfully. They will say things like, “He peed in my mouth,” or as one 7-year-old told me, “He messes me up.”
We know as social workers that those who violate in this way are often pillars of their families and their communities. They live their lives with varying forms of grandiosity, possess super manipulative skill and charm, and are extremely skilled in weaving a clever web of confusion and denial around their actions. Yet, with all of their bravado, some through verbosity and others extreme, yet appealing shyness, they have one thing in common: Terrified of adult intimacy, they seek sexual outlets with the young and vulnerable who do not threaten [what they consider] their well being and their need to control everyone and everything around them.
The closest thing to a cure for sexual abuse is an apology, which rarely happens. In 25+ years of practice, I have seen it happen only three times. In one case, my client’s brother apologized for the pain he caused, and his decency motivated each to begin therapy. My client consulted me to get over her debilitating fear of sexual intimacy. Her brother consulted another social worker to face why he had regularly demanded sexual gratification from a little girl.
The next best way to heal from sexual abuse is to stop internalizing pain, to exorcise debilitating shame that has no rational basis, and to speak out. In my work with two other clients, the abusers were a father and a brother. In time, my clients were able to confront each, telling them if they wanted any contact, it was necessary for them to apologize and address precisely what happened in family therapy. Each did.
Usually, however, if confronted, the perpetrator denies sexual abuse. There are also, predictably, accusations of implanting memories by others. However, substantial research has shown that negative events, especially those involving a child’s genitals, are relatively difficult to implant in a child’s statements. In fact, a child is far more likely to not report negative experiences than to falsely remember them. (See: Lyon, T. D. . Scientific Support for Expert Testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation. In J.R. Conte [Ed.], Critical issues in child sexual abuse (pp. 107-138). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.)
We must prepare our clients for the strong possibility of firm denial and indignation when they are finally able to speak out, and we must be there to offer support. And there is more: If denial is the reaction, family loyalties will usually be divided. Often one parent will protect the other, refusing to recognize horrific events or even discuss them—for any examination would mean confronting dynamics in one’s own marriage seen as too painful to begin to acknowledge. Further, siblings often deny truths, lashing out against the one who speaks out. This may be because they are unable to face or discuss the abuse they also have experienced. Or they may be seduced by a parent’s power, as well as motivated by a strong desire for un-ambivalent psychological identification.
Just as we as social workers must encourage our clients to no longer be silenced by shame and fear and to speak out, we, too, must speak out. Each time victims of sexual abuse are discussed in our local press, on our local television stations, or on the websites we visit, we have an obligation to submit letters to the editors, op-ed pieces, and responses to blogs, and in this way educate about the alarming statistics we know to be true. Invitations to join panels, speak to groups, or appear on radio or television shows where the focus is an aspect of family life education, also provide us an opportunity to inform about the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse.
In addition, we must speak of these alarming statistics to our friends. When we do, it is not surprising that a day, week, or month later, a confidential call is received from a friend, who describes his or her childhood abuse and asks for a professional referral. Nor is it surprising when a year or more passes and you are told by a friend that what you shared about the prevalence of sexual abuse of children eased private isolation and shame, opening the door toward healing.
SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD, whose private and pro bono clinical social work practice is in Philadelphia, is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. She is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pennsylvania chapter of NASW, and the 2013 NASW Media Award for Best Article for her article on burnout and self care for social workers. SaraKay is the best-selling author of Whoever Said Life Is Fair and Setting YourSelf Free. SaraKay's professional life continues to be devoted to highlighting destructive societal forces through communication, advocacy and activism.