For Professionals

Sexual violence against children
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Sexual violence against children involves using a child for sexual purposes or for satisfying sexual needs. This includes: pursuing a child using sexual language or remarks, sexual corruption, erotic fondling, taking pornographic pictures of a child, permitting a child to watch films of a sexual nature or to look at pornographic magazines, rape or attempted rape, displaying sexual organs, openly talking about sex with intent to shock or intrigue a child, incest, forcing a child into human trafficking and so on.

A wide array of acts constitutes as sexual violence against children. In case of sexual violence against children, it is irrelevant whether or not the child consented. An adult can easily manipulate a child and a child cannot understand and evaluate the meaning of the acts. Moreover, the violator often uses threats or blackmail, which are severely psychologically traumatic for the child.

Sexual violence can take place in the family, or outside of it. The victims of violence can be children of any age and gender. Often, sexual violence outside the family takes the form of rape, using physical force and threat. The victims of these types of threats are usually adolescents. Sexual violence in the family tends to be chronic, sometimes taking place over several years, with the child being drawn into the acts gradually. The child victims of sexual violence in the home also tend to be younger than the child victims of sexual violence outside of the home.

Myths and Reality of Sexual Violence

Myth: Children lie that they are victims of sexual violence.
Reality: Children seldom lie about being victims of sexual violence. On the contrary, they often tend to play down the level and force of the violence because they are scared of the abuser and also fear that they will be misunderstood and blamed.

Myth: In a sexual relationship between a child and an adult, it is the child who tempts and seduces the adult.
Reality: Children, like all other living beings, have sexual feelings, but they do not yet have the knowledge or experience to initiate sexual interactions outside of their circle of peers. Adults on the other hand do have this knowledge and experience. They are aware of the fact that they are sexually exploiting and harming the child.

Myth: In most cases of sexual violence against children, the abuser is a stranger.
Reality: In the majority of cases (75%-90%) those who inflict sexual violence on children know them well and have their trust.

Myth: Sexual violence only takes place once.
Reality: Often, sexual violence against children takes place over a long period of time, during which the violator takes advantage of the child’s trust and their close relationship. Often, the involvement of the child in sexual acts is preceded by a long period of ‘grooming’ full of sexual undertones.

Myth: The youngest victims of sexual violence are pubescent children.
Reality: Victims of sexual violence can be as young as infants. Children under the school age are regarded as most under risk. 6 to 11 year-olds experience sexual violence most often.

Myth: Children are only harmed by the physical sexual act.
Reality: Any form of sexual violence is traumatic for a child. The damage inflicted by sexual violence is emotional and translates into disappointment, betrayal, isolation, shame, anxiety and loss of childhood; feelings which the child carries with them into adulthood.

Natural and abnormal sexual behaviour of children

When considering the meaning of children’s sexual games, it is important to remember that there is a possibility that one of the children could be victims of sexual abuse. When a little child behaves in a sexual manner, it is often difficult to distinguish between natural and healthy behaviour from behaviour that signals the child’s experience of sexual violence. This is why professionals who work with children need to be able to differentiate between a child’s natural and abnormal sexual behaviour.

Natural and healthy sexual behaviour is directed towards discovering and collecting information. This includes the sort of behaviour where children examine each other’s bodies, touch them (for example when playing ‘doctor’), or when getting to know gender roles and behaviours (for example when pretending to be adult parents).

• Natural sexual behaviour in children is alway productive, and therefore fun or pleasant. No threats, blackmail or bribes are involved.
• In the games or explorations, only children of the same age and on the same stage of development are involved.
• Children who explore sexual behaviour together are those who tend to spend a lot of time together (they could be friends, brothers, sisters), play different games together and explore things together, their sex being one of them.
• It is a mutual and joint exploration, during which the children swap roles.
• Children do not stick to one game. Sexual games are not the only, but one of the type of games being played.
• If an adult corrects the children during a sexual game, they express embarassment and discomfort.
• If an adult forbids the children to play these types of games, they stop. This is because during natural and healthy sexual behaviour, a traumatic experience is not being played out.
• The child’s natural and healthy sexual behaviour does not display any signs of aggression.
• The explanations given by the children involved in sexual games are logical. The child tries to explain what they were doing and why (e.g. we were playing ‘doctor’).

Who can be an abuser? People from all walks of life can commit sexual violence against children. They can be in any profession or come from any country. They can be heterosexuals or homosexuals and even though most of them are men, women can also be guilty of committing sexual violence against children.

Although normally people call these types of people ‘paedophiles’, the term is sometimes incorrectly used. The term paedophile is used to describe people who experience sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Although, many paedophiles do not carry out their fantasies of sexual relations with children. Someone who commits sexual violence against a child is not necessarily a paedophile. It can be the case that a particular person only has sex with a child because they had the opportunity to do so. Therefore, a more accurate and appropriate term for describing a person who sexually interacts with a child would be “a person committing sexual violence against a child”.

Paedophiles, or those who are sexually deviant, try to establish sexual contact with children. Among the perpetrators are young people who have difficulty performing sexually, old people, isolated people, loners – those who don’t have the right conditions to have normal sexual relations. There are some asocial people who cannot establish relationships with other adults which satisfy them. There are also abusers who were themselves victims of sexual violence when they were children.

The violator can be (although not necessarily), a person who:

• Has an unnatural yearning to spend a lot of time with children.
• Had psychological problems in the past, which may have been connected to sexual violence.
• Was a victim of sexual violence.
• Uses pornographic material.
• Uses drugs or alcohol.

Those who commit sexual violence against children can be divided into two groups: situational and preferential.

Situational violators do not have an established sexual interest towards children. They enter into sexual relations because they have the opportunity to do so. These people commit sexual violence, because they find themselves in a situation where the child is easily accessible to them.

Preferential violators already have an established preference of engaging in sexual relationships with children. They are not as large in numbers as situational violators, but can potentially cause harm to a larger number of children, because it is their wish and intent to do so. These types of preferential violators can be divided into three groups:

• Seducers: in order to attract the child, they show their attachment, express attention or give gifts. In preparation for the sexual violence, they often spend a lot of time ‘taking care’ of the victim. They can use threats, blackmail and physical violence in order to avoid being exposed or incriminated.

• Introverted: these types of violators also give sexual preference to children, but they lack the skills of the ‘seducers’ to create a sort of interdependence with a child. They keep any verbal communication with the victim to a minimum and try to engage in sexual relations with very little children, or children they have never met before.

• Sadistic offenders (the least common group): violators in this group are sexually interested in children, but at the same time, they experience sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on their victims. Using force to take hold of the children, kidnapping, or even murdering them is characteristic of this group of violators.

Thus, the violators often do not stand out in any way. Often, the violator is someone who has a good reputation and does not raise any suspicion. They can be a woman or a man, a child or an adult. In the majority of cases, they are someone whom the child trusts and knows well.

What does a victim of sexual violence against children feel?
A child cannot overcome the physical dominance of an adult, resist the violence or stop what’s happened because the violator has all the power. Often, the child does not resist the violator even when there is an opportunity to do so (for example when they are close to other people who could help, or when they have the possibility to run away). This often happens as a result of a ‘proper upbringing’, which teaches the child that they should ‘listen to everything’ that is said by someone respectable or authoritative (a teacher, an uncle, etc.). A child feels guilty about what happened and stays quiet out of fear of receiving some form of strict punishment. The violators themselves often try to evoke feelings of guilt in the children. They instil a feeling into the children that they are complicit in what happened. They can tell the girls for example that they provoked the whole situation, what happened is ‘our little secret’, and so on.

The situation becomes especially complex when the violator is the father who scares the child by telling them what would happen if ‘mum found out’.

A strong feeling of guilt may follow any sensation of pleasure that the child may feel during contact. Children aren’t familiar with basic physiological principles and don’t realise that when sensitive zones are stimulated, the response is mostly automatic. Instead, they feel that they are the ones to blame. Child victims of sexual violence, including those who are very young, do not realise what is really happening and are embarrassed to talk about it. Gradually, as the children get older, they understand that what was done to them was a crime. They also understand that by exposing the violator, the whole family may be threatened and unforeseen consequences may follow.

There are other reasons which force children to be docile and hide the truth, for example the fear that no one will believe them and that they themselves will be punished. Sometimes children think that people around them already know about what happened. Often, the children defend the violator to stop them from being imprisoned when they are someone close to them.

Any child can become the victim of sexual violence against children!

The stages of drawing a child into a sexual act

The violator normally draws the child into a sexual act by using affectionate and attentive behaviour and by giving gifts. Then they use lies, threats, blackmail and bribery to make the child keep their ‘special relationship’ secret.

Keeping the relationship under wraps: Using lies, blackmail and bribery, the violator asks the child to keep their ‘special relationship’ secret.
Leaving the child powerless: The child cannot put an end to what’s happening because the power is in the hands of the abuser.
Getting used to the situation: The child cannot find a solution and tries to psychologically get used to the situation.
Attempting to reveal the truth: The child tries to tell an adult they’re close to about what happened, but no one believes them. Often, the child reveals the truth by accident, or the abuser leaves and they feel safe, or the parents’ friends encourage them to say the truth.
Withdrawing the confession: After revealing the truth, due to the influence of adults or other circumstances, the child denies the truth of their statement.

The effect of sexual violence on children

Generally speaking, sexual violence crosses a person’s ‘physical boundaries’, due to which its effects manifest in physical behaviour. Some people go out of their way to hide their body and avoid any form of contact. Some go the opposite way to openly display their body and ‘offer’ it to everyone. They lose normal perspective on their bodies and cannot adopt the accepted norms of physical contact. Children and adolescents display signs of sexual violence differently at different ages.

Children under 3: fears, chaotic feelings, sleeping disorders, loss of appetite, fear of strangers, sexual games.

Pre-schoolers: anxiety, chaotic feelings, self-blame, disgust, helplessness, feeling ‘damaged’, behavioural disorders: regression, aggression, masturbation, estrangement, sexual games.

Young schoolchildren: feelings of rebellion towards adults, difficulty determining family roles, fear, shame, disgust, feeling ‘damaged’, mistrust of the world, isolation, aggression, silence or unexpected speaking, sleep disorders, feeing that their body is ‘dirty’, sexual behaviour towards other children.

Adolescents: depressive state, feeling of loss, isolation, manipulating other children in order to get pleasure, rebellious behaviour.

Keep in mind: everything that the child feels and expresses related to the abuse is a normal reaction of their body and mind to a severe psychological trauma.

When to raise suspicion
We need to pay attention to these warning signs in children and take steps to get them professional helps if the child:
• Is often touching their genitals.
• Is playing the role of a man/woman in an aggressive, agitated or a very distressed manner.
• Hates their own or the opposite gender.
• Does not love their body and often says that their body is ugly or dirty.
• Has a persistent interest in sexual behaviour, tries to secretly touch sexual organs or other intimate parts, asks others to touch them, behaves in a ‘sexually strange’ manner and ‘seduces’ other children.
• Demands that people completely take off their clothes, forces them to do it.
• Has an unusual sexual knowledge for their age, directly asks sexual questions to strangers.
• Refuses to get dressed, secretly takes off their clothes, refuses to leave people alone in the bathroom/toilet.
• Is scared of taking off their clothes in front of other people (their teachers or friends, or in sports lessons).
• Publically and provocatively masturbates, tries to involve other children.
• Imitates sexual intercourse/oral sex with other children, animals or toys.
• Has sleeping disorders: fear of going to sleep, nightmares, restlessness, crying.
• Is passive and timid, isn’t spontaneous; e.g. during sports lessons they are sitting upright, tense, feet together, whilst other children are spontaneously running around and shouting. They are moving around awkwardly, as if trying to keep their legs away from each other.
• Feels especially restless and gets scared when asked to lie on their back.
• Is afraid of and runs away from physical contact, especially with adults. They seem to freeze up when they are touched. Their whole body is tense and rigid when they move. They feel uncomfortable when sitting on someone’s lap; they do it if asked but appear tense.

It must be noted that a child’s interest in sexual matters isn’t straightforward and we need to be especially careful when analysing their behaviour and when talking about it with the child. Child victims of sexual violence do not all display all of the signs listed above. Some children only show one, or a few signs. One sign on its own isn’t enough to spot a victim of sexual violence.

When a child becomes a victim of sexual violence

Sometimes when a child is talking about their experience of sexual abuse, adults do not believe them and say: ‘you made everything up!’. According to research, a child rarely ‘makes up’ such stories.

The adults’ reaction to a child’s revelation affects their capacity to deal with the trauma of their experience. Thus, when a child is telling us about the sexual violence that they experienced, it is imperative that we do not display signs of panic, doubt, or intent to punish them.

• Be sensitive but at the same time keep your composure. If your reaction is too emotional, fearful or angry, the child will not tell you anything. Reassure the child that they did the right thing.
• Don’t expect them to quickly forget what happened, but don’t constantly remind them of it either.
• Carefully listen to what the child wants to say, but do not ask probing questions. Do not rush to carry out an examination or an interview. Be a good and attentive listener to what the child wants to talk about at any given minute. Often, it turns out that the child has been keeping the information secret for as long as days, months or even years. Find a comfortable spot for talking. Allow the child to express their feelings but do not turn the conversation into a questioning.
• Do not express doubt – children do not make up these types of stories. Trust the child. Do not express doubts on what the child is saying. Do not refute what you hear, no matter how hard it is to believe what they’re saying. Children rarely make up stories about being victims of violence, especially sexual violence. They may have been keeping the secret for a very long time, as they could have been threatened or told that what happened was their fault.
• Under no circumstances should you accuse the child (questions such as ‘why didn’t you resist?’ and ‘why did you let him do it?’ cause the child additional pain).
• Do not tell of the child for not telling someone earlier.
• Reassure the child that they are not at fault in what happened and clearly explain that the only one responsible for what happened is the adult.
• You need to realise that the child is in emotional turmoil. Often, the violator may be a person close to the child or a member of the family and even if they have strong negative feelings towards them, they may still love the person and be afraid to hurt them.
• Explain to the child what you are going to do next. Merely having suspicions of possible past or ongoing abuse is enough to report the case to child services. Tell the child that it will be necessary to talk to others, who have already helped children like them.
• If the child tells you about the abuse immediately after it happened, do not wash the child or change their clothes as valuable evidence can be collected.
• Respect the confidentiality of what the child told you. Do not tell anyone who does not need to know. If the child chose to trust you, be with them when they have to talk about their experience with other people. Support them and help them to feel safer.
• Tell the child that they are not alone and that you will do everything you can to make sure that the abuse does not reoccur.
• Be ready for the fact that the child may need your help, patience and attention for a long time to come.

By Public Health Foundation of Georgia (PHF)