Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is a serious global problem impacting one in four girls and one in 13 boys before they reach 18. There are many negative short- and long-term consequences of CSA—but these can be minimized if the child receives support and treatment.
Specifically, most research has found that early disclosure of CSA (i.e., within one year of the CSA) and in-depth discussion of the abuse is protective against negative psychological outcomes in adulthood. However, the majority of children do not disclose the abuse, with studies suggesting that only between 16 and 25 percent of children disclose the abuse to family and friends during childhood, and even fewer disclosed to authorities.
Further, those who do disclose often wait months and most commonly years before finally telling anyone about the abuse. One study of adult survivors of CSA found that most individuals delayed disclosure for between 3 and 18 years, with only 21.3 percent disclosing within 1 month of the abuse. A study from our lab found that almost half (44.8 percent) of individuals had never disclosed the abuse to anyone.
Why Don’t Children Tell?
Given the importance of detecting CSA for both prevention and intervention, researchers have been studying the reasons that children do not disclose, and they have found that there are both internal and external barriers that prevent the child from disclosing the abuse.
- Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame: Most CSA involves elements of sexual grooming which, broadly speaking, encompasses the behaviors and tactics that a child molester employs in preparation for committing sexual abuse against a child. Many of these tactics involve the psychological manipulation of the child so that they feel that are in some way responsible for the abuse, which can result in feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame.
- Fear: After the CSA has happened, perpetrators often use fear-inducing tactics as part of the post-abuse maintenance phase of sexual grooming. The perpetrator uses these tactics and behaviors so that the abuse can continue without detection. They may tell the child that no one will believe them if they disclose or that they will be blamed for the abuse. They may also threaten physical harm toward the child or someone they love if they disclose the abuse. Since the perpetrator is often a family member or someone important in the child’s life, the perpetrator may also use threats of abandonment, rejection, or tell the child that their family may break apart if they tell anyone about the abuse.
- Lack of understanding: Depending upon the child’s age and level of developmental maturity, the child may be unsure or unaware that what has happened to them was wrong or inappropriate. This can happen with younger children or cognitively impaired children, as the perpetrator can tell them what they are doing is a game or normal behavior. It can also happen if the abuser is a loved one or someone the child is told to trust, as they may believe that a trusted adult would not do anything to harm them. It is only later, when the child is older, that they recognize the behaviors as sexual abuse.
- Relationship with the perpetrator: As noted above, most children know their abusers. In fact, only 7 percent of all childhood abuse is perpetrated by a stranger. Most perpetrators are family and friends—and in one-third of the cases, the abuser is another minor. As noted above, when the abuser is a family member or friend, the child may be confused or may worry that they will not be believed or that disclosure can harm the family unit. If the perpetrator is a respected member of the community such as a religious leader, coach, or teacher, they often not only sexually groom the child, but also their family and the community so the abuse is less likely to be detected or believed.
- Gender: CSA in general is one of the most underreported crimes. However, boys and men are less likely to disclose CSA than girls and women. Male survivors of sexual abuse report gender-based stereotypes, shame, and fear of disbelief as factors preventing disclosure of CSA. In addition, a recent study of self-reported sexual abuse found that 40 percent of men reported that the perpetrator was a woman.
What Can Be Done to Facilitate Disclosure?
Disclosing sexual abuse is a very complex process and not all disclosures are positive for the survivor. For example, if a survivor is not believed, shamed, or even shunned as a consequence of their disclosure, this could result in revictimization. Further, formal reporting to authorities does not often end with the conviction of the perpetrator and can be distressing.
However, timely disclosure of abuse is the only way in which a child can get help and stop the abuse from happening. We did a study where we asked adult survivors of CSA what factors they think would facilitate disclosure of CSA and they reported:
- Psychoeducation and awareness: Many survivors reported that people may be more likely to report CSA if they knew more about it, especially how prevalent it was and that many other people have experienced it. Those who reported the CSA to family and friends did so because the topic either came up in conversation or someone asked them about it directly. Therefore, guardians and caregivers should be educated about the signs of CSA and what to do if they suspect their child has been victimized. Further, discussions and education about what constitutes CSA, its prevalence, and how to report it could help survivors come forward.
- Improved criminal justice practices: Most survivors who disclosed the abuse indicated that they did so to prevent the further abuse of themselves and others, punish the perpetrator, and enable treatment for both themselves and the perpetrator. This suggests that many survivors disclose with the hope that someone will act. However as stated above, few perpetrators of CSA end up being convicted, and the criminal justice process can be difficult and retraumatizing. As such, making sure that everyone involved in the criminal justice response to CSA operates from a trauma-informed perspective to minimize harm, and also provide education to caregivers and community members on how to respond effectively and appropriately to disclosures of CSA.
- Emotional motivation: As noted, CSA results in a myriad of emotions including anger, guilt, shame, betrayal, depression, and trauma, among others. While some of these emotions can serve as barriers to reporting, the emotions can also facilitate disclosure. Knowing that help may be available to ease these negative and intense feelings can prompt disclosure. Thus, child abuse education and outreach efforts should highlight and facilitate liaisons with mental health providers so that survivors know that those options are available to them.
- Social support: Survivors reported that the number one motivator to facilitate disclosure is access to support. Often when a child is abused, especially if they are being sexually groomed, they feel very alone. Survivors in our study reported that the biggest motivator of coming forward about the abuse would be the support of being believed, not being blamed or held responsible for the abuse, and having emotional support available to them. Since many survivors may report to a peer, education efforts should also address what peers should do if abuse is disclosed and how they can best help their friend should they disclose.
Disclosure of abuse is a complex process, inherent with many internal and external barriers. However, it is only through disclosure, be that informally to family or friends, or formally to authorities, that the survivor can access the help, resources, and support needed for healing.
Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C (2018). Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. Skyhorse, New York