Sexually Active Teens and the Risk of Sexual Violence

Sexually abused teens are twice as likely to experience peer sexual violence.

Posted Jan 01, 2019

When I used to work in child protection services my colleagues and I knew that children were most at risk for physical and sexual abuse during the end of year celebrations. January meant bracing for a nightmarish onslaught of reports of abuse as children came back to school or daycare with obvious signs of trauma. All that close family time that is supposed to be loving and joyful is, for many children, a living hell caused by too much time at home with parents or extended family members whose dangerous behavior is lubricated by alcohol and drugs

If that’s not bad enough, we’re now understanding that if a child has experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, gross neglect, or was a witness to violence between her (or his) parents, she is much more likely to be sexually abused as an adolescent and later as an adult. According to a team of researchers from Montreal, adolescents who had been abused in anyway when younger are at twice as much risk of being abused in their intimate sexual relationships during their adolescent years. Dr. Martine Hebert, who I recently met, is adamant that based on data she and her colleagues have collected from almost 2000 adolescents who are sexually active, a history of sexual abuse makes a child more likely to become a victim of sexual violence during a consensual sexual relationship with a peer. That is a chilling statistics, and one that should remind us parents and caregivers to talk to our children about sex, about consent, and about what good healthy relationships should look like.

That same research, by the way, also showed that all four forms of child abuse mentioned above are associated with children having a higher number of sexual partners, having more casual sexual behavior, and being younger at the time of their first consensual sexual intercourse. In other words, a child doesn’t have to have been sexually abused to be at risk of dangerous sexual behaviors. In fact, I’m told that 25% of adolescents who experience violence in a relationship during adolescence already witnessed that same kind of violence between their parents while growing up. If you believe your child has been physically abused, neglected, or witnessed intimate partner violence between the child’s caregivers, then that child needs early intervention to prevent her or him from becoming a victim of sexual violence later in life.

There is no easy explanation for why this pattern occurs, but it is possibly the result of early trauma. Children who have been mistreated are less likely to feel connected to their caregivers and less likely to see their bodies as entirely theirs to make decisions for. They may even have been habituated to sex and violence as tools for power and control.

Fortunately, the cycle can be broken. That’s good news if you are a parent, teacher, daycare worker or maybe just a concerned bystander, worrying that the child next door is being abused. Programs like Le Centre d'intervention en abus sexuels pour la famille (CIASF), a family-oriented center that helps children and parents caught in the cycle of abuse, are offering counseling to victims and perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence with a focus on preventing sexual abuse. Their goal, like many such centers across North America, is to change attitudes, change habits, and provide children with the strength of affirmation.

We are now understanding that if we are to prevent adults from experiencing sexual victimization, we are going to have to change their experience during their adolescent relationships. Girls, it seems, benefit the most from early interventions, but boys too, need help. Talking to them when they are still young about the risks associated with early experiences of abuse makes our kids less likely to become abusers themselves.

Based on what I’m learning, if your child experienced abuse over the holidays, or at any other time of the year, talk to a professional before a child protection worker asks to speak with you. If you are uncomfortable with sex education in the schools, or interventions that teach kids about abuse, park your discomfort to the side and let your kids get the information they need. If you yourself are a parent experiencing abuse (a too common story) then reach out and get the help you need to break the cycle of abuse. If not for yourself, then do it for your kids. If Hebert is right, then we will need to focus much more attention on our teenagers before the problems of the past get repeated in the future.

References

Thibodeau, M., Lavoie, F., Hebert, M., & Blais, M. (2017). Childhood maltreatment and adolescent sexual risk behaviors: Unique, cumulative and interactive effects. Child Abuse & Neglect, 72, 411-420.